Comedy Films Today (By Kundan Shah)


If I say Agreement 123 (Atomic Energy Agreement with the US) reflects the comedies made today in our country, you will call me mad. Where is the connection? But it has. Well, we are in the process of being Americanised. That’s a general term to signify consumerism apart from other serious repercussions depending upon your world view. However, the fundamental tenet of a consumerist culture is that everything is a product. And the function of any product (film) is to serve only its basic need – in today’s case it is entertainment. Now, there is nothing wrong with entertainment. There never has been. To entertain in itself is a great art. And yet “to entertain” in today’s times, there is a difference – there is no aesthetics involved. So, no qualms in making films based on videos, rip-offs, lift-offs, etc, etc. Aptly today’s films are called popcorn movies. Eat the popcorn and throw the cardboard box away. See the movie and forget about it once you’re out of the hall.

Besides, these indianised remakes of foreign films reflect no value, no relation to our culture and no mirror to our fast developing consumerist society or to its rural counterpart which has been excluded in our so called Indian economic renaissance. These films and their entertainment exist in a limbo, in a vacuum where you don’t see any glimpse of the reality we live in. You said reality? What has reality got to do with entertainment? With films? Man, films cost lots of money. As a producer aptly puts it: “I pay entertainment tax, so my movies must fundamentally entertain.”

In Hollywood, there is an unspoken dictum: “No film should have the mental age of more than ten years.” So, the birth of popcorn movies. We call ourselves Bollywood. How can we be any different? We lament the fact that there is no more a Hrishikesh Mukherjee amongst us. When will we get another classic comic sequence played between Mehmood and Om Prakash in “Pyar Kiye Jaa” or that frothy unforgettable  romantic tease played between Dilip Kumar and Vyjantimala in “Paigham”. And what about “Teen Bahuraniyan” which came from nowhere and regaled us with its take on middle-class morality. It is difficult to judge which of the two Prithviraj Kapoor’s performance is better: in that lavish and bombastic “Mughal-E-Azam” or this simpleton of a movie.

Comedies have the longest shelf life. Believe me, this is more true than the Einsteinian equation of E=MC square. Let’s take the earliest era – the silent films. What has survived are not the adventure and sword buckling dramas of Douglas Fairbanks, etc but even two-reelers of Chaplin, Buster Keaten and many others which regale us even today and make us wonder at amazing syncopation and unbelievable comic choreography some of their sequences achieved. They remain sublime, unsurpassed and impossible to film today. Why can’t we attempt to achieve their excellence? What is missing? What has been lost? The answer is simple – innocence.

To cross new horizons, to discover unchartered territories, you’ve to take chances, take risks, most important “to experiment”. And the daringness of being a failure. Our budgets, multiplex ticket prices and the star prices rule it out. So do the vanity vans. I am so out of touch that I got a shock of life when I was informed that even in DD serials, vanity vans are provided for almost every actor. That’s an amazing progress! So what for the fact that most of the television work today is making soaps with an unending variety of swish pans ever invented in the lexicon of the film language.         

To prove the point about shelf life twice over. How many more films do you remember which were contemporaries of “Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi”, “Padosan”, “Pyar Kiye Jaa”, “Teen Bahuraniyan”, “Chalte-Chalte”, etc, etc? Please don’t treat this to be an academic question. Off the cuff, you mention these very films again and again in daily conversations. While their contemporaries, probably bigger hits and winner of Filmfare awards are forgotten and have already met their nemesis. Please…please…please…. for heaven’s sake don’t jump the gun and conclude that the Filmfare Award winning films have zero shelf life! That’s unfair! So what if Oscar Academy never gave one to Chaplin till he was in his seventies.

I am diverting so much that I am forgetting what this article is all about. But does it matter? Are we destined to get the comedies we’re getting? No, please let’s leave the destiny and fate to their better usage in Shakespeare’s plays. We’ve brought it upon ourselves. I don’t mean the ills are only within our film industry. We’re, after all, a small part of the McDonald culture sweeping us today. And yet, some semblance of churning is taking place. The smaller films can probably learn to dare…to dare more and even experiment. The task is Sisyphean. But let’s begin rolling the stone to top of the mountain. The worst is that it will roll back once we reach on top. Even that may not be sufficient. But let’s roll back that other stone called Agreement 123 which may choke us to death. And once we roll that stone back, many more stones need to be rolled back before the phoenix can rise. I am a pessimist. Tell me, how not to be one.


Kundan Shah (October 19, 1947 – October 7, 2017)

(SWA Archives)

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