'Laughter' shows power of expressing joy

Indian film director Mira Nair ("Mississippi Masala," "Salaam Bombay") was stuck in a traffic jam in Bombay, steaming with impatience like everyone else in the cars around her, until she looked up and saw about 2,000 women in white saris crossing the street and laughing in unison. The banners they carried said "World Laughter Day."

"My frustration at being stuck in a traffic jam just dissolved," said Ms. Nair in a recent interview. "So I mentioned it to a friend of mine, a photographer named Adam Bartos, and he thought it would make a great film. I wanted to make an absurdist film on the power of laughter. But then, when we got there, like life, you think it's for one thing and it turns out to be for another." The charming documentary she did make is The Laughing Clubs of India (Cinemax, Aug. 28, 7-7:35 p.m.).

People gather in parks, factories, or even in prisons, and spend 20 minutes a day laughing. There are actual exercises for laughter - and proponents find it quite relaxing and even life-changing, as she has witnessed.

What Nair found was that people who take laughter "seriously" in their lives, learn to love. She was deeply touched by the people she met. Like Americans, Indians are getting too busy to make room for laughter. So the clubs developed in a way that provides a feeling of community and joy that can be helpful to the perpetually stressed, she says.

Her own philosophy of filmmaking is generous toward her characters. And this film follows in that line of sly affection for the human. "I cannot think of doing any film without being deeply invested in it personally.... But I don't reflect on the journey. These subjects call to me and don't let me go. Ordinary people are extraordinary, and if you can capture them in their complexity, that's good - good for the world - because that's what life is like."

* * *

Joe Mantegna plays a lot of tough guys. One of my personal favorites is the Mafioso Fat Tony on "The Simpsons." He's back, as Robert B. Parker's tough but tender private eye, Spenser (this is his third Spenser film) in Walking Shadow (A&E, Aug. 26, 9-11 p.m.). The plot is far-fetched, but Mr. Mantegna makes it an enjoyable mystery with his deadpan cool and his occasional jowly scowl.

Spenser is asked by his girlfriend (Marcia Gay Harden) to investigate the stalking of a theater company director, and ends up in the mayhem of Asian mobsters and unhappy actresses.

As for the many cons, tough guys, and louses he's played - that's all acting. He keeps his real life separate from his working life. "I gravitate toward the way the British actors I've known work - more from the outside in," he says. "I can probably get as much from a pair of shoes a costumer gives me, as from going out on the street and living like a bum for a month in order to play a bum."

He's had a lot of variety in his career and has played a lot of leading men. But he always thinks of himself as a character actor. Part of the excitement of acting for him is never knowing what is coming next. That's how he found "Searching for Bobby Fisher" and "House of Games."

"We all have fantasy aspects of our characters we can tap into, but I make a clear distinction between what I play and my life," Mantegna says. "When I look at a script, as long as I feel that what I need to create that character is in there, that's all that concerns me."

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