I am a fan of an improv primetime show aired every Monday and Tuesday on a popular Marathi TV channel. Besides making people laugh and helping them unwind at the beginning of the week, the show also works as an excellent marketing tool for forthcoming movies, both Marathi and Hindi, and at times even theatre plays. This post, however, isn't about the show but reflects on a thought that occurred to me, while watching it this past week. The guest this time was the stunning actor Sridevi, accompanied by her husband producer Boney Kapoor and co-actor Nawazuddin Siddiqui, to publicise their latest release Mom.
Throughout the show, the host focused on Sridevi's unique comic timing and the humour she brought to various roles in her glorious career even though she played the leading lady or the heroine as we call them here in Bollywood. It got me thinking of a rather unnoticed facet of the Indian film industry—the curious case of the humorous heroine. Where is she? Is she lost under the flashy lights of the disco sets of our songs? Is she hiding behind the churlish hero or male back dancers? Is she unnoticeable in the textbook sketch of a plain Jane or is she too scared to step out of the shadow of the erotically gyrating "item girl"? No! She just doesn't exist anymore.
Almost all funny aspects of the female character are restricted to complementing the hero or a male comedian.
Ironically enough in the India of the 21st century, where the societal narrative is peppered with women empowerment, feminism and boys-should-cry themes, the humour is kept out of the heroine. Back in the 90s, aside from Sridevi's amusing antics in films such as Mr India and Chaalbaaz, we have also laughed at the delightful Juhi Chawla's witty characters in Bol Radha Bol and Ishq. But even then, a completely humour-driven female lead was missing. Almost all funny aspects of the female character are restricted to complementing the hero or a male comedian. The lady herself continues to be in a "pretty in pink" avatar.
While today we do have some funny females performing stand-up comedy acts across town, women who joke and laugh are still stereotyped as being somehow "uncultured." Ever seen an aunt loudly crack a joke at a family get-together in a room where both genders are assembled together? No. It is always her husband, the uncle, who irrespective of the quality of his humour, regales the room with jokes to be the life of the party. At this point, I need to clarify that this isn't about breaking the funny bone in men, but encouraging women to tickle their own, enough to take centrestage. And cinema as always stands at the confluence of breaking stereotypes in the reel and real world.
Watching funny women on screen will help Indian women gain the confidence to explore their own humorous side and perhaps be more willing to express it too.
To begin with, let's have a strongly funny heroine in our comedy films or dramedys—unlike Sonam Kapoor's sketchily bubbly Mili in Khoobsoorat. Enough of the Golmaal-like franchise films having a bunch of funny boys caught in a comedy of errors. How about allowing a bunch of leading girls, much like in the Hollywood films Bridesmaids or Bad Moms, do the same and have us rolling on the floor with laughter? Why not breed new talent to get our very own Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and Melissa McCarthy? They could then go on to even pen vulnerably comic characters like Liz Lemon in 30 Rock. Even though women in American showbiz also battle gender biases, there's certainly a lot to learn from our trans-Atlantic cinematic counterparts. They seem to be winning the war with numerous women-centric comedy films on charts.
Watching funny women on screen will help Indian women gain the confidence to explore their own humorous side and perhaps be more willing to express it too. The humorous heroine is lost and it's about time we got her out of the woods.