February 26, 2010

Bolly Comedy- the 70s

We've discussed comedy on this blog before http://apnieastindiacompany.blogspot.com/2009/05/bollywood-comedy-i-early-years.html, but that was last year, and I was supposed to have followed up that article with a discussion on Bollywood comedy in the 60s. That never happened because life did. The research on that piece is done however, and I hope to write it out in the coming months. Meanwhile, in the spirit of the 70s week, we are embarking upon 70s comedy- or as is often said, the lack thereof.

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.

Historically, in India, Nehru's dead in '64 closed an era of post-independence euphoria. There was a sense of real bereavement, and under the leadership of Shastri, India saw the second Indo-Pak war. With his demise, Indira came to power, and among much political upheaval, the primary political party, the Indian National Congress underwent a split. And therefore, it was in a turbulent mood that the country entered the 70s- news of the western student movements had reached the country, and the youth was for once truly troubled, as the rupee devalued, and jobs were scarce.

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.
Meanwhile, there were radically opposite movies like "Purab Aur Paschim" (The East and the West)." It strived to assert India's superiority over the West; it illustrated that the West stood for blond hair, spasmodic dancing, and general nonsense. Humor was expounded via showing the Western buffoon- Rajendra Nath (!) plays Saira's brother, the son of an Indian Father and Western mother, and is blond/brassy and lost until the underscored-ly Indian Manoj comes to bring his family to the light.

As if the tone in the country wasn't grim enough, the Indo-Pak war of 1971 added to its woes. Fought over the issue of the independence of Eastern Pakistan (the modern Bangladesh), it may have very well added fuel to the Kashmir issue, that still persists. As trouble brewed and boiled, it was no wonder that humorists' attempts to bring back 60s froth failed miserably: IS Johar and Mehmood tried to bring back the magic of "Johar-Mehmood in Goa" (1965), with a trip to "Hong Kong," and even teamed with Rajendra for "Albela, but neither of the films worked; the country had moved ahead, and was too stressed to reminiscence over what had been.

And as times changed, as they will, so did movies. In 1972, to be innocent and a fool was ludicrous (Rampur Ka Laxman), but it was still best. To be evil was in style- Shatrughan was proving it in "Rampur" and in "Bombay to Goa"- and where did this thought come from? Perhaps from the fact that the urban youth was realizing that to keep up with the rising population and scarce jobs, they had to push themselves forward, eschew Gandhian philosophy, and be crooked if they had to. If the nation was born in the 40s, a child in the 50s, a teen in the 60s, then definitely, it was young and on the make in the 70s. And that did not exclude the ladies: Hema was a woman with a mission in "Seeta Aur Geeta," where quiet Seeta wasn't quite forgotten, but definitely took the backseat to peppy Geeta, who did what she had to do to get ahead. And where did that leave the comics? Since to be innocent was dumb, Ranshir could be the hero and make us laugh as well in "Rampur," while the bus full of crazies in "Bombay to Goa" were sufficient to give relief to the otherwise dark plot. And Hema-Dharam had discovered their funny bones in "Seeta Aur Geeta" quite enough to do away with all but the slimmest of comic roles for Asrani and Asit Sen, which pretty much explained the path the decade took, towards sidelining the comic to a minor supporting roles.

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.

And so it started- all the leads had discovered their comedic skills. The comics themselves had established themselves as character actors, and they could play brothers, friends, colleagues. Unlike the 60s, they no longer had complex side-along stories of themselves- they let the stars shine (not that they had much option but to do so). They were content with a few strong scenes where they could exhibit their skills, and that was the most they could hope to get anyhow. If they were given a significant other, it was rare indeed; in the multi-hero era of movies, comedians just didn't have that kind of room.

It was 1977, and where the comic suffered, the heroine prospered. Hema had discovered her comic side earlier with "Seeta Aur Geeta," and she got more characters to play where she could exhibit those comedic skills. Rekha too found her groove with "Aap Ki Khatir,"- another almost-sex comedy where her housewife character gets into all sorts of trouble while her husband, Vinod is the steady type.

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.
It was 1978, and the sex comedy was here to stay- it was still subtle, as in "Pati Patni Aur Woh,"- where Sanjeev's dalliance is limited to heavy flirtation, if that. Social and family dramas spiked themselves with action and comedy to sell as well as the action-romance flicks, and the formula worked. Dharam and Hema tried it with "Dillagi" with great results- they played college professors, and the academic romance was established with great wit and humor. Dharam's rival, Deven (!) made it to almost all the 70s movies with any promise of a comic scene- he bought it in "Khatta Meetha,"- where he played husband to Preeti Ganguli (Apaprently his sister-in-law, per the article Bollyviewer mentions in her commentto this post). And here again was a perfect example of the family movie- the Mistry-Sethna clan loves and lives together, sticking through thick and thin, getting themselves married off one by one. There is minimal conflict, more than a dash of humor presided over by Pearl Padamsee and David Abraham, and everything works out in the end- tragedy-free but not too perfectly, because this is a realistic Basu Chatterjee movie.

