Friday, April 25, 2014

On Krishna Shastri’s Jump Cut (and notes from a humour discussion)

Here’s a paradox. A panel discussion about humour, populated by people who are funny for a living, may very possibly not be funny itself. Because it involves analysing and intellectualising something that is often analysis-resistant. Understanding the workings of comedy, and the many ways in which different people respond to it, is no easy task. No wonder Isaac Asimov once wrote a short story, “Jokester”, suggesting that humour is part of a psychological experiment being conducted on us by Godlike extraterrestrials, to study human behaviour the way we might study rats in a laboratory.

Anyway, here is the funniest thing that happened during a humour-related talk I participated in at a Chandigarh lit-fest last year: a very angry man – an acquaintance of the deceased comedian Jaspal Bhatti – bobbed up and down in his seat, banged on the chair in front of him, shook his fists at us panelists, and declaimed through a quivering moustache, “I tell you, Bhatti was NOT a comedian! He was a starrist!”

Clarity alert: he meant “satirist”. But what was really amusing was the moral indignation on display – how keen he was to defend his friend’s sullied honour, and how convinced that the very word “comedian” was a gruesome insult (though Bhatti himself, I am sure, would have had no objection to being described thus). Just a few minutes earlier, the author Krishna Shastri Devulapalli and I had been speaking about how comedy is often a thankless, underappreciated job; about literary awards rarely shortlisting funny books; about the Oscars’ reluctance to nominate comic performances even though most actors will tell you comedy is so hard to do. And now here was someone from the audience unwittingly demonstrating the point – comedy was flippant, he implied, while “satire” was respectable because it suggested social conscience and purpose.

But any sort of comedy, if well done, has a clear-sightedness that most other modes of expression don’t have. “Humour assaults us with a slice of truth,” says a character in Manu Joseph’s The Illicit Happiness of Other People. A case can be made that if you simply look at the world and record what you see, you automatically become a comedian. During our session, Devapulalli read out a passage from his novel Jump Cut in which a man named Selva – originally from a village, now living in Chennai – is required to visit a fancy store selling women’s undergarments. As Selva gapes at a pair of flimsy panties, he considers the much more durable elastic on his own underwear, “which could be cut out to make a slingshot that could kill a squirrel at twenty paces if the need arose”. A thong seems to him like a hyped version of the “komanam” worn by old men in his village. Here is an example of a funny passage that is merely showing a particular man in a situation far removed from his everyday experience. We know the kind of store this is, we can picture the “black pant-suited” salesgirl who is described as having the same glassy expression as a mannequin, and even this seemingly lowbrow situation provides food for thought: the urban reader is allowed to temporarily step outside of himself and look at things through the perplexed eyes of someone who has not grown up in a world of high-priced brands, plush malls and supercilious salespeople.

Humour can be tied to nihilism – tossing a banana peel under the feet of human self-importance, mocking the idea that there is order in the world – but it can also facilitate empathy. The Illicit Happiness of Other People is about a sad man trying to understand why his 17-year-old boy killed himself, while Jump Cut is a story about another father-son relationship, as well as an ode to the “little person”, in both life and in a cut-throat movie-making industry. These synopses don’t sound funny, but both books understand that the profound and the ridiculous coexist in our lives, and they make the reader laugh while letting us stay emotionally invested in the protagonists.

Having had firsthand experience of Krishna Shastri's sense of humour in Chandigarh, I was surprised to find that Jump Cut wasn’t as full of wisecracks and clever one-liners as I had imagined it might be (not that there’s anything inherently wrong with that sort of book). What unfolds instead is something more measured, where the idea isn’t so much to be “funny” from one paragraph to the next as to provide a light, slanted take on an essentially serious premise. The book has a prologue, set in 1992 Madras, where a boy named Ray and his sister watch the preview of a film that their father has worked on. The card they have been excitedly waiting for appears on the screen. “It says ‘Story, Screenplay and Dialogue by Vasant Raj’ in big letters that fill the screen, the drum-roll underlining their importance.” That’s the father’s name on the screen, thinks the reader, but then comes the deflating coda:
At the bottom of the screen, in barely readable letters, is the legend:
Associate: Raman

Then it is gone.
As this opening should make clear, there will be a tinge of melancholia throughout this story, even if it is largely hidden beneath the warm, good-natured tone of the writing. We never really get to “meet” the anonymous Raman in the narrative’s present tense, but the early chapters in which the adult Ray uncovers things about his deceased father are interspersed with short diary entries written by the dead man over the years: entries that reveal something of the inner world of a man who must have been taciturn and unobtrusive – a father who notices that his teenage son has a crush on a girl and also knows that he must never let on that he has noticed; a widower who drily notes that “the editor of real life can be quite abrupt” as he recalls how suddenly and randomly his wife was taken from him.

