The Evolution Of Comedy In Malayalam Cinema: The Beginning, Adoor Bhasi And The Priyadarshan Years

Part one in a series celebrating and documenting the rich comedy heritage of Malayalam cinema
The Evolution Of Comedy In Malayalam Cinema: The Beginning, Adoor Bhasi And The Priyadarshan Years

There are two theories behind the initiation of comedy in Malayalam cinema. One being the influence of Tamil cinema and the other being the impact of theatre where they would add comedy in between serious dramas for relief. "Comedians like Adoor Bhasi, Bahadur, SP Pillai, Kuthiravattom Pappu, Mala Aravindan, Jagathy Sreekumar, Innocent, Sreenivasan, Indrans, Philomena, Kalpana etc enrich the narrative universe with a comic persona of their own. The comic style and the tradition in Malayalam cinema draw from several roots and lineages like the comic figures of the ritual performances, the buffoon, the clown of the Victorian and Marathi theatre, and the vidushaka of Sanskrit theatre," says film academician CS Venkiteswaran. Here's a short profile of the evolution of comedy in our films.

60s and 70s

One of the earliest films that had a hero attempt comedy was in the Sathyan-Sheela starrer Bhagya Jathakam. In Nayaru Pidicha Pulivalu (1958)that revolved around a circus company, comedy was consistently present in the narrative. Otherwise, comedy in the 60s was a stop-gap arrangement, focussed around two or three comedians. Adoor Bhasi, Bahadur and SP Pillai formed the triumvirate in almost every other film. Since comedy wasn't really Prem Nazir's forte, Adoor Bhasi became a regular sidekick in his films. Even romance was categorized according to the hero, comedian roles.

The tone was loud and expressions, keeping in mind the theatrical nature of acting back then, were exceptionally showy. The writing is clearly bland, the character sketch of the comedy actor one-dimensional, prompting the filmmakers to rely heavily on BGM to bring out the laughs. Humour was mostly a postscript and it showed in the staging and the performances. Interestingly, some of these over-the-top "hilarious" situations from some of the films starring Prem Nazir, Ummer and Adoor Bhasi have later been recreated and rewritten cleverly in some of the quintessentially comedy films in the 80s and 80s.

"In the 60s theatre was a major influence as screenwriters (SL Puram, Thoppil Bhasi) were mostly from theatre. Cinema was designed in the same way as a theatre production. The Laurel and Hardy, Charlie Chaplin, Keaton variety of action comedy (falling over the banana peel) was rampant. Even now people love it," says scriptwriter Bipin Chandran.

In the 70s, director Hariharan's debut film Ladies Hostel begins its title card with a wacky cartoon-ish animation, probably an indication of the genre in store. The film is an out-and-out comedy with a string of hilarious characters. 70s Malayalam cinema is widely considered as one of the worst phases in cinema, with narratives filled with adultery, sleaze, sexism, erotic horror and kitchen humour.


The beginners

Sathyan Anthikad made his debut in 1982 with Kurukkante Kalyanam, a full-fledged comedy starring Sukumaran and Madhavi. Sukumaran played a naïve Brahmin bachelor who finds himself out of depth after he shifts to a city. It was also one of the earlier films where the hero's character was drafted with humour, besides the fact that for Sukumaran this was a big image change.

Balachandra Menon, after an initial run of movies (co-incidentally both Anthikad and Menon were fixated with scripts that touched on romance, relationship and family) started bringing humour into his stories (Karyam Nisaram, Prasnam Gurutharam, Sesham Kazhchayil, Arante Mulla Kochu Mulla). This was the first instance when humour was weaved into the narrative.

Sathyan Anthikad's Mandanmar Londonil began with a Sreenivasan voice-over that introduced each of the quirky characters. It was the beginning of the Anthikad brand of original, rooted characters—the ones we are familiar with in most villages (tea shop owner, the local beauty, the money lender etc).

Joshi, IV Sasi and PG Viswambharan chose to include a separated track for comedy in their films and it was mostly done by Mala Aravindan, Kunchan or Beedi Rajappan.

