Welcome to my personal lockdown awards ceremony for comedy in Hindi film. I don’t think this is the place for me to be funny and sometimes now it’s hard to think of what comic potential there is in lockdown. So, I hope I won’t make you feel even more miserable as there’s nothing so unfunny as something that’s meant to be funny which isn’t, unless it’s having something funny explained, or, even worse, having it theorised. I hope these ‘awards’ will serve as a reminder of comic moments, perhaps to make you look them up online, perhaps to see the films if you haven’t seen them, and when we can all look forward to finding life funny again. 

1. Best comic film: ‘Amar Akbar Antony’ (dir. Manmohan Desai, 1977)

The blockbuster features two of my all-time favourite comic actors, Amitabh Bachchan and Rishi Kapoor. The film has a mad plot, flamboyant costumes, memorable characters and, above all, perfectly placed songs that expand and tie together the narrative knots of this outrageous excess. 

2. Best comic scene: The performance of the Mahabharata in ‘Jaane bhi do yaaro’ (dir. Kundan Shah, 1983)

The film mixes satire on the building trade with farce, knowing references to European cinema, its greatest moment being a farcical staging of the Mahabharata, where the story has to be adjusted to conceal a corpse as Draupadi. The disrobing cannot take place. Dhritarashtra, the blind king, might well ask, ‘Yeh kya ho raha hai/What’s going on?’

3. Best comic director: Hrishikesh Mukherjee

The master of light comedy, of complicated plots, and chaos which has to be resolved. My favourite scene is Dharmendra giving a brilliant performance as the shuddh Hindi-speaking driver (vahan-chalak) of Chupke chupke (1975). Mukherjee is also an expert at sad films such as Anand (1971) and Abhimaan (1973), covering a range of human emotions. 

4. Best comedian (M): Salman Khan 

My students always complained that I liked Salman Khan and demanded to know why. Salman is a fighting hero for many but for me his genius lies in his comedy and his own send-up of his shirt-removing. From Andaz apna apna (1994) to Dabangg (2010) and Bajrangi Bhaijan (2015), this innocent fool is pitch perfect.

5. Best comedian (senior/late): Rishi Kapoor

Rishi Kapoor, though seen as the romantic hero in colourful sweaters was funny right up to the end. Who can forget him in Student of the Year (2012), when the young men stomp around, their muscles performing better than their feet, Rishi picks up his dafli (drum), which he uses as a cakra (discus) to knock out his rival? He shows that age and weight are irrelevant when you are a light-footed star dancer. 

6. Best comedian (Female): Sri Devi

One of India’s biggest stars across the country, Sri Devi’s talents were extraordinary. My favourite is when she goes undercover to give a dance performance as Miss Hawa Hawaii in Mr India (1987) where she shows she can do the sexy and funny together. 

7. Best comedian to use comedy to raise social issues: Ayushmann Khurrana

Ayushmann Khurrana takes roles in comedy films that seem unlikely choices for a hero. A sperm donor (Vicky Donor, 2012), a useless husband who despises his more talented wife for being fat (Dum laga ke haisha, 2015), the grown-up son whose mother gets pregnant (Badhai ho, 2018), a female voice impersonator (Dream Girl, 2019), a police officer fighting caste discrimination (Article 15, 2019), a gay man (Shubh mangal zyada saavdhan, 2020) as well as acting in Hindi films like Andhadhun (2018).

8. Best film for dark humour: ‘Gangs of Wasseypur 1 and 2’ (2012)

I’m a bit sick of men with guns who find extraordinarily beautiful and chic women in the Badlands of North India, but GoW charms with style, outrageously good actors (Manoj Bajpai and Nawazuddin Siddiqui), and some hilarious moments. Nawaz at the wedding? Guns that explode? Goats? 

9. Best satire: ‘Peepli Live!’ (2010)

When I saw Peepli Live! without subtitles, I couldn’t understand any of the villagers’ Hindi. Mortified, I told a Bombay-based film critic. She said ‘same’. Hmm. The story of a farmer who decides the compensation his family will get if he kills himself is a staple of cunning villagers against the supposedly smart metropolitans. It joins other media satires such as PK, and the recent funny OTT series Panchayat

10. Best comic character: Munna Bhai (‘MBBS’, 2003; Lage raho Munna Bhai, 2006)

Sanjay Dutt, now the subject of a biopic, was born to film royalty, Nargis and Sunil Dutt. His career seemed to be derailed by his personal issues but Munna Bhai, the street gangster who is redeemed by falling for educated women – doctors and Gandhian VJs – is a great character, and he shows that the heart comes before the brain. He and his sidekick, Circuit (Arshad Warsi), perform all kinds of comedy but their mastery of language is outstanding. 

11. Best comic song: Kishore Kumar’s ‘Mere saamne wali khidki mein’ (In the window across from me) 

I just have to see Kishore Kumar to start laughing. The man who sang so many of the most beautiful songs of Hindi cinema could do full body comedy, especially to music. There are too many songs to choose from but perhaps ‘Mere saamne wali khidki mein’ (Padosan, 1968), where he dresses as a music master doing playback for Sunil Dutt or ‘Panch rupaiya’ (Chalti ka naam gaadi, 1958).

12. Most memorable comic dialogue circulated outside Hindi films: Written by Ajit 

Ajit (Hamid Ali Khan) was associated with crazy dialogues and catchphrases (‘Come on Lily, don’t be silly’). These circulate more widely than the films themselves ever did as they also send up the craziness of some Hindi film dialogues themselves: ‘Ise Hamlet poison khila do… ‘To be or not to be’! (Give him the Hamlet poison – ‘To be or not to be’!)’ and ‘ Isko liquid oxygen mein daal do…Liquid isko jeene nahin dega aur oxygen isko marne nahin degi (Put him in liquid oxygen. The liquid won’t let him live and the oxygen won’t let him die)

So, I had to leave out way more than I could put in, all of whom are essential to history of comedy in Bollywood. Raj Kapoor for his Chaplin slapstick, Bhagwan for comedy and song, Johnny Walker whose walk alone is funny (and the immortal ‘Sarjo tera chakraye’ from Pyaasa, 1957), Mehmood, loved for silly accents in Gumnaam and Padosan, Shammi whose look of surprise and general silliness is seen well in ‘Suku Suku’, Govinda for getting into terrible scrapes and dancing like a dream, Akshay Kumar – for innocence and simplicity, Shahrukh Khan for clowning, Ranbir Kapoor, who inherits so much of the family talent, Ranveer, for his winks to the audience.

All of the above are major stars but who add a certain empathy and innocent mixed with wit and comic timing. There aren’t enough women in my list perhaps because they haven’t been given enough scope. Madhubala could stand up to Kishore in Chalti ka naam gaadi and Radhika Apte would be my best bet for the future. 

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