Role of A Director in Comedy Films (By Kundan Shah)


Charlie Chaplin had once said: “Comedy is a long shot, tragedy a close-up.”

What does a long shot mean? Simply put, a long shot is just a recorder of the action taking place in front of the camera. And frankly, comedy film technique reduces itself to this simple formula. What happens in front of the camera is far, far more important than what
happens behind it. Then, is it fair to conclude that the comedy belongs to the actors and
actors alone? Honestly speaking, yes.

You can be the greatest director on the earth but you can be reduced to a helpless wimp if you don’t have the right actors to execute your stuff. How often we’ve heard: “Ah, but you’re a great director! You can manage it.” That is, manage to make the actors deliver the comedy. The stark truth is that you can’t. Your actors fail, you fail. You want the proof? Take one of the greatest comic directors on the earth (Charles Chaplin). Take one of the greatest actors on the earth (Marlon Brando). And one of the chic actresses of all times (Sophia Loren). A great film? No, a dud. The film – the last of Chaplin’s films: A Countess From Hongkong. The fault doesn’t lie with Sophia Loren – she has given brilliant comic performances in many Italian bedroom farces. Not even Chaplin’s. The culprit is Brando. Some actors just can’t execute comedy. Even in his earlier comic film “Guys & Dolls”, Brando failed miserably while Frank Sinatra, in a minor part, walked away with the laurels.

When you talk of the comedy films you’ve enjoyed, the scenes which broke you into
repeated laughters, what you talk about most is the actors and the content (gags, etc) of
the scenes. But never its director. Off hand, did you know that the four-time Oscar
winning director Frank Capra, in the earlier part of his career, directed many of the shorts
of Henry Langdon? Or who are the directors of Marx Brothers films? Or of Laurel &
Hardy films? Closer home: Who directed the evergreen Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi? Or
Padosan? Or Pyar Kiye Jaa? Answer: Blank, blank, blank. Unless you’re a movie or a
quiz freak, you wouldn’t know the names of its directors. Frankly, you’re not supposed

So what does a director do in a comedy? Just a Mise-en- Scene and a shot division? Well,
honestly he can’t even do a Mise-en- Scene and he should not attempt to without the
actors because the comedy lies precisely in its execution. So, he’s further reduced to a
helpless observer on the sets where the comedy is brought alive by the movement of the
actors (with his active participation and suggestions, of course) and then a shot division is
so simple that even a clapper boy can attempt it. So, what is his contribution? A lot – a
lot that is invisible which goes in the making of a successful comedy.

Let’s begin with the script. Even if it’s an adaptation of a stage play or an original, there’s
always a scope for an improvement. The comic chemistries of its characters and the
situations can be improved ad addendum. There’s nothing like a perfect comedy script. It
can always keep getting better and better on paper – like old wine and whisky. Let’s take
the script of “Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi”. It would be utterly wrong to say that the comic
genius of Kishore Kumar and the casting of just three brothers together worked for the
film. Then the sequel “Badhti Ka Naam Dadhi” should’ve been equally successful. What
worked wonderfully in CKNG is the contribution of the invisibles from the
scriptwriter/director in defining the attitude of the three brothers to women and love.
That’s the central thread on which the whole film hangs and the comic permutations and combinations which this attitude allows to define the characters of the three brothers and
their interactions in various comic scenes. Besides, a director knows what his actors excel
in and what they can execute and likewise he shapes the script accordingly. Anup Kumar
is so endearing in this film that he almost succeeds in stealing away the show from
Kishore Kumar. And what a brilliant characterization is his! Another great thing about
the script of CKNG which almost no other comedy film in Hindi has ever achieved – not
only it has great songs but almost every song is comically conceived. It has been a dream
of so many of us directors to achieve the magic of these songs in our films – even to the
extent of copying the same situations!

Correct casting is so crucial in a comedy. Imagine “Chupke Chupke” without Om Prakash
and the whole film would collapse. He is the comic cement which binds the whole film.
The director is well aware of this fact and goes to a great extent to make the casting as
creative as possible. Example of an off-beat casting is Harindranath Chattopadhyay in
“Tere Ghar Ke Samne. Or of Arshad Warsi as Circuit in Munnabhai series. And could
there have been a more perfect example of an off-beat casting than Kishore Sahu as
Wahida Rehman’s husband in “Guide”? (Not a comedy.) Or of the director Mahesh Kaul
as Sir BB Verma in “Kaagaz Ke Phool”? (Once again not a comedy.) And against the
concept of perfect casting, the comedy can surprise everyone by using the concept of
perfect anti-casting. Example: Agha, Ramesh Deo and Rajendranath as the three brothers
in “Teen Bahuraniyan”. To conclude, as actors only can deliver a comedy, the casting is
80% of the direction. Unfortunately, direction has many other aspects which are all
individually 80%.

Though no comedy is possible without actors, it is also true that no great comedy is
possible without a talented director. Left to themselves, actors can make a mess of a
scene as they never have the whole (the complete scene, plot, theme, screenplay, etc) in
mind. As a general rule, all actors are highly narcissistic – so they all would try to pull the
scene to each one’s advantage. It is the director’s invisible contribution which
orchestrates their roles, their chemistries, their timings, their syncopation of
complimentary actions. It is his job to bring out the best hidden subtleties in an actor and
his strengths. The more he makes the actor feel in charge and that he is the creator, more
successful he will be in his job.

To conclude, however great a director’s vision, it is the actors who give life and flesh to it. So, here’s a toast to great comedy: LET’S WRITE GREAT SCRIPTS, CAST KNOWN AND UNKNOWN COMIC ACTORS AND TRUST A TALENTED DIRECTOR WHO KNOWS WHAT THE COMEDY IS ALL ABOUT.

1. Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi: Director – Satyen Bose
2. Padosan: Director – Jyoti Swaroop, Dialogue & Screenplay – Rajendra Krishan
3. Sadhu Aur Saitan: Director – A. Bhimsingh, Screenplay – A. Bhimsingh, Dialogue – Rajendra Krishan
4. Teen Bahuraniyan: Directors – S. S. Balan, S. S. Vasan, Writers – K. Balachandar (Story), Kishore Sahu
5. Pyaar Kiye Jaa: Director – C. V. Sridhar, Writer – N. S. Bedi (Dialogues), Chitralaya Gopu (Story)
6. Night at the Opera (Marx Brothers): Director – Sam Wood
7. Duck Soup (Marx Brothers): Director – Leo McCarey
8. A Day at the Races (Marx Brothers): Director – Sam Wood
9. Animal Crackers (Marx Brothers): Director – Victor Heerman



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

(From SWA archives)


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