Tamil Humour

One of the first times I heard an incest joke on television was in an episode of Friends -- about Monica and Ross. I must have been 18 then and fairly new to sitcoms. I didn't even get many of the 'normal' jokes then. So this one took me aback. I was shocked that they would make such jokes on television. Shock that was accentuated by the fact that I was watching it in my living room in India. But gradually I got to watching more sitcoms, and jokes likes that weren't uncommon. If it wasn't incest it was something else -- something that broke a taboo.

What is a joke? How/why a joke works? The psycho-cerebral mechanisms behind laughter etc., are vast topics themselves. But suffice it to say that humour is often constructed around the boundaries of absurdity and breaking the subconscious censors in our mind -- visual, semantic or otherwise. Humour becomes a socially potent force when it is transgressive and subversive. This is the point where capitalism and media consumption come together.

 Modern capitalism  -- perhaps, capitalism in general -- is predicated on creating 'new' things. New products, new markets, 'new improvements' and so forth. Something that is capable of invading existing structures and colonizing parts of it, if not all. It exploits a weakness (if you can call it that) in most humans: we get bored of the same thing over a period. (Familiarity breeds contempt -- how succinct?)

In my observation, humour in television and movies (American and British) have consistently broken boundaries than other genres. Because, jokes risk being not funny if they played by old rules -- it's an inherent necessity. While, a great percentage of sitcoms still derive humour out of reinforcing established and normative rules, series like South Park and Family Guy have thrived in subversive humour.  They may not be quite political, but their contribution to the public discourse is significant (good or bad). They enable the fluidity of the rules of engagement by slaying holy cows whenever they acquire an imposing stature. This is one of the biggest failures of the Indian visual mediums.

Let's take the Tamil case:  as Thamizhavan argued elsehwere, the Tamil obsession with morality has greatly stifled the subversive potential of humour in television and films. Being preachy has been a feature in a lot of Tamil humour for decades. It's even a benchmark  for assessing the comedic worth of something -- "sirikka veikkanum, sindhikkavum veikanum" (it should make you laugh and think too). Of course, not everyone who says this truly believes in it. It's just one of the many things that mark the hypocrisy that is all too common for the Tamil society (and the subcontinent itself, perhaps). Their refusal to be transgressive has only preserved the rigid cultural mould and with it the hypocrisy as well.

For all the self-aggrandizing opinions about Tamil humour, it's a largely underdeveloped genre in visual mediums. In over 15 years of cable television's existence in Tamil Nadu, there hasn't been one decent sitcom. It took years for something like Lollu Sabha, which barely whips the holy cows of Tamil cinema, to come to the fore. (They had to apologize even for that.) It might be decades before there's a South Park or a Family Guy. But given how far we've 'progressed' in the last five decades, even that is doubtful.

 Even the capitalistic drive to 'expand horizons' doesn't seem to apply in the Tamil case. Tamil television has gotten every bit as imitative as any except the part where it requires some creativity.  That's why hybrid talk shows and reality TV -- hybridized simply by throwing cinema into the mix -- have made a smooth migration while others haven't. Tamil society doesn't even seem to have the desire to consume something different -- better or not. The fact that these television channels exist, and have been making profit just dishing out garbage, is testament to that.

Tamil humour, unlike its western counterparts, exploits something else: the hypocrisy in Tamils' cultural norms and two tongued nature of their language. In doing so it has the unique ability to generate humour -- or what is perceived as humour -- without pushing any boundaries or being subversive.

 These are the moments I find myself in support of people like Larry Flynt. It seems that you need one kind of regressiveness to disrupt and dismantle the other -- at least as long as profit making is involved.

13 comments:

Padmanabhan said...

Interesting take on humor and tamil hypocrisy etc, but I didn't quite understand the way you related capitalism to this. I am not sure what capitalism even has to do in this context.

Rombe Mukkiyam said...

'இசம்' ரொம்ப அதிகமாயுடுதான் போகுது. எதுகெடுத்தாலும் இசம், இசம்கிறிங்க.ஒண்ணும் புரியல.

படிச்சாச்சா, சரி இப்ப delete பண்ணிகங்க சார்.

kittymatti said...

Oh wow! Im so glad that u have started blogging...This looks interesting!
I am a huge fan of all yr cookery videos...I enjoy watching all of them. Suggested yr videos to a lot of frnds..Great job!! Kalaku!

mrcritic said...

To me humor is something people are willing to smile or laugh readily, it need not necessarily break boundaries or push the envelope.

In the public space Tamil humor cannot cross the boundaries of politics and cinema. The reception of Vadivelu's "ங்...ங்..” and even using them as ringtones has made me realize people are willing to take in garbage as humor. If you try to have a conversation on it "Freeya vidu, ennakku pidichirukku, unnakku pidikalanaa vidu" seems to be the attitude here.

Drawing a parallel - This seems to be a problem for Tamil media which are trying to produce 'new' content. Finally they fall prey to people's liking and produce garbage.

***

Looks like you need to visit India, this can bring back some reality into you on 'Isms'...

Krishnan said...

Hi saw your comments in Sivaraman's blog "இனியொரு வலைத்தளத்தில் யமுனா ராஜேந்திரன் சமீபத்தில் சாரு, ஜெ.மோ குறித்த எழுதிய கட்டுரையையும் படிக்க வேண்டும்". Can you please give me the link for it ?

Suresh said...

Krishnan,

Here's the post: http://inioru.com/?p=3443

Krishnan said...

Thanks Suresh.

Anonymous said...

sorry for going off-topic but I would like to know your thoughts on this

http://www.outlookindia.com/full.asp?fodname=20081201&fname=NANDAN1&sid=1

-eshwar

Anonymous said...

Hi Suresh,

Good.... ! long time wy you are not publishing the podcasts? please do na... l

Anonymous said...

We have had insisted Suresh to do podcasts more often before. But he doesn't seem to have interest to do it. It's his own choice, no point in pushing him further.

psp said...

u havent published a podcast for a long time............there are sooo many intersting things happening around us suresh.....

psp said...

r u alive? or did u recieve any menace suresh...

Suresh said...

haha, no, nothing like that. I had told why I haven't posted in a while in my last post's comments. Just distracted by many things. Then when I do think of posting something, I procrastinate.

As for podcasts: I'm tired of doing it in my sub-par desktop mic. Wanted to get a semi-professional microphone (if not a really professional one). Procrastination there too. So yeah, there's no particular reason why I haven't been doing either. Hopefully these holidays will bring something out.

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