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Review: ‘Comedy Couple’ Sacrifices Its Punchlines in Pursuit of Truth

By Rahul Desai 22 October 2020

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In Nachiket Samant’s new film Comedy Couple, a live-in couple from Gurgaon becomes “India’s first standup comic duo”. This is why they go viral. This is their novelty USP. Their sets aren’t particularly funny or fresh—they joke about, well, sex and relationships. Most young comics do that, but the added bonus here is that the partner you make fun of is right next to you, in a position to react and inflame a live gender war. (Some of us Gujaratis may also call this “two for the price of one.”). This is also the novelty of the film: a romantic drama locates its inner Seinfeld. The romance itself isn’t particularly fresh either—dotted with happy songs, beginning songs, brooding songs, breakup songs, all in those whispery acoustic-indie voices.

Even though it’s tempting to judge the professional and personal portions as separate entities, Comedy Couple is really about the inextricable relationship between the rom and the com. They are, literally, fated to feed off each other. It isn’t executed in the most original manner, but the premise is undeniably fertile.

At first, it’s hard to link the two. Deep Sharma (Saqib Saleem) and Zoya Batra (Shweta Basu Prasad) are like any other urban Bollywood couple—they’re impossibly good-looking struggling artists, yet their living space in the concrete jungle of Gurgaon is plush and pleasing to the eye. Their personalities differ. Deep is not very deep: he is non-confrontational and conformist, and has a lying problem. Zoya is idealistic and fearless; her mother (Pooja Bedi, best heard on Skype screens) is an independent artist in Paris, and her closest friend is a radical feminist. Naturally, the stage is set for a host of millennial problems: house-hunting as an unmarried couple, hustling brokers, unsuspecting small-town parents, re-coupling in the public eye. Saqib Saleem and Shweta Basu Prasad share an easy chemistry, even if the screenplay overplays their affections. The central conflict, too, feels ordinary; their breach of trust doesn’t involve cheating but harmless white lies. One can’t help but wonder, is this just drama for the sake of drama?

Worryingly, their job seems like a trendy narrative accessory. Sure, they milk their experiences as a couple on stage, but an elaborate sub-plot—featuring Deep getting arrested for an “offensive” cow-urine joke before being made to apologise to Haryanvi extremists—seems to serve no purpose other than addressing the targeting of Indian comedians by religious fundamentalists. The resolution of this controversy is admittedly amusing, but it’s also just another strange day at work. It doesn’t help that both actors—like most performers who must imitate a different medium of performing—interpret standup comedy as glorified emceeing. It begs the question, is standup just a tonal ruse for another run-of-the-mill love story?

Both actors—like most performers who must imitate a different medium of performing—interpret standup comedy as glorified emceeing. It begs the question, is standup just a tonal ruse for another run-of-the-mill love story?

However, if one looks beyond its modest parts, a thought-provoking whole might emerge. The reason most of their life appears in the form of narrative tropes is because their environment assumes the tone of a standup act. One can imagine them dramatising the events of the film on stage in the near future. Take, for instance, a sequence where they get evicted from their apartment for kissing in an elevator. The punchline: Deep had signed the lease as a man living with his “sister”. Then there’s Rohan (Aadar Malik), Deep’s stoner best friend. He appears as if he were being colourfully described by a comedian’s deadpan voice: lives in a smoky pigsty of a flat, conserves his clothes in a fridge, shits in his neighbours’ trash-cans, pees into empty beer bottles, and so forth. Ditto for Deep’s Gandhian parents (a versatile Rajesh Tailang) arriving unannounced, or his unholy ingestion of “gomutra”. At one point, when Deep breaks into a rendition of Kartik Aaryan’s insufferable Pyaar Ka Punchnama monologue, he is brutally silenced by a slap. Insert Zakir Khan’s trademark sakht-launda grin here, and you get the gist. 

More importantly, Deep and Zoya’s art—of standup comedy—indirectly influences the language of their relationship. On one hand, a comedian is so conditioned to trivialising the seriousness of life that the mere prospect of a crisis becomes tougher to endure. Something like an impending wedding can trigger a wave of panic-thinking. This explains Zoya’s over-the-top reaction to Deep’s cowardice, or even Deep’s Devdas-level meltdown after their spat. On the other hand, a comedian’s penchant to laugh off the most mundane flaws under the guise of observational humour helps to heal a rift faster than most. We see Deep and Zoya repeatedly find their voice on stage after prolonged sulking sessions. They get emotionally empowered by blurring the lines between artists and art. The spotlight is both their kryptonite and their magic potion.

All of which goes to say that Comedy Couple, unlike an archetypal modern rom-com, has a sense of why it exists. The instinct of the premise may look hollow, but the reasoning cannot be dismissed. There are sparks of newness buried within the familiar. I only wish I could believe in the couple’s on-stage talent. After all, romance without a sense of humour is only the first draft of love.

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