Competition, comedy, ‘critical conditionum’
I OWE it to them, I know – to Johnny Walker, to Om Prakash, Asit Sen, Mukhri, and, of course, to Kishore Kumar. My sense of comedy, which I am told often rescues my class lectures, I did not get from academia. I don’t think I got it from reading books either – unless piles of Competition Success Review count as comic books, which they might be. The Bangla comic books I read had little wit – the wrongdoer was punished in comic ways, and I got my medieval laugh out of them.
My parents were a serious people – laughter was a distraction to living, a waste of energy. It might have been this deprivation that attracted me towards the funny people – the people I love I am able to call ‘clown’ and ‘cartoon’ and ‘idiot’ without a second thought. These are some of the most intelligent people I know, and it is not hard for me to see that the two are related, that intelligence is impossible without humour. I also notice, not without annoyance or irony, that academia, which is supposed to be an archive of intelligence and the intelligent, has no space for the practice or cultivation of humour.
I am always prowling for an opportunity to think about Padosan (1968), one of my favourite films. There’s Ek Chatur Nar and there’s Mere Samnewali Khirki Main. My mind almost always settles on the latter, and I look for it on YouTube. Everything becomes a prop, in spite of their hilarity: Sunil Dutt and Saira Banu, their friends and the windows through which they look at each other, the houses and the bodies and faces of the lovers, one trying to convince, the other playing hard to be convinced. Everything else is a prop because there is only one thing that matters in the scene: it is Kishore Kumar’s voice. The contrast, of course, is between the simpleton face of the singer Sunil Dutt, his lack of talent for singing, and the overwhelming talent of the singer singing on his behalf, Kishore Kumar.
There is another subtext here – this is a competition not only between the lover and the music teacher, played by Sunil Dutt and Mehmood, but between two other singers in the recording studio: Kishore Kumar and Manna Dey, the former acknowledged for his freakish talent, but whose lack of schooling in classical music was often used to criticise him.
I know the backstory behind this recording from an interview with Manna Dey. Here, at last, was a chance for him to show Kishore his place, and so he practised hard to show the world – and Kishore – that he was a far superior singer than Kishore Kumar. I paraphrase his words from the interview, and they reveal to me the affection that respect can bring, particularly when Manna Dey confesses that once the recording started, Kishore Kumar began improvising in a manner that gave the song a texture that was outside the syllabus of notations. I like Manna Dey’s honest and playful recollection of the moment, his memory of his competitiveness, and his acceptance of a fellow singer’s natural talent. It was, in a way, an echo of the scene in the film: the battle of the singers, except that one of them uses a ‘real’ playback singer.
Only when I think back to it to analyse what it is that makes me laugh so hard do I realise that, after the visual comedy of Kishore’s circumambulation and the paan juice dripping from his mouth and the discovery of the lie, which, by its very nature, is tragic for the person involved but comic for the observer, it is the competitiveness and one-upmanship of the scene that make me laugh. This might owe partly to my temperament – my view of ambition and competition as worth nothing except its value in comedy – but mainly to the nature of filming such scenes in Hindi films of a certain period.
I am thinking of a few other songs in the genre – where skill, talent, pedigree, even genetic relationships, must be proved through singing. In all these songs – and I notice this only now – is a critique of competition, of rivalry, of evidence of superiority. Could it only be a coincidence that the filmmakers and choreographers of these songs had chosen to do this through hasya rasa, through the employment of comedy?
Iam also thinking of a song like ‘Mama O Mama’ in the film Parvarish (1958). Raj Kapoor and Mehmood sing – and dance – for an uncle-like figure, addressing the song to him to lay claim on him (what could be a purer relation between grown-up men than one being ascribed as a maternal uncle to the rest? Mama, mother’s brother, after all). It is a song of competition, a competition to prove lineage and legitimacy. That the DNA test must be done through song – and a song-and-dance routine as hilarious as this one – would be enough for the stuff of comedy. The blood relation must be proven, and, for that, talent must be put on display. And what will the presence of talent prove? The comedy of blood and the institutional structures that derive from it. ‘Asli nakli’ is a pair that drives the comic – and indeed the cinematic – in songs of the genre, where the competition, performed through singing, rewards the winner with the attestation of their asliness. ‘Mere samne wali khirki mein…’ in Padosan belongs to the same genre, one that uses competition and its outcome as a thriller, often like a whodunit.
