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The Dupe Did It
Malayalis tend to think they have their funny bone in the right place. Some even boast that if there was such a thing as a national humour index, they would be way, way ahead of most states. Be that as it may, the surfeit of comedy shows on local TV channels are a sure indicator that Kerala does have a propensity for satire and mimicry. Indeed, the “most consistently watched” and “most popular show” across all Malayalam entertainment channels is the Vodafone Comedy Stars on Asianet channel (it’s been the show to beat for the past three years).
As expected, it’s politics and social issues that get mined most for gags. Refreshingly, there are very few holy cows too—comedians mimic CM Oommen Chandy and LoP V.S. Achuthanandan with audacious regularity. There’s even a story that at a public meeting a child once told the CM that she had seen him dance on television!
In the last six months, the comedy star format has spawned several imitators—Comedy Festival (on Mazhavil Manorama) and Comedy Express (on Asianet itself)—all competing to make the Malayali “laugh till he gropes in the dirt (chirichu chirichu mannu thappum)”! These reality comedy shows are on the lines of shows like Indian Idol but in this case teams enact skits and a panel of judges scores them on ‘comic value’. The viewers then get to vote a winner. Besides these reality shows, there is a regular staple of social and political satire too.
Says film director Siddique, a former judge on Comedy Festival, “Kerala society is so cynical that it debates and discusses every issue threadbare. What these TV shows offer are a humorous dimension...people watch this space to see how the comedians interpret the issues of the day. In some ways, this even gives the event a longer shelf life. A subject when treated humorously lingers longer in public memory.”
According to Siddique, the roots of Kerala’s comedy shows can be traced well back to even the 18th century and poet Kunjan Nambiar who wrote and performed Ottamthullal dance dramas. Coming back to now, he adds, “Malayalam cinema always had comedians, but in the 1980s suddenly you saw a profusion of comic actors and the genre came alive. I was part of the Cochin Kalabhavan’s Mimics Parade troupe and never imagined it would become so popular. Most of the troupe from then are now established directors or actors.”
Some scholars like to take the ‘evolution’ further back to the period when Buddhism had a large following in Kerala. Dr Rajan Chedambath, director at the Centre for Heritage, Environment and Development in Kochi, says it was perhaps during the latter part of the Buddhist period (6th-8th century AD), that the society developed the practice of questioning things “and not believing everything you hear. As a result, a very liberal society evolved. We used to even laugh at God—you can find it in our literature and art. But the accountability that Buddhism had ensured eroded with time and what we see now is humour which is selective. I feel it has lost its essence. Like, we are afraid to laugh at religion and caste—the very things we should be questioning.”
Channel heads and show producers confirm that takes on religion and caste are perhaps the only strict no-nos in comedy shows. Says John Brittas, CEO of Asianet Communications, “We screen the content now for obscenity and derogatory material...we’ve had people calling us objecting to caste references so we are careful not to hurt anyone. The political fraternity is another matter, they’re very mature here. Thankfully, we don’t have a Mamata in Kerala!”
Interestingly, there is even a belief among Kerala’s politicians that their career graph gets a boost if they are mimicked on a show. Diana Silvester, producer of the 20-year-old Cinemala, the show which rips through such issues as the Air India faux hijack, the gas cylinder ration issue, Kochi metro etc on a weekly basis, admits that politicians have approached her. “But I can’t reveal names. And anyway, I can’t just fit someone into the show,” she says.
One politician who may never need to approach Silvester or any other producer is CPI(M) veteran and leader of the opposition V.S. Achuthanandan. Achumama clones—now an industry in Kerala—populate all the channels. The lifted shoulders, the protracted speech, his walk, his expressions, the man is a goldmine for comedians. The octogenarian himself has no qualms about saying he watches these shows, “I enjoy them immensely. It’s their (channel’s) opinion and they are welcome to it.”
Raghu Kalamaserry, who does the ‘dupe’ act for his opposite number, Oommen Chandy, has even regaled the CM with his act. Raghu was the first to act as a Chandy ‘dupe’ (duplicate or lookalike) in Kerala but confesses he has a lot of competition from rivals now. The ‘dupes’, as they are known in Kerala, often acquire star status riding on this very ability. Many of Mollywood’s top actors today like Jayaram, Dileep, Salim Kumar, Kalabhavan Mani began their careers as mimicry artists with the Kalabhavan troupe. Indeed, comedy school is like a stepping stone to moviedom. Binu Adimali, comic artist on Comedy Stars, is now acting in his sixth film. The result is the Cochin Kalabhavan School is inundated with people asking to work with the Kalabhavan troupe with dreams of making it into films. And they are willing to mimic anybody to get in there. Even Mamata Banerjee, if need be!