The decline of the Bollywood comedian is often attributed to the rise of Amitabh Bacchan's Angry Young Man persona, but I'd argue that a lot of enviornmental factors contributed to the clearly apparent change in the quality of Bollywood cinema of the 70s.
Is it any surprise then, that 1970 saw the death of happiness- the death of a comic in "Mera Naam Joker" (I am a Joker)? The movie did not do well, but Raj Kapoor definitely captured some of the mood of the times with the man who entertained everyone, but in the end died of a broken heart. Was he condoling the death of the large-hearted mood of the earlier decades? Perhaps yes- as well as highlighting social issues: the hero picked a job below his educational level, and for once in an RK movie, all the women in the movie held jobs. The humor in the movie, despite being based on a joker, was close to nil.
Sexual freedom, in tandem with women's rights was asserting itself in the early 70s, which sets the scene for "Honeymoon," a mostly-forgotten (and well) comedy from 1973. Leena and Nazima play friends who ditch their boyfriends (it was a brave new world- we could ditch boyfriends and laugh about it at last!). The boys have no clue why, but fate intervenes, and they end up marrying the other girl. Yup. Humor galore. It was relatively innocent, but we definitely see in it, and other cinema of the time the origin of the sex comedy, that would desecrate Bollywood post the mid-90s. Real comedians were again sidelined, with the heroines playing the pivotal comedy of their respective marital lives.
And therefore, in this same year when Amitabh arrived with "Zanjeer," people were quite ready to embrace his sullen anger- they felt it! Brain drain had begun in a country which didn't seem to be fulfilling any of the dreams a generation before had dream of in independent India.
But we tried to make it work. And so we come to 1974. Having harnessed nuclear power, India was ready to try new things, as was the Indian comic. IS Johar left behind the brand of 60s comedy he had been trying to revive, and instead embraced the crazy 70s with his "5 Rifles,"- three hours of Monty Python-esque insanity, which, while it didn't do well commercially, is to be admired for its sense of pioneer-ism.
Mehmood too tried his hand at something different- In "Kunwara Baap," he converted his Hyderabadi fisherman to a single father, bringing up his adopted handicapped son- oh the humanity! The movie did surprisingly well, and Mehmood's career got a shot in the arm that lasted another good decade.
Yet another comedic attempt came in the form of "Badhti ka Naam Dadhi," which Kishore Kumar made with a host of other comedians and Bappi Lahiri (one of his first movies as singer, composer AND actor). Inspired from "Fiddler on the Roof" (even the record cover was), the movie gave jobs to almost every working comedian- a respite, though brief.
And then came the big one- it was 1975, which rang in the emergency scandal, where Indira Gandhi was convicted of the misuse of election funds. Strikes, public anger, student marches were at their optimum, with the public finally losing faith in the government. It was hard times, and as always, cinema came to the rescue of the common man when most needed, alleviating the somber mood with reinvented humor.
For the Bollywood comedian had reinvented himself, and found his groove again! Sure we saw clunkers like "Do Jasoos," featuring the 2 RKs- Rajendra Kumar and Raj Kapoor as 2 bumbling detectives trying, like the man on the street, to make a buck and keep it together. But there was better stuff at hand- with "Chupke Chupke," Hrishikesh Mukherjee established his everyday style of humor that the masses could identify with. The realistic dialogues, the simple but beautiful music, engaging story, and above all, the easy humor made this movie a classic, while establishing the Amitabh-Dharam comedic hero jodi.
Not that their team needed much introduction after "Sholay" that year. Asrani and Jagdeep found characters that defined their careers, while the Dharam-Hema, and Dharam-Amitabh comedic duos became established in the popular mindset. Humor was back in Bollywood, and the comic had survived, though he had changed his skin.
In "Amar Akbar Anthony," Amitabh (mostly) and Rishi both made us laugh, but along with Mukri, Shabana and Neetu too had their lighter moments. While the bona fide comedian here is again just Mukri, it is Amitabh's "My Name is Anthony," song, and the follow-up mirror conversation that we remember as the funniest parts of the movie.
But the 80s would be less lucky for the others.
And thats a story for another time.