"If the narrative is centred around the family, the sidekick was the cook, servant or butler in the house, and outside, the less intelligent classmate in the college, someone eternally playing second fiddle to the hero. One can find the vestiges of the same relationship in the later films too, where Mukesh, Jagadeesh, Innocent, Jagathy Sreekumar and Kalabhavan Mani played such roles to Mammootty, Mohanlal, Suresh Gopi and Jayaram. The social, physical and intellectual inferiority of the sidekick is something resonating with caste/community connotations, especially in the case of dark-skinned actors like Kalabhavan Mani, Salim Kumar, Harishree Asokan etc," observes CSV.

Priyadarshan brand of screwball comedy

March 17, 1984 can be marked as a red-letter day in the Malayalam cinematic calendar. A fresh, energetic, irreverent new-wave cinema was well on its way—the average Malayalam cinema goer, who seemed to have taken himself rather seriously had just fallen off his seat laughing! The film was Poochakkoru Mookkuthi. And the director was Priyadarshan. It was predictive of the kind of fun, refreshing themes that were soon going to take over the rather grim, literature-heavy, overbearing family chronicles in Malayalam cinema. The Charlie Chaplin-esque humour was here.

Along with that, Jagathy Sreekumar's entry was a breakthrough. In Boeing Boeing, he had more lengthy dialogues than the heroes. Priyadarshan brought the trend of comedy films in Malayalam cinema, where heroes handled full-time comedy.

What later came to be called "Priyan patents" was evident in his debut—the ensemble supporting cast, the side-splitting sitcoms, the colourful song sequences, the climax comedy of errors and Mohanlal!

Poochakkoru Mookkuthi was a spectacular comedy of errors, which rode on a bunch of oddballs. A simpleton millionaire and his fascinated-with-city-life wife, a street singer who pretends to cohabit with a girl to dupe their landlord.  An ambitious young chap who falls for a girl thinking her to be the millionaire's daughter. A smart talker who tricks a rich man's daughter into marrying him.

Each piece of comedy is a keepsake—the scene where the older Revathy (superb Sukumari) breaks into a 'twist dance' in front of her gobsmacked husband (Nedumudi Venu) or their musical duel with Shyam (Shankar) or Jagathy's fraudster Chellappan who hides his lungi and vest under a swanky bathrobe and smokes a pipe.  Priyan followed it up with another comic caper—OdaruthammavaAalariyam —an adaptation of the Sai Paranjape classic, ChashmeBuddoor.

Boeing Boeing (1985), adapted from a French play of the same name, about a pair of fraudsters (the irrepressible Mohanlal-Mukesh combo) who wanted to upstage each other, is considered one of the best sitcoms in Malayalam cinema. Who else can think of that scene where Mohanlal attempts to make a chicken masala listening to a cookery show on radio only to end up in a hilarious mix-up when Mukesh switches the station to one giving a yoga class?

In Mazha Peyyunnu Maddalam Kottunnu (actor Jagadish's story written by Sreenivasan), Sreenivasan's self-deprecating humour was beautifully placed by Priyan—it subtly mocked the hypocrisy of the bourgeois Malayali. And you can't miss the Priyan manifest of anti-intellectualism. GK got tested ("How many kilometres from Miami beach to Washington DC?"), modern art was smirked at and we went back to our English grammar books.

"The influence of western comedies is there in his films—the comedy of errors. With Thalavattom, the stories gained more depth and emotion," notes Chandran.

His crackling form with comedy continued—Kilukkam (1991), Vandanam (1989), Mukundetta Sumitra Vilikkunnu (1988), Chithram (1988) and Thenmavin Kombathu (1998).

Another of Priyan's skills was his ability to choose his actors—never mind the length of the role, he won't do with lesser actors. And that has often resulted in several comedy classic moments—Pappu's "Thamarasheri churam" being the biggest shout-out!

He also entwined social and political issues with generous doses of comedy. So Thalavattam, loosely based on the American novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, had a mentally-derailed hero (Mohanlal), Midhunam had a debt-ridden hero who is struggling to start his business, Chithram's hero was a convict on the run, Vellanakalude Naadu was a political satire on the municipal mafia and, Kilukkam's heroine was an illegitimate child. Strangely, their recall value is more for their hysterical comedy scenes than the gravity of the issue. That Vishnu (Mohanlal) is a killer-on-the run is the least of our problems in Chithram—we would rather gravitate towards the superb comical moments between Mohanlal, Nedumudi and Renjini. Weren't we too busy laughing at the antics of Mohanlal and company to empathise with the former's Dakshayani Biscuit factory's issues in Midhunam?

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