Everyone talks about Brit humour as being the epitome of the thinking man’s drollery, and while I agree in part, in my opinion the honors are shared equally by another geography: Tamil comedy.
Tamil comedy really is a genre in itself. Over time, the fertile breeding-ground of Tamil cinema has allowed a number of hugely talented comedians to perform to massive audiences. Each of these comedians has developed their own unique style and fan following. And even amongst the top echelons of Tamil actors, the most distinguished are as adept at comedy as any of their specialist comedian compatriots.
And just as (in my opinion) Spike Milligan represents the zenith that Brit comedy ever achieved, his counterpart in Tamil comedy is a man called Crazy Mohan.
‘Crazy’ Mohan was born Mohan Rangachari, but I doubt even his family calls him by that name any more. His humour elevates that style which Dryden called ‘the lowest and most groveling form of wit’ – the pun. But his puns are no mean feats of accomplishment – multi-lingual, multi-word and magnificent, they appeal to the cerebral class of Tamil comedy watchers – which, surprisingly, constitutes a remarkably high fraction of the cinema-going demographic.
This post, for instance, was inspired a dialogue from the movie Thenali, to which I was subjected recently on a video-coach bus, where one of the characters, talking about his arch-nemesis (named Kailash), says “Kailash – I will make him kaile ash”. (‘Kaile’ means ‘in my hand’. ‘Ash’ is, of course, the English word.)
I saw my first live Crazy Mohan play when I was in college. The play was called Crazy Ghost, and the plot was as zany as anything that Spike Milligan could have come up with. It’s about a modern Tamil couple. All the elder members of their family want them to live together in a joint family. But the young couple will have no part in this plan, and set up their own house. The elders of the family can do nothing about it while they are alive, but, not to be thwarted, they have their sweet revenge after their demise: the spirits of all of the uncles and aunts and grandmothers and grandfathers move into the couple’s house and haunt it.
Crazy Mohan himself enters as a ghost-buster into this crazy setup. His character is called “Mathrubootham” – a common enough name in Tamil Nadu, but hilarious in the context, ‘Bootham’ meaning ‘ghost’ in Tamil. Amongst his arsenal of weapons to use against the ghosts are sprays called “Pey-gone spray”, a spoof of that famous pesticide Baygon (‘Pey’ meaning ghost in Tamil) and “Aal out”, which is like All-out mosquito repellent except that “Aal” means ‘spirit’ in Tamil.
Crazy Mohan plays (and movies, for that matter) and one-track laugh fests. I don’t like the fact that Crazy Mohan feels compelled to end each play with a happy marriage, and consequently there is a romance subplot which is forced into each story. But that’s a small price to pay for the pun-a-minute dialogue, in a delightful mix of Tamil and English, which keeps the crowds rolling in the aisles.