In the current atmosphere of intolerance, comedy and satire are in danger of being watered down or banned completely. But there was a time, when the holy cows of Indian society could be lampooned on stage, and nobody kicked up a fuss.
It was in those times that producer Burjor Patel and writer-director-actor Bharat Dabholkar decided to do a very different kind of production — a revue in Hinglish. Back in the 1980s, English theatre was done by a bunch of advertising professionals, and actors who spoke with imported-from-the-West End accents. Their audiences were also snobbish South Mumbai (mostly) elite.
In the new play, New Bottoms Up X-rated, Arnab Goswami (played by Ananth Mahadevan) lines up Narendra Modi, Arvind Kejriwal, Sonia and Rahul Gandhi and Karunanidhi on his show, but won’t let them speak. The audience starts laughing the minute he says, “The nation wants to know.”
Dabholkar was (and is) also an adman, but he wrote Bottoms Up in the mixed-up patois that most Mumbai-ites use to communicate, coining words as they go along. The revue consisted of comic skits, jokes, song-and-dance, and unabashedly double-meaning lines, that made one section of the audience guffaw and the other dismiss as it cheap.
Fact is, the show was a hit, non-English speaking people also enjoyed it, and felt a bit socially superior, going to see an English play instead of one in their own language. It was totally a leave-brains-at-the-door kind of entertainment (think Rohit Shetty films) and audience out for an evening of entertainment got what they wanted.
Bottoms Up and its sequels like Son of Bottoms Up and Grandson of Bottoms Up kept the Hinglish stage going for years. Its actors — like Atmaram Bhende (who passed away recently), Vihang Naik, Shubha Khote, Viju Khote, Bomi Kapadia and, of course, Burjor and Ruby Patel — had enough talent between them to raise the low-brow comedy to a level of respectability.
Back then, there was plenty to make fun of, and thirty years later, politicians and bureaucrats still come up for drubbing. For a satirist, it could even be a case of déjà vu. While introducing the New Bottoms Up X-rated (the X-rated promises risqué, which is kept to a minimum!), Dabholkar revealed that when his mother first saw it, she told him not to write such stuff, but a pretty model came up to him, hugged him and said, she had never laughed so much, so he must keep writing such stuff. If he had obeyed his mother, that would have been the end of Bottoms Up.
The new production, by Ashvin Gidwani, retains the girl-in-wine-glass logo and Louis Banks as composer. It is considerably jazzed up; the group of dancers has skimpily dressed girls. Dabholkar says he leaves out religion and women from his gags, but showing skin is perhaps not construed as disrespect for women. The actors Ananth Mahadevan, Kunal Vijaykar, Amit Roy, Mohan Azad, Kavita Kapur, Rupali Suri Bhavna Pani, Sneha Chavan, get right into the spirit of things, just like the older actors.
Between the old Bottoms Up and the new, the comedy scene has exploded in Mumbai — so much that it has caught the eye of the dial-a-protest bunch. Compared to what goes on at stand-up comedy shows these days, the gags in Bottoms Up — double entendre and all — are rather tame.
The new show dazzles with stage design, and gets the audience laughing with the easiest target of all — Arnab Goswami, who lines up Narendra Modi, Arvind Kejriwal, Sonia and Rahul Gandhi and Karunanidhi on his show, and won’t let them speak. The minute the actor (Ananth Mahadevan) says those magic words, “The nation wants to know,” the audience starts laughing. In these over-sensitive times, it takes courage to poke fun at specific leaders, not just the generic corrupt politician.
Some of the gags were plain silly (like the one on the fake godman), but some worked because they hit the right target. The skit on a man who goes to get a licence to walk on Mumbai streets (there will be a time when traffic will be so bad that people won’t be able to even walk without the required paperwork) and comes up against the worst kind of bureaucracy was really funny. The one about getting admission for a child in a good school works as well today as it might have a few decades ago. Some obvious targets of the past, like MTNL, BEST and the postal department would no longer be applicable.
The skit about a man going abroad and running into Indians everywhere was hilarious too, but the piece that got the audience doubling up with laughter was the one about budget airlines — that’s a new one. There is even more to laugh about Indian society; Dabholkar has barely skimmed the surface, though he could not resist a crack at the moral police.
It’s not hard to see why Bottoms Up still appeals — it is unpretentious, eager to please and a guilty pleasure. Besides, if you enjoy it you can claim to have a sense of humour, if you don’t, then you can lay claim to superior taste.
There is something to be said for the audience — they come with the idea of enjoying themselves and laugh at even the unfunny bits. They are not regular theatergoers, they are the entertainment-seekers, who form a large chunk of the audience these days — those wonderful ticket-buyers who don’t flinch at the high prices. They come dressed in their finery, snack and socialize in the foyer. The only problem is that they might mistake this for theatre, and reject anything that does not make them laugh. There is, or ought to be, more to theatre than that.
Deepa Gahlot is an award-winning film and theatre critic and an arts administrator. She tweets at @deepagahlot