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Jokes apart, where is comedy on Indian TV going?

By , agencyfaqs! | In | September 03, 2001
Comedy shows on Indian television have a tough time in a country that prefers melodrama



agencyfaqs!
MUMBAI

Perhaps the career of one of India's best known comedians - Satish Shah - who first appeared in the classic sitcom 'Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi' (1984), says it all. Since then, he has appeared in just eight more, and rejected over 50 offers.

For quite some time now, no comedy show has made it to the Top 10 on Indian television. Take the TRP ratings of last month. There was no comedy show among the Indian Top 20. The nearest - 'Ji Mantri Ji', produced by STAR - was at 22, with an average TVR rating of 2.8. Compare that to the TVR rating of 12.1 for 'Kyunki Saans Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi', an intensely emotional melodrama in the true traditions of Indian soap, at the very top of the list. At 26 was the slapstick 'Gharwali Uparwali' (STAR), and at 30, the longest running comedy show on Indian television 'Tu Tu Main Main' (STAR).

Contrast that with the popularity ratings in the United States. Among the Top 20 US shows for the week August 20 to 26, the comedy show 'Everybody Loves Raymond' stood sixth, and 'Friends', familiar to the upper-class English speaking Indian youth, at No 10 (according to prime-time ratings complied by Nielsen Media Research).

Why is the Indian scene so different? Is it that we are not a humour-loving nation? Or is it that there has been no good comedy? "Comedy has never worked. What appeals to the masses, and this is a situation that is reflected in the Indian film industry, is emotional stuff," comments Yogesh Radhakrishnan, director, Entertainment Television Channel, Mumbai. That could be true now. But was this the situation always? It depends on how you look at it.

'Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi' was so popular that it notched up ratings higher than the first DD soap, 'Hum Log'. It stood out for fine characterisation and a crackling script. Some feel that the problem is with the supply and not with the demand. Says Sailesh Dave of Runaway Productions, who has made 'Serial Number One', a sitcom that revolves around the making of a family-oriented daily soap for a major television channel, "You have to raise the bar. It is not that Indian audiences are not appreciative of good humour, but that they do not get much of it." Shah is in talks with major networks that have expressed an interest in the show and he hopes that 'Serial Number One' will be the first daily comedy show on Indian television.

The ideas may be there, but so are the obstacles. For one, given the emphasis on slapstick, there is a dearth of good comedy writers, who can effectively create characters, and weave them together in a clear plot marked by strength and consistency. Analysts point out that it is very difficult to get people to laugh at a story twist or a character - there must be an element of universality while the character retains his individuality. That is the secret of great comedy, of the enduring appeal of Charlie Chaplin, whose characters are as appealing today as when they were created in the early 20th century.

But creating such characters as the poor little tramp in 'City Lights' or the harried industrial worker in 'Modern Times' is difficult. They must rise above their immediate situations and touch people across time and space - and make them laugh. A tough job by any criterion. So, often, comedy writers take refuge in the easiest alternative - making the lowest common denominator - the staple of humour.

Most plots, therefore, suffer from a weak structure and a lacklustre script. "Someone slipping on a banana peel is our idea of humour," a senior programming manager at Zee comments bitterly. But not everything relates to the dearth of good comedy writers. It also depends on who is watching the show.

Right now, housewives dominate the viewer profile, and the 'housewife' as defined by major television networks, is between 25 and 35 years of age, middle or upper middle class, and belongs to the Hindi heartland. "They may live in Mumbai or Delhi, but the mentality is conservative, north Indian, Hindi-speaking, Hindu upper caste. And it is what appeals to them that go into a television serial," says Thomas Abraham, managing director of Indiantelevision.com, a portal on television in India.

The constant preoccupation with the home could also be a reflection of the Indian's search for a stable identity in a rapidly changing world. Thus, interestingly both the top television serials on Hindi television, 'Kyunki Saans Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi' and 'Kahaani Ghar Ghar Ki,' revolve around the home. 'Tu Tu Main Main', the longest running comedy show on Indian TV, chronicles the unending battle between a battleaxe mother-in-law and a feisty daughter-in-law - a theme many housewives can identify with. "Basically, you have to create what the audience wants, for with the free-to-air model, we have to depend on advertising revenue. And the advertisers want serials that people watch, no matter what the quality. Getting viewers hooked is all that matters and will continue to matter," says a senior member of the programming division at STAR.

This has a chain reaction. As there is not much scope for 'thinking comedy' to succeed, few producers are willing to take the risk. And, given that, there are fewer writers or actors who want to star in comedy serials. Actors - especially - are wary of the comedy tag and being stereotyped as 'jokers'. In fact, some analysts say that the advent of satellite television and the consequent end of Doordarshan's monopoly over the airwaves did more harm than good, given the mad scramble for advertising revenues. "Satire and humour went out with DD. Ten years ago, there was much more variety, even though DD was the only channel available. Now all channels churn out the same things in different versions," comments Abraham of Indiantelevision.com.

The 'lesser' channels, with their variety of comedy shows, may have some hope though. For example, SABe TV-produced 'Office-Office', which revolves around the travails of a common man subjected to the tyranny of the Indian bureaucracy, seems to have been received well. From being a once-a-week show, it will now be aired thrice weekly - starting today (September 3). And Sailesh Dave is also hoping that his 'really funny look at the media' will find a place among the viewers' hearts.

If it does, it would mean that India's television audience is learning to laugh in a different way.

© 2001 agencyfaqs!