Playing the Fool


Why everyone loves a good comic sidekic

Watching the hangover sequel recently, in between all the xenophobia and homophobia and all-round tastelessness, I was struck by Zach Galifianakis reprising the eternal role of schlubby friend. And why this figure shows up everywhere, across the world and through time — as clown, as jester, as rogue. The sidekick is a constant in almost all comedy: from the vidushaka of Sankrit drama to the harlequin of medieval Europe to Shakespeare's fool, from vintage Bollywood to Pixar movies, what's a hero without an unheroic companion?

Whether they are meant to be genuinely silly, tricksters or idiot savants, they are always at odds with authority, and are allowed a certain festive freedom. They often look noticeably "odd" or hover at the margins — there's no mistaking the fool for the romantic lead. You laugh at them, and sneakily through them, at the pompous rules of the world they inhabit and invert.

In Bhasa and Kalidasa, the vidushaka is wingman, confidant and comic foil, who often slips in some serious blows to the king's dignity or the lover's romantic flights. Their energies are often focused on food or foppery in the same way that the hero is consumed by thoughts of love or valour. They provide a flattering sidelight, and make the hero look more charismatic by comparison. Sometimes, they are enablers and companions — think of Shrek and Donkey or Munnabhai and Circuit or even Harry Potter and Ron Weasley. They provide another point of identification and lighten a heavy plot, keep up a running stream of chatter, and often deflate the hero's serious quest. Bhasa's play Swapnavasavadatta is about the sorrowing king Udayana who is considering a second wife, but cannot get his first wife Vasavadatta, who is believed to have died in a fire, out of his mind. When he speaks to his court jester Vasantaka about the virtues and graces of the two women, the jester praises the late queen and his preference for her, because she often sent him great food —gently lampooning the king's tragic dilemma.

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