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The great laughter challenge in India

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Humor is not the best of traits we Indians pose. I hope we would all agree. We are quite grumpy, itchy and touchy people. We get provoked way too easily. Our sense of humor, if ever measured, will rank among the lowest in the world. One might even say that we, as a nation, are ‘laughter challenged'. Thanks to decaying living standards, all-round squalor and the foul air we breathe — it is understandable why it is so difficult for us to chin-up and ignore the grim day-to-day existential realities. The only solace to endure our stressful lives is to perhaps turn to the television for some escapist fare. Alas, if only we had any notable options available.

Laughter challenged: Undoubtedly, we are a nation that is malnourished when it comes to humor. It is apandemic that has reached epic proportions. We have forgotten to have a hearty laugh. Why is our popular culture, especially Indian television, so barren when it comes to high-quality comedy and humor programming as a genre? Unless you are one of those who prefer to switch the television to watch news channels for your daily dose of comic relief, comedy on the Indian television is virtually thin and immensely forgettable. That is barring few exceptions. It all started way back with Ulta Pulta, Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi, which was followed by a few more television successes like Hum Paanch, Dekh Bhai Dekh, Tu Tu Main Main etc. These early successes seem to have encouraged few TV broadcasters to dabble with the genre and launch dedicated comedy channels. But that experiment didn't quite take off. From programming point of view, it seems, producers shy away from the comedy genre. Comedy is not very easy and requires good writers, clever plots and talentpool. It requires concepts that can transcend boundaries and have much wider sensibilities for a larger audience acceptance. Indian television had either stand-up comedies or dramadies (drama comedies). There has never been a serious sitcom approach.

Comic imports: Western television imports of programming in the comedy genre coming to India are steady and strong. Television episodes, such as Seinfeld and Friends remain popular even today after their debut 20 years ago. Similarly, British comedies have always commanded a dedicated global audience. Television shows such as ‘Allo 'Allo!, Yes Minister, To the Manor Born were incredibly creative and commercially successful and have entertained many generations.  What is the success recipe of these programmes that the Indian television producers haven't been able to quite catch? Formulas do not seem to work. You cannot transplant a Western-hit show here in India, at least in the comedy genre. You need to culturally tweak it at least. There are a gamut of factors that makes a comedy programme last — great writers, producers and actors; a good concept; room to grow with a strong ensemble cast offering multiple story lines; and audience comfort. Familiarity and cuddliness is important. Either they have to be star-driven or concept-driven, one morph into the other. A knack to portray the proclivities of the generation and times and last but not the least, characters that an audience identifies with. Getting this potion right is far from easy, what with viewers fickle tastes. Therefore, television producers in India tend to gravitate to saas-bahu tearjerker fare, which is easy.

Alternative comedy: If Indian television channels are comically broke, look no further than to YouTube. Of late, it has become a destination and medium of choice for both creators and audience for comedy content. The comic scene on the web seems to be vibrant and the evolution of comedy traditions in the country seems to have come a full circle. It began with mimicry, on-stage comedy, slapstick comedy, talk show comedy and now stand-up comedy acts that are all the rage these days. Who is not a stand-up comic in the age of Internet, where producing a video and uploading it costs next to nothing? Even our neighborhood ‘pummi aunty' banter videos command an enviable fan following! Considering the explosion of performers on YouTube — today's young and the restless seem to be aspiring to become stand-up comedians in droves. Internet seems to be offering an avenue to become comedians in the quickest time possible, no matter for a fleeting period of time till some new kid on the block grabs your attention. Of course, all of this is devoid of any quality benchmarks. It is what might be best called ‘anything goes' alternate comedy culture.

One fall-out of this is that the culture of satire is getting as dull as the ditch water. It is becoming crass and crappy. Welcome All India Bakchod — the young bunch who have chosen to take artistic risks. They are fearlessly foul and on the verge of respectability among the youth with their crude humor and no filter comedy. They can bend any act comically out of shape. One thing that cuts across these performers and stand-up comedy sensations is the ingredients used: Every other alternate word you spout should ideally be a cuss word; with free-wheeling language and no bleeps unlike television; the richer the anatomical flourish the better; the more shocking the humor the better; wafer thin themes and flaky scripts; interspersed with repetitions and pauses to induce laughter. Clumsy and force-fitted funny lines pandering to gross and absurd situations, and often bordering on the offensive. The filthy-fun trend has caught on with youngsters with acts garnished with profanities. The comedy acts we get to see are not just plain gender-insensitive but also culturally offensive and pedestrian. Tedious, boring and incapable of holding audience attention beyond five minutes these standup acts melt away fast.

Original voice: If you consider the British tend to do great satire, Americans are geniuses when it comes to observation and situational comedy. We in India have not got any particular Indian style nor a distinct original voice. More than any other crisis, India is way below in the humor index. As a culture, we are a bunch of glum people. We need a healthy dose of our own Indian television comedy. Wholesome, high-quality, stimulating and clever satire. It needs investment. It needs good script writers and talented actors and producers. It most importantly needs pan India cultural sensibilities. Any takers?

(The writer is a communications and management professional with cross-sectoral experience)




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