Wednesday, August 14, 2013


It is a common urban myth that successful comedians had a pathetic childhood. What makes this connection between comedy and wretchedness is not so common. If we move through the history of cinema around the world, we see it first caught on to the audience from circus and magic. Some of the most famous early filmmakers like Méliès, or even our own Dadasaheb Phalke were magicians. And one major attraction both in magic and circus is the clown.

If, on the other hand, we consider folk theatre, the other grand daddy of all cinemas, we can easily notice the role played by the Vidusak on the Indian stage. The Roman comedian shared some of his vital traits too. If we forget about the comic relief they offered in between moments of peak tension in plays after plays, we see something very understandable. They were the commentators, just like the audience sitting outside the stage. The comedians were always involved and uninvolved in the act, at the same time. They were the eye of the conscience. Only they seemed to know what was going on in the make-believe world of the stage.

Our modern day comedians on the silver screen are an amalgamation of these two – the Clown and the Vidusak.  But, why were they needed on the first hand? This leads us to a very obvious question with an even more obvious answer – why do we go to movies?

We go because we are normally crushed under pressure. We want to get back to the freedom of childhood – when dream and reality were the same. And, is not cinema an extension of dreams only?

A lot of psychoanalytical studies have been carried out on the relation between comedy, childhood and our identity, since Freuds early investigations on these phenomena. It may not be totally true that some adults who had wretched childhood want to go back to the dreamland of fairy tales more than others, because they never had it in reality. And they find an accomplice in the silver screen comedian, for that journey. However, this may not be totally false also.

Comedians on the screen are essentially flawed characters. Some gross imperfections in them lead us to laugh at their activities. Consider the Tramp played by Chaplin from his early shorts to the later blockbusters like The Circus and Modern Times. He is a gross, unsuccessful, insignificant character, trampled and humiliated by the society. That itself is a flaw. However, the bigger flaw that makes him a laughing stock, is his knack of getting involved in situations that always go out of his hands. In The Kid, he gets a child by accident and had to bring him up. We break into laughter when we see how a marginal figure in the society, who could not create a place of his own, teaches a kid how to succeed and gain respect.

However, when the same character solves the pinning problems in his weird ways, we cannot but empathetically identify with him. The same tramp actually takes us back to his roots when he takes up the role of a comedian in one of his latest films, Limelight. There too, as always, he tries to conquer humiliation, poverty and death by escaping into laughter.

Talking about our own Johnny Walker, Mehmood and the latest Johnny Lever, we see these common traits running in their characters blood. Johnny Walker, in films after films, specially the ones with Guru Dutt, helped to alleviate the heros pain. He was not merely a comic relief, but a very active agent in the plot to solve Vijays dilemma and to bring him out of the mental hospital, in the film Pyasaa. As a matter of fact, the comedian is an active comment on all forms of abusive power and guardianship, such as the school, the police and the mental hospital. Interestingly, when Foucault was writing on the different arms of hegemony, he also chose these three forms of education.

However, if we consider many other comedians like Buster Keaton or Rowan Atkinson we see it is not necessary for a comedian to have passed through a bad childhood. There are different types of comedies, ranging from burlesque and slapstick to social satires. Can we divide the comedians into two sharp lines, with or without a disturbed childhood, so they can fit one genre or the other as a rule? Let us probe that question in a next blog.
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