Comedy is a communal hug – a “jaadu ki jhappi” as Raju Hirani’s Munnabhai would have it – that Bollywood has churned out in the best of times and bleakest of times. When Hindi cinema is at its inspired high watermark madness, it can be a lot of fun – both for the audience and filmmakers and crew behind the making of the film. Thinking of Half Ticket, Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro or Andaz Apna Apna, one often wonders if the cast and crew had as much fun making them as we had watching them. But in many cases, we do know that it was not all play and party on the sets. Ask anyone and they will vouch for Kishore Kumar’s vaudevillian genius. That’s never in doubt. But Half Ticket’s loveable delinquent was, by most accounts, a rather difficult and eccentric person who kicked up a fuss when his payment failed to arrive. Stories of his stinginess abound. One popular and peculiar story goes that a producer had paid him only half his due. So, Kishoreda showed up on the sets with half head and half moustache shaved off and half intact! Moral of the story: he is fun to see on screen, not so fun to work with.
Take 1983’s Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro, a madhouse of talent. Never before have such an incredible bunch of gifted heavyweights (to be fair, they were lightweights back then) – Kundan Shah, Om Puri, Pankaj Kapur, Bhakti Barve, Ravi Baswani, Naseeruddin Shah and Satish Shah to name a few – have come together in the making of a Bollywood comedy. But Shah punctured the film’s off-screen myths when he said the making was “a bloody nightmare.” In the decades since, JBDY’s inspired lunacy has been unrepeatable, a situation that provoked a sigh of disapproval from the JBDY circus’ ringmaster, the late Kundan Shah. “If THIS film is being seen as the ultimate satire in Hindi cinema,” he told Jai Arjun Singh, author of a book on JBDY, “all it tells me is that Hindi cinema hasn’t achieved much.” We had to wait for years before Shah’s lunatic satire was declared a cult classic, as a piece of filmmaking that’s as meaningful as it is mad.
Now, think of the stars who lent their heft to Hindi comedies. Mehmood is rarely given his due, despite being a highly prolific star. Same goes for Kishore Kumar, who thought he was a born singer but turned out, to the delight of film-goers, to be a complete natural as a funnyman. For a time, the Kumar brothers (Ashok, Kishore and Anoop) tried their luck as Bollywood’s answer to Marx brothers. Govinda, who entertained the masses with his 90s crowd-pleasers, is long dismissed as “tacky” though younger stars like Ranveer Singh and Varun Dhawan are now openly acknowledging his debt and trying to raise his profile on chat shows. Some, like Aamir Khan who infected Andaz Apna Apna with screwball silliness (he was a better comic than a boyish romantic star – watch Ishq or the more recent 3 Idiots and PK for proof) have long held Govinda in high esteem.
Comedy also springs from unexpected sources. Dilip Kumar’s reputation rests on tragedies but when given the material, nobody could bring the house down quite like him. Decades later, Dharmendra revealed a softer side in Hrishikesh Mukherjee gems Chupke Chupke and Guddi. Even in a dramatic Western like Sholay, he’s given the responsibility of adding the goofier touch.
Leading men aside, Bollywood comedy is mainly associated with Johnny Walker, Utpal Dutt, Jagdeep, Asrani, Johnny Lever and going further back, Bhagwan Dada whose funny dance steps are believed to have inspired Amitabh Bachchan. Speaking of Bachchan, he gave us some great comic moments in the 1970s, from the masquerading lit professor in Chupke Chupke to street-smart bootlegger in Amar Akbar Anthony. It’s also important to include Kadar Khan, Amrish Puri and Paresh Rawal – all cut from the Pran cloth – whose range went spectacularly from stylish baddies to sidekicks of comic subplots.
The Hindi cinema women who gave us great joy include the roll-call of Hema Malini, Sridevi and Tun Tun. From Tun Tun’s fat woman gags (often, with a dozen boisterous kids and cantankerous hubby in tow) to Malini’s fast-talking Basanti and Sridevi’s mining of her ingenue and simpleton real-life personality for screen gold, Bollywood’s greatest comic moment have relied on the excellent timings of these gifted women.
As we revisit these 10 comedies, we can’t help but marvel over what a sheer stroke of genius (and a special turn of brain) it must have gone into the making of many of these classics. Yet, for all their efforts and creativity, comedies are rarely taken seriously. In Hollywood, too, the funsters hardly win any Oscar nods and those that do, are not considered at par with other genres. As lyricist and writer Javed Akhtar once rued, “I don’t know why we have a strange highbrow attitude towards comedy in our country. We think humour is cheap and inferior. I think we have been deprived of happiness and pleasure for a very long time, so we think that anything that can make people happy or can provide pleasure is either sinful or taboo, or of inferior quality.”
It is high time comedies are accorded the respectability they deserve or at least an acknowledgement that funny is a serious business.
