With Kapil Sharma returning to the small screen this month, devoted fans will finally be given what they have been waiting for since the comedian left Colors in a huff late last year. In a television universe bursting with comedy, Sharma remains the gold standard of commercial success. With his rival, Krushna Abhishek, unable to set the cash registers ringing for Colors, Sony TV, where Sharma’s show will return on April 23, must be rubbing its hands in glee.
Comedy Nights with Kapil, Sharma’s erstwhile show, was essentially an hour’s worth of situational comedy arising out of his antics as Bittoo, a good-for-nothing character with a wife and sundry other relatives, not a few of whom were played by men in drag.The show’s format had film stars visit the “family” to promote upcoming films, where they were co-opted into the family dynamics, resulting in all-around mirth, or what passed for it.
Sharma’s comedy was never exemplary. On Comedy Nights, his jokes were often corny and his set pieces wildly exaggerated. But if there is one thing that truly grated, it was his ample use of fellow male actors playing loud-mouthed women. From Sunil Grover who played the doltish Gutthi to Kiku Sharda as the petulant Palak, Sharma’s men played women scraping the bottom of the comic barrel. It became difficult to laugh even at the good bits for fear one was somehow subscribing to Sharma’s problematic politics.
To be sure, comedy has often provided a safe space to discuss gender fluidity. Gender bending is a common feature in, say, William Shakespeare’s plays. Viola in Twelfth Night and Portia in Merchant of Venice, to give just two examples, disguise as men to achieve their goals. This, together with the fact that men played the parts of women in performances at the time the Bard was penning his masterpieces, indicates a spry willingness to sample gender as nested Matryoshka dolls.
Caricatures of overbearing (but ultimately golden-hearted) women are not uncommon on stage or film. Robin Williams was a revelation in Mrs Doubtfire, while Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert has long been a staple among the LGBT crowd. Then there are trans standup comics like Julia Scotti and Bethany Black whose comedy works because they are happy to wrap their personal stories, however painful, in humour and present them to the audience.
It is moot whether comedy alone can serve the purpose of education, but when done well, it can certainly ignite conversations. Transparent, the American series that has had two great seasons, charts the life of Maura (formerly Morton) Pfefferman, an elderly Jewish woman whose male-to-female transition sets off different reactions in her family, both immediate and extended. In going beyond clichéd and frankly offensive comic tropes that pit one gender against another, Transparent begins at a point where the fluidity of gender is a given. The series, even when it explores other realms of alternative sexuality, is never heavy-handed.
So, what Sharma has set out to do on his show is not exactly new. The question is one of intentions. Sure, we are hardly at the stage in our viewing habits as a society where we can expect lessons in progressivism from television. Even so, it is worth pondering what Sharma and indeed other comedians such as Abhishek (who also dresses in drag) hope to achieve with their comedy.
While Sharma will have to change the setting and props for his new show in accordance with his lapsed contract with Colors, it is safe to assume that the basic storyline and comedic tropes of Comedy Nights with Kapil will stay. Men in drag are expected to continue to hog the limelight, and Sharma’s character will, in all likelihood, continue to show good-natured exasperation towards them, an exasperation that also befalls the character of his wife on the show, played by Sumona Chakravarti.
Both Gutthi and Palak are extravagant caricatures. With their garish attires, multiple pigtails and all-round bimbo-hood, they hew to a certain rustic Punjabi woman stereotype. On the show they are forever looking for a lover, and their prospects – which we can only guess at, since the characters do not seem to entertain any – are entirely circumscribed by the extent of this search for a spouse. It is left to Bittoo to swat them away when they are done flirting with the male guest star.
The other regular character in drag is Dadi, played by Ali Asgar. Dadi’s comic arc begins and ends with the fact of her unstinting alcoholism, and one wonders if Sharma would have imagined the character as funny if it were male. Dadi is also prone to distributing kisses on the male guests of the show, most of whom seem mildly disgusted with the forced intimacy.
Only two female characters, Bittoo’s wife and Bua (Upasana Singh), are played by women, but their presence is limited to providing grist to Bittoo’s frustration mill. Bua, like Gutthi and Palak, waits interminably for a lover but her search is a more pitiable prospect due to her advanced age. That the show manages to present all its women, barring the wife, as lascivious drones is an indication of the intellectual depth of its writers who, one imagines, never met a woman that was not dying to get hitched. Even if one were to grant creative freedom to the makers of the show, one must ask why its women are so determinedly unidimensional.
All told, the representation of transvestitism on Sharma’s show does less to take the conversation forward than revel in existing stereotypes. But even the stereotypes it peddles have hardly anything to do with the reality of being transgender. It locates its humour in lazy misogyny. The men playing women (as well as the women playing women) seek to draw out laughs not from the fact of their gender bending but from their readiness, via their character arcs and hammed-up knowingness, to poke fun at womanhood.