It is difficult to say what produces laughter in cinema, but it would be simplistic to say that the causes are the same across cultures.
Generally speaking, we could say that comedy is a kind of debunking, although it is not ferocious but relatively gentle. A man slipping on a banana peel and falling would be funny only if the man were arrogant or self-important; a sad beggar slipping and falling would hardly be funny. At the same time, the fall must not cause grievous injury and it is only when we are certain of this, that we laugh.
For ‘debunking’ to be successful, what is debunked must be valued in the culture and it is evident that all cultures do not value the same things equally. Russian novels/stories debunk social position in the bureaucracy (Gogol’s stories) since attaining a position was important in Russian society. Satire debunks social mores and parody debunks highly regarded texts.
Indian society is a very hierarchical one – because of the caste system- and the most common kind of comedy gets its effects by inverting hierarchy. A kind of comedy in which a person of low station pretends to be someone of high station is therefore one of the most reliable ways of producing laughter. Credit: www.wikipedia.org
‘Station’ pertains to one’s position in society and is not dependent on wealth and Lage Raho Munnabhai (2006) produced laughter by showing a hoodlum pretending to be a scholar on the subject of Gandhi. It may be noted that there is a second kind of mocking (of Gandhian pretensions among a certain kind of low class) when Munnabhai pretends to be Gandhian, although this comedy is later negated when he actually becomes Gandhian. Dharmendra, Amitabh Bacchan & Sharmila Tagore in Chupke Chupke. Credit: movies.ndtv.com
Another film comedy still remembered today is Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Chupke Chupke (1975) in which a professor (Dharmendra) pretends to be a driver. Bheja Fry (2007) works on the same model of hierarchy debunked when it has a singer with no musical talent being feted by a music producer and his friends ‘searching for talent’ simply to have a laugh at his expense.
One of the biggest comedy hits from Hollywood – Irma La Douce (1963), in which a Paris police constable pretends to be an English aristocrat to win his loved one, works by the same principle and was remade in Hindi as Manoranjan (1974). Jack Lemmon & Shirley MacLaine in Irma La Douce. Credit: www.mubi.com A poster of Manoranjan starring Sanjeev Kumar, Zeenat Aman & Shammi Kapoor Credit: www.wikipedia.org
MK Raghavendra is a film/literary scholar, theorist, critic and writer. He contributes to numerous newspapers and periodicals in India and abroad, and has authored six books on Indian Cinema. He received the Swarna Kamal, the National Award for Best Film Critic in 1997. For more articles by this author, check out his column. Feature Image credit: www.storypic.com