Where is today’s great comedian?
Veteran actors like Senthil and Vivekh talk to us about the difficulty of being a comedian today, and the diminished shelf life of comedians in the industry
Thirty for NS Krishnan, Thangavelu and Nagesh. Twenty for Goundamani. Fifteen for Senthil, Vivekh and Vadivelu. Eight for Santhanam. Wonder what are we talking about? It’s the number of years they were at the peak of their careers as comedians in Tamil cinema. The trend is clear. Comedians in our industry don’t get as long to ply their trade as they once did. The most obvious reason, of course, is the over-population of comedians in our industry today. Comedy actor Chinni Jayanth thinks the number is around 500. “It's crowded, and talented artists tend to get diluted. A segregation is required. In IPL, the rules state that two new players from the team's state should be a part of the team. This is so they can get to play with seniors. Similarly, our directors should encourage new faces to act alongside veteran actors. That way, upcoming artists will establish themselves in time," he says.
Chinni Jayanth’s point addresses an additional problem: the lack of a dominant comedian today. “Anyone can become an actor today. Even directors are turning comedians these days. This dilution needs to be addressed if we want to have a comedian establish himself, and then comes the problem of their longevity." He reposes faith in the present Nadigar Sangam under Vishal and trusts they will find a solution. “The 80s and 90s were the golden period of Tamil cinema. Films like Kizhakku Vasal and Idhayam ran for 175 days. If a film survives 100 shows today, it's quite a big deal. Today, you get to see films on your phone, and yet, artistes like comedians don’t get as much recognition." Rajavazhuthi R, an events management consultant and an ardent follower of Tamil cinema, suggests another explanation for why comedians aren’t as popular anymore. "The content they put out is largely recycled from older tracks, and mostly, they barely evoke a grin. All the innuendos also make it hard to watch it with family."
Legendary comedian Senthil thinks that today’s comedians fail to even reach out to audiences. “That’s why people are still watching comedy scenes from decades back. I don’t know if the comedy isn’t up to the mark but they need to give the audience what it wants," he says. On the absence of a comedy duo like Goundamani and him, he says, “A notion of competition perhaps plays a part. Every time a generation changes, so do these things. Maybe the next generation will bring about another duo? "
Director-turned-comedian Manobala acknowledges that the shelf life of a comedy actor hass reduced but doesn’t think of it as a problem. “Even the artistes don’t really care about their longevity as much as they do about money. It's been 40 years since I got into the industry but today, I see that artistes just seem to want to make a quick buck and settle down. One new comedy actor asked, ‘Are they going to make a statue of me if I stay long?' That's the practical mentality of comedians today."
He believes that comedy actors need challenging content to prove themselves. "Balachander used Nagesh as an artist and Kamal Haasan even turned him into a villain. Why should we still stick to the roles commonly associated with comedians? As someone who also does films in other languages, I'm quite amazed at how well younger directors use us," says Manobala, and adds that he wants to see today’s comedy actors like Soori, Robo Shankar and Yogi Babu doing more serious roles. "If we have the power to make you laugh, we can also make you cry with our acting. Right from Chandrababu and Nagesh to Vadivelu in Thevar Magan, comedians have proved it. When was the last time anyone played a role like Maadi Veetu Madhu (Nagesh in Ethir Neechal)?" He wishes that Tamil directors trusted our comedians more. “Directors from other languages trust us more. Back then, we had actors like VK Ramasamy and Manivannan who did everything from character roles to comedy. That’s how Thambi Ramaiah won a National Award too. If given the opportunity, we are even capable of getting international recognition."
Thambi Ramaiah who won the National Award for playing a supporting role in Mynaa believes that the use of comedians in cinema has changed tremendously over the years. "Back then, we had separate comedy track, and the stars too allowed themselves to be dominated by comedians. Track comedy is dead today, and it’s all about the lead character," says the actor who adds that family stories which are rare these days provided ample scope for humour. "Back during the NSK sir days, they were able to give a message with humour in films that were about families and emotions. When the story is about a family, you have a variety of characters and this widens the space to do comedy. The lack of such films today affects the life-span of comedians," he adds.
Comedian Karunakaran too laments the lack of quality writing. "Comedy is dependent more on writing than performance. Veteran comedians worked relentlessly with their team after getting their scenes from directors and that was the reason they were able to make us laugh. Writers should be paid better," says Karunakaran.
Vivekh, who was among the last comedians who got to do track comedy, points out that the length of films has reduced. “Films that were almost three hours long are a little over two hours now. This leaves very little space for comedians. Hence we aren't able to show our full expertise and get reduced to minor characters. Vadivelu and I had tracks, yes, but that doesn’t happen anymore." But the actor points out that it isn’t just comedians who suffer. "Savitri amma acted for decades but heroines these days leave the industry in a matter of a couple of years." Vivekh also acknowledges that people don't have to rely on films alone to get their daily dose of humour. "Social media websites and meme creators have proved it. The public have themselves become performers."