‘Woh bahar casualty mein koi marne ki haalat mein raha, toh usko form bharna zaroori hai kya’ – Munnabhai
Part of the reason why Raju Hirani’s first film – also his breakout – worked so beautifully was Sanjay Dutt’s loveable gangster image. Where, for example, Vaastav’s Dutt was a more career gangster in Munnabhai, Hirani aims for the opposite effect, playing it for laughs. Hirani also flips Vaastav’s Mother India syndrome to daddy issues in Munnabhai and sticks to this trajectory in subsequent hits, most recently in Sanju. With Sanjay Dutt in comic mode, half your battle as a filmmaker is already won. Dutt plays the good-hearted goon Munnabhai who enters medical school to become a doctor and is assisted through the good and bad times by sidekick Circuit (Arshad Warsi). “Insaan ki body mein 206 type ka sirf haddi hai. Todne ka time apun sochte the kya?” Munnabhai shares his newly-found wisdom with Circuit, who later sends an “imported body” to his honcho for medical dissection. The Dutt-Warsi bromance and Hirani’s jaadu ki jhappi formula gives us a fresh and funny film that riffs on its leading actor’s tapori image and combines clean humour with social commentary that has become Hirani’s brand of cinema. In its highly conceptual sequel Lage Raho Munnabhai a few years down the line, Hirani resurrects Gandhi’s ghost to give us a new buzz word. This time, Gandhigiri.
‘Dil dariya hai baaki sab samandar hai, yeh meri samasya hai’ – Baburao Apte
Director Priyadarshan breathes enough confusion and chaos in this multi-starrer to keep the audience in splits. Writers Neeraj Vora and Siddique-Lal amp up the density of comic possibilities by introducing ever newer characters and no resolution in sight. Enter Khadak Singh (Om Puri’s hilarious Punjabi), the stranger who comes looking for a certain Shyam (Suniel Shetty). This sets the plot rolling. Shyam, along with Baburao Apte (Paresh Rawal) and his tenant Raju (Akshay Kumar) have to act swiftly to return Khadak Singh’s money. Throw in a side plot involving a wrong phone call and a kidnapping and you know you are hurtling towards a typical Priyadarshan climax full of confusion and deception. Call it a 1970s influence, if you will, a Priyadarshan climax brings together literally the entire cast in a game of cat and mouse. He’s our last showman in that sense. It’s often mistaken that Priyadarshan made Hera Pheri at his peak as a comic director. In fact, it’s among his earliest Hindi comedies and it set the tone for what this Malayalam filmmaker’s Bollywood career would look like. The film, led by a side-splitting Paresh Rawal, Akshay Kumar and Om Puri, is more than feel-good. It’s feel-better!
‘Hamara sahab aayega toh lafda kar dega’ – Chhotu
Govinda has a flair for comedy that works for the masses, not for the classes. But who cares? In Dulhe Raja – the most David Dhawanesque comedy that David Dhawan didn’t make – he plays the title role, a smooth-talking roadside dhaba owner. The script sympathises with him, just the way it does for Rajinikanth or Mithun Chakraborty and other stars with irresistible mass appeal. It’s a typical Govinda character of a glib ruffian who falls for the rich man’s daughter. The rich man (Kadar Khan) lives in a mansion the size of a football stadium with massive staircases and circular sofas. When Govinda is in top form, he can seem like he was born to play that role. Director Harmesh Malhotra assembles the other Govinda staples for support. They include Kadar Khan, Johnny Lever and Asrani who help make this leave-your-brain-at-home comedy highly enjoyable – even memorable. One of the main pleasures of a Govinda film, besides generous doses of romp, are the songs. The popular Akhiyon se goli maare demonstrates the star’s free-style dance moves while the qawwali Suno sasurji, though equally cringe-worthy, is watchable exactly for those reasons.
‘Aaj mujhe ehsaas hua, ki aap purush hi nahin, maha purush hai’ – Amar
Summarising this Rajkumar Santoshi con caper in terms of a linear storyline is like explaining how Aamir Khan scored that goal for Mohan Bagan using sherbet glasses. One of the drinks is spiked and he’s just got his memory back. To add to the confusion, either the goal was highly strategic or – this is more likely – he’s making the shit up. Aamir plays the ne’er-do-well Amar to Salman Khan’s bumbling Prem. Obviously, Paresh Rawal aka Teja dismisses them as “filmy and slackers.” From the start, when you first meet them as imposters in an endless round of one-upmanship trying to outwit each other, it becomes evident that this journey is not going to end well for them. But it does. (One loser tempts away a millionaire’s daughter) And along the way it’s nothing but a complete laugh-riot. AAA clearly belongs to the quick-talking Aamir, perhaps because he was given a central role for being a bigger star at the time but it’s incomplete without the collective madness of Salman Khan, Shakti Kapoor, Raveena Tandon, Karisma Kapoor, Mehmood (his Wah Wah Productions’ gag is a homage to Pyar Kiye Jaa), Jagdeep and Paresh Rawal in a double role, creating further confusion about who is the real Teja. (He’s the one with a mark on his cheek).
