"It was strongly recommended to me that I should watch Hum Paanch on Zee. I think it was meant to be funny, but I didn't laugh...I do watch the news these days and news is sup -posed to be serious, but each time I hear about some honourable minister arrested, I start laughing uncontrollably."
COUCH potatoes are turning increasingly cynical. Both the above letters, which appeared in a recent issue of the E Times , lament the death of quality humour onIndian television. And, why not? With the proliferation of slots for soaps, the average serial maker is dishing out sorry fare with gay abandon. Some of these are attempted comedies which aim to add variety to the entertainment menu. But all that they finally manage to do is provoke exasperation.
A sample of humour, Tellywood style: a classroom episode of Sorry Meri Lorry has two students with test answer papers tucked into their underwear. Responding to the principal's questions, one delivers the climactic punchline—his underwear's size.
Sadly enough, while there are those who don't find such humour funny, they are still outnumbered by others who appear to lap up such mindless farces. The consequence: slipshod comedies feature on the listings of every channel. The stray watch-able serial is overshadowed by those in which themes are recycled, plots are half-baked, scripts are marred by loose ends and the acting is loud and puerile.
The situation is far from ideal. "Everybody is making comedies today," says actor Ravi Baswani. "Yet most of them are really shallow since, frankly, we do not have enough good serial makers." But where there are makers there are buyers, and the Bollywood brand of slapstick is a great motivator for serial makers. In a nation where an Amitabh Bachchan monologue on different kinds of cockroaches defines humour, the end result is a foregone conclusion.
Raman Kumar, the man behind Tara and the sitcom V3 , admits that the tradition of quality humour is absent in India: "On screen humour in our country has been lacking since the beginning. If 10,000 films have been made till date, only five or seven are exceptional comedies. On television,the problem is worse since there are no producers and few good script writers."
And even if the odd serial maker is serious, he often lacks quality actors. Barring a few overused faces like Satish Shah, Farooque Sheikh and Rakesh Bedi, he generally depends on greenhorns with very little flair for comedy. In the absence of a tradition of laughable laughs on television, most self-professed humourists flounder without a sense of direction. Even the rare breed of accomplished comedians find the situation dubious. Actor Jayant Kripalani, who gives the quality of Indian comedy a score of 2.5 on a scale of 10, says: "The funniest thing I watch on television is the news. It's a real farce and something I can have a genuine laugh at." Agrees Satish Shah, one of the most popular comedians on TV today: "The state of comedy is quite pathetic. And this is because few seem to realise that real comedy requires serious effort."
Says Archana Puran Singh, who played the star wife's role in Mr Ya Mrs : "The situation is so mainly because Indians lack a sense of humour. Unlike the British or the Americans, we have never really learnt to laugh at ourselves. So, the director, with few genuine comic actors to fall back on, is faced with situations in which his stars find things too hot to handle." The average actor cannot pull off a Lucy or a Didi act for a simple reason: versatility is at a premium and the modern day run-of-the mill script usually ends up as bad burlesque where senses are bruised by inane humour.
Originality is a serious problem, and not many actors disagree. Singh isn't off the mark when she says: "With Indians, originality is not a strong point. More often, what is churned out is a cheap gag which Hollywood did away with 50 years ago."
Besides the stale gags, there is the Indian penchant for the loud and for overdoing 'witty' one-liners—"When I was young, I was down with malaria. But I had symptoms of filaria, and the doctor diagnosed the disease as diarrhoea"—followed by antiseptic canned laughter, another piece of baggage picked up from the West. Points out Kundan Shah of Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron and Kabhi Haan Kabhi Na fame: "Slapstick, if you do not raise it to the level of art, becomes buffoonery."
Shah is one of the few who did master the art of humour. His television series Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi ( YJHZ ) was a bouncy and hilarious tale revolving around the foursome—Rakesh Bedi, Shafi Inamdar, Satish Shah and Swaroop Sampat. Jaspal Bhatti's satire Full Tension is another exception at a time when the average producer, looking to make a fast buck, is taken up with the idea of churning out incoherent quickies. Shah offers an interesting explanation as to why many stars deliver uninspired performances: "Comedies are points of view in life. Either you can do it or you cannot. That also explains why several comedies have their creators acting in them. Such actors can do justice to their roles since they relate to specific comic situations in real life." But his notion of an ideal situation is hard to come by and production houses make no effort to seperate the chaff from the grain. Says Sampat, who played the female lead in YJHZ : "Everybody seems to think it is easy to be funny. But the fact is that comic roles can present the most difficult moments in acting."
The tendency to view comedies as an unchallenging form of art has spawned innumerable nameless characters who feature in obscure skits on the ever increasing channels. Says veteran comedian Meh-mood, who enjoys the odd viewable serial like Hum Paanch : "Though many people are doing good work, the main problem is that everybody is doing the same thing." What about the presence of the handful of quality actors? Admits Mehmood: "Most of them do not know how to go about their roles. A good comedian must have an idea of how to act and react to dialogue."
Natural comedians like Satish Shah are rarities in an industry where Bachchan-inspired actors like Shekhar Suman abound. As Mehmood says: "One doesn't become a comedian by copying Raaj Kumar, and saying ' jaani ' the way he does. Unfortunately, the industry is full of actors who are taken up with mimicking established stars."
Lack of variation is arguably the biggest shortcoming in modern-day comedies. As Raman Kumar points out: Dekh Bhai Dekh , while popular and well-made, is clearly inspired by YJHZ ." Isolated cases of good comedies like Tu Tu Mein Mein and Shriman Shrimati are heavily outnumbered by the inane Filmi Chakkars that abound.
Yet, if most comedies are uninspired, what makes them popular? Says Chaitali Manjhi, a New Delhi housewife: "It is probably because the ordinary Indian hasn't been exposed to quality humour. Moreover, the choice one has is between watching a film song programme, a mythological serial and a comedy serial. And the others are worse." Agrees Amit Narayana, a student: "The viewer's problem is that he has to settle for what is least bad in the package offered. STAR TV does telecast some good serials in English, but not many know the language and wouldn't understand the finer aspects anyway." Anand Kumar, a research scholar, says: "If I watch comedies, it is because at the end of a tiring day, I would like to have an enjoyable evening. The tragedy, of course, is that I have to tickle myself most of the time, but does one have a choice?"
The average viewer is taken for granted and the discerning viewer doesn't have a choice. Moreover, the latter is in a minority and matters little in the business of laughter. So, the average serial maker can afford to be indifferent to what matters most: quality. Most stick with the surefire formula for success when everything else fails—an actor wearing underwear where his cap might have been.