I don’t remember when I first saw Siddique-Lal’s Ramji Rao Speaking, which released two years after I was born. The exact date has gotten muddled in my memory, but so many of its scenes have not. One, in particular, stands out. Where Vijayaraghavan’s Ramji Rao has kidnapped a young girl and accidentally phones Balakrishnan, played by Sai Kumar, for a ransom, thinking that it is the girl’s father. Balakrishnan, just woken up from sleep, goes outside, holding the phone cradled in one hand. Hearing the sound of him taking a leak, Ramji Rao tells his accomplices: “I think they are tapping this call.” He tells Balakrishnan in a menacing tone: “Turn off the equipment that you are using.” So, Balakrishnan zips his pants! It was a joke so ahead of its time. Even today, if someone wrote that joke, it would make you burst into laughter. When I heard about Siddique’s death, it felt like the end of an era. It was not a beloved filmmaker that I had lost, it was part of my childhood.
Many of Siddique’s jokes are enshrined in the Malayali sensibility, so much so that, even today, they are plugged into dinner conversations and repeated among Malayali friends and colleagues. You can find memes that extrapolate his dialogues into the current socio-political situation. Nothing can be funnier than a government stooge delivering a solemn address, as a response to which the meme makers post a picture from Siddique’s movie Friends, where Sreenivasan is doubled over in laughter, holding his middle.
The combination of Siddique and Lal was an explosive one. In just four years, they delivered back-to-back hits like Ramji Rao Speaking, In Harihar Nagar, Godfather and Vietnam Colony. This offscreen friendship led to many onscreen ones – like Innocent and Mohanlal in Vietnam Colony, Sai Kumar and Mukesh in Ramji Rao Speaking (who were more frenemies than friends), Jayaram, Mukesh and Sreenivasan in Friends, and Mukesh and Jagadeesh in Godfather.
Even after their split, Siddique went at it alone and produced many hits like Chronic Bachelor, Hitler and Friends. These films, too, are notable for their humour, but I can’t help thinking that the jokes are not as original as in some of the duo’s greatest hits. In films like In Harihar Nagar and Godfather, the humour suffused every scene, even when the dialogue was not explicitly funny. It was almost in the air you breathed. There was a ubiquitous quality to it.
But it was not just the comedy, there was also pathos in Siddique’s films – once he worked the tension into the narrative, he could ease out the tears as well as the laughs. Siddique knew about human relationships, about human nature, about human frailties. His hero was the everyday Joe, prone to finding himself in situations he had not bargained for. It was his flaws as much as his bravado that made him so relatable.
I remember one particular scene in In Harihar Nagar. It is where the four protagonists are trying to make a girl fall for them by pretending to be her dead brother’s friends. So, Mukesh makes up a sob story about how they met and befriended her brother, and finally lost him. At the end of it, the girl is touched, and the others sit with their heads bowed. Until you hear loud sobs in the background. It is Jagadeesh and he is bawling, even though he knows that Mukesh is narrating a fake story. The scene is hilarious. Even now, it brings a smile to my face. But this time, it is a smile tinged with sadness. Farewell Siddique, you will forever live on through your stories.