Comedy in the times of Crazy

My bad days have a pattern. Sometimes I overthink, sometimes I get triggered, sometimes I’m just pissed off about the fact that I overthink to the point where I’m triggered. Irrespective of how I end up feeling low, I always resort to doing one thing, mostly — Opening up YouTube and watching any one of the many films starring Kamal Haasan and written by Crazy Mohan. Sometimes, even picking the film is a hard choice, making me feel like a kid in a candy store. These are films that I grew up watching, and they just kept getting better with time, when I started understanding the films even better. I learnt to appreciate these films better when I started reading about, and writing comedy. Nostalgia aside, these films became had a better impact once I understood how they were written and why I laughed every single time I re-watched these scenes over the years. And it only made me feel terrible about the sad state of affairs of comedy in Tamil films.

Comedy Writing

Crazy Mohan is well known for his plays and sketches, and he is one of the most renowned comedy writers in Tamil Nadu, following the ‘ink-line’(play on the word ‘bloodline’, beautifully put forth by Kamal Hassan in discussion with Crazy Mohan about comedy writing and their influences) of the likes of Cho Ramaswamy, TSBK Moulee and even PG Wodehouse. If you break down the dialogues that he’s written, you’ll be able to see that he follows the clear formula that a lot of sit-com writers use. Now, there’s no formula for making people laugh, but writers needed a basic framework under which they could function to make sure that they could brainstorm and generate a tight script so that they can meet the deadlines for production. These formulas mostly deal with Joke structure for the dialogues, and a certain structure for the episodes as a whole. Refer to the image below:

Source: Google images

Pick two of any of the above mentioned points and club them together, you will be able to come up with the basic plot outline of any film that the Kamal-Crazy combo. The comedy in these films rises organically out of the situations that they’re in, rather than thrive on comedy based on insult and nasty stereotypes like in films these days. The screenplay and dialogues set stage for chaos, and the lines are perfectly translated on to the screen to bring this chaos out by Haasan, with his amazing skill and knack for dialects and tongues(or should I say ‘naak’ for dialects and tongues? No? Okay.)

The jokes

The dialogues(jokes) in the films themselves follow a pattern, often depending on clever wordplay and double entendres.

Wordplay — the witty exploitation of the meanings and ambiguities of words, especially in puns. Many of the laugh out loud moments in the films use wordplay — One of my favorite exchanges:

Pammal K Sammandham-
Pammal, has been hearing sounds, which he thinks are hallucinations. He is in conversation with his associates about it.
Pammal: “Dei, ENT-a kekalam da” (Let’s ask an ENT Doctor)
Dilli: “Unn’ta kekalam nu en’ta kekura?” (You’re asking me to ask yourself)
Pammal: “Dei, ENT-u doctor da”

I love how this bit from the film, hardly 30 seconds long, still has so much re-watch value because of the simple observation that we’ve all made in our lives, and the juxtaposition of this observation with the colloquial tongue that we’re used to. There are so many such examples from the entire spread of films. Be it ‘Bardarji Saadi’ or “Eyes-a ice-u la vei” from Panchathanthiram, “Thirupurasundari illei nee, Thiruttusundari” from Michael Madana Kamarajan, these jokes cannot be dismissed as just simple puns, because they are actually very well thought out and the context they’re given is amazing.

Double entendres — a word or phrase open to two interpretations, one of which is usually risqué or indecent. Popularly known as ‘Double Meaning’ jokes. Double Entendres are essentially just an extension of wordplays, and the distinct feature of a lot of Crazy Mohan’s jokes are the fact that he doesn’t solely depend on sexual innuendos for these jokes, unlike most double meaning jokes. Panchathanthiram is laced with many of these jokes. However, my most favorite is the iconic ‘Munnadi-Pinnadi’ scene, where they’re being interrogated by cops while returning from a road-trip turned crime scene. The two different meanings of the words are exploited and a hilarious riot ensues.

There are more such examples where the use of joke structures for the dialogues in these films are evident. In Vasool Raja, there’s a clever use of Rule of 3 — which is essentially where you establish a pattern with two examples, and break the set expectation with the third example — wherein they’re arguing with an employee of the hospital that mistakes them for sick people that want to get admitted as patients, when they were actually looking to get admitted as students(Double Entendre again!). “Idhu Enna anyayama irukku, Vakkil aaguradhuku munnadi Kutravaaliya irundhurukanuma? Police aaguradhuku munnadi thirudana irundhurukanuma?”(Should we’ve been criminals in order to become lawyers, or thieves in order to become policemen) and one of his henchmen chimes in and says…

And breaking the pattern.

One of my most favorite kinds of jokes are the ones that twist your perspective on a popular saying.

