“Fat lady in the theatre,” “Fat woman in car,” and “Mother of 9 children” are some of the roles attributed to Uma Devi Khatri, aka Tun Tun, in her Wikipedia filmography. Tun Tun, regularly typecast and often appearing for a few seconds without any narrative consequence, was a household name, yet her star persona has yet to garner much attention. This essay takes up this lack of attention, scholarly and archival, to speculate on a connection between Tun Tun's corporeal excess and the narrative inconsequentiality she was expected to occupy. Looking beyond her image as a superfluous comedienne, this essay investigates the narrative of Tun Tun as an ambiguous one that can be interpreted, in spite of its subversive potential, as reinforcing normative codes of ideal womanhood.
“She was an ‘aside,’” an obituary comments about Tun Tun, “a casual, flippant chuckle thrown in for strictly droll decoration.” And to further underline how inconsequential her roles were to the plots: “She was flooded with a series of bit parts throughout the 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s. All she had to do was waddle on screen, make ugly faces and vanish before audiences returned to other characters.”1
However unlikely it may seem for an obit, this quite sums up how Tun Tun, who was arguably Bombay cinema's first comedienne, is understood as a figure and a figuration. Tun Tun's case is definitely not an exception in this matter; there is generally a lack of academic scholarship on humor and comic actors in Bombay and Indian cinema. While the melodrama has dominated the academic landscape, scholars have also written extensively about the cinematic genres of action films, masala socials, and horror. The absence of scholarly interest in comic actors is certainly not due to a lack of primary “texts.” Indian cinema has seen a series of extremely prolific and illustrious male and female comedy actors, including Dhirendranath Ganguly, Bhagwan Dada, Meena Shorey, Johnny Walker, Mukri, Tun Tun, and Mehmud, among many others.2 In this context, this essay is about presence as well as absence, excess as well as ephemerality, and endurance as well as erasure, because it is impossible to write about comediennes in Indian cinema without being endlessly caught in these dualities. I obviously do not have the scope and space for filling that gap here, but some critical engagement with the figure and figuration of Tun Tun, I hope, will lead to a broader consideration of comedy in Indian cinema.
As I sat in the National Film Archive of India (NFAI) sifting through old film magazines, advertising materials such as press booklets, and various media reports, Tun Tun became increasingly distant and ungraspable.3 For someone who appeared in almost four hundred films in the Hindi-Urdu, Tamil, Bengali, and Punjabi film industries, Tun Tun's near-absolute absence from the archives of Indian cinema is baffling.4 Even during the years when she was at the peak of her acting career, none of the major film magazines carried any substantial feature on her. She is not even visible in photographs of parties, premieres, and muhurats.5 So much so, popular film magazines like Filmfare, Stardust, and Cine Blitz did not even run an obituary after her death in 2003. Tun Tun fails to get a separate entry even in the otherwise magisterial Encyclopedia of Indian Cinema.6
The silence, however, cannot be equated with oblivion. For more than three decades (from the 1950s to the 1980s), Tun Tun, like many of her fellow comedy actors, was ubiquitous in Bombay cinema, and she remained a household name, albeit sometimes for the wrong reasons, among the cinema-watching public of that time. “Tun Tun” became shorthand for fat women in north Indian households, where an overweight woman would often get referred to as such. Because Tun Tun remains largely elusive in film journalism and the archives of Indian cinema (sporadic biographical sketches notwithstanding), it remains impossible to treat the comedienne as an intelligible fact and a transparent entity.7 Rather, as I argue here, there is an element of opaqueness about her image, and any understanding of Tun Tun's history and hagiography can only be conjectural. Her figuration within the terrain of femininity and female sexuality in Bombay cinema—often intangible and ungraspable, but never completely erasable—works in a rather ambiguous way. Although journalistic accounts often present her story as a transparent and simplistic text replete with tautologies, Tun Tun's “body” and her body of work cannot be treated as simple, legible, or reducible texts. Her roles, however ridiculous, repetitive, and unnecessary they might seem, can surreptitiously alert us to the ways that patriarchal codes of visual representation use her corporeal excess to construct the idealized feminine figure in Bombay cinema.
