Saamy and Sandhesham - About genre of satirical comedy

Sirrikka vekkum apprama chindhikka vekkum

The power and the influence of comedy always defy conventional wisdom and its effects arguably long lasting than any other medium. Idea presented in comedy needn’t be complete, logical, deep or appropriate but still it can provide immeasurable impact and elicit responses in people of all ages, gender, race and culture. Arguably no one has used it as effectively in Tamil movies as comedian Vivek. According to Vivek comedy should “Sirrikka vekkanam apram chindikka vekkanam” (make you laugh first then make you think). Vivek through his comedy broached many issues plaguing the society and attempted to pose questions on viewers mind against many blindly held beliefs and superstitions. It would be considered sacrilegious if one took humor out of it. We can see the influence of Mahakavi Bharathiyaar in the messages he tries to convey and his character “Venkataraman” in movie Saamy (which also won him second Filmfare Best Actor in Comedy) has semblance to the famed poet/iconoclastic reformer.


The comedy tracks are loaded with preaching against social taboos/superstitions and bring to light the mistreatment and widespread prejudices towards socially downtrodden. In just twelve minutes of screen time, he touches wide spectrum of topics like the superstition of feeding the crows to propitiate the dead, child labor, vaishnavite-shaivite quarrels, inter caste marriage, education to the poor, ill effects of castiest surnames and environmental pollution caused by religious customs like Bhogi. “Venkataraman”, next door boy from Agraharam, is simple, plain and everyday figures unlike the larger than life hero of the movie. It not only helped in the effectiveness of his humor but also increased credibility to his messages as the viewers could easily relate to the character and situation. With this inimitable style, Vivek ruled the industry for nearly a decade. All being said, messages through such farcical comedy and slapstick humor run the danger of falling short in delivery, trivializing the issue and when over done, as might be in Vivek’s case, invites criticism and cease to be funny. Ironically some of his critics attribute his over preaching as a reason for his decline.


Message(Sandhesham) in comedy

In comparison, genre of satirical comedy enjoys much more success in its effectiveness. Satires have been traditionally used as a weapon to contest the political and religious establishment often with good intention of providing constructive criticism or principled opposition. It always carried a deep underlying message and provoked the audience into a thought process to delve into the roots of the issue and some even dared to provide alternatives. Satirical comedies, in general, have a story/premise and involve collective effort of different characters to bring the message to fruition. Its caricatured characters play hypocrites, gullible victims, tricksters, petty politicians etc which in itself acts as agents of criticism.

“Sandesham” is one of the best political satirical movie in Malayalam if not the greatest. A user reviews about the movie in IMDB as follows:

“Hugely popular political satire penned by Sreenivasan. The film is equally brutal in its admonishment of both major political formations in Kerala. Veteran actor Thilakan, as always, is brilliant as the Station Master who returns home after retirement to find his sons Prabhakaran (Sreenivasan) & Prakashan (Jayaram) as jobless petty politicians. Their political rivalry spills over & begins to dictate every aspect of family life, this is the central theme of the film. The movie skillfully & hilariously exposes the double-speak & hypocrisy of the Communists and the corruption & sycophancy in the Congress party. No character or situation felt out of place during the entire film. Every character had a message for the masses- be it Siddique, as the upright agriculture officer, Mala Aravindan as the cowardly police inspector, Shankaradi as the Marxist ideologue or even Bobby Kottarakara as the small time party worker. "Sandesham" without any doubt ranks among the best Malayalam movies of all time & is best remembered for its dialogues, some of which have become part of the Kerala folklore”


Communist party is at the receiving end of most of these “best remembered” dialogues mentioned by the reviewer. Bobby Kottarakara’s quote from the movie “enthu kondu thottu ennullathu lalithamaya bhashyil paranjal entha“ is used to quip when you hear someone talking using left jargons like “neo-liberal”, “globalization”, “proletariat” etc. Any pedantic leftist theorizing of an issue is ridiculed with Sankaradi’s “thathvika avalokanam” quote. And when you talk about international issues you are countered with “Poland” quote.

