Originally written for EPW Blog
"…how much does he earn?"
"Once he gets married, he will start earning too."
"So, does he not earn anything now?"
"He does but a man can't always win. Sometimes he loses too."
"Isn't that's true of gambling?"
"So, he's a gambler!"
"No, not a gambler but once he gets drunk, he obviously can't help playing a hand or two."
"Gambler and a drunkard too. But he's too nice a person according to you!"
"Of course! Once married, he will stop visiting that dancer's house and his drinking-gambling days will be over too"
"So, he goes to the house of some dancer too!"
"What's wrong with that? Only bluebloods have such taste."
"Alright then, tell me about his bloodline too"
"As soon as we find anything about his bloodline, we will certainly inform you…"
"I have to agree, your friend may not be a good person. But you certainly are a good friend."
"That, I am."
That's a rough translation of the famous comic scene from Sholay (1975) where Jai tries to talk Mausie Ji into letting (or not letting) Basanti marry his good friend Veeru.
The dialogues in the scene follows a certain format. There's a simple question and then an answer that's unexpected and then more question that lead to some more unexpected answers till the real purpose of the exchange is resolved.
Another example of the same dialogue:
V. O mendicant, do you indulge in eating mutton ?
K. What is the good of it without liquor ?
V. Do you like liquor too ?
K. Together with prostitutes.
V. A prostitute requires to be given money ; wherefrom do you get it?
K. Either by gambling or stealing.
V. Are you addicted to gambling and stealing too ?
K. What other end may not a fallen person come to ?
This dialogue takes place between legendary king Vikramaditya and Kalidasa. I came across it in a paper titled Birth-Place of Kalidasa By Pandit Anand Koul. Published in Journal of Indian History VII (1928). The scene from Sholay was the first thing that come to my mind after reading those lines.
The same motifs - Drinking, Gambling, Harlots, and a resolution.
Little more reading revealed that this joke has been told for centuries. It was part of all major literary traditions of ancient India, told and re-told in various ways but always following the same format.
The following lines are from sanskrit anthological work 'Subhasitavali' of Vallabhadeva (fifteenth-century CE, Kashmir ) quoted in 'Laughing Matters: Comic Tradition in India' (1987 ) by Lee Siegel:
"In a similar stanza a Buddhist monk, asked a rather innocent question, reveals his true nature. The rhetorical structure of the poem seems to parody Buddhist dialectics and the philosophy of causation. 'Why,' he is asked, are his 'robes so long and so loose?'
'Because I use then as a net for the catching of fish.'
'You eat fish?'
'Yes, for fish with my liquor is a most savoury dish.'
'You drink booze?'
'Yes, but just when I'm out with whores pursuing my pleasure.'
'You go to whores?'
'Yes, after thrashing my enemies, just for good measures.'
'You have enemies'
'Yes, but only those whose homes I have robbed of their treasure.'
'Yes. to pay off the debts I've incurred with my gambling itch'
'Yes, yes, yes! I am, as you see, a real son of a bitch.'
The poem is comic, is ludicrous to the degree that actuality contradicts expectation, that each successive line surprises."
The same story is part of Hemavijaya's Katha-Ratnakara (16th /17century. Sanskrit/Prakrit) for Jainas. It is in Sinhalese-Buddhist dialogue presented in J. E. Seneviratne's The life of Kalidas (1901) published in Colombo. And in Ksemendra's Lokaprakasa. [All listed in 'A History of Indian Literature: Buddhist literature and Jaina literature' by Moriz Winternitz] The joke was always employed to mock the monks of the other sects.
We can only guess how this ancient comic ploy ended up getting reworked in Sholay. Maybe it was a popular joke around that era and, as often happens with Bollywood films, was added into the film as a random token comic relief. But the sequence in the film does continue the same old tradition faithfully. Even though, unlike the ancient version, in the film sequence the two main characters are talking about a third person, by the end of it true nature of the person answering the questions is revealved. The resolution again completes the joke.