The thumb rule for making people laugh in a comedy is that somebody has to be a butt of the joke. In real life situations, when you pull a fast one on someone or what is popularly called leg pulling, that he or she becomes the butt of the joke and everyone has a laugh at his/her expense. Instead of having pity for the victim, we take pleasure in deriding him. That’s cruel. Well, comedy is cruel.
How does this translate into movies? No one likes to be a butt of the joke in real life – but in films, one is forced to be – otherwise, there is no humour. That’s why there’s a general misunderstanding and a mistaken belief in the actors when they’ve to play the role of a “butt” i.e. they don’t want to look like a fool or a fall guy. On the contrary, it requires great art or perhaps greater art to play the role of a fall guy. The actor playing the role of a fall guy is the “foil” whose sole function is to set off or enhance the other actor by contrast and also willingly becoming the butt of his jokes, pranks or mischiefs. An example will put it in perspective.
Take the classic sequence of a horror film story-narration between Mehmood and Om Prakash in “Pyar Kiye Jaa”. Om Prakash is obviously playing “the foil” to Mehmood and it’s his par excellence performance that enlivens Mehmood’s brilliant story narration. Om Prakash’s role is absolutely passive (with no dialogues to speak of!) but his graded and orchastrated petrified reactions build to a crescendo and the sequence ends with a topper when a casual calling of a third party off-frame frightens the blue lights out of them. There’s a fantastic give and take between the two which enhances their roles. More Om Prakash gets frightened i.e. bigger and better the fall guy he enacts, juicier the scene. The story goes that when Mehmood got a film award for his performance in this film, not only he gave full due to his “foil” Om Prakash on the stage but went and touched his feet in the audience. A comic actor always realises the contribution to his own performance by his co-actor and is humble about it.
Well, not always. Manier times people under estimate the importance and function of “the foil” with a disastrous result that the whole comic sequence falls on its face. Take another film “Dostana” directed by the veteran Raj Khosla. Salim-Javed, the script writers, lifted a scene from the film “Paigham” and placed it between Amitabh Bachchan and Zeenat Aman who’re whiling away time at an airport field. They’re in love but just out of curiosity, she asks him whether he ever had any other girl friend in his life or some one he had fallen in love with. This sets Mr Bachchan off into building a casual encounter with a girl (Mina) into a majestic romantic Romeo and Juliet love tale. The idea is to make Zeenat Aman jealous to her teeth and how well she would enact to be the “the foil” with her mounting chagrin. Well…..? With due respect, Zeenat Aman fails to be a perfect “foil” which makes the scene into a long drawn out affair and probably affecting Mr Bachchan’s performance, too. (It also looks that Mr Bachchan enacted the role too confidently and in a calculated way instead of a casual and spontaneous approach taken by Dilip Kumar in “Paigham”. Maybe Mr Bachchan wanted to contrast his approach from the thespian but sorry to say it doesn’t work here.) In contrast, the “Paigham” scene sparkles and remains in your memory for years with Vyjantimala playing a perfect foil. It also helps in delivering probably one of the better comic moments in the thespian’s life.
A small note about the directorial technique in executing the same scene in both the films – both have two-shot without any close-ups as the reactions of one are important while the other enacts. “Dostana” has two different 180* axis two-shot, each favouring one of the actors and as such has many cuts. Unfortunately, it has many continuity jumps which, too, couldn’t save the scene. While “Paigham” has frontal two-shot equally favouring both the actors and the scene is so engrossing that many cuts from the same axis to same axis without much image change are not noticed, or probably, forgiven.
The same lapse in “foil” results in an unsatisfying scene in the film “Hum” with Mr Bachchan delivering the drunken repeat and repeat and repeat scene of “Gandi naali ke kidde…” speech or soliloquy or whatever you wish to call it. Who is the “butt” of the joke here? The “butt” or the “foil” had to have a rising irritating curve of listening to the same thing again and again and, probably, should’ve attempted to walk out every time with Mr Bachchan stopping him and promising to narrate something different but ending up narrating the same thing! Is it then the scriptwriter’s fault? But believe me, probably a correct “foil” would’ve contributed and made the magic of the scene come alive.
No where the concept of “foil” becomes more obvious than when the enactment of scenes is between two actors. Marx Brothers’ films are replete with long comic sequences constructed between Groucho and Chico Marx. Groucho is always the fall guy and what a brilliant fall guy he is! In fact, in every comedy, each scene may have its own fall guy and, that too, sometimes in minor roles but their casting becomes crucial for the above reasons. They may end up ruining or enhancing the performances of your main protagonist/s.
The concept of “foil” should not be mixed up with comedy duos such as Jay & Viru in “Sholay”, Munna and Circuit in “Munnabhai Series” or many, many more such pairings of actors on which the films or series of films are based. What we’re talking about here is chemistry between their characters to create comic ambience. Of course, there are exceptions. No where the concept of “foil” as well as “character chemistry” is more brought to life together in one pair than in Laurel and Hardy film series. They’re perfect “foil” to each other and their chemistry itself can give rise to a comedy scene. Imagine Laurel and Hardy on a bus-stop and your mind can get so excited with permutations and combinations of things that can happen or can go wrong. In no time, your imagination can create a laugh riot.
To conclude: For comedy to be or not to be – don’t be a fool and cast a Hamlet when he’s not required. Just a clown would do – like Falstaff or Oliver Hardy or Groucho Marx or Mr Om Prakash who know that they also serve (and exceptionally, too!) and who are willing to be such brilliant fools or fall guys on the screen.