What makes us laugh? Does a man sliding on a banana skin make you laugh? It could be a woman, too. But the question remains the same. If you answer in the affirmative, go over to that side, and stay there. Till I think of a good way to bring you back here, to my side.
There’s a reason why I’m so incensed. It’s not like I have a problem with bananas. Love ’em. Great pick-me-ups, full of potassium and fibre. Easy to eat. Easy to digest. But not when a director puts the peel on a floor and gets an actor to skid on it, and go splat.
Prat-falls can be funny. We derive great enjoyment at those in more unfortunate circumstances. It could be a fellow walking into a door, going boiiiing. It could be someone falling off a high window, into a pool. It could be a guy heading straight for one tight slap.
Not me. He. What fun.
So let me backtrack a little. All of the above, done well, can be hilarious. And all right, I’ll get the banana skin peel skid back in favour too. Where I start frothing is when a so-called “comedy” will only give me these, and variations of these, and nothing else, and expect me to laugh my head off.
I’ve been thinking these dark thoughts for the past couple of weeks, after sitting through David Dhawan’s new film, which is actually many of his old films, done with a lot less flourish and frolic. The creakiest ploys are on full display in Main Tera Hero: of course, there’s the banana peel skid, and there’s the falling into the pool, and a wheelchair-bound guy who makes only whistling noises: if you don’t have the use of your limbs, then you are obviously a cretin, yes? We should be thankful we were spared a monkey or an orangutan scratching his armpits.
In his prime in the late 1980s and ’90s, Dhawan would get by with the broadest of strokes because he had Govinda. And Kader Khan and, to an extent, Shakti Kapoor. When Dhawan was going strong, all he needed was to give these actors their head, and sit back and splice and dice the rest in the edit room.
What we got was loud, physical comedy, crass, sometimes very crass, lines, and rapid-fire rounds of groaningly punny but outrageously funny dialogue. That was Dhawan’s style, and he was a past-master at it. And Govinda was pure gold. He made even the crassest gags palatable. So good was he that we expected only that from him, and whenever he tried ratcheting it lower, we didn’t like it.
After Govinda vacated the Comic Number One spot, Dhawan has been floundering. Main Tera Hero allowed him to get back to his style because he got his son Varun to do a Govinda, overlaid with a Salman. But the director is a shadow of his former self. And out of date. Because this is 2014, not 1993. Twenty years have changed the movie-going audience.
Or has it? I heard laughter at all the oldest, most tired japes. When young Varun twitched his nipples, a smirk fixed on his face as he realised that it was his money-shot, not his lissome heroines’ shapely chests, the laughs were the loudest.
That’s because we are still happiest with a string of juvenile gags. Laughter laced with other emotions is hard for us to understand and appreciate. A superb comedy of manners like Rajat Kapoor’s Aankhon Dheki doesn’t get the kind of audience it deserves because its laughs are not derived from mobile moobs or Tom and Jerry cartoon like characters. Or, yes, slippery yellow fruit peels.
The characters in Aankhon Dekhi, regular folks like you and me, slip and slide on the curves life throws at them. We laugh, yes. But we also cry and feel sad and become sombre. This film has meaning. And that is the best kind of film there is. But that is too heavy and serious. We shift in our seats, we are not comfortable. We go looking for banana peels.
Which is why we don’t have comedies any more: we just have jiggling flesh which makes us snort and snigger. We don’t have directors who can give us comedy in full. Being able to laugh presupposes being able to cry. Real comedies mine the laughs for what lies beneath. Which, as critic David Denby puts it so well, “exploit the dramatic possibilities of stupidities.”
Humour, the good kind, can lead us to examine what our moral compass is. What kind of people we are, and what kind of people we would like to be. Do we want to chuck rotten tomatoes at those who can’t lob them back at us. Or do we want to stand up, wipe the egg off our faces, and be counted?
The wrong kind of laughter is not the best medicine. It is a bitter pill.