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The Laughing Club of India

     Documentarians invariably are asked, "What did the subject of your film feel about how he/she was represented?" The question actually can elicit amazing answers, as people judge their on-screen doings in unpredictably subjective ways. My favorite anecdote of this ilk comes from Mira Nair, the India-born filmmaker (Salaam Bombay, Kama Sutra) whose latest work is The Laughing Club of India (1999).

     Years ago, when Nair took undergraduate filmmaking classes at Harvard and MIT, she made a 16mm documentary about a young scalawag who callously abandoned his poor bride in India to make it big in America. She showed him the completed work, which foregrounded the misery he had caused others; yet he sat through the screening impassively, except for screaming out, "My God!" during one episode of the film. At the end, the young man thanked Nair. He seemed pleased, totally untroubled with the way he was represented.

     But why, Nair was anxious to know, had he yelled, "My God!"? That's because of noticing the suit he'd worn in that scene. He realized that he'd abandoned it forever at the cleaners!

     The Laughing Club of India, codirected by Adam Bartos, is a happily lightweight saga about an unusual movement sweeping Bombay: informal laughing clubs, where adults gather together in the streets, or children at primary school, to act purposefully infantile: sticking out tongues, making faces like monkeys, and then laughing and laughing.

     HA-HA-HA! HEE!-HEE!-HEE! The object: mental health, physical well-being, a holistic few minutes which are equivalent, perhaps, to the Tai Chi exercises in Chinese parks. When the chortling is over, the satiated Bombayans slap palms, NBA "High Five" fashion. Is the laughing working? Dr. Madan Kataria, the spirited man who started it all, is spreading the yucks to the crippled and the blind.

(May, 2000)


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