Partha Chatterjee has observed that the nationalist movement in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century India attempted to resolve “the women's question” by conceptually dividing the national social and cultural space into two demarcated spheres—the material and the spiritual.8 Within this nationalist reconfiguration of the native society, women were considered as belonging to the spiritual domain that went through a nationalist conservatism against the threat of colonial modernity. Drawing upon Chatterjee's formulation, several scholars of Indian cinema argue that post-independence Hindi cinema assiduously relied upon similar representational codes to produce, stabilize, and objectify the figure of ideal Indian womanhood.9 Taking its discursive source from how nationalist politics of the late nineteenth century conceptually divided the native society into binaries like inside-outside, private-public, tradition-modernity, home-world, feminine-masculine, Hindi cinema endlessly produced female stereotypes to make woman into an allegorical figure for the national or religious communities. This turned the female protagonists into sites and embodiments of various nationalist-patriarchal ideas: like nation and community, they need to be protected from cultural impurity.
As the other of morally and spiritually degenerate Western modernity, the female protagonist of Indian cinema needed to bear the marks of the nation's cultural identity so that the mythical cultural past could be invoked to resolve any narrative crisis. Female protagonists of 1950s socials, for example the roles Nargis plays in films like Awaara (1951), Shree 420 (1955), and Jagte Raho (1956), are good examples of this. And this trend continued through the next three decades. This idealized new woman is sexually chaste as well as physically desirable, efficient in the domestic space as well as capable of productively negotiating the public world. “Ideally, the new woman,” Anustup Basu sums up quite cogently, “would be one that could furnish a sovereign moral definition of the home as opposed to a public world dominated by processes of imperialism, modernity, and capital.”10 The idealized woman in Hindi cinema, Jyotika Virdi argues in the same vein, is often an allegory of a mythical and utopian communal harmony.11 To successfully achieve this allegorical outcome, subjective “irregularities” of individual women need to be repressed, controlled, or subsumed by either the national or the familial narrative. This led to stock representations of female characters in Hindi cinema being broadly divided in two categories emerging along few strict binaries: good woman and bad woman, traditional and Westernized, heroine and vamp, and morally chaste and sexually loose. In contrast to the chaste and homely figure of the heroine, the vamp is sexually wanton, Westernized, and dangerous.12 Not so surprisingly, the production of various forms of gendered identity, both as a product and a process, in Hindi cinema has relied upon bodies of both male and female actors. The woman's body remains not only the site onto which these binaries were mapped, but also becomes a carefully manufactured visual text and product of these binaries.
If these are the gendered axes that map the admissible terrain of femininity and sexuality in Bombay cinema, it is difficult to locate the comedienne, who is seemingly outside of this binary, cinematically and discursively. Neither belonging to the inner domain like the idealized female protagonist nor exclusively occupying the public space like the wanton vamp, the comedienne marks an ambiguous liminality. If the female body in narrative cinema, as several feminist cinema scholars have convincingly argued, is a mere site of essentializing sexuality and sexual difference, does the comedienne's corpulent body in Bombay cinema, projected as unsuitable for postcolonial modernity, and in need of internal and external discipline, rupture or doubly emphasize that representational system? Although the excess Tun Tun embodies does exhibit a momentary potential for disrupting the melodramatic mode that enables the woman-nation equivalence by embodying a corporeal alterity, I suspect it also reproduces and sustains that pattern of representation.
