Kishore Kumar’s distinctive resourcefulness arose from his physical and psychological proximity to the conventions of the Hindi language as he knew it. That resource was more small-townish in nature than fully urban. In a way, he felt lost in the city at first and his initial experience was almost a culture shock. It took him quite a while to get over it. He even spoke of it, but that was years later.
Kishore derived his sense of the comic from the oral theatrical traditions of Ramlila and nautanki or tamasha as these are performed in central India. The Hindi dialect which was broadly used all over Madhya Pradesh came naturally to him. That dialect had come down from its literary heritage to a racy and bantering pattern of speech as highlighted in the idiom used in the Ramlila tragicomic theatrics.
The kind of values that Kishore brought with him and which were subsumed under the tragicomedy of the Ramlila tradition as well as the virginal music of the New Theatres days were somewhat chaste and virtuous. These made his humour direct, a little innocent and somewhat childlike.
Consequently, to Kishore the comic became an expression of tenderness, more sensuous than sensual. In Naukri, for instance, rubbing some butter on a potential employer – after someone advises him to use a bit of maska – was closer to his sense of fun than indulging in statements of double entendre or suggestive innuendo, which could have made the act titillating.
Secondly the inspiration Kishore derived from Hollywood dancing and singing stars like Danny Kaye, Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor gave further strength to his concept of the comic. Danny Kaye projected, through song and lyric and gesture and mime, the early American common man’s sentimental dream of simple and lasting happiness. When he sang, it seemed as if the world sang with him.
Furthermore, Danny Kaye’s comedy, as well as that of Gene Kelly, was clean and wholesome, and hence innocent. The tears and laughter these lightfooted and golden-voiced stars glided through with ease and nonchalance came straight from the heart, as did the music.
What these two traditions did to Kishore Kumar’s sense of the comic was to correlate the funny with the romantic. To him, fun was a mode of winning hearts, more particularly young hearts. Consequently, fun and laughter related not to the erotic, as happened in the case of Mehmood who was one of the most successful comedians on the screen, but to attraction and to affinity. Kishore remained a little above the lewd. What he sought was kinship. That motivated him. Doing a comic was a way of seeking guiltless attention. The comedy had to be inconsequential. It had to be innocent to be true fun. Only then did it work from him.
This was further reinforced by the innate power he has to use words not only through the meanings the words carried but also through their phonetics. He could match words and produce sounds – sounds that were immaculate, melodic and euphonious. He could coin sounds to match words to produce spontaneous enrichment as well as beat and lilt and, above all, rhythm.
Kishore Kumar’s comedy was more truly like a song or a melody. The movement of the comic character had to have lilt and a certain tempo, a certain oscillating cycle. His verbal interchange fell within that cycle. Consequently, it had a beat, a locomotion that was rhythmic and that could be orchestrated in time. Whether it is the suicide scene in Half Ticket or scenes where he is making advances to Vyjayanthimala in Asha and in New Delhi or teasing Smriti Biswas in Baap Re Baap, Kishore was at his best when he was filling the screen with musical sound, gesture and intent. That is what give Kishore’s comedy both heart and body. It became its organizational principle.
The principle arose from conceiving the human person as simple and well-meaning, a person who is endeavouring to rise and who often faces defeat but pushes on regardless. This is the way Kishore saw his own life; that image was implanted in his mind. His comedy was based on an acknowledgement of simple human weaknesses and hence condemn or to judge. It was broad natured, bounteous and openhanded. It was nearly Chaplinesque although, unlike true Chaplinesque, it could not rise to the point of making a philosophical statement.
Given all this, it would be simplistic to assume that Kishore Kumar could have found success as a signing comedian without being himself. It is no wonder that, as he grew and jelled, and as he began to unfold and establish himself, he took liberties with the scripts he was given. At times, these liberties caused annoyance to those who were making the film. Unfortunately, he did not explain why he took the liberties and, often, they did not understand either.
At heart a self-conscious artist, Kishore attempted to express himself in his role and to expound his own sense of the comic. To do so, he had to understand what he felt deep inside him to be able to delineate it on the screen. That took him many long years. It was only in the film Padosan that, for the first time, he did it. The nation saw a breathtaking comic figure with trickles of paan spit exuding from his mouth and colouring his chin, and understood.
Kishore Kumar was seen for what he was, a soft, somewhat sentimental person, perhaps a bit childish but caring, not aggressive, not really unruly, not wild. He was a simple, homespun individual fusing romance into the comic.
Kishore Kumar could have made great movies for children. That somehow did not happen although his comedy has a special appeal for children. In many ways, his role as a young boy wearing bermuda shorts in Half Ticket was a true and spirited portrayal of how he felt about the comic in actual life. The young boy in him refused to die, ever.