‘Samajtha nahin hai yaar’ – Nandu
David Dhawan hit it big with dramas like Swarg and Shola Aur Shabnam in the 1990s but found his niche in slapstick. Aankhen was his first major hit, but with Raja Babu, he got into full-fledged populist comedies. The plots (however preposterous) were often refashioned from Southern hits and there was always the reliably gabby charms of Govinda to turn it into comic gold. The two had already worked together and by the time of Raja Babu, you can see that they had arrived at a comfort level enjoyed by frequent collaborators. Govinda is a good mix of Dilip Kumar and Shammi Kapoor, but less sophisticated than them. Viewers, in fact, can spot the influence of Dilip Kumar on the Khans who appropriated the romantic aspects of Dilip Kumar. By contrast, Govinda picked up the Bhojpuri nuances from the Tragedy King. In Raja Babu, Dilip Kumar bears heavily on Govinda’s acting style. Call it mindless or mediocre, the film walks the tight rope between comedy and melodrama, blending Dhawan’s penchant for sappy plots with silly humour. The best scenes involve Raja (Govinda) and sidekick Nandu’s (Shakti Kapoor) crackling chemistry. Trust Shakti Kapoor to come up with strange accents and stranger get-ups. Their exclusive pastime includes hiring a small-time theater to watch an Amitabh Bachchan actioner and generally, gallivanting around on a flashy bike (matched to Govinda’s colourful costumes), Nandu faithfully holding the umbrella for his boss from the backseat. Raja Babu makes high art of low humour.
‘Aage jaake log iss flyover ke neeche ghar basaaenge’ – Builder Tarneja
British author Martin Amis once described satire as “militant irony.” We are pretty sure the unassuming Kundan Shah would have neither heard of Amis nor agreed with that definition. But the director’s Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro is angry (friend Saeed Mirza would approve), absurd, madcap, meaningful and bracingly funny. Ravi Baswani (Sudhir) and Naseeruddin Shah (Vinod) play down-on-luck photographers who get mired in a theatre of the absurd not entirely of their own making. Through these two small-timers who are the undercog (and underdog) in the system’s wheel, Shah flings powerful bolts of social commentary. JBDY isn’t about changing the world so much as firing militant stabs at it, one gag at a time. Made on a shoe-string budget, this blackest of comedy hints at all the issues that are still relevant in India today – political corruption, crony capitalism, unemployment and most importantly, the media. Rewatching the film, ‘Hum honge kaamyab’ plays like a lost cause. But then, depending upon your point of view and how you see the film, please feel free to read hope or helplessness from the film’s freeze-framing climax. As Sudhir and Vinod, in prison clothes, break the fourth wall and make a throat-slashing gesture you know things are headed straight to the gallows.
‘Main tujhe maaf nahin, saaf kar dunga’ – Bhawani Shankar
Is Bollywood a corrupting influence on Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s characters? In Gol Maal, Amol Palekar has a penchant for Hindi films and in a fantasy song, dreams about displacing Amitabh Bachchan to become Bollywood’s leading hero. This scene assumes a dimension of meta-fun when seen from the context of Palekar’s everyman status both on and off screen. He could never topple Bachchan from the mainstream top slot (many would rightly argue he never intended to) but some of the 1970-80s defining middle cinema classics cannot be imagined without Palekar’s extraordinary ordinariness. In the same film, his stern and disciplinarian boss Bhawani Shankar’s (Utpal Dutt) is repulsed by all modern elements, cinema and sports included. Interestingly, in Guddi (1971), Dutt plays a sincere professor struck by the make-believe world of cinema (he’s shocked to see that a blind beggar can not only see but speaks English, though he later learns that he is just another actor in a get-up waiting for his scene) but, ironically, doesn’t mind negotiating with superstar Dharmendra (as himself) to help cure Guddi (Jaya Bhaduri) from her film obsession. Once again in Gol Maal, Hrishida pits Palekar and Dutt in a sparkling interplay of the auteur’s familiar tropes of role-playing, charades and trickery – prodded gently by the ever-elderly David. Side note: The moustache and what it stands for in the making of a man’s honour is obviously the best-loved part about Gol Maal.