Looking at the paradox of the abundance of her on-screen appearances and her absence in the archives, her excess and ephemerality, this paper argues that Tun Tun's presence in the Bombay film industry and the way her screen persona was perceived involve two parallel, and somewhat related, narratives. The deployment of her bodily and reproductive excess as constant sources of humor can be considered oblique attempts at reinstating a standardized notion of ideal Indian womanhood. Instead of being transparently subversive, Tun Tun's corpulent appearance on celluloid can also be seen to reaffirm the normative codes of modern Indian femininity that need to be produced through the national-patriarchal disciplinary discourses. In this essay I look at a set of examples from Tun Tun's wide corpus of work to examine how the feminine excesses she embodies, related and overlapping, is turned into a marker of comedic abjection. Furthermore, her conspicuous absence from the archives of Indian cinema, I conjecture in the concluding section, should not come across as mere coincidence; rather, this archival absence is indicative and indirectly a product of Tun Tun's liminal and ephemeral appearance on-screen. The desire to archive is a desire to have a grasp over a temporal plane. Fissures, lacunae, and epistemic gaps, however, always accompany this recorded temporality. Tun Tun's fleeting appearance and elision in and outside of the archive of Indian cinema possibly stand for such gaps, which disrupt the temporality of the archive of Indian cinema and underscore her status as a superfluous comedienne.
Tun Tun, born as Uma Devi Khatri (1923–2003), arrived in Bombay to pursue a career as a playback singer in the Hindi-Urdu film industry.13 Orphaned as an infant, she was raised by a distant relative in a remote village in the state of Uttar Pradesh. The orthodox household did not allow her to pursue an education. Eventually she taught herself to read and write Hindi. She developed a fascination with the film industry, specifically playback singing, while listening to film songs on All India Radio. Soon after she reached Bombay, as several journalistic accounts mention, Uma got her first break as a playback singer for the film Wamiq Azra (1946).14 Encouraged by this early success, she tried to get in touch with the music director Naushad, who would eventually give Uma her first stable job.15 After listening to her for ten minutes, Naushad recommended her to be on Kardar Productions' payroll. During the next couple of years, Uma would give voice to a number of popular songs, including the famous “Afsana Likh Rahi Hoon” for Dard (Pain, 1947) and “Kahin Jiya Dole” and “Dil Ko Laga Kar Humne” for Anokhi Ada (Rare Gesture, 1948).
Within a few years, though, Uma stopped getting work because of her limited vocal range. Her decision to sing for another production banner, violating the terms of her contract with Kardar Productions, also contributed to her downfall as a playback singer. Following this, she went back to her mentor, Naushad, asking for help. He advised her to try acting, and helped her get a role in Babul (Father's House, 1950), a film starring Dilip Kumar and Nargis.16 This was also the time, as Tun Tun mentioned in one interview, when she gained a lot of weight after the birth of her first child. This corporeal transformation, she further pointed out, helped her transform into a comedy actor. Her brief appearance in this romance triangle—then still billed as Uma Devi—became so popular that she would eventually adopt the name of her character, Tun Tun, as her screen name.17 Thanks to Babul, she started getting regular roles in films made by prominent studios.
On one level, Tun Tun's corporeal excess and her demeanors seem to make her a version of two figurations that appear in feminist scholarship on aberrant women: “unruly woman” and “woman on top.”18 The feminist media scholar Kathleen Rowe Karlyn argues that the unruly woman's stature and (mis)demeanors are diametrically opposite to what Hélène Cixous terms “divine composure” of “well-adjusted” women. The roles Tun Tun played indeed demonstrate a number of characteristics Rowe Karlyn identifies in what she calls “unruly women”: she tries to physically dominate men, her body is too big or fat, she jokes or laughs uncontrollably, her speech is excessive.19 Along with these, Tun Tun's characters are often marked with an inclination toward excessive reproduction. Moreover, like a stock woman-on-top figure, Tun Tun often physically dominates her male counterparts; in some cases, she is sexually more adept.
