Social comedy

I’m reminded of this old interview with late actor and director Kashinath. I’ve forgotten which program it was on, so I’m unable to find the link. In that he kept talking about how as a budding filmmaker, he had been taught to “make films about social issues”.

And so in each of his movies, he made sure he incorporated one or the other social issue. Like I remember as a kid going to this movie called avaLe nanna henDathi  (which he remade in Hindi as “Jawani Zindabad”) – this was about dowry.

The thing with Kashinath was that while he made his movies about social issues, he made sure they were at least partly funny. Before we go ahead, I’d urge you to see this legendary song from anantana avaantara , made by and starring Kashinath (trust me, you’ll find it funny even if you don’t understand Kannada).

It’s not just Kashinath who had this mission that any movie should have an underlying “social message”. Go back to any 1990s comedy, and you will find that they follow the same formula. You might laugh for a total of 15 minutes through the duration of the movie, but the need for social messaging means that there are inevitable sad elements in the plot.

Also, a usual template of these movies (across languages) was to pack the first half with jokes and other funny things, and then let the serious stuff take over in the second half (you wouldn’t lose much entertainment by leaving at the interval).

This largely changed after 1999 (or so), when the film industry got “industry” status, bringing in corporate money and formal production houses. The need for sending out social messages went out with socialism, and so the quality of movies in the 2000s became (on average) better. Funny movies could afford to be entirely funny rather than spending one half sending out a social message.

I was thinking about this yesterday when I watched shubh mangal zyaada savdhaan (starring Ayushmannnnn Khurrraannnnnaa), a movie about a gay couple trying to gain acceptance from one of their families. The movie seemed to be a straight throwback to the nineteen eighties.

The first half was funny, with a laugh a minute. All the classic elements of Indian film comedy were present in this half. And then came the intermission (yes, that was indicated even though I saw the movie on Prime Video). And the movie, in 80s style, went off into social messaging mode.

The last 40 minutes was an absolute drag. The story refused to move as the characters went about extolling diversity and inclusion. Whatever was remaining of the story was rather predictable. There was no “information content”. And that left me a tad disappointed.

There is a reason that Ganeshana Maduve remains my all-time favourite Indian movie. Despite being made in 1990, it is an out-and-out comedy, with no social messaging thrown in (the director Phani Ramachandra, who later made the sitcom daNDa piNDagaLu, was a bit of an outlier).

The best part of the movie, in hindsight (ok I’ve watched it at least 50 times) is that it ends rather abruptly. The comedy goes on till the very last moment, and when you think that you’re facing a boring scene, all characters get into one frame (the standard ending of 1980s movies) and “shubham” or some such appears on the screen.

If you haven’t watched the movie, I might remind you that it is available in full on Youtube (unfortunately there are no subtitles, so you’ll need to know Kannada for this one).

 

I really don’t know why this genre of comedy didn’t catch on, and instead we have filmmakers continuing to proselytise us with social virtues.

Offshoring and the daNDapiNDagaLu moment

Sometime in the early 2000s (2000 or 2001, if I’m not mistaken), there came a sitcom on Kannada television (Udaya TV, if I remember correctly) called “daNDapiNDagaLu” (no direct translation to English available, but it translates to something like “waste bodies”).

The sitcom was about the travails of five boys who had studied one of {B.A., B.Sc., B.Com. } and were subsequently unemployed. Directed by Phani Ramachandra, of the Ganeshana Madhuve and Gowri Ganesha fame, it was rather funny and mostly well received. The most memorable part of the sitcom, however, was the iconic title song (the version on Youtube is audio-only, but that will suffice for our purposes).

For non-Kannada speakers here, the song is about people who study B.A., B.Sc. or B.Com. and subsequently fail to find a job, and then roam the streets with little to do. The song also talks about the unwillingness of these people to do menial jobs, of not being of the “right caste” to avail reservations, and not having the ability to get good marks which can get them a job.

Thinking about it, the song was extremely appropriate for its times, and the release of the serial coincided with the low point of the value of a B.A., B.Sc. or B.Com. degrees in India (I remember feeling rather proud when the sitcom came out that I was studying engineering, and hence wasn’t one of “them”).

Until the 1980s or so, the possession of a bachelor’s degree qualified you for a large gamut of opportunities, mostly in the government. So it didn’t matter that much what you studied, and if you weren’t particularly useless, you’d find a job to get by on.

To take an example, my mother had a bachelor’s in biology, but spent most of her career in an accounting job (she entered the workforce in the 1970s). In other words, it didn’t matter what degree you had, as long as you had one. So people gladly did whatever degree they could get into.

In the 1990s, however, with the government sector on the decline and liberalisation not having had enough of an impact to massively expand the job market, there was trouble for these graduates. Government was no longer recruiting as it used to, and the private sector wasn’t picking up the slack either. It was at this time that most such graduates started going jobless, and the value of these degrees diminished like crazy.

It is no surprise that around the time I finished high school (2000), everyone wanted to study engineering – opportunities for most other degrees were very few. With liberalisation in the education sector having kicked in, supply in engineering college seats expanded to meet the demand (in some states at least). It was a popular meme in those days that anyone who studied for a B.A. or a B.Sc. did so only because they couldn’t get an engineering seat.

It was around this time, the absolute low point for B.A., B.Sc. and B.Com. that daNDapiNDagaLu came out. The sitcom lost its relevance rather soon, though.

With liberalisation in full swing in India,development in communications technology, and slowing growth in developed markets, “offshoring” became a thing. Companies in developed western markets figured out that they could get routine stuff done for a lot cheaper by “offshoring” them to emerging markets, where labour was a lot cheaper.

And some of those jobs came to India, which had a large pool of (hitherto unemployed) graduates, most of whom spoke English. It started with call centre jobs (where Indians were trained to get Western or “neutral” accents, and Janardhans became Johns). Then came slightly higher value adding jobs, like accounting, secretarial services, etc. Business Process Outsourcing was soon a thing, and it didn’t take Thomas Friedman too long to write The World is Flat.

With the coming of these jobs, the market for people with B.A., B.Sc. and B.Com. was suddenly opened up, and there was a range of jobs these people could do. Today, someone with one of these degrees, as long as they are reasonably capable, can expect to find a job after graduation.

Society hasn’t kept up, though. A lot of people are still in the daNDapiNDagaLu mode, and consider those studying B.A., B.Sc. or B.Com. as potential “waste bodies”, not realising that the time now is different!