The end of tragedy in the West came about with the rise of reason and intellect. As Nietzsche points out in The Birth of Tragedy, Euripides and Socrates were the main culprits. Simply put, they rationalised what couldn’t be rationalised.
But Western tragedy, as Lionel Abel contends in his book Metatheatre: A New View of Dramatic Form, was never the preserve of Western culture. The best playwrights, including not just Aeschylus and Shakespeare, but also Euripides and Racine, were unable to depict characters that lacked self-consciousness. Self-consciousness is what inflates Macbeth, Hamlet, even King Lear. Their awareness of a destiny, of a cruel higher fate ordaining their universe, is what was supposed to compel their tragedy. No, Abel points out: by dramatising these characters and attributing to them a false sense of order, their writers were actually foregoing on their tragic element.
Self-consciousness is also what epitomises comedy. The basic traits of the Western comic theatre – manipulation, deceit, contortion, and confusion – are to be found in tragedy as well. But what differentiates one from the other is their respective relations with the cinema. The Western tragedy approximates to the Western dramatic film only if the character or protagonist is compelled to break the fourth wall. This is rare, if at all because the cinema, unlike the theatre, believes in distancing the viewer from the plight of its heroes and heroines when the latter are faced with calamity.
The worst of the American cinema – by which I include Tommy Wiseau’s hilariously unwatchable The Room – breaks this rule, in which case the tragic element is sacrificed, sometimes inadvertently, for the comic. Wiseau’s film is terrible because it tries to relate to us his protagonist’s tragedy (which, because this was a personal work of art, was also his tragedy) with pretensions to a dramatic form. He does not believe in distancing us. He is self-aware. Consequently, its mood deteriorates to a rather bizarre form of comedy. When one indulges in this playful wreckage of genres, one indulges in parody, the kind of parody that has pervaded comedians everywhere. It’s a crude, hopelessly prolonged form that leaves us in the dark, groping for more.
And it’s exactly that form of parody that has invaded our cinema, our directors, our scriptwriters, our actors. In the Western dramatic film the characters do not break the fourth wall to address us, unlike in a play. They keep us away from their dilemma. The same can’t be said of the comedy film. Of comedy and drama in the theatre Susan Sontag (reviewing Abel’s book) contended that they were “best defined in relation to each other.” But in the cinema they are pitted against each another. Drama and tragedy lose their theatrical sense of artifice and epicness when adapted to the screen. Comedy and parody do not. Consequently, they are the more unsubtle of the two, and as such don’t require a breaking of the fourth wall: they require the assumption that the fourth wall has already been broken even before they begin. And even in the movies.
The difference between their comedies and our comedies is that in the West, even with the likes of Wiseau and Uwe Boll (whose films transcend their genres in a terrible way), humour never condescends to artifice: it celebrates it (I’ll come back to this shortly). The characters are believable even in the most absurd situations. They are cheerfully dumb, which as Sontag points out “secures their invulnerability” (think of Harold Lloyd dangling dangerously from the hands of a clock high above a street in Safety Last). By contrast, here we neglect the believability of our protagonists.
The problem with our directors today is that they don’t make us laugh with original ideas. They merely recycle the past. And if they can’t recycle the past, they recycle the foreign, marketing it as an original. Maya was the inevitable continuation of all those films which had certain superstars as cross-dressers (including Amitabh Bachchan and Shah Rukh Khan). The film inspired a panel discussion after its release, which tried to drive home the point that it was more than what it actually was. Of course, Ranjan Ramanayake’s ascent (or descent) into a cross-dressing androgynous hero was worthy of any such point, but then at the end of the day, it was an exercise in recycled parody.
Wada Bari Tarzan spliced footage from George of the Jungle. This was only to be expected; the production cost would have soared if Tennyson Cooray were to be filmed fighting a digitalised lion. But its shallowness came about precisely because of these slow footed attempts at parody. And it wasn’t even a parody of what its title suggested, since the film is closer to the American cinema’s own parodies of Tarzan. This parody of a parody, or a parody within a parody, is what our moviemakers have marketed to us as entertainment, and like obedient children, we watch and enjoy it.
The difference between comedy and parody is the same as the difference between originality and mimesis. It’s an extension of the idea of art as a replication of reality, the latter of which makes up the theory of aesthetics from Plato’s time. So if art is replication, the replication of art is further away from reality, even further away if it’s a replication of a replication (which is what recycled parody is). Any attempt at approximating to drama that ultimately proves to be unsuccessful is no different, as Wiseau’s The Room and Boll’s Alone in the Dark show. It’s not even art, rather subversion of art, and like all acts of subversion the subversive artiste must be equipped with the necessary tools to transcend the limits of what he or she is doing.
The most refreshing comedies from the last five years, including Giriraj Kaushalya’s Suhada Koka, don’t attempt at recycled parody despite their barely fleshed out plots. Suhada Koka has no original ideas that can distinguish it from those other comedies revolving around Rajamanthri. And yet, because of how well it offers variations on the same plotlines, the same narrative devices (case in point: Rajamanthri hiring his poor cousin as a household servant, in direct contrast to an episode of Ethuma where that same cousin and his mother are denied an audience at his office), it does more than reuse the past. There’s nothing being recycled here. Only refurbished.
Suhada Koka, like Sikuru Hathe, King Hunther, and Ko Mark No Mark, doesn’t belong to the category that most of Ranjan Ramanayake’s movies do. The Ranja series, and even a film like Sinhaya (which has him as the guardian of an orphanage), are self-referential. There’s nothing new, not because of a want for new ideas but because Ramanayake has superseded himself so much that he doesn’t need to be overtly self-conscious: we know the moment that blast of testosterone-laden music and that bald vigilante sporting sunglasses and an unsmiling face appear that it’s going to be the same deal. He is no subversive because, given his public image, why should he try to be? As with the Tennyson Cooray and Bandu Samarasinghe vehicles, his work is therefore a slapdash rehash of everything you’ve seen before.
What is tragic about our comedies, then, is that even the best of them are sometimes subject to the excesses of the worst.
Those excesses aren’t celebrated, they are condescended to. (This is the real difference between parody and recycled parody.) One notices such a dichotomy even in America: starting from the eighties, the deterioration of comedy into a poor, shoddy mimesis culminated in Epic Hard, Superhero Movie, and the Scary Movie series, all of which force us to enjoy their ill-timed, indifferently lit, and clueless plotlines. One can’t be forced to laugh, of course, unless one is provided with cues to guffaw at the correct time. Resorting to such cues is a sign of artistic bankruptcy, though it does bring in dollars or rupees.
Contrary to popular belief, tragedy never died in the West with Euripides. There was no tragedy in the first place, as Abel points out: all that was there was a form of theatre rooted in the self-consciousness of its characters. If what one takes as tragedy in this respect was similar to comedy, there was no dichotomy between the two onstage. But the cinema was a different art form, which meant that only comedy could subsist on self-consciousness: its greatest strength and weakness. In Sri Lanka, the comedy film has come to rely so much on this sense of self-consciousness that its deterioration to recycled parody could only spell out its death knell.
At one level, it’s almost a national tragedy. But are we lamenting? I don’t think so. In France there was a theatre form that celebrated violence and horror. They called it the Grand Guignol. I rather think that we have transcribed it to our comedies, with the caveat that we have substituted gluttony and excess for gore and erotica.