Scholarship on feminine excess in comedy has observed how cultural texts have often used fatness as a characteristic that renders the overweight female body grotesque and uncontrollable.20 Fat women are, Mary Russo argues in one of her essays, “always and already transgressive.”21 Drawing on Russo's work, Rowe Karlyn has suggested that in the “spectatorial unruliness” of the feminine grotesque “we might examine models of returning the male gaze, exposing and making a spectacle of the gazer, claiming the pleasure and power of making spectacles of ourselves, and beginning to negate our own invisibility in the public sphere.”22 Like Rowe Karlyn, several other feminist scholars have argued, often drawing on Mikhail Bakhtin's works on the grotesque and the carnivalesque, that the corporeal excess of unruly women on-screen and beyond has the transgressive potential of disrupting the patriarchal mode of representation. The overwhelming presence of the fat woman is not always merely visual. By dominating the diegetic space, these bodies unsettle the accepted and familiar visual arrangement. My reading of Tun Tun as both the unruly woman and the woman on top in the context of Bombay cinema is somewhat different.
The body—a social, cultural, and historical product and process—functions as, as Anne Balsamo puts it, the “material embodiment for ethnic, racial, and gender identities, as well as a staged performance of identity,” and “is a way of knowing and marking the world, as well as a way of knowing and marking a ‘self.’”23 Simultaneously constitutive and performative, the body is a material presence as well as a cultural construct. The corpulent, grotesque body, both male and female, certainly has the potential for de-essentializing such differences. On the other hand, “[fat] has been vilified,” Jana Evans Braziel and Kathleen LeBesco write, “in ways ideologically loaded yet cleverly intertwined with concepts of nature, health, and beauty.”24 A cultural construct that came into being as a by-product of capitalist and industrialized notions of controlled, disciplined, and productive bodies in the commodity-centric West, the corpulent body is represented as an inherent other. This has indeed been a formulaic strategy in Bombay cinema. Using the overweight female body coupled with “odd” demeanors as a source of humor in cinema is not of course unique to the case of Tun Tun or Indian cinema; it was a stock strategy among a number of her fellow female comedy actors in Bombay and other Indian film industries.25 Unscrupulous Manorama, overtly simpleton-ish Preeti Ganguly, comically domineering Pearl Padamsee, and loudmouthed Shubha Khote in her later years are just few examples of how fat female bodies are produced and abnegated in Bombay cinema.26
A love triangle in which a simple, poor damsel and a rich heiress, Bela (Nargis) and Usha (Munawar Sultana), are both in love with the charming postmaster, Ashok (Dilip Kumar), Babul makes space for a third woman, too. Appearing in an approximately 155-second-long sequence seemingly without any narrative relevance, a local estate manager's daughter, Tun Tun, an overweight simpleton with a bad eye, remains predictably unsuccessful in her attempt at wooing Ashok. This short sequence might indeed seem absolutely inconsequential to the main narrative. A more careful look, however, reveals some significant aspects of the way the comedienne and her body are (dis)placed within this romantic melodrama.
The main plot is otherwise neatly structured around the dialectic between romantic love and class difference. Bela, standing for feudal affluence, and Usha for impecunious simplicity compete for Ashok's affection. Although there are moments in the film when Ashok seems to harbor feelings for both, the film ultimately adheres to class endogamy by showing him to be truly in love with the rich heiress. Through elaborate twists and turns the film eventually ends in tragedy: Bela, thinking Ashok is actually in love with her rival, ends up marrying a man from a similar feudal background, and Usha meets the divine judgment of accidental death for lying to Bela about Ashok's feelings for her. The comedienne remains a negligible outsider to this romantic triangle. Though she, too, craves Ashok's love, her desire is not even worthy of being part of the main narrative. By turning her into an object of laughter and predetermining her supposed gender inversion as doomed from the beginning, the melodramatic narrative actualizes itself and also reinforces the codes of normal womanhood. Instead of emerging as a disruptive figure, Tun Tun, with her overweight body, her visual impairment, and her inability to behave “properly,” are put together to underline her outsider status.
