In their directorial debut, the Siddique-Lal pair presented Malayalam cinema with the iconic movie – Ramji Rao Speaking. It follows the life of three bachelor men and how they get involved in a kidnapping to make quick money. While it’s famous for its slapstick style of comedy, wacky action scenes, and sassy counters, it conveys ideas about the nature of humor, and its utility as a coping mechanism.
Despite being a comedy, most of the main characters of the film are in dire circumstances. Let’s take the three bachelors who are the focal point of the film – Mathayi, Gopalakrishnan, and Balakrishnan. Gopalakrishnan is an unemployed young man who deceits his mother into thinking he has a well-off job in Kolkata. Balakrishnan struggles to pay off his debts and arrives in the city for a job. They both live rent-free in Mathayi’s house, who himself runs an unsuccessful drama troop. However, this theme of misery is not limited to the main characters. We also see Rani who is working towards raising enough money for her brother’s eye operation and Hamsokoya who wants his money back from Balakrishnan for his sister’s wedding. This poses an interesting question – Why is the film humorous in nature despite the characters living miserable lives? Maybe understanding the nature of humor will help answer that question.
Humor is relatively unstudied in philosophy. Historically, philosophers have had a disdain for humor in general, often associating it with mockery rather than the witty side of it. Plato even treated laughter as an emotion that overrides rational self-control. However, there are theories that examine the nature of humor. One of such theories is the Superiority theory, which asserts laughter as feelings of superiority over others or a former version of ourselves. The relief theory of humor examines humor as a stress-controlling mechanism, drawing comparisons to the pressure relief valve in a steam boiler. Finally, my personal favorite – The incongruity theory. It states that humor arises from something incongruous – events that violate our mental patterns and expectations.
Perhaps the stark contrast between the humorous and sorrowful side of the movie becomes apparent now. Misery is almost always incongruous – nobody expects it to happen, yet it does. Specifically, in the film, the circumstances show large deviations from expectations. This provides a necessary base ground of absurdity for humor. Thus, it becomes easier to interpret such situations as funny. This may be why certain people use humor to cope with despair. It gives them something positive to make of their lives.
Silly, insignificant events are often the center of comedy films, especially in Malayalam cinema. Ramji Rao showed something different. With depressing circumstances as its backbone, it maintained its lightheartedness without going into dark humor as seen in western cinema. In any case, the film ends happily with all the characters getting what they want, shedding a ray of hope into the heart of its viewers.