Every year, Bollywood churns out mindless comedies with astonishing success. Sunaina Kumar meets the kings of slapstick to ask them what they know that the critics don’t
WELCOME TO THE comedy sweatshop. A lot of minds work towards creating the Bollywood genre best described as mindless comedy. A room full of writers sit together and think up gags. The more outrageous, the better. The director comes in, chooses the best gags, patches them together. This is how some of 2011’s biggest grossers like Ready, Double Dhamaal and Yamla Pagla Deewana were born. In 2010, there were Golmaal 3, Housefull andTees Maar Khan, and in 2009, there were four top grossing comedies (Ajab Prem Ki Ghazab Kahani, De Dana Dan, Kambakkht Ishq and All the Best). These are films in which the best gags are when the hero’s father is bitten by a dog, the sidekick loses memory every five seconds, the mute howls like a cat. In the theatre, you ask yourselves, who writes this stuff?
Comedy often strikes in pairs of two. Sajid and Farhad Samji could well be the Farrelly Brothers of Bollywood. They look up to Salman Khan as mentor. And why not? After delivering Double Dhamaal, Ready and Golmaal 3, they are to dialogue writing what Salman Khan is to acting, surefire superhits. The duo have unabashedly created some ludicrous sequences, gags and dialogue. Remember the indelible dialogue in Ready: “Main kutta hun, yeh meri kuttiya hai”? Or a gag in Double Dhamaal involving Sanjay Dutt and Ritesh Deshmukh with a gorilla being kicked in the groin? And Ajay Devgn breaking his opponent’s finger in Golmaal 3? Blame it all on Sajid-Farhad.
“Maybe we are not talented. We are not respected by the critics either. But the audience loves our films,” says Farhad, 37. They are a bit Laurel and Hardy. Physical attributes aside, Sajid is talkative while Farhad is quiet.
Theirs is the story that dreams are made of. They grew up in Mumbai. Then the family shifted to Bengaluru. After a while, the brothers decided to give up their father’s grocery store, move back to Mumbai and give the film industry a shot. They had grown up on a diet of Hindi cinema, often consumed from the front stalls of singlescreen theatres, a practice that helped them get the “dialoguebaazi” right. They came to Mumbai with a bank of 600 songs and would do a round of impromptu auditions, singing and drumming with a plastic bucket and sticks. Amused by them, Khan got the brothers their first break with the song Munna Mobile, Pappu Pager in David Dhawan’s Hum Kisise Kum Nahin (2002). The next milestone was co-writing M Bole Toh with Rahat Indori for Munnabhai MBBS. After that, they got enough dialogue writing assignments, including the gritty Shiva and then turned to comedy.
“We don’t read books or newspapers, except for film magazines. Our inspiration comes from people,” says Sajid, 44, who plays volleyball with 18-year-olds to get the pulse of the youth. A man in the local train who misspelt cool as “col” became the inspiration for Sanjay Mishra’s character inGolmaal 3, a goon who misspells words. In a red diary, they write all their punches and jokes, which they have dubbed “Don ki secret diary”. Dialogues and screenplay writers like them are paid more than Rs 10 lakh a film. It could go up to Rs 50 lakh or more, depending on the project and the writer’s reputation. Right now, the brothers are hot enough for a directorial debut.
Sajid and Farhad adore the world of customised Bollywood comedy. There are certain leitmotifs to count on. A case of mistaken identity, absurd villains, random violence, some homoerotic humour, Bollywood insider jokes, an awkward bedroom scene and so on. In the guise of mass entertainment, these are films driven by the bottomline.
The corporatisation of Bollywood has resulted in huge investment, hence the need for a greater output. The customised comedy, with its ensemble cast, foreign locales, catchy music, dollops of romance and glamour thrown in, is easy to back with an average budget of Rs 40- 50 crore. It is low concept, high budget, fast-moving and has short shelf life. Songs are added to sell as ringtones. Customised comedy is like an FMCG product. And surely, the supply is catering to a demand. Made on a budget of Rs 45 crore, Ready will make upwards of Rs 75 crore by the time satellite rights are sold. Despite critics carping, it has found a repeat audience.
A Bollywood filmmaker shares an interesting insight. When multiplexes first arrived, it was assumed that its audience will be cool, experimental cinema savants. But the multiplex audience is an English-speaking version of the frontbenchers of the 1980s and ’90s. Trade analyst Komal Nahta agrees, “Nobody wants to invest time in a film. They want to have popcorn, laugh and come back.” As the audience gets divided, comedy is the only genre that works pan-India, across class, age and region.
Anees Bazmee is not worried about believability, ‘ I can make a car fly and the audience will accept it. They’re not there to watch Mughal-e-Azam‘
Of all the men with the precious revenue model of laughter, Sajid-Farhad are the only ones giggling at their own jokes. The others have their grim pursuit of success in Bollywood to warm them.
Anees Bazmee, the kingpin of leavethe- brain-behind comedies like No Entry, Welcome, Singh is Kinng, Thank You and Ready, says: “The film’s success is most important. We are in a business. My audience comes to enjoy itself.” In his book How to Write a Comedy in Hollywood, Hollywood writer Joseph Cavella wrote about the relationship between believability and humour, and how the two cannot be interchangeable. Bazmee feels no such compunctions. He says, “I can make a car fly and the audience will accept it. They’re not there to watchMughal-e-Azam.” Son of an Urdu poet who grew up in a tenement in Dongri, Bazmee started off as a writer in the 1980s, and then forged an alliance with David Dhawan that lasted more than a decade. He made his directorial debut with the Ajay Devgn-Kajol thriller Hulchul (1995). It was, however, his next movie, Pyar To Hona Hi Tha (1998), that got him noticed. He will direct the Harman Baweja-starrer It’s My Life, a remake of a Telugu film, but the big project in his kitty is No Entry Mein Entry, the sequel to No Entry.
