Humour in Indian cinema has, with a few exceptions, hovered in the realm of slapstick and buffoonery. In this scenario, does satire stand a chance of making it to the mass appeal circuit?

In the recent Bollywood film “Matru ki Bijlee ka Mandola”, Pankaj Kapoor plays a rural landlord who wants to monetise his land bank. He dreams of malls and factories on his property and connives with a corrupt politician to sell it all off. In the evenings, however, he drinks, transforms into a social activist, and – in a nice twist – leads protests against himself. The film’s plot is inspired by today’s dominant headlines and it features all the familiar characters of the modern Indian landscape, beginning with venal politicians and greedy landowners.

“Matru…”, regardless of how it fared in the box office, is a good example of satire in Hindi cinema. While there is no dearth of humour in our films, satire is altogether a rare phenomenon. In satire, instead of making the point loudly and obviously, the filmmaker makes tangential and allegorical references to issues and personalities and there is a complicit arrangement between the director and the audience. Things are not spelled out openly. Instead, the story unfolds in a nudge-nudge-wink-wink pattern that the audience either gets or doesn’t.

Way back in the 1950s, Guru Dutt made Mr. and Mrs.55, a love story featuring an indigent artist (Dutt) and a rich, spoilt girl (Madhubala). The girl’s aunt (Lalita Pawar) is a feminist who does not believe in marriage but, in order to satisfy the terms of a will left by the girl’s father, has to get her married. She chooses Dutt for a contracted, short-term marriage and pays him a hefty fee for his part. The inevitable happens when the two young people fall in love and have to contend with being released from their ‘convenience’ marriage.

The movie was a pathbreaker at the time for the clever subtlety with which it satirised the upper classes of post-independence India. Lalita Pawar, as the stern and humourless Seeta Devi, was lampooned – in a sly way – as a typical “social reformer” and even Madhubala was depicted as the beautiful and naïve heiress who is little more than a social butterfly. The dialogues crackled with clever humour —“Are you a communist?” asks Seeta Devi when she visits the artist in his humble accommodation. “No, I am a cartoonist”, he deadpans.

In the 1970s, during the height of the Emergency, Amrit Nahata made “Kissa Kursi Ka”, a spoof about politicians and their hunger for power. The government banned it and seized all prints of the film. By all accounts, it was not a great film (a new version was made after the Emergency was lifted), but at least someone had tried to tackle the subject in a humorous way.

There are other movies that can be viewed as successful examples of this film genre, however. Peepli Live, with its satirisation of media and political responses to farmer suicides, is among them.

The mother of all satirical films is, of course, Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro, which brilliantly skewered the corrupt ways of businessmen, bureaucrats and the media. The manipulation of contracts, the shoddy workmanship of infrastructure, and the games that editors play, all came in for sharp but humorous comment. Never before – or after – has a film, that so cleverly and wittily exposed the seamy underside of our society, been made.

Why do Indian filmmakers stay away from satire? Are they scared of causing offence? Or is it just a commercial decision? Or, and this is worth considering, is there just a lack of irony in our system?

The typical Hindi film is like a thali, with all kinds of flavours thrown in. There is emotion, melodrama, humour, action, conflict and much else in the three hour buffet that the director presents to his audience. His aim is to satisfy every need. He doesn’t want to alienate anyone. The more people that see his film, the better it will do commercially. It is not as if genre films – comedies, tragedies, action – are not made, but the large majority of films are masala confections with something in them for everyone.

Humour in Hindi cinema tends to be broad – the jokes are loud and often crass. Buffonery and slapstick are the norm as evidenced in the Golmaal series of films where four friends indulge in all manner of antics to evoke laughter. The idea is to appeal to the lowest common denominator, because that is where the numbers lie.

But it is also worth considering whether we, as a nation, are ill-equipped to handle satire. Given how everything seems to offend someone or the other and a quick demand is made to ban this or that, who would want to take any chances? We have now reached a stage where any joke about a group can set off a controversy and the moment an objection is raised, the state is all to eager to clamp down on the source of offence – whether it be a film, a book, or a work of art.

The very basis of satire is to take digs and to poke fun. It will hurt, at some level. Mature societies have the ability to absorb satire on any subject, including religion. Nothing is out of bounds. We, on the other hand, have many no-go areas that naturally constrict the artist and the filmmaker. Why take the risk of being banned? In these circumstances, it is safe to say that satire will remain a tiny niche in Hindi cinema – and we will be poorer for it.

Sidharth Bhatia is a journalist and a regular commentator on...