For the first forty-five seconds of her appearance in Babul, we do not get to see Tun Tun's face, as she is veiled. This veiling and unveiling of the comedienne is particularly interesting: the scene uses the veil as a potential source of male voyeuristic anticipation in a typical way before undoing it to produce the desired comical effect. Mary Ann Doane's observation that the use of veil causes a “magnification of the erotic” by intercepting the space between the camera and the woman is useful here. Primarily discussing the use of close-up shots of the woman's face as a way of turning the face into a profound and self-sufficient object of vision, Doane argues that the veil activates a male gaze “in the service of the representation of the seductive power of femininity.”27 In countless Hindi films, the veil has indeed been used as a tool for building secrecy leading to an anticipated revelation to underscore the heroine's coyness before her face is uncovered to be the object of the male gaze and to provide erotic-visual pleasure. In the case of the overweight and physically deformed Tun Tun in this film, the veil and the moment of unveiling work somewhat differently (fig. 1). Tun Tun's parents bring a reluctant Ashok to meet with her, hoping this will lead to matrimony. An already-smitten Tun Tun comes down the stairs with her face hidden, laughing uncontrollably. After a couple of buffooneries like intentionally tripping her father, she finally unveils her face only to further scare her object of desire. For the next few seconds, we see Ashok desperately trying to escape Tun Tun's seductive advances only to be physically overpowered by her. When asked if she can sing, she points at her bulging bicep and emphatically says—perhaps to underline that she does not fit the gender stereotype—“I am not interested in singing; the only thing I am interested in is this!” After Ashok finally manages to escape, Tun Tun's father returns to the room and says, “You have chased this one away, too! I have tricked five men to come and see you. This unlucky girl chased all of them away!” As she keeps laughing uncontrollably, her exasperated father drops a tray of tea things on her head. By rendering the fat comedienne an abject and laughable figure, this short sequence obliquely justifies Usha and Bela's presence within the romantic triangle. Outside of Bela's legitimate desire for Ashok and Usha's unscrupulous-yet-commiserated attempt at getting his love, the fat comedienne's desire is always already destined to be restricted and ejected.
In this sequence, a possibility of inverting the gendered trope of female subservience to a physically more powerful male, when the fat comedienne physically dominates the male hero, emerges momentarily. Tun Tun here becomes a woman on top in a very literal sense. Babul is not the only film where this kind of sequence appears. Starting with films like Ek Raaz (One Secret, 1963) and Sharafat (Nobility, 1970) to later ones like Disco Dancer (1982) and Heeron Ka Chor (Diamond Thief, 1982), situations in which Tun Tun physically dominates her male counterparts are used extensively. The only close-up shot in the Babul sequence is of Tun Tun's bulging bicep, not her face (fig. 2). It is quite apparent that the shot was done with a body double, probably a male one. Looking at her appearance in Babul along with a particularly interesting image of her published as part of an obit piece could be revealing (fig. 3). In the latter image, we see the ecstatic comedienne entertaining her colleagues by letting them touch her bicep, clearly posing for the camera. She is figuratively performing an offscreen parody of her on-screen absence and abjection. This unsettling visual encounter with the physically powerful yet masqueraded female body and her bulging bicep, instead of being spectatorially liberatory, permanently subversive, or, as Rowe Karlyn has suggested, “a site of insurgency,” is not very different from the objectified female face.28 I argue that the close visual encounter with Tun Tun's bulging bicep—simultaneously corporeal and substituted, present and presented through absence—is still directed toward the male gaze. Instead of subverting or ignoring the objectifying male gaze, this close-up shot subjects the comedienne's “abnormal” and “not-so-feminine” body part to the same gaze and literally erases her. The shot, which lasts for just few moments, generates a pathological feeling and a nervous unsettling.
