Veteran comedian and actor Rakesh Bedi—who played the character of Omi in Sai Paranjpye’s romantic comedy Chashme Buddoor (1981) and later became a household name through comedy serials such as Ye Joh Hai Zindagi, Shriman Shrimati and Yes Boss—is in Delhi on 20 May to perform in a new play called Wrong Number at Kamani Auditorium, which is directed by acclaimed TV director Raman Kumar. Presented below are excerpts from Bedi’s recent conversation with Guardian 20.
Q. Comedy can be very difficult for actors. Once you decided to be an actor, how did you finally make up your mind that you wanted to be a comedian?
A. I came from FTII [Film and Television Institute of India, Pune]. It was the mid-’70s and the scenario for actors was very fixed. There were fixed goals: the hero had to be tall, the villain had to look bad. Everything was pre-decided. That was the time of formula films. There were very few films that were not based on a formula. One such film was Chashme Buddoor, which I was given, and I grabbed it. I had no choice but to be in the field of comedy. Basically, I also loved humour. I like humour a lot. I find it one of the best things that can reach to the audience. Even if a play I am doing is very serious, I try to insert a bit of humour.
Q. Could you give us an insight into how a comic actor works on his role?
A. Humour is a very difficult thing. As they say, “humour is a very serious business”. In this genre, you have to deliver the dialogue in a very measured dose. A slight extension of a line or a look can ruin the whole thing. And a slight thing can take the scene to a completely different level. You cannot really extend the humour. You can extend a serious scene. You can play the violins, you can play sad tunes, you can do anything to extend a serious scene, but you cannot extend humour. Humour always has to take effect in a certain time frame and in a fixed dose. And one has to really work hard to find out how that happens. I used to work very hard to fine tune my comedy. In my play, Mera Woh Matlab Nahi Tha, with Neena Gupta, it was a very serious play. Yet I have managed to create a lot of humour in it. Without humour, the whole thing becomes very dry. And if you are sending a message across, with humour the shelf life of the message becomes much longer.
Q. What is your recent play Wrong Number about? What is your role in it?
A. Wrong Number is basically an out and out humorous play. It is one of those plays which are absolutely performance oriented. This play drives home a message that “humour is elementary”. That is the only message it gives.
My role in the play is of a boss, named Yashwant Singh, of a very big company, who is married to a girl around 18 years younger than him, whom he met in London. She is having an affair with one of the boss’ employees. Now the unique selling point of my role is that he is a very forgetful man. He is so forgetful that he dials a number and forgets about whom he has to talk to. But he is running this 100-crore company. As he is forgetful, everybody is taking advantage of him, including his wife. And because of his forgetful nature, he mumbles up and jumbles up the whole scenario of the affair. He thinks his wife is having an affair with somebody else, creates cross-connections. Due to all this confusion, the humour comes out.
Q. Can we say a humorous person can turn into a good comedian on the stage?
A. The stage proficiency doesn’t develop in one day. You have to grow in theatre. You have to understand how the audience is reacting to a particular thing. I have seen lots of people who are humorous in personal life. When you meet them at a party or a function, their jokes are hilarious, but when you tell them to perform in front of an audience, they fizzle out. A joke, dialogue or even a line needs a definite beginning, middle and end. When you are performing in front of an audience, you have to understand the difference in things you can say in private and what you can say at public settings. You have to voice them differently.
Q. Do you think theatre plays a crucial part in preparing an actor for television and films?
A. One hundred percent. Definitely. The stage gives you a lot of things to start with. For example, discipline. If the play has to start at 7 p.m., one has to be there before seven. There is no place for stardom here. The second thing is, you cannot come unprepared. The audience is waiting live in front of you. It doesn’t matter if you are a big star. If you are bad, people will walk off. You have to hold your audience with your talent, content, preparation, commitment. For example, I did a play called Massage, which is my solo, and which I have done in many cities. That is only possible if the preparation is there.
Q. In Bollywood, big stars have become serious about comedy these days. You see celebrities like Salman Khan and others doing straight-up comic roles. Do you think that creates a professional hazard for veterans like you?
A. A star’s charisma on the screen is incomparable because the screen has its own power. But theatre has its own advantages. Suppose Salman Khan is my favourite, I am just giving an example, and he is on screen. That makes me starstruck. I won’t care how he did a certain action, how he saved a girl and so on. When the element of fan following comes in, logic dies. In these cases, one just sees that a star has done a certain scene which becomes authentic enough for the audience. This is definitely a problem but I don’t think much about it, as nowadays there are enough avenues apart from cinema for comedians to make their mark.
Q. Could you talk about the importance of improvisation in theatre.
A. When a writer writes a comedy, he writes sitting in a room. But when an actor comes to the location, where he sees other props, like a window, bed or something else he thinks, he can make good use of them. A writer can’t possibly think that. If a comedian is good, he will try to rise above the script. He has to rise. But I believe the actor should not go, cannot go outside the periphery of the script. You cannot go on a different tangent altogether in order to improvise. That is not possible, that is not allowed and that should not happen.
Q. Tell us about the comedians who have influenced and inspired you.
A. While growing up and even today, I have been a great fan of Charlie Chaplin. I watched him throughout childhood, throughout my college in FTII, and I still watch his work. I learned a lot from him. His timing is immaculate. Among Indian comedians, I like Johnny Walker, Mehmood. I like Kishore Kumar, especially in Padosan. I can see that movie any number of times.
Q. We haven’t seen you doing stand-up comedy. Will you ever try it?
A. Somehow I feel one requires a different kind of mindset for stand-up comedy. I have not tried that as such. It is a nice thing, though. Definitely, I’ll try if I get a good subject or a good line of thought. Having been a responsible actor for so many years, I don’t want to do the kind of stand-up comedy where you only tell jokes. I feel it should have some kind of grace to it, some kind of message to it. Otherwise, it doesn’t stay for long. It’s good that people are doing it, but I feel the jokes delivered don’t stay with you for long. Those are not timeless. You might laugh at these jokes, but they don’t leave any impression on you.
Q. Any suggestions to improve the present standards of comedy?
A. The base of all good comedy is writing. Writing is one of the most important aspects of humour. It is not the comedian but writing. In India, we are giving more importance to the actor. But it’s from the writing that humour emerges. If we don’t have good writers, we won’t have good comedy. Another thing is that one needs to have a free hand for comedy. You cannot bind the comedian. You cannot bind the humour as such. In television, nowadays, everything is TRP oriented. And in our country from the past 10 years, we have become highly regressive, so much so that our countrymen start feeling bad at anything. They file court cases, take offence and so on. Can’t we say anything in a lighter vein?