“Sometimes the road less traveled is less traveled for a reason” — Jerry Seinfeld

In the same pattern, one of the jokes in Pammal K Sammandham takes a popular saying, not a proverb, but a phrase used to display anger. “Endha moonja vechitu da Inga Vandha?” says Dilli, at Anand(played by Abbas) and Pammal yells “Pinna idhukaaga vera moonja vaadagaika eduthu vara mudiyum?” from the top. Set-up & punch. Neat. Beyond all of this, there’s something beyond just this Crazy Mohan and Kamal Haasan’s combination special. Read on!

The Characters, their quirks and the running gags:

Quirks and running gags are very common in sitcoms and they become a huge part of pop-culture. Be it Monica’s OCD, Barney’s suits, Joey’s “How you doin’?”,Michael Scott’s “That’s what she said!” or Jake Peralta’s “Coolcoolcoolcoolcool”, we’ve all grown to love these gags and the small quirks that make these characters human. The same way, a lot of these gags and quirks are seen in the writing of these films as well. Incongruity is breeding ground for humor. When you take a naive cook from a rural town who speaks accented Tamil and ask him to take the place of millionaire businessman to deceive his loyal assistant and retrieve cash from his locker, you’re essentially setting the scene up for a sequence of hilariously chaotic events. You do the same with two other doppelgangers of the same millionaire who think, talk and behave differently, for totally different reasons, you’re essentially putting out a laughter riot. And there, you have the cult comedy classic, Michael Madana Kamarajan.

Each of these characters are distinct. Michael is a ruffian, he’s crass and he’s vile. A close second to this is Raju, the fireman, the dreamer, he’s uneducated, but good at heart. He speaks the colloquial Madras Bashai, and is a tough nail. The polar opposite is the well-read, suave, stylish Madhan who speaks accented English, fiddles around with a laptop(A huge deal back in the late 80s-early 90s) and is smart and cunning in his own way. The total oddball out of the four is Kameshwaran, the fan-favorite and hands down one of the most iconic characters in Tamil cinema. He has a thick palakkad accent and is so naive, that his innocence is his quirk. The gags in the film are very evident. Madhan’s “Catch my point” and Raju’s attempts to emulate it, and Kameshwaran’s “Bheem boy Bheem boy” and Paati’s kleptomania. There are more of these sprinkled across the entire collection, be it Pammal’s “Pazhamozhi sonna anubavikkanum, aaraya koodathu” or Iyappan Nair’s constant “Enda paiyanukku heart la otta” and Vedhantham’s way of making any complication seem complicated with his way of saying things or Lingam’s stuttering during crucial moments, these quirks and gags set these characters apart and etch them in our minds for years to come.

The Screenplay.

The essence of any film and Kamal Haasan is a master at it, and it’s not just when it comes to comedy. Kamal Haasan knows his craft when it comes to screenwriting, and some of Kollywood’s best screenplays have come out from his think tank. Thevar Magan, Virumaandi, Hey Raam, the list is huge. One particular thing I love about his screenplays are the transitions. They’re completely organic and take the story forward without compromising on the humor or the pace of the film. In Michael Madana Kamarajan, one thing leads to another and seamlessly shifts the storyline from one character to another. Raju knocks off a plate filled with fish while arguing with his owner, one of which lands in Kameshwaran’s pocket. He’s a vegetarian cook that’s on his way to help his father out at a wedding, and to his horror finds this in his pocket. What follows is a series of sequences and witty dialogues surrounding this. In Pammal K Sammandham, the dialogues serve as a transition. “6 maasathukku appala paathukalam”(We’ll come back to this after six months) he says, cut to text on screen that says “6 maasathukku appala”(6 months later) and the story moves forward. Dr. Janaki says “Namakku edhuku indha Kandasamy, Ramasamy, Kuppusamy?”(Why do we need [to marry] a Kandasamy or a Ramasamy or a Kuppusamy?), cut to a hilarious song which has a lyric that starts with “Kandasamy, Ramasamy, Kuppusamy” and goes on to sing about how they lamented over their marriage. One of the characters says “Idhuku mela kadavul thaan kaapathanum”(It’s only God that can save us henceforth), cut to Pammal, dressed as God, shooting for a film. And this scene is a crucial point in the film. Each film has a distinct narrative, and the class and mastery over the craft is visible.

As someone that’s taken to writing about films and comedy only recently, I actually feel extremely privileged to be a part of the generation that grew up with these films, and happy about the fact that there are people that took the art of humor seriously and gave it the respect and dedication that it deserved. And that’s one of the reasons I’m also afraid of the future of comedy in Tamil cinema, because most of the comedy that we see on screen is way more terrifying than most horror films. One can only hope to see another golden Era of comedy like the 90s, an encore version of it in the future. The wait begins.

References :

Moving Images has a brilliant video that speaks about this as well, and I’ve echoed a lot of what he’s said over here. Check it out!

https://youtu.be/10noRe1FhmU

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