From Tun Tun, Guddi Maruti to Juhi Chawla, Bharti Singh: India’s Funniest Women Through the Ages
A look at the iconic women in cinema and TV that supplied us our daily dose of laughter
If you look back and try to recall women comics you saw in mainstream Hindi movies from the past half-century, only a handful of names come to mind: the iconic Tun Tun and Manorama from the black & white era, frumpy-funny Preeti Ganguly from the Seventies (remember Freni from Basu Chatterjee’s 1978 laugh riot Khatta Meetha?) and Eighties’ eternal college bully Guddi Maruti, who apparently got her first big comic break only because Ganguly’s weight loss had rendered her ineligible for comic roles.
The scanty number also made them some of the most recognizable faces in Indian cinema—women whose main role on screen was to be the punchline of a fat joke that would offend just about anybody today. The Nineties brought about a fresh wave of change with the chirpy Juhi Chawla, although not a comedian per se, and her endearing, and often hilarious roles and women like Archana Puran Singh (Shrimaan Shrimati) and the more or less entire all-woman cast of Hum Paanch, where comedy began to rely more on wit and clever writing rather than the number of fat-jokes made per episode.
The effect of the Nineties soon dwindled in the 2000s, however, with the arrival and stagnation of redundant k-serials and male-dominated talk shows; fat jokes and sexism made stronger comebacks as the years passed, leaving Upasana Singh and the bold Bharti Singh the only real contenders in present-day television and film.
It all started in the Fifties
Dubbed ‘Hindi cinema’s first-ever comedienne,’ Uma Devi Khatri aka Tun Tun initially made her entry into Bollywood as a playback singer. Due to her slightly outdated style of singing and the entry of singers with larger vocal ranges, Khatri decided to try her hand at acting, appearing in films such as Mr. & Mrs. 55 (1955) and Pyaasa (1957) and found great success in comedy.
The Sixties and Seventies
Tamil actress Manorama completed almost 1500 films in her lifetime and explained that she made the transition into comedy in order to keep acting. “If I had chosen to act only as a heroine then I would have disappeared from the scene long ago,” she had stated in an interview with BBC in 2015. She is known for her roles in Ek Phool Do Maali (1969) and Seeta Aur Geeta (1972.)
Preeti Ganguly was most well-known for her role as the Amitabh Bachchan-obsessed fan in Basu Chatterjee’s Khatta Meetha (1978). However the film industry’s twisted belief in only ‘fat = funny’ led to her not receiving any more roles post her 50 kg weight loss which eventually ended her career.
Eighties’ eternal college bully Guddi Maruti, known for her roles in Aag Aur Shola (1988) and Balwaan (1992) got her big break after Ganguly’s weight loss had rendered her ineligible for comic roles. “When I was working, I was not allowed to lose weight,” Maruti revealed in an interview with Rediff. “If I would even say it, people would panic.”
Bollywood actress Juhi Chawla briefly managed to break the mould of what a funny woman in film should look and sound like, her chirpiness and wit winning over kids and adults alike. She played endearing and often hilarious roles; her work in Hum Hain Rahi Pyaar Ke (1993) and Ishq (1997) splendidly showcased her comic prowess.
The heyday of post-liberalization television in India even saw trailblazers like Savita Bhatti, who produced and acted in the cult Doordarshan satire Flop Show with husband and director Jaspal Bhatti.
Television actresses like Bhavana Balsavar (Dekh Bhai Dekh, Zabaan Sambhalke), Shubha Khote (Zabaan Sambhalke), Archana Puran Singh (Shrimaan Shrimati) and the more or less entire all-woman cast of Hum Paanch were overall badasses, kicking misogyny in the bum even as they worked their comic magic on ROFLing audiences that couldn’t get enough of cable television.
Upasana Singh initially gained fame for her role as a deaf-mute in the 1997 film Judaai (1997) before going on to becoming a household name thanks to her work as the villain in 2000s hit kids’ TV show Son Pari (2000-2004) and then with Comedy Nights with Kapil (2013-2016.)
The last 15 years have seen such comic characters reduce to a trickle, thanks to the overwhelming success of ‘K-serials’ that continue to project women solely in the binary of sanskaari saas-bahus and conniving vamps in their noodle-strap saree blouses. The only funny women on the small screen today are mostly loudmouthed caricatures (Daya Jethalal Gada in the TRP-sweeping Taarak Mehta Ka Ooltah Chashmah), bumbling damsels in distress (Angoori Tiwari in Bhabi Ji Ghar Par Hai!) or the butt of sexist jokes (Sumona Chakravarti and Sugandha Mishra in The Kapil Sharma Show). With Bharti Singh as the only successful, badass contender on television, we can only hope that the rise and rise of the Internet and stand-up comedy will be our eventual saving grace.
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