When Romancham was released earlier this year, people remarked how it was the return of comedy as a genre in Malayalam cinema. It got me thinking: have we reached a place where comedy had to make a return? Hello! I grew up in an era where comedy was pretty much the norm in films. Every three months, I watched one film in the theater that was rip-roaringly funny. In fact, if a hero had to be accepted as a bankable commercial actor (in other words, a bonafide star), he HAD to do comedy. It made sense, too – comedy raked in good moolah (by drawing in families), so producers deemed it a safe genre. Every comedy was immensely rewatchable from the mid-’80s to the mid-2000s (i.e., post- Poochakoru Mukuthi but pre-Moz n Cat 🤢). I understand that many things (and people) have changed over the years, and we’ve had amazing stuff coming out of the industry consistently, but..why are the comedies so spaced out now?
Before I rant about the pitiable state of the genre today, let me take you all back to (and for some of the younger readers, introduce you to) a comedy released in 2004. This was a Priyadarshan film, so people were already invested. Add to that the fact that it was a non-Mohanlal Priyadarshan film, and everyone sat up. The lead actor was Dileep, and the film, Vettam. I don’t know much about how the trade estimated the success of Vettam (did we even have proper trade analysts at the time?), but the film came, bombed, and went off. I remember wanting to go for Vettam (because it came right after CID Moosa, which was every kid’s favorite at the time), but it had stopped playing in our area’s theater.
Like most of you, I caught Vettam out of the blue one Sunday afternoon, years later, as I was chilling in front of the TV, and Asianet (I think it was Asianet?) premiered the film. I had started watching from the hotel portions (2nd half), and I remember laughing so hard and thinking about how they pulled this off! After that day, I kept revisiting the film at constant intervals, and have watched the film (in parts on in whole) at least 30 times. It is, after all, a film that excels in what it sets out to do: entertain you. Every department comes together so beautifully: the acting by a kickass ensemble cast, the direction by Priyan, the script by Udayakrishna-Siby K Thomas (Udayakrishna o! Whaaaa-), a great soundtrack by Berny Ignatius, to name a few.
I’m surprised that not many people on the internet have talked about this film’s comedy, which in my opinion, is legendary. So here’s me (ellathinum njan thanne venam.jpg) taking a crack at why this film is so funny and memorable. Let’s go!
It’s one of the last films of an era where physical comedy truly worked
The comedies of the 80s/90s relied heavily on slapstick and physical humor, but somewhere along the way, physical comedy lost its sheen in Malayalam cinema. But Vettam has some fun sequences that don’t feel dated even now – Dileep getting dragged along the escalator just as he wriggles his way out of the luggage; the plane sequence (“Naughty..mookkil panji!”); the hotel chase sequence feat. Mani and Cochin Haneefa’s gang etc.
Priyadarshan’s brand of confusion comedy hits a peak with this one
Indian cinema hasn’t seen another director who has crafted a niche so strong in confusion comedies. In many of his prominent works, Priyadarshan has included a comedy of errors, a mountain of lies, mistaken identities et al. (Chithram, Boeing Boeing, Chandralekha..) And yet, Vettam stands out for the layers of mistaken identities and the number of character equations it packs in. My guess is that the film bombed because of this very complexity, making it difficult for audiences to keep track of who’s who.
There is some insane wordplay almost throughout the film’s runtime!
One of the biggest reasons Vettam has such repeat value is because of its extremely high joke frequency (# of jokes/minute). And here’s the fun part: at a time when comedians were encouraged to improvise, a good percentage of the jokes in Vettam are written in the script, as many of the ‘counters’ are essentially clever puns and wordplays. You’ll stumble across a new pun every time you watch the film!
The ‘Maala’ Running Gag never gets old
The events in Vettam are centered around a Queen’s necklace, which makes ‘maala’ a MacGuffin. But Maala is also the name of Kalabhavan Mani’s eloped lover, who is being chased by her dad (Haneefa and gang). This paves the way for a lot of fun – one of the epic sequences is where Dileep talks to Haneefa, thinking he is the dealer of the necklace, and Haneefa assumes that Dileep is referring to a human trafficking situation.
Some ‘innocent’ dark humor is peppered into the script
Continuing the previous point – taking a serious issue like human trafficking and making a joke out of it in the most innocent way possible isn’t easy. And this is why Vettam has some unique (cute?) dark humor moments. Speaking of ‘innocence,’ there is also this highly underrated exchange where Innocent uses his mother’s early death to counter the police officer’s dry threat.
Placement of random one-off characters that elicits laughs
Even though an army of supporting characters is tasked with eliciting laughs, Priyadarshan goes the extra mile by building humor into scenes with random characters that appear once in the film and then vanish. The station master who just wouldn’t let Gopi go (“Edo thaan Hamsa alle?”) to the Telugu-speaking passenger in the train to the unhygienic vazhipokkan at the chayakkada (“Chetta ee cherupazham entha vila?”), all make unforgettable cameos.
The second half is a mashup of situational comedies that land
Editors (N Gopalakrishnan and Arun Kumar Aravind) deserve praise. Every scene in Vettam‘s second half serves a purpose: either to set up a character’s quirks in their intro or to utilize the character’s now-familiar quirks for comedy. For instance, we see early on that Hamsa (Mamukoya) has come to the hotel with only one (naughty) objective. We learn that without his spectacles, Pasha (Jagathy) can’t see to save his life. Once all these quirks are set up, Priyan milks them to the core in the ensuing chaos.
Not to forget that electric current of a climax!
When there’s so much shit going on in parallel, it’s only fair to have all of that shit coming together for a shitstorm. Vettam does this, bringing all its characters into a warehouse – all of them coming there with different motives. While the ‘electric shock train’ scene has many fans, I’d like to draw your attention to the scene where blind-ish Pasha stumbles upon a gun, briefly think it’s a flute, then fires away on the floor for 10 seconds straight.
An army of irreplaceable veterans
Lastly, none of this would’ve worked if it weren’t for the kickass ensemble cast, each of them having insane comic timing, many of whom unfortunately aren’t with us today. Can you think of a cast for this wild film with our current crop of actors?
(Visualise a collage of Innocent – Nedumudi Venu – Kalabhavan Mani – Sukumari – Jagathy – Cochin Haneefa – Mamukkoya)
If you’re an OG fan, I hope I’ve successfully taken you back to the good old days of Asianet. If you’re new to this film (why are you born so late, ugh), I hope this article inspires you to jump on to YouTube/Prime and watch it tonight!
Teaser: Writing one on CID Moosa soon