Comical depictions of Tun Tun's sexuality and sexual desire appear in a number of her films. Toward the end of her acting career, she was repeatedly seen in suhaag raat (wedding night) sequences. Take for example a film like Suhaag Raat (1968): with a title literally meaning “wedding night,” this film is a complicated tale of relationships, weddings, and consummation. Expectedly, Titli Banu's (Tun Tun) presence in this narrative of countless twists and turns is peripheral. She is in love with Juman (Mehmood), who is repelled by her. Juman convinces an imposter fortune-teller to inform her that her first husband will die on their wedding night. Scared by this, she gets tricked into marrying an old man (who is Juman's real love interest's father), hoping that her sick husband will indeed die on their wedding night and she can marry Juman next. She spends the entire night preparing for the impending death of her new husband. When he does not die as foretold, she is destined to be stuck in that marriage and suffer her unrequited love and unconsummated desire.
In one of her late screen appearances in Heeron ka Chor, credited in the “Friendly Appearance” category, a newly married Tun Tun first appears veiled, again without any connection to the plot, waiting on her wedding night to be unveiled by her new husband. As it turns out, her fifty-two-year-old dwarf husband is completely inept in this matter. As she tries to explain how to go about it, a police inspector knocks on the door. And the moment of consummation remains cinematically absent. If “an impenetrable blindness” on the part of the male hero for the vamp's hypersexualized and alienated body is “an absolutist patriarchal non recognition of the female body as a body capable of desire of its own,” comical reduction of Tun Tun's corpulent sexuality too is an abnegation of unruly woman's desire.29 The sexual economy that renders the seductive vamp's sexual agency morally threatening and destined ultimately to be censured is the same one that forecloses the possibility of the overweight comedienne as a sexual being and thereby stabilizes a notion of an ideal body.
Women, and in some cases men as well, having “excessive” numbers of particularly unruly children are also objects of humor in Indian popular culture. This stereotype is a consistent twin of overweight women. Excessive weight, excessive laughter, excessive childbirth: all these imply a woman as a biological being who has no control over her body. A space like India, an “overpopulated” country belonging to the Global South, is understandably fertile ground for the (re)production, pun intended, of this stereotype. Inheriting the legacy of widespread acceptance of Malthusianism in nineteenth-century England, late colonial and postcolonial India increasingly identified its rapid population growth as one the main reasons behind its impoverished state.30 In his book on Malthusianism in colonial and postcolonial India, Mohan Rao demonstrates how the British colonial government identified overpopulation, invoking Thomas Malthus in the census report of 1891, as the main reason behind India's poverty. Rao goes on to show how the government after India's independence in 1947 adopted that outlook and relied upon neo-Malthusian policies to contain the problem of population.31
Long before Indira Gandhi's notoriously draconian measures, such as forced vasectomy and tubectomy during the Emergency era, which targeted the urban and rural poor in India, the federal government had already implemented a set of well-coordinated policies to promote the message of population control. A forced sterilization drive as a tool for this purpose before and during the Emergency hit the urban and rural poor hardest. Approximately eleven million people were forcibly sterilized between 1975 and 1977.32 Among the urban middle-class citizenry, however, there was rarely any use of coercion. Rather, it was accomplished through a discursive propagation of what Patricia O'Brien calls a “thesis of mass normalization” of such bio-political necessity—for example, via dissemination of catchy slogans like “Do ya teen bachche, rahte hai ghar main achhe” (Two or three kids stay well at home) and “Hum do, hamare do” (We two, our two)—projecting family planning as a means for greater bourgeois comfort.33 Such persistent efforts on the part of government had a widespread impact on the sociocultural milieu. Popular cinema often played an instrumental role in disseminating messages of family planning.34 A look at various film magazine reports in the 1960s and 1970s reveals that not only did the film industry play a complicit role in this matter, but some people in the film industry actively believed that popular cinema needed to assist the government in disseminating the message (fig. 4). The nexus between the government and the popular film industry on the issue of population control and family planning can be considered an explanation, albeit an explicitly structural one, behind the comical depiction of over-reproductive Tun Tun.