Jo asli hain kabhi unse khataye ho nahi sakti
Jo nakli hain kabhi unse wafaye ho nahi sakti
That simplicity, of trust in the singer’s voice to determine the truth, an act that directly links the aesthetic to the moral, will now only be seen as naivete. The asli-nakli competition, almost allegorical in Parvarish (1958), becomes an extension of the film’s moral gaze, one that is indifferent to the halo that surrounds birth and origins of a person. In many ways then, it subverts, through the intelligence of comedy, the laboured binary of asli-nakli that would continue to fuel Hindi cinema, one that seems obsessed with purity and bastard children. What else can explain the title of a film like Lawaaris (1981)?
By the time a film with the same title would be released in 1977, after nearly two decades of the one starring Raj Kapoor and Mehmood, the character of both comedy and competitiveness was already starting to change. The difference can also be seen in the comic use of the title – about adoption and lineage and pedigree – in 1958 and its serious interpretation in 1977. Mohammed Rafi and Manna Dey, when singing for Mehmood and Raj Kapoor, share their ideas about upbringing (‘parvarish’) as owing to culture more than the perimeter of blood, the latter a sensibility that gives spine to the 1977 Parvarish. It is a thing that can be laughed about, turned into song and dance, mocked and criticised – that seems to be the working ideology of the Mehmood-and-Raj Kapoor song. Jai Arjun Singh, writing about this scene in The Hindu, emphasizes exactly this – that in spite of the ‘Ek din khoon bolega, zaroor bolega’, neither blood nor the film tells us about the ‘real’ blood identities of the two men.
Using the confusion-about-birth narrative that gave careers and jobs to half a hundred filmmakers, a phenomenon unique to our cinema, and, one that makes evident our anxiety about the purity of identities, the 1958 Parvarish and its song ‘Mama O Mama’ reminds us about the arbitrariness of birth and its accidents: at one point Mehmood sings ‘Sa re ga ma pa dha ni sa ni ni ni ma ma ma o ma ma’ as if telling us that even the word ‘mama’, for maternal uncle, can be arrived at in unexpected, comic, and musical ways. That, too, is a critique of the idea of competition – one is perhaps more competitive with those one doesn’t share a blood pond.
Hrishikesh Mukherjee, whose films often use the asli-nakli trope in a comic manner, as in Golmaal (1979), where Amol Palekar plays the imaginary ‘twins’ Ram and Lakshman, gives us a worldview that is a natural corollary to the futility of competitiveness. In making Ram and Lakshman compete against each other, and in using singing (Ram can’t sing, Lakshman is appointed as a music teacher) as a litmus card to distinguish between the two, Mukherjee seems to be pointing towards two obvious things: the hilarity of competitiveness, which he highlights by making one compete against oneself, as Ram does against Lakshman, even though the audience knows that they are the same person; the stupidity of the competition between tradition and modernity, as represented through the figures of Ram and Lakshman, in the clothes they wear and the things they do – kurta vs shirt, moustache vs no moustache, sports-hater vs sports-lover, and in the names they respond to, Ram Prasad vs Lucky.
And there’s another kind of competition. In this the rival does not – might not – necessarily participate, but they are present, either as audience, or as proxy, through the woman, who, as a lover or former lover, watches the performance with guilt and often with consternation, the struggle to keep the past between herself and the singer transforming into the drama of arched eyebrows, downcast eyes and quivering lips on her face. My favourites in this sub-genre are actually subversions of the genre. The first is Guru Dutt’s ‘Yeh duniya agar mil bhi jaaye toh kya hai’ in Pyaasa (1957). It is not the poet Vijay but Mr Ghosh (Rehman) who is standing in front of a mic on the stage. The ‘duniya’ is there – the audience in the hall; Guru Dutt’s duniya too – Waheeda Rehman hiding her sadness and her past. The man standing on the stage has lost the moment the poet enters the hall, the light like a halo behind him. Rehman might have the ‘mehelo ki duniya’, but, standing there on stage, watching someone in the audience sing and snatch everyone’s attention, so that their gaze is reversed, turned towards the door instead of the stage, turns him into a comic figure.
