Laughter, a basic expression of human emotions is now no longer confined to personal and social spaces but is now being tapped in by various researchers and practicing doctors the world over. But not many would know that there is something called gelotology, derived from the Greek word ‘gelos’, meaning laughter, which refers to the study of humor and laughter, its psychological and physiological effects on the human body. This field of study was pioneered by an American psychiatrist Dr William F. Fry of Stanford University who sounded out on the use of laughter on therapeutic grounds in aiding patients recuperating or suffering from stress disorders and as after-care following cardiac related surgeries. The seriousness given to laughter can also be seen in academic, philosophical and intellectual discourses starting from the times of Herodotus to Hobbes to Nietzsche and many others on the topic who have given the topic their serious thoughts. So far as the use of laughter therapy as an add on to continuing medical treatment was concerned, the lay man did not know much about it or gave the topic much thought. This, when stand up comic acts aimed at generating laughter was being used to bolster the mood in troop camps stationed in hostile environments and even during the course of wars. The English-born American comedian and multi faceted artist Bob Hope made numerous tours to entertain war troops during the Second World War with his stand up comic acts and was so appreciated for his efforts that the 1996, the U.S. Congress declared him the “first and only honorary veteran of the U.S. armed forces”.
Even as some in the medical fraternity took to turning into the therapeutic powers of laughter as an aid in their medical treatment, the public were not too aware of this aspect till the entry of a Hollywood film called Patch Adams that starred American actor Robin Williams. Loosely based on the real life story of Dr. Hunter “Patch” Adams, the film was the story of a medical student who uses humor to deal with every situation in his life and the people around him much to the chagrin of the medical fraternity. The film brought in elements of drama and fiction and showed the main character going on to set up a hospital, which treated patients without medical insurance, which incidentally is a prerequisite in the US and where elaborate comedy skits would be staged as part of therapy. In real life, Dr. Hunter “Patch” Adams pioneered the Gesundheit! Institute in 1971, which like the film story revolves around treating patients with a focus on laughter as an integral element of effective doctoral care. The real Adams through his Institute organizes a group of volunteers from around the world to travel to various countries where they dress as clowns in an effort to bring humor to orphans, patients, and other people. In the past, the Gesundheit! Institute has taken clowns into war zones in Bosnia, refugee camps in the Republic of Macedonia, as well as orphanages in South Africa.
In India, the idea of laughter therapy is not popular even though a very popular Hindi film was made that took up the idea of how humor could be used as an integral part of the medical world where injuries, illness, pain, grieving and even death could be less burdensome when tackled with a dose of humor and laughter. Though the film was a huge commercial success, there is no actual real life example of the story. Except for laughter clubs in a few metro cities where people gather in groups to exercise and use practiced steps to induce laughter as a stress beating mechanism, humor and laughter remain confined merely as an entertainment track in films and dramas. Unfortunately, the standard of comedy in films has of late touched a low with slapstick humor, innuendo and jarring set pieces.
Manipur today does not have much reason to laugh. The civic state of affairs has gone for a toss with traffic jams, water logged streets, overflowing drains, power outages and electric wires threatening to fall down at any time. Unfortunately enough, the films and dramas/shumang leelas that are being produced and shown today are mere imitations of the very nature of slapstick and contrived comedy that one sees in Hindi films. At one point of time, we had a sub culture of ‘epoms’ that has died completely now where at the most, three actors would take on various roles without getting into character get ups and go on an endless rendition of comical repartees full of satire and humor that would also be a commentary on the socio-political-cultural lives of people. And because we are so starved of humor and laughter, we need to get serious about them both!