It was 1979, and Amitabh had captured the comedic pulse of the nation, which he played to the hilt in "Mr. Natwarlal;" never before and never again would there be a comedic song about being eaten by a tiger (!). Commercial cinema and off-beat, creative cinema had agreed to co-exist peacefully, and "Nauker," "Baaton Baaton Mein," and "Gol Maal" all got along with the best of Amitabh, Dharam, Rishi and Vinod.

And so the decade that started on a somber note ended much more cheerfully, even though the situation on the political front was not much improved. India survived the 70s, the wars, the emergency- and while there were no sudden wellsprings of jobs and the population burgeoned, the masses had learned to deal.
As had the comedians. The old stalwarts: IS Johar, Rajendra Nath, Dhumal, Mehmood and others had made way for Asrani, Mukri, Keshto, Deven, Om Prakash, Utpal Dutt and Jagdeep. The comics now played their modified supporting roles- no more specifically comedians, but essential to the movie nevertheless. Om Prakash had in fact elevated himself from a character actor to a comedian, and played in the capacity well into the 80s.

But the 80s would be less lucky for the others.
And thats a story for another time.


veracious said...

What a fabulous account of the decade. :)

I never realized chronologically Chupke Chupke came before Sholay. Duhh moment.

Anirban said...

This is a very well-researched read. The comedy in Hindi films has always been restricted to a few types. I've always wondered why we didn't have more movies like "Jaane bhi do yaaron."

Daddy's Girl said...

Excellent piece, Shweta. I've learnt a lot.

Shweta Mehrotra Gahlawat said...

Veracious: Not really duh- just a few months- Chupke Chupke was supposed to be January 1 (though I cant be sure), while Sholay of course was 15 August. We love them both anyways :)

Anirban: Thank you for the compliment Anirban. I think that folks really do not appreciate reminders of politics and corruption- mirrors of their own moralities. But that's just a theory....

Daddy's Girl: I blush I blush- thanks!

ajnabi said...

Very cool! I confess that Hindi films that aim for comedy often miss my American funny-bone (or I guess would miss it if that's what they were aiming for, which they're not). Of course, that's resulted in gaps in my filmi education, so I learned a lot too!

Shweta Mehrotra Gahlawat said...

Ajnabi: Thanks so much! I agree that modern Bolly comedy (or what passes for it in the 2000s) is generally remarkably unfunny, so I dont doubt that you feel the same. For the earlier years, comedy can often be topical, which does create a barrier as well.

bollyviewer said...

Great write-up Shweta. You've done a lot of research - mostly fun, I hope! The change in the role of comedians from 60s to the 70s may have been bad for them, but I confess, I am happy to be spared the "comic side-plot" which was usually more irritating than funny. The "great" comedians always had a specific style of acting, and mannerisms which must have been funny when they began, but became increasingly grating as they repeated it ad infinitum. Same could be said of the comedians of the 70s. Asrani and Deven Varma were great here, but increasingly type-cast and annoying in the next decade.

By the way, are you sure Deven Varma is married to Preeti Ganguly? Wasnt there a lively discussion about this on Memsaab's blog? I think the general consensus was that he was married to another daughter of Ashok Kumar's (he seems to have had several!) - someone who did not act.

Shweta Mehrotra Gahlawat said...

Bollyviewer: I do agree that comedians got repitetive, and that may be similar to what we have seen in the 2000s- after the initial sex comedies, EVERYONE and they cousin made one, to cash in on the success (and they did) :D Re: The Deven-Preeti bit- I do think I am right- they did do a fair # of movies together, and romance apparently happened. Then she lost the weight and started that school of hers- maybe the career and physical change created doubt about another sibling. I have performed several searches, and cant find concrete proof of a sibling- will keep trying. I cant swear to no siblings of course, but I'll stand by my theory until proven otherwise :)

bollyviewer said...

Here's the article that someone had linked to, on Memsaab's blog - an interview with Bharti Jaffrey (Ashok Kumar's eldest daughter). According to that, Deven Varma was married to Rupa Ganguly (another of Dada Mani's daughters and not the actress, I guess!), while Preeti ran her acting school and Bharti was Mum to Anuradha Patel.

Shweta Mehrotra Gahlawat said...

Bollyviewer: What a lovely article and what a lovely woman! Thank you so much- I never knew about all these other siblings! I wish the pix on the website were bigger for all of us to enjoy. Thank u thank u so so much :D Edited out the offending line in the blog post right away.

Nicki said...

Wow, what an awesome, awesome post. I learned a lot!!