Good-hearted taxi driver Dev (Amol Palekar), who has been trying to help his passengers deal with various difficult situations, is pulled over by a traffic policeman as he hurries to get married to a woman who used to be a prostitute. When the policeman quips rather jokingly, “If you are forgetting rules before your marriage, you would surely forget to obey the rule of family planning after marriage,” the taxi driver assures him that he would never do that. This is a scene from a film that received limited critical attention or box office success, Taxi Taxie (1977), which was released during the aftermath of the Emergency. This unwarranted message of family planning appears in this film as abruptly as Tun Tun does in the very first scene. She and her husband ride in Dev's taxi along with their nine children, even after a visibly exasperated Dev begs her not to travel in his vehicle with her “army.” When Dev further points out a family planning signboard to them, Tun Tun tells them that they do follow family planning. Out of these nine children, three are from her husband's previous marriage, three from hers, and only the little three are from their current marriage. Before driving off, Dev dishes out unsolicited advice: “Madam, please don't get married again!”
The laughter such sequences generate, emphasizing both her over-reproductive body and her uncontrollable desire for conjugal relationships, is simultaneously related to the government's extreme Malthusian policies, and stands for a deep-rooted male paranoia. Here her over-reproductive body is a site of abjection and of objectifying laughter, of course mediated through the discourse of national-communitarian need, because of a male fear of reincorporation into the maternal body. In her discussion of the mother as a figure who can provoke horror, pathos, and laughter simultaneously, Julia Kristeva connects the grotesque status of the maternal body with the corporeal fear emanating from the terror of reincorporation into the mother.35 Because its reproductive capability always indicates its “debt to nature” and its openness, the maternal body becomes a cathectic site/sight of male insecurity. The maternal body is a site of abjection because it embodies the child's origin and needs to be thrown out in order to become subjectively whole. “It beseeches, worries, and fascinates… . Apprehensive, desire turns aside; sickened, it rejects.”36 Tun Tun's maternal body, over-reproductive and uncontrollable, evokes laughter in the male spectator by becoming abject in a way that defies placement and categorization. She needs to appear, be laughed at, and quickly removed to form her own peculiar topography so that the male subjectivity—individual and national-communitarian—can recuperate a sense of contained and controlled being. If the good-hearted male hero of Taxi Taxie readily submits to the law and abides by the moral of family planning, Tun Tun's laughable appearance is a threat to that order of law.
For more than one reason, Tun Tun's roles in films like Babul, Suhaag Raat, and Taxi Taxie can be considered revealing synecdoches for the entire body of her work. As repeatedly pointed out by commentators, the characters she played fall into a loop of repetition without any difference. Like the stock unruly-woman figure, Tun Tun often laughs uncontrollably and arbitrarily along with her spectators. She laughs, and in the process induces laughter in us. But we cannot think of this simultaneous laughter as a marker of identification between the comedienne and the spectator. Rather, the spectator engages in a process of pathological disidentification by laughing at her. A process of defamiliarizing encounter between the spectacle and the spectator causes the familiar laughter here. If Tun Tun's uncontrollable laughter is an essential aspect of her abject, mechanical configuration, the spectator's laughter at the spectacle is a recognition of her otherness.
As Jana Braziel argues in her discussion of the invisibility and erasure of fatness in mainstream cultural texts, “What is erased subtends what is visible; what is absent must be absent for what is present to have meaning.” She suggests that the corpulence of out-of-bounds bodies, even while it appears, only marks an “absence that is evoked as outside the frame of signification and representation.”37 There are moments when Tun Tun's corpulent presence and uncontrollable laughter dominate the diegetic space, halt the narrative, and introduce a temporal disruption. At the same time, her perennial representation as a dispensable difference (or an absence) because of the same indomitable corporeality only confirms what is necessary and indispensable for the narrative. As Angela Stukator writes, “Rendering the unruly fat woman as comic spectacle is one common strategy for designating her doubly marginal status … and ridiculing her aberrant body.” Along with its potential for being progressive, Stukator further argues, comedy can also demonstrate an inherent conservative bent by reaffirming stereotypes and archetypes.38 In my reading, Tun Tun's aberrant figuration lies in this ambiguous zone between subversion and marginalization. Her appearances are certainly not without potential for unsettling the patriarchal premise of the melodramatic form; however, the fact that she is either quickly removed and, in some cases, sternly disciplined undercuts that potential.
