The world of Malayalam comedy reality shows: Abuse in the name of humour
In this short review, we look at the brand of Malayali 'humour', which populates our TV screens, and serves only patriarchy, misogyny, and racism. From Badai Bungalow to Loudspeaker, the atrocities in the name of comedy seem to be endless.
The hugely popular Badai Bungalow debuted in 2013, was an inspired south Indian rip-off of Comedy Nights with Kapil Sharma which premiered in the same year. Staged exactly like the original, the Malayalam version, featuring Pisharady, Arya, Mukesh, Praseetha Menon along with a host of comedy artists, was generously doused with sexist humour, besides being homophobic and regularly featuring body shaming and racism. Like the original, it had celebrities (mostly film stars) appear as guests and they would gamely sit through the insipid comedy skits on display. Last year, it finally shut shop after a rollicking seven-year run. By then the performers had turned into household names.
Satellite channels have always cleaved into the Malayali predilection for mimicry shows, which gained popularity in the '80s. That was evident in the stupendous success of Comicola and Cinemala, the latter was one of the flagship programmes of Asianet, the first private channel in Kerala. It debuted in 1993, featuring a host of mimicry artists (who later branched out to cinema). Directed by Diana Silverster, it was a wry take on the current socio-political milieu of the country.
Ever since, most Malayalam channels have devoted a sizeable amount of their prime-time slots for such comedy shows. Asianet’s Comedy Stars, Comedy Utsavam of Flowers TV, and Thakarppan Comedy of Mazhavil Manorama are some of the popular ones.
Flowers TV’s comedy atrocity called Star Magic
Star Magic is designed like an elaborate game show, featuring a regular set of actors and mimicry artists from television. There are bizarre games where the contestants are required to whip each other, chew fiery chillies and sing, throw each other in ice old water etc. ‘Humour’ usually revolves around the contestants casually ridiculing each other. It can range from racism, body shaming to sexism.
In one episode featuring Santosh Pandit, a huge and ugly drama was created between Pandit and another contestant (Binu Adimali who indulges in the crassest humour possible) where they took turns to shame and insult each other in the most offensive language possible. Maybe scripted, the ruckus managed to get some mileage for the two contestants later on, as they vented out their grief on social media and other TV channels. Maybe it’s the nature of the show, but what’s really appalling is in how the male contestants treat the female contestants, including the woman host, with a sense of entitlement. Not only does her (as well as the female contestants') costumes invite unwarranted criticism from the male contestants, but the lack of restraint is uncomfortable to watch.
Recently when actor Mukta came on the show along with her little daughter and declared that she has trained her daughter in cooking and cleaning as it was important when she gets married, it was disconcerting to watch the contestants break into thunderous applause. When Mukta added that “girls should learn all this”, a male contestant instantly nudged a female contestant seated next to him and said— “See, learn from her.” And then the anchor gushingly validated her approval– “Oh, she is a new generation. But look at how mature she is.” Groan!
Comedy stars and skits on Asianet
A platform meant to encourage mimicry talents, the show is a cesspool where every skit besides being tacky, reeks of misogyny, fat shaming, one’s muscularity or lack of it, racism, homophobia, transphobia and what not. Likewise with the comedy skits staged during film award functions.
Loudspeaker on Kairali TV
If you want to find a show that pays obeisance to the murky world of yellow film journalism, then look no further. There are two women, two men and a raspy voice-over that serves to detail the gossip in a sordid manner. This half-hour show that occupies the prime-time slot on Kairali TV, presents itself as a gossip show. It’s not really the gossip that’s off-putting but how nastily they regulate it. The prime targets are usually female actors.
In a recent episode they made in the garb of gossipy neighbourhood aunties and uncles, they pulling down some of the Malayalam actors for their photo shoots. Esther, who recently appeared in Drishyam 2 was slammed for her glamorous photo shoot— “God! Look at what all she is doing to let the public know that she is an adult,” laughed one of the women. Actors Anushree, Srinda, Ahaana Krishnakumar and Anaswara Rajan were all similarly pulled up for their photo shoots. In one episode they had some unsavory comments about Ahaana Krishna’s eyes which they maintained was like a bull’s eye!
In a way, we can’t altogether rule out the fact that Loudspeaker is reflecting what a section of the society thinks about women with agency. Last year, when Anaswara of Thannermathan Dinangal fame appeared in a tank top and shorts, the self-anointed moral guardians of social media took it upon themselves to lecture the young girl on “modesty” and the urgent need to “protect the dwindling traditional values of the society”. But the same guardians came forward and slobbered over the Insta picture of a shirtless Prithviraj Sukumaran working out. “What a body, bro” they squealed!
Loudspeaker is careful to omit the names of our superstars during their gossip sessions. Even actor Dileep, currently an accused in the actor abduction and sexual assault case, is looked on with reverence and only kind words are reserved for his family. And it’s not that they restrict this slandering to only Malayalam female actors, it spreads across geography and professions—from Aishwarya Rai, Nayanthara to Pearle Maney. It all stems from this overpowering space of patriarchy and misogyny, this aching need to play “saviours” to women and “save them from the world’s evil eye”. Also the warped notion that female actors are public property and that it is well within their rights to pass judgements on everything from their behaviour, personal choices to clothes.
If you simply check the comments section under many of the popular female actors/television stars' social media posts, you will see this brazen display of male entitlement. If you want more proof of this, all you need to do is watch those numerous troll Malayalam videos, which primarily target any popular female celebrity who has an opinion. If you type ‘troll Malayalam actresses’, the first 10 videos will have snapshots of interviews with female actors. If they happen to be assertive, have a sense of humour, maintain a certain lifestyle, break into English in the middle of a conversation, they are immediately branded as excruciating and full of themselves.
While sexist humour is often perceived as harmless, studies have linked it to creating an environment that helps in perpetuating violence against women. “Humor is understood implicitly to be a masculine trait and when men’s masculinity is threatened, many become confrontational. Research suggests that men who feel like their humor or camaraderie isn’t leading into social acceptance tend to react by going macho with it, rolling out jokes that mock women, queer people, and anyone else determined to be effeminate or other,” quotes Chicago based writer, comedian and journalist Lauren Vinopal in an online portal.
It also explains why men love sexist humour as they feel it helps them to be more attached to their perceived masculinity. Malayali men have always gloated in a bubble of male ego. At least social media points in that direction—the narrative talks of a male population who are sexually deprived, sexist, conditioned by patriarchy with a side order of hypocrisy. Malayalis talk about their brand of humour with pride and think no one quite gets their jokes. On occasions like these, we can say—Thank God for that!
Neelima Menon has worked in the newspaper industry for more than a decade. She has covered Hindi and Malayalam cinema for The New Indian Express and has worked briefly with Silverscreen.in. She now writes exclusively about Malayalam cinema, contributing to Fullpicture.in and thenewsminute.com. She is known for her detailed and insightful features on misogyny and the lack of representation of women in Malayalam cinema.