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A Man walks down the street holding up a newspaper. Unknowingly,he steps on a discarded banana peel and falls down,his feet flailing.

Chaplinesque humour that cuts across age and class continues to inspire Bollywood

A Man walks down the street holding up a newspaper. Unknowingly,he steps on a discarded banana peel and falls down,his feet flailing. Someone watching this can either sympathise with him or laugh at the hapless incident. But a comedian would create the latter scenario,and nobody did it better than Charlie Chaplin. The immortal tramp of the silent motion pictures,Chaplin lampooned the evils of society through his cinema. Such was the aura of this comic actor that Bollywood too embraced the Chaplin way of filmmaking.

The enduring appeal of Chaplin isn’t new to Bollywood. Raj Kapoor,famously known as the Charlie Chaplin of Indian cinema,paid many an ode to the comedian through his films Shree 420,Awaara and Mera Naam Joker. In the 1990s,filmmaker Aziz Mirza paid tribute to Chaplin in his own way through his film Raju Ban Gaya Gentleman. “My favourite inspiration of Chaplin in Bollywood has been Aziz Mirza’s Raju. The tragicomic hero of the film exuded all emotions that a Chaplin film would do,” says film critic Indu Mirani. The trend continues to this day when directors such as Bhavna Talwar,Raaghav Dar and Kundan Shah are making sure that the comedy great isn’t forgotten.

For all of us who have grown up on Chaplin films,we believe that a fine line exists between tragedy and comedy. And this is what filmmakers in Bollywood have taken off from. While Talwar’s Happi is the story of a lower middle-class man seeking little joys in day-to-day life,Michael Pinto in Dar’s My Friend Pinto believes everyone in the world is simple,kind and honest,much like him. “Chaplin’s cinema works at many levels,” believes Talwar. “It has a universal appeal — it’s funny but also makes serious political comments,” feels the filmmaker. Mirani agrees. “It is relevant today because it appeals to basic human emotions and cuts across the age and class barrier,” she says. This inspires filmmakers to attempt this genre time and again.

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Comedy in Bollywood has gone through many phases. Soon after Raj Kapoor brought in Chaplinesque genre,it was Kishore Kumar’s over-the-top dialogues and physical humour that took over.

In the Seventies,comedy came in through the working-class hero in Hrishikesh Mukherjee,Sai Paranjape and Basu Chatterjee classics. The duty of making the audiences laugh was then taken over by David Dhawan,Priyadarshan and Anees Bazmee through slapstick comedy. “At every point,a certain genre of comedy has worked. While subtle humour worked in the Eighties,it was slapstick and loud comedy in the Nineties,” says Mirani. This decade witnessed a surge of comedy on reality television as well,with stand-up becoming popular. “However,the return of the Chaplinesque genre goes on to prove that the filmmakers and audiences now want some intelligent comedy,” says Mirani. Talwar says,“The high point of the Chaplinesque genre: a child will find it funny whereas an adult will watch it for intellectual stimulation.”

For Dar,Chaplin is an institution and aping him would be dishonouring his art. “Each one of us wants to pay him a tribute and we do it by borrowing his style,” he says. There is an influence of Chaplin’s mannerisms in Michael Pinto’s character,and at the script level,Dar has ensured that subtle humour underlines the main storyline.


Chaplin’s influence can be seen in Kundan Shah’s films as well,who is an ardent fan of Chaplin’s spontaneity and timing. “Physical comedy,unlike verbal comedy,is tougher to execute because it has to be choreographed well,especially during the silent era where they had to depend on actions alone,” says Shah. His films Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron and Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa were comic and sad at the same time because they dealt with the subject of survival. “I believe pathos is quintessential because audience demands catharsis.” His upcoming short film,Hero,is a story of a cheerful young man with a spring in his step,sauntering towards a railway station,before being almost washed away by a sea of humanity surging out of a train. The silent film is a tribute to all the daily commuters.

Despite the adulation Chaplin enjoys amidst Bollywood filmmakers,the genre somewhere hasn’t been a favourite with directors known for their comedies. “That’s because it lacks pan-Indian appeal,” feels Mirani. “In certain parts of India,audiences may enjoy only slapstick and verbal humour; intelligent comedy like Chaplin’s may not be relatable.”

First published on: 02-09-2011 at 00:08 IST
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