Just for laughs: India's obsession with slapstick humour sounds death knell for budding satirists
India is still the country that laughs at a man who slips on a banana peel. It finds the histrionics of Charlie Chaplin more amusing than Premchand’s satire. From rejecting Raj Kapoor in Mera Naam Joker because he was not ‘funny’ to not appreciating the subtle humour of his grandson Ranbir Kapoor’s character in Rocket Singh: Salesman of the Year, humour remains one-dimensional for the majority of India. You go slapstick or you go home.
The obsession with slapstick humour is ingrained in every Indian because of years of socialisation and conditioning to a myopic definition of comedy. It finds its origin in musicologist Bharat Muni’s Natya Shastra, which is considered the classical treatise on the performing arts. It states Hasya (humour) as one of the nine rasas (essences) of Indian aesthetics. Thus, humour has been compartmentalised as a performing art since 500 CE, the approximate time period when the first edition of the Natya Shastra is believed to have been compiled.
Since then, it was a given that humour had to be ‘performed’ in order to qualify as funny. Since a majority of the Indian population has been illiterate for centuries, they did not have access to more subtle forms of humour, found in books, pamphlets or any other mode of the written word. Even for a performed satire, such as a satirical play, it was a prerequisite to be well versed with the social context of the humour, a luxury that the majority were devoid of, owing to dearth of education.
Thus, the popular form of entertainment became what the monarchs forced down their throats. Theatre revolved around either religious sermons or frivolous acts that had little social relevance. The kings could not risk serving socially relevant forms of leisure to their subjects as that would mean giving them the opportunity to feel entitled to their basic rights. The theory of the manufacturing of consent demanded that antics keep the public distracted from the larger issues that may end up dethroning those in power.
The same trend continued despite a constant increase in literacy. By that time, Indians had become too accustomed to slapstick humour that they started viewing subtle forms like satire as alien to the Indian culture. However, satire always existed in India but failed to thrive because of its limited reach. Horseplay took the centre stage in cinema too as Johnny Walker and Mehmood’s outlandish performances received more whistles than the light-hearted humour of Hrishikesh Mukherji.
As the gap between the audiences of slapstick and satire widened, there was a certain section that began offering the best of both the worlds – kavi sammelans or poetry recitals. Poetry enthusiasts congregated at public places where poets not only read aloud their words of veiled wisdom but also performed them for the uninitiated. While the narrative part catered to the audience of satires, the ensuing enactment of the same poem or couplet satiated the tickling bones of the slapstick buffs.
A similar format was used in what is considered a watershed event in the history of Indian comedy – The Great Indian Laughter Challenge. It boasted of a fair share of both – satirists and slapstick artists. Even the judges represented both the genres. While Shekhar Suman was the host of probably India’s first political satire television show Movers & Shakers, Navjot Singh Sidhu still reigns as the undisputed judge and jury of slapstick comedy as his guffaw is as verbose as the humour it is directed towards.
One of the products of The Great Indian Laughter Challenge, Kapil Sharma, took comedy several notches higher. He embodied the new small town India that could appreciate and practice sarcasm. While Comedy Nights with Kapil did incorporate a major slapstick element through the acts of Dadi (Ali Asgar) and Palak (Kiku Sharda), it was not limited to that. Sharma challenged his audience in every episode to process wit as promptly as possible in order to make the most of his humour, even though it came at the cost of encouraging stereotypes like a cockeyed portrayal of women.
The All India Bakchod (AIB) roast changed even that. It could be considered the boldest move in the modern history of the comedy scene in the country and it paid the price for that. Roasting was an unpalatable genre to the Indian audience. The fact that it was limited to the digital platform helped minimise the damage but it clearly sent out a signal that India will not change overnight.
The makers could have gauged that from the fact that despite India’s vibrant politics, it is not very keen on the idea of political satires. The comedy is confined to the mugshots that the political parties take at each other. While the politicians continue to stoop to lowly levels, they do not appreciate the idea of an outsider, particularly an entertainer, make people laugh at their expense.
This is manufacturing of consent in modern packaging. Make people laugh through sex comedies like Grand Masti and Kya Kool Hai Hum but do not facilitate an intellectual discussion on sex education. Let the Akshay Kumars and the Ritesh Deshmukhs force-feed the viewers that laughing at a man getting electrocuted is acceptable but sarcastic digs taken by stand up comedians should be silenced, particularly if they are in Hindi.
Apparently, it is okay to laugh at a man who slips on a banana peel. But dare you question who dumped that banana peel on the road in the first place.