More often the quotes are conveniently used as a substitute for rationale bankruptcy while criticizing the policies of left in Kerala. In spite of the over use and abuse, this epic political satire has left an indelible impression and created stereotypes that will stay-put in mind of the viewers for some time to come.


Why it works?

Here, mine is a modest attempt to understand the effects of such humor. It seems, import of humor is heavily researched topic in psychology and philosophy. Little bit of Internet research will lead you to some theories on “why humor works?”. According to psychological theory of humor, in order to be amused by something we have to endorse such attitudes and assumptions that make the comedy as well as the background context of it. When you laugh at a comic scene, it is Freudian dream-like release of unconscious content. It brings out our repressed inhibitions and possibly result in non-conscious learning. If we try to apply this theory, it means that, when we laugh at Vivek’s witty remarks mocking customs like daily feeding of crows it actually brings to surface our appreciation of irrationality of such practices which otherwise would have been blinded by our conscious self. It is like King’s “aha moment” at the end of Tenali Raman or Birbal stories.

Satires also work on a similar premise. The plot or character in satires is portrayed as a clear violation of the idea being criticized and they presume innocence as if they are not aware of such violations. So to get amused by a satire, it is a prerequisite that viewer understand and recognize these violations. The characters of Sankaradi, Sreenivasan, Bobby Kottarakara etc are deadpan in the movie and act as if the situation is normal and unremarkable. The viewers understanding of the abnormality makes the situation humorous.

It is worth quoting Raskin’s linguistic and semantic theory on satire.

“ .. Satire persuades only the previously persuaded because, in order to understand a satire as a satire, in the first place, a person must see it as presenting actual moral violations to an uncomprehending audience. Therefore, indeed, communication is limited to those who agree. Since persuasion can have no effect on those who don't understand, the persuasive impact is limited to those who already agree with the point of the satire. “

Are you serious?

Most of the traditional philosophical theories fail to attribute any positive consequences out of humor. Aristotle and Plato considered laughter or amusement as recognition of one’s own superiority over others. Even though most of the current theories on humor critiques such historical approach to humor and recognizes many positive effects of it, but they do acknowledge the trivializing effects of humor. Osama bin rose to the realm of evil after Sep-11 attacks and was considered devil personified. He taunted and goaded Americans through many appearances in video tapes and probably for the first time, post cold-war, Americans felt threatened and vulnerable. And then came a “Family Guy” episode Pietergeist. In one of its cut-away scene, Osama is shown making the video tapes somewhere in the mountains of Tora-Bora. During the recording he mispronounces Ramadan as “Radaman”. Osama and the crew breaks down into laughter, which is followed by his antics on retakes like ventriloquizing a dead chicken, wearing an 80’s disco glasses and he even jokes about Dennis Rodman’s hair. These hilarious scenes and sound bites were oft-repeated on various news channels and considered as the one of the popular cut away scene from the series. Similarly OBL’s cough syrup and the surrounding local myth about its mysterious power to double as Viagra was soon picked up by late night TV shows but the same shows were banned to show video clips from the Royal Wedding. Not to go that far, there might be a generation out there in Kerala whose only impression of EK Nayanar or Karunakaran exists through the impersonations of Kottayam Naseer. Jon Stewart, Colbert, Bill Maher and their class of political commentary only polarizes the debate and leaves little room for any meaningful discussion. Programmes like Cinemala can spoof and trivialize an issue but can go no further.

Humor arguably has the power to subvert seriousness and so when analyzed in such a framework the positive effects of messages through movies like Sandhesham or Saamy is undermined. Moral quality of humor in Saamy or Sandhesam enriches its aesthetic quality however it acting as an agent carrying any serious socio-political message is arguably questionable.