Jump Cut touched a chord for me because I have been thinking about the hidden or unnoticed cogs in the filmmaking process (some recent posts: on the documentary The Human Factor, about the neglected musicians who played in orchestras for Hindi-film composers; and about the actor MacMohan, who played Sambha in Sholay), and I liked the divide the book sets up between the grand, “filmi” narrative and the mundane, unglamorous way in which things usually happen in the real world.

That said, the real world can make fiction seem feeble at times. A few months ago a writer and stand-up comedian wrote a blog post about being asked to stop a show midway because he was “mocking Indians” in front of a non-desi audience. (The provocation? Relatively innocuous, and accurate, jokes about Indian drivers honking at traffic signals.) Reading that post, I pictured all the “serious men” huffing and puffing, getting all hot under their collar and chastising the poor comedian for offending their sentiments and for being “unpatriotic”. In a world where skins keep getting thinner, being funny for a living can be tricky. But the ability to laugh at yourself and at your holiest cows is one of the essential steps on the road to growing up, and this is a lesson well learnt in the company of skilled comedy writers – so what if they don’t win all those big literary awards.

[Here is a related post about "tasteless humour", with an anecdote I had thought of using at the Chandigarh lit-fest - the Punjabi audience may have appreciated it - before chickening out]


  1. Since you bring up Manu Joseph's novel, Illicit Happiness, I am quite surprised that he wasn't condemned for having made fun of so many things that Indians hold dearly: religion, caste, even the city that they were born in. While Manu was being funny, and also satirical, one must never underestimate the Indian tendency to get easily offended.

    Equally funny was Kiran Nagarkar's "Ravan and Eddie", and it too, were it to be published today, might be misunderstood. I remember one line from it: "her Sanchi Stupa of a breast..." On Twitter, something like this is likely to be treated with a lot of contempt.

    1. oh yes, if Manu's novel had been brought to the attention of the right (or wrong) people, and someone had decided to stir up a fuss about it, I'm sure there would have been widespread condemnation - maybe even a call for a ban. The same is true of almost any halfway-provocative book written in this country. The only question is: does someone notice a particular book and care enough to make a noise about it? Once the noise has been made, the "offended" usually get their way.

    2. @ Anon - That saanchi ka stupa scene is damn hilarious. God, the first scene itself is legendary. One of the funniest I have ever read. I think the write up on Hindi movies and Shammi Kapoor in that book was so well written. I loved the way he broke the narrative and started his ramblings on hindi movies. Great book that.

  2. I love the way three HarperCollins books appear in the piece/comments!

  3. I think one reason the word 'comedian' sounds so uncomplimentary to Indian ears is the way comic actors have been used in HIndi movies. I've thought about this often - in the West, being funny is considered a good, even attractive quality. A witty person might be complimented by saying they should be a comedian. A comedian in the West is someone intelligent with a keen sense of observation with the ability to crack you up with outrageous comments on just about anything.
    In India, the image that the word conjures up is Johny Walker and Mehmood competing for the affections of Tun Tun under the nose of Bhagwan Dada. We have been conditioned to laugh at these men, many of them very competent actors in their own right, rather than laugh with them.
    Maybe that's why the late Mr Bhatti's fan was offended at the word - perhaps he could not bear the idea of his idol standing in the company of Johny Lever and Kader Khan. (Again, not deriding the talents of those actors, but just look at the work they do in most movies - the only kind of work our industry can think of assigning them.)

    1. Deepti: yes, very possible that many people who have grown up with Hindi cinema think in those terms about comedy and comedians. It's a complicated subject though. Hindi-film comedy is part of a very long tradition that predates cinema by centuries, and there are inherent differences between some of the modern Western modes and the haasya ras traditions in Indian literature and theatre. But at the same time, the West too has had a tradition of pure buffoonery where you laugh more *at* the comedian than *with* him.
      Also a question of semantics: "comedian" being perceived in different terms from someone who "has a good sense of humour".

    2. Good observation there, Mr. Singh. I had to temper down my funniness at work because no one was taking me seriously. Just because I joke about a few things, and remain cheerful, generally, apparently it doesn't go well with my job title. The price: behind my back, employees say "saala joker hai, kuchh bhee bataa dena usko..."

  4. Humor depends greatly on perspective, as Mel Brooks points out: "Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die."