In one of the more interesting scenes in the recent Bollywood film Tanu Weds Manu Returns, Tanuja Trivedi, played with aplomb by Kangana Ranaut, walks into the courtyard of her family’s home in Kanpur to join a groom-meets-bride session, clad in just a towel. Unsurprisingly, she manages to drive the groom’s party out, much to her family’s embarrassment. The scene is delightfully subversive, not for Ranaut’s sartorial choice but for the freedom with which she bursts out in gleeful laughter, goading the elders into a fine rage. Women laughing in this way, with agency and with abandon, is a relatively rare thing in our films. As a measure, consider this – the Filmfare Award for ‘Best Performance in a Comic Role’, a category established in 1967, never went to a woman; the award was dropped in 2007 in a pristine mens-only condition. The Screen Awards, which have continued with a similar category, fare a little better with three women on its list since 1995. Even here, the only woman in a leading role on this list is the feisty Richa Chadha, unlike the male roster which includes the likes of Saif Ali Khan and Abhishek Bachchan. All of which seems to beg the question: just what is it about funny women that scares Bollywood?
At the best of times, comedy has been a risky business for leading ladies. Perhaps they are hesitant to look ridiculous or to inhabit the vulnerability that clowning around involves. Perhaps directors and writers prefer to invest their best gags in the male stars. This makes less sense now than it did in the past, when aspects of the heroine’s persona that were unpalatable were outsourced to other female characters, like the wicked vamp and the funny saheli, the heroine’s female friend. The first lady (in more ways than chronologically) of women in comedy, Uma Devi Khatri, established the tone that prevailed for years. She was the quintessential Fat Lady (her film credits actually list her that way), the irrepressible Tun Tun who provided comic relief in over a 100 films, from Mr and Mrs 55 (1955) to Namak Halal (1982). Back in the days when a rented VCR and video tapes were our weekends, I would watch old Hindi films with my grandmother, who adored Tun Tun. She roared with joy at her entries, and rocked with laughter as her characters attempted antics no ‘decent’ woman could support. That was part of the freedom the laughs gave Tun Tun, and also indicated that you had to be bizarre in some way – in her case, her large physique – to be able to indulge in such capers.
Despite her undeniable talent, Tun Tun was often typecast, and the comediennes who succeeded her broadly continued this trajectory. It is no accident that several of them had earlier avatars as vamps, or that unfilled sexual desire of the characters formed a large part of their hilarity. Think of Archana Puran Singh’s flirty English teacher in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, (earning her a rare Screen Award), or ex-vamps like Bindu and Aruna Irani, who enjoyed comic turns later in their careers. Another variation was witty grandmas, like the one endearingly played by Tanuja in Rules: Pyar ka Superhit Formula, who guides her artless granddaughter to love. The pattern was clear – funny girls couldn’t be the centre of the story, and women who laughed at and for themselves were not desirable.
Memorably, Rekha broke these rules while singing ‘Saare Neeyam Tod Do’ – break all the rules – in the 1980 Hrishikesh Mukherjee comedy Khoobsurat, accompanied by the wonderful Dina Pathak. But perhaps the most iconic was Sridevi’s Charlie Chaplin routine in Mr India, a delight of comic timing where she embraced the screwball look for laughs. (Plus, ‘Hawa Hawai’!) Several other actresses who displayed a talent for gags and punchlines often ended up playing second fiddle to comic actors like Akshay Kumar, Salman Khan and Govinda. Part of what made Queen – featuring Ranaut in the lead – unusual was that it pitted her character’s innocent naif against circumstances, instead of a hero. She was no foil to a male protagonist.
This set Queen’s Rani apart even from her contemporaries like Kareena Kapoor’s Geet in Jab We Met and Deepika Padukone’s eponymous Piku. Characters like these are Tun Tun’s heirs, in that they push the boundaries for women’s laughter, bringing it centrestage. In a recent profile of Amy Poehler, the American comic and actor was described as having lashed out at a male colleague, who jokingly asked her not to tell a dirty joke as he didn’t like it. “I don’t fucking care if you like it,” she snarled. Even as Bollywood pats itself on the back for finally ‘writing women right’, it’s worth remembering that we are yet to get used to seeing such women, who laugh fiercely and without caring to be likable.
~Taran N Khan is a Mumbai-based journalist who writes on cinema, Islam and gender. She has been traveling to Kabul since 2006 where she worked closely with Afghan media producers and filmmakers. Her work can be seen at www.porterfolio.net/taran.
~This article is part of a series of column on cinema by Taran N Khan for Himal. Read her earlier column on official and unofficial censorship of documentaries in India.