Rohit Shetty, 37, director of All the Best and the Golmaal franchise, says making no-brainers is not a no-brainer. Son of fight master MB Shetty, he was exposed to Bollywood literally from the cradle. At 15, he assisted Kuku Kohli in Devgn’s debut vehicle Phool Aur Kaante, and there began his long association with the actor. He worked as an assistant director with Bazmee, and made his directorial debut with the 2003 thriller Zameen. “Everyone is churning out these movies. Not all of them succeed. In comedy, the audience can turn against you, if they do not find it funny,” he says.
Shetty is now remaking the original Golmaal as Bol Bachan with Abhishek Bachchan. Bollywood, as we know, likes to flagellate a hit. After the success of last year’s Housefull, Sajid Khan is shooting for Housefull 2 while Housefull 3 is already on the anvil, along with Golmaal 4 andTotal Dhamaal. More terrifyingly, the coming year will see remakes of classics such as Sai Paranjpye’s Chashme Buddoor by David Dhawan, Raj Sippy’s Satte Pe Satta by Soham,and Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Chupke Chupke. Sajid- Farhad, who are working on the Golmaal (1979) and Satte Pe Satta remakes, say: “After watching the original, we erase it from our minds. We sit down and think what if the seven brothers lived like that in 2011? How would they talk, dress?”
IN HINDI filmdom, camps are quickly formed — part pragmatic, part superstitious. The assembly line comedy has found its own camp, figureheads and recurring collaborations. Bazmee works closely with writers Ikram and Nisar Akhtar. Shetty works with writers Yunus Sajawal and Sajid-Farhad. Sajid Khan has been working with Milap Zaveri on screenplay and dialogue.
A comedy sweatshop is the last place you’d expect to see Zaveri. Scion of the fabulously wealthy jewellers, Tribhovandas Zaveri, he “grew up on a diet of Hindi movies and hadn’t seen an English film until I was an adult”. “At home, we had videos of Jai Santoshi Maa, Sholay and Daaku Haseena. When I told my family that I want to be in Bollywood, they were upset. Today, they admire my success,” says Zaveri.
At 31, he has Masti, Heyy Babyy and Housefull under his belt. “I want to make a film that makes people think, engages them emotionally, but before that I need a successful film to ensure that I can go on.” In 2010, he directed Jaane Kahaan Se Aayi Hai (a love story with Ritesh Deshmukh and Jacqueline Fernandez with an extra-terrestrial angle), which tanked. Bill Cosby and Neil Simon are his idols but Zaveri also loves Sajid Khan’s unadulterated success formula. Timepass is the magic word, he says.
Yunus Sajawal, 42, has written screenplay for Partner and Golmaal Returns. He grew up in a mill district in Mumbai — as far away from Zaveri as you can imagine. The struggles of middle- class life keep him in good stead while writing comedy. When young, he saw stars like Dharmendra and Raj Babbar frequenting his father’s tailoring shop near the Ranjit Movietone studio. “While growing up, when you see stars every day, you get hooked for life,” he says. When his ode to the aam aadmi, Benny and Babloo (a satire starring Kay Kay Menon and Rajpal Yadav) managed 40 screens across India, he took note. He says unless you’re an Aamir Khan making Peepli [Live], the industry can be punishing. “My strength is writing comedies. I will now stick to commercial writing,” he says, adding that he’ll make a relevant film when he is a big name.
Mayur Puri, 36, is a screenplay and dialogue writer, and an occasional lyricist. He grew up in Kalol, Gujarat where his grandfather had a film club that organised film screenings in town. His parents often took a train to Ahmedabad for the day, watched three movies backto- back and returned. Mayur did amateur theatre in college and Gujarati television but nothing had as much allure as Bollywood. His T-shirt is emblazoned with Noam Chomsky, his idol. He also runs Story Circus, a centre where children are exposed to folktales and legends through puppets and theatre. He wants to write for the masses yet ensure his work does not lose meaning. “As a lyricist, I find songs are uninspiring because situations are so uninspiring. Writers are asked to load scripts with odd characters, often poking fun of disabilities,” he quips.
‘A junior writer tried to prove his mettle by saying, did you see that scene where the hero is slapped by a monkey? I wrote it!’ says a scriptwriter
So does the trend pose a threat to Bollywood? Film critic Raja Sen says: “We have regressed when it comes to standards in comedies. This stage of lazy writing is worse than that of Govinda- David Dhawan phase in the nineties.” A common defence by filmmakers is that comedies like Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron, Andaz Apna Apna and many Basu Chatterjee, Hrishikesh Mukherjee films were flops that are now considered cult. Why take a risk when a formula is in place? And hey, Hollywood does it too.
Hang on, though, standards can fall lower. A senior scriptwriter remembers a call he once got from a junior writer, requesting to take him on as an assistant. “As his CV, he offered up a gag that he wrote in a recent comedy. ‘Did you see the scene where the hero is slapped by a monkey? I wrote that,’” he recalls.
The junior writer may have the last laugh. In Housefull 2, Sajid Khan is reportedly preparing for a Matrix-style sequence with two huge monkeys slapping John Abraham and Akshay Kumar. In Bollywoodland, someone, somewhere is right now thinking of a more obnoxious gag.
Sunaina Kumar is a Special Correspondent with Tehelka.com.