ARCHIVAL ABSENCE: A COMEDIC CONUNDRUM
An archive stands for something beyond its material immediacy. A process of interiorizing institutionalization, archiving involves inevitable epistemic erasure—an act of repression. In other words, an archive is invariably coupled with an unarchived secret. Tun Tun's sporadic appearances in film magazines and newspapers form the topography of what Akira Lippit, drawing on Jacques Derrida's writings on the archive, terms as secret “anarchive” and forcefully introduces a temporal impulse within the compulsive desires that often drive film historical inquiry.39
One regular characteristic of Tun Tun's cinematic career remained the brevity of her screen appearances. In films like Taxi Taxie, Qurbani (Sacrifice, 1980), and Coolie (1983), among many others, her character does not even have a name. And in films where she does, she appears on-screen for not more than a couple of minutes. Her contribution to the main storylines of her films is negligible. Her characters are often introduced only as parts of comic interludes. Even a director like Guru Dutt, who cast her in relatively more substantial roles in films like Mr. and Mrs. ’55 (1955), Pyaasa (Thirsty, 1957), and Chaudhvin ka Chand (1960), never gave her more than a couple of minutes of screen time. And during the later years of her acting career, her average screen time decreased even more. During the 1970s and 1980s, a number of her film appearances went uncredited.
Several sketches on Tun Tun's acting career sweepingly divide the roles she played into two categories: “the mother of half a dozen unruly children” and “the fat maiden in hot pursuit of a reluctant lover.”40 The partial filmography in the Wikipedia entry on Tun Tun describes some of her roles as “Fat lady in the theatre,” “Fat lady,” “Fat woman in car,” “Mother of 9 children,” “Mother of 7 babies,” without any ascribed names for those characters.41 In some of these films, almost regularly in the later ones, she comes on-screen rather abruptly and disappears before we notice her. One could argue that the comic effect in these sequences is produced through, not in spite of, their abruptness. It is imperative for Tun Tun to appear abruptly and suddenly in order to render herself comical. Her voluminous presence in the diegetic space and her fleeting appearance create a spatiotemporal discordance similar to her presence-absence in the archives.
Tun Tun's fleeting, often-nameless on-screen appearances are connected to her spectral presence in the archive of Indian cinema. In spite of her conspicuous absence in film magazines, in the 1970s Tun Tun does appear in some sections of the Hindi film magazine Madhuri. Her photographs appear in sections like caption contests and joke competitions. Appearing toward the end of each issue, these sections are for reader participation. They would routinely carry Tun Tun's picture and ask readers to send in “funny” captions or jokes. In some cases, readers were rewarded for submitting the best (read: most derogatory) joke. Not so surprisingly, most of the jokes were about her overeating, her domination of men, and obviously her fatness. What I find interesting is an emplacement of Tun Tun in Madhuri ironically titled “Sach! Sarasar Gapp!” (Truth! Utterly Fiction!). Appearing after all the seemingly nonfictional segments, consisting of factual reports on the industry, interviews with stars and starlets, and glamorous photos, this section, like Tun Tun herself, is a superfluous “aside” within the scope of the magazine (fig. 5).42 They do not contain facts; they are not historical; they are the otherwise of archive.
A couple of newspapers and magazines published a few interviews with Tun Tun during her twilight years. In these interviews, we find a reclusive actor talking about her popular on-screen image in a rather ambivalent manner. She seems more interested in discussing her failed career as a playback singer than in her on-screen persona, and periodically laments her transformation from Uma Devi to Tun Tun.43 It comes across as a profound, and self-referential, recognition of her status as an “aside” in the film industry. In real life, too, Tun Tun remains, like many characters she played on-screen, insufficiently known.