Saturday, April 21, 2018

Still laughing after all these years

[My latest Mint Lounge column, on two comedies that turn 50 this year]

In one of the funnier scenes in the 1968 Sadhu aur Shaitan, a taxi driver named Bajrang (Mehmood) is told by a passenger (Ashok Kumar in a terrific cameo) that he should be proud of being from the same land as “that great hero Prithviraj”. The allusion is to the king Prithviraj Chauhan, but Bajrang hasn’t even heard of him and instead thinks of the actor Prithviraj Kapoor.

Ironically, another comedy from that year – Teen Bahuraniyan – has the real Prithviraj Kapoor as a patriarch who disapproves of the obsession with film stars. Little wonder, since this has brought disharmony to the old man’s house: his three sons and daughters-in-law are behaving like buffoons as they try to impress their new neighbor, the glamorous heroine Sheela Devi (played by Shashikala).

In the annals of Hindi-film comedy, 1968 is remembered mainly for Padosan, full of wacky performances not just by established funnymen (Kishore Kumar, Mehmood, Keshto Mukherjee) but also by a glamorous leading lady (Saira Banu) and a leading man (Sunil Dutt) who was more often associated with bland (or even stodgy) characters. The two films I mentioned above haven’t hit their half-century with the same panache, but they have some things in common with their more famous sibling: Teen Bahuraniyan involves an attractive “padosan” who lives in the house opposite and causes hearts (of men and women) to beat faster; Sadhu aur Shaitan has meaty roles for Mehmood and Kishore Kumar, whose scenes together are among the film’s high points.

But the differences are just as notable. One reason why Padosan has more lasting appeal than the other two films, I feel, is that it doesn’t have a serious bone in its body – it ratchets up the humour just when it starts to seem like things might be getting solemn, or that there might be a “message” around the corner.

In comparison, you can catch Teen Bahuraniyan and Sadhu aur Shaitan glancing about sheepishly like well-brought-up youngsters who are worried they are having too much fun. Teen Bahuraniyan flounders in its second half as it gets preachy about the neglect of household duties (and places disproportionate blame on the three flighty bahus as opposed to their equally silly husbands). Sadhu aur Shaitan is salvaged by a final act where Bajrang ferries passengers around, unaware that there’s a dead body in the back-seat, but before this too much time is spent on an establishing story about a good man being conned. Both films contain speeches about the importance of honesty and hard work over status anxiety or wealth-collection. Don’t give us money, give us love, two children sing to Lord Krishna in Sadhu aur Shaitan’s opening scene. Our house has two birds in it – one is love, the other is peace of mind, croons the family in Teen Bahuraniyan.

It can be a mistake to over-analyse or dissect comedy, but to look at these three films together is to also see how the staging of a little moment can make a difference; how holding a shot a second longer than necessary can make what might have been a delightful throwaway gesture seem forced and underlined; and how even loud, unsubtle comedy depends for its effectiveness on the quality of the acting and writing. Kishore Kumar, for instance, had the Groucho Marx-like ability to be over the top so wholeheartedly that the more lunatic he got, the more effective he was. Playing a thick-moustached Yamraj (God of Death) in a theatre production in Sadhu aur Shaitan, Kumar can have a viewer in convulsions just with an exaggerated booming voice that parodies mythological-film performances. On the other hand, actors like Rajendranath and Jagdeep (both of whom play key parts in Teen Bahuraniyan) have their strengths as physical comedians and mimics, but without the right direction or editing they are often loud without being especially funny.

There are other lessons too. However outdated a film might look to our eyes, some of its worth can lie in the effect it had on its original audiences. When I spoke with writer-director Kundan Shah – helmsman of Jaane bhi do Yaaro – about his initiation into movie comedy, Teen Bahuraniyan was one of the first films he mentioned. This was before a DVD or YouTube print of this relatively obscure film was available, so I asked Shah what exactly had appealed to him. “I can’t explain such things,” he said a bit crabbily, “You have to experience it for yourself.”

Well, I did, eventually, and on the face of it there is little connection between Shah’s darkly edgy film – with humour masking angry social commentary – and an old-fashioned, home-bound comedy-
drama. But look more closely at Teen Bahuraniyan and you see some wordplay and sight-gags that one can trace in Shah’s work: a scene where a woman moves in tune with her husband who is doing sit-ups while listening to her demands; Fourth Wall-breaking interludes where story updates are scribbled by children on a blackboard.

Now, when I think of Ravi Baswani’s hysterics in Jaane bhi do Yaaro, or Pankaj Kapoor delivering deadpan monologues at the camera, I picture similar scenes featuring Rajendranath and company. Which is a bit disconcerting, but also a reminder that fifty-year-old films, including uneven ones, can cast long shadows.

[Earlier piece on Padosan and Saira Banu here; and a tribute to the late Kundan Shah here]

1 comment:

  1. Haven't seen Teen Bahuraniyan but it's Tamil original (Bama Vijayam) has aged quite well, I would think. Though I think Balachander and Balaiah should get the maximum credit for that!