‘Corolla khane mein kadva hota hai par liver ke liye bohot achcha hota hai’ – Professor Sukumar
In 1972’s Bawarchi, Hrishikesh Mukherjee stripped Rajesh Khanna off his starry sheen and gave the late superstar the role of a cook. Albeit, this is no ordinary cook. He’s a philosopher. Three years later, Hrishida cast Dharmendra and Amitabh Bachchan against type in Chupke Chupke, a timeless comedy about mistaken and newly-assumed identities, practical jokes and elaborate charades and disguises. Dharmendra plays a renowned professor (Parimal Tripathi) masquerading as a driver (Pyare Mohan), just so that he can bring wife Sulekha’s (Sharmila Tagore) hero-worshipping reverence for brother-in-law (Om Prakash) a few notches down. The driver speaks impeccably chaste Hindi, just as Bawarchi’s cook expounded philosophy. Amitabh Bachchan gets to prove his comic flair as the awkward and nervous English lit professor Sukumar while Sharmila Tagore, as a girl from a very respectable upper-class Indian family, breaks all social norms. First, by sitting in the first seat next to driver Pyare, next by singing a romantic duet with him and eventually, eloping much to the embarrassment of “genius jijaji” Om Prakash. A classic Hindi film trope that Hrishida, and his privileged and educated middle-class characters, often take a harmless dig at. Cinema, for them, may not be vulgar but it’s definitely a vice that wouldn’t go down well with the elderly bookish bhadralok lot.
‘Arrey gadhu, baith upar aur awaaz neechi kar’ – Guru
Kishore Kumar was a madcap genius and Padosan, as any fan will tell you, was central to the singer’s fame as a spitfire comedian. This is also a film where his funnyman and crooner personas collide into pure anarchy and this very combination of a man who could sing and make you laugh at the same time became his chief stock-in-trade. When we first meet him, Kishoreda is a paan-chewing theatre director (the paan serves the same function as the pipe on Groucho Marx) who’s pulling his hair (middle-parted, if you will) out trying to teach Keshto Mukherjee the right pronunciation of the Perso-Arabic word ‘Qais.’ Later on in the film, Kishoreda aka Guru would have the same trouble tutoring Bhola (Sunil Dutt, so named because he’s a bit of a bumpkin) about music. Bhola’s assassination of Sa Re Ga is epic. The scenes involving Kishore Kumar offering playback to Bhola, as he tries to woo the stylish neighbour (Saira Banu, the padosan Bindu of the title) are easily some of the funniest scenes ever projected on Hindi screens. Not to mention, Mehmood’s stereotypical Madrasi, who anticipates future Southies in Bollywood. At a time when the job of a heroine was to be a glamorous prop, Padosan thankfully offers a meaty comic role to the eyelash-fluttering Saira Banu. One wonders why filmmakers didn’t tap Sunil Dutt’s comic flair. He is beyond brilliant here, as a brahmachari-turned-majnu who is forced to vie with his mamaji (Om Prakash) for Saira Banu’s affection. In what could have easily descended into a mama-bhanjha plot, director Jyoti Swaroop (one of the many cases where we know the film, but are blissfully oblivious of who made it) keeps it about Bhola, Bindu, Guru and Mehmood’s Master Pillai.
‘Tond mein chhupaye hai chiraag-e-Aladin’ – Munna
In one of the funnier scenes of Half Ticket, Kishore Kumar bumps into Tun Tun’s naughty boy (named Bhopu) at a railway station and entices him with a wikipedia of Indian sweets (“Rasgulla khaaoge, gulab jamun khaaoge, imarti khaaoge, peda khaaoge!”) Stealing Bhopu’s clothes, Kishore who plays Seth Lalchand’s son (Vijaychand vald Lalchand vald Dhyanchand vald Hukumchand) assumes a new identity – that of the man-child Munna – and hobbles off to Bombay. He’s on a half-ticket ride, escaping the rich fortunes of his mill-owning family. Enter Pran (jewel thief Raja Babu, Munna’s comic foil) who spends the rest of the film tied in an umbilical chord with Munna. There’s also Madhubala and Manorama but Half Ticket is Kishore’s full ticket to comic acrobatics – his very own Marxian lunacy given free reign. Some of the film’s finest moments reside in their songs, including the zany “Cheel cheel chillake” – a gibberish-sounding lyrics that is probably as anarchic as Groucho Marx’s “Whatever it is, I am against it”. But listen closely. Unlike the Horse Feathers’ anthem which is a nonsensical rhyme, Cheel cheel chillake hits out at his father’s capitalism and its “teen ko hamesha karte aaye saadhe teen” mantras. How easily Kishore shifts from get-up to get-up and situations and yodels away into what looks like impromptu ad-libs. With him, there is always some raucous romp round the corner. It is interesting to note that while in Padosan he corrects Keshto’s grammar, in Half Ticket’s climax, it is uncle Pran (with his excellent grasp of Urdu) who gets to clarify Kishore’s “ba-munakka, ba-sherbat.” It is actually “ba-mushakkat” but that word turns out to be a sign of bad omen for Raja Babu, as he is finally arrested.
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(Shaikh Ayaz is a writer and journalist based in Mumbai)