And there’s Amitabh Bachchan singing a two-minute song in Kabhi Kabhi (1976): ‘Main pal do pal ka shair hoon, pal do pal meri kahani hai …’. He stands in front of a mic and an audience – there is Rakhi, to whom his song is indirectly addressed. Where is the competition in such a song? After the self-deprecation in the first stanza, the next two that follow make the rivals clear – the poets before him and those who will come after him.
mujhse pehle kitne shayar aaye aur aakar chale gaye / kuch aahey bhar kar laut gaye kuchh nagmey gakar chale gaye / woh bhi ek pal ka kissa thhe mai bhi ek pal ka kissa hu / kal tumse juda ho jaunga woh aaj tumhara hissa hu / kal aur aayege nagmo ki khilti kaliya chunne wale / mujhse behtar kehne wale tumse behtar sunne wale / kal koi mujhko yaad karey kyu koi mujhko yaad karey / masaruf zamana mere liye kyu waqt apna barabad karey
These words move one immediately – the awareness of the inconstancy of love and of the fickleness of the appreciation of the listener. And yet there is something tragicomic about the song – the poet comparing himself to those who have come before him and those who will come after, and the sense of competition he feels with them, as if they were rivals in Rakhi’s love for him. She is the first one to get up and clap. She will leave him. It is, as if, this were the comic life story of a poet.
Our conditioning in the genre has prepared us for the inevitable – that it is the male singer who will get the woman. And yet there is the amplified drama of the situation. The comedy lies in the inevitability of the outcome – we laugh inside our heads because of our temporary dislike for the rival. If only he’d let go of his wooing of the heroine, we’d forgive him. It occurs in film after film, amplified in figures like Pran and Prem Chopra (with names like Pran and Prem, and their physical attractiveness often greater than the hero’s, the irony and comedy were backhanded and inevitable) who observe their women – theirs only temporarily – listen to the hero sing about love, its past and future finding homes in the antara and sanchari, all the while we cheered and jeered, laughed at the expressions of the villains and their lack of musical talent.
The tradition continues to the day, and even as dancing replaces singing, there is an inexplicable emphasis on choosing one’s partner from watching them win a singing or dancing competition. The idea itself is outrageous, that a good singer or dancer would make a superlative partner – it is this analogical expectation, invisible as it is, between artistic talent and emotional efficiency that is actually comic. That is why a film like Sajaan (1991) is, in retrospect, a comedy – if a woman chooses a man because he is a poet, equating his verse with an expected career of affection in real life, how can the consequences not be comic? That afterlife, not given to us in the film, is left for us to imagine.
For the first two decades of my life, I did not know who Sikander was. By this I mean that I did not know that this was Alexander’s name in Hindi. Hindi wasn’t ubiquitous in my childhood. The word drifted into my life from time to time – in a song, with Amitabh Bachchan singing ‘Ai muqaddar ka Sikander…’; in the title of a film, such as Jo Jeeta Wahi Sikander; and, later, even in a terrible song ‘Bade Kaam Ka Bandar’ (Aankhein, 1993), which had these unforgettable lyrics:
Bade Kaam Ka Bandar / Bade Kaam Ka Bandar / Maare Toh Dharmindar / Hey Naache Toh Jitendar / Roye Toh Rajendar / Gaur Se Dekho Har Hero / Ki Khubi Iske Andar.
This was odd. It was because the word ‘Sikandar’ does not occur in the song at all. But Hindi cinema had trained me to expect ‘Sikandar’ to follow ‘Dharminder’, ‘Jitender’ and ‘Rajinder’. How could it not? This was perhaps because the creature being spoken about was a ‘bandar’, a monkey. It was possible, after Darwin, to see ‘Dharminder’, ‘Jitender’ and ‘Rajinder’ in the animal, but, even in a slapstick comedy like Aankhein (2002) it was impossible to see ‘Sikandar’ in a monkey, such was the charisma of the name.
Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar was released in 1992, and when I first heard the lyrics of the song that gave the film its title, I was stung by the arrogance in it. I still did not know who Sikandar was, and the lyrics of the song made me wonder whether he was a descendant of Shahenshah, an eponymous film that had been released four years before Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar.
Woh sikandar hi dosto kehlata hai / Haari baazi ko jitna jise aata hai Niklenge maidan mein jis din hum jhumke / Dharti dolegi yeh kadam chumke
There is nothing that scares the young people who sing this song – not their family, not their teachers, not the streets, not strangers. This, I learnt, was Sikandar – someone who could win a lost game. The aggression in the tone is new, new to Hindi cinema and its culture. It is impossible to forget that the film was released in 1992, a year after the opening up of the Indian economy, an event that would change India irreversibly and unrecognisably. The adrenaline of competitiveness that came from competitive sports in the film would change the understanding of competition in Hindi cinema – subterranean violence and aggressive bullying and showmanship would become common.
The substitution of an intuitive understanding of competition as essentially comic for an arrogance that comes from the performance of success is visible in the cinema of the last twenty-five years: from the Madhuri Dixit-Karisma Kapoor rivalry in Dil To Pagal Hai (1997) to the extra-textual hyper-competitions such as ‘Nano Student of the Year’, ‘The Buddy of the Year’, ‘FedEX International Student of the Year’ that mirrored the awkward competitions of the Student of the Year franchisee. The disappearance of the playful and the comic from Hindi cinema’s characterisation of competitions – Chak De! India to Sultan to Dangal, led by the three Khans, and even Mary Kom and Bhaag Milkha Bhaag – has been simultaneous with the loss of affection for the figure of the ‘failure’, those awaiting another chance, and also those who refuse to participate in competitions, literal and metaphorical.
There’s another kind of competitiveness that used to mark the viewing experience of Hindi cinema. My mother recounts going to the theatre with my father in the 1970s. She could never be at ease, she used to say. How would she compete with the actresses on screen, with their hair and make-up and clothes and their obvious beauty? During the song and dance sessions, she would observe my father – who was still not my father, for they were college students then – from the corner of her eyes, studying his face as he allowed himself to be seduced by the beauty of the woman on screen. Her friends felt the same way. They had only a few sarees, a few stock expressions of love, both verbal and non-verbal, and very little to recommend them.
It was tortuous, my mother still remembers, watching Sharmila Tagore and Sadhana and Neetu Singh and Dimple Kapadia on screen, hijacking the hormonal attention of the men they loved and would eventually marry. It made them competitive, and going to the movies became an act of great preparation for them – borrowing a saree from a hostel mate, trying to get their hair tied in the bouffant style common at that time, rubbing Boroline on their neck to make it look as long as Rehana Sultan’s on screen… The competition was, of course, only inside their heads, for the men, in all likelihood, did not notice or make this comparison.
It was tragicomic, their emotions and the circumstances, all brought together by a few moments inside the cinema hall.
When I asked my mother why it was particularly during the song sequences that she and her friends felt this way, her answer was straightforward – only at this time could they take a break from the narrative, from the story on screen to their own, from one love story to the more important one. It was a moment of comparison, and one of competition and hope and anxiety. We find Hrishikesh Mukherjee record such a moment of anxiety through the comic in Golmaal, released in the same decade when my mother’s generation of filmgoers experienced this anxiety, when Amol Palekar imagines himself replacing Amitabh Bachchan on screen during the song ‘Sapne Mein Dekha Sapna’.
I remember the first time Dream Girl was shown on Doordarshan. My mother laughed at the most unexpected places. We later learnt why that was so. When she’d first watched the film in a theatre with friends, a man sitting in front of them took out a comb from his pocket every time Hema Malini came on screen. ‘He wanted to be prepared, just in case she emerged out of the screen to meet him.’
‘O kabhi pardey se bahar nikal, Dream Girl …’
Even that line, charged with desire, fantasy, and a prop like a pocket comb, could once become comedy, hasya rasa.
* Sumana Roy is the author of How I became a Tree, a work of nonfiction; Missing: A Novel; Out of Syllabus: Poems; and My Mother’s Lover and Other Stories.