HOW DO YOU DESCRIBE Kundan Shah’s Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro to someone who hasn’t seen it? You can outline the plot (naïve photographers get drawn into a situation involving unscrupulous builders, a corrupt police commissioner and a self-serving magazine editor). You can talk of the many modes of humour the film employs—farce, surrealism, black comedy, the Theatre of the Absurd, the Keystone Kops. You can explain that the people who made it were influenced by the silent movies of Chaplin and Keaton, the non-sequiturs of Groucho and Chico Marx, the physical comedy of Kishore Kumar and Mehmood, the whimsicality of Jacques Tati, the wry political humour of 1960s Czech cinema. But none of these briefs would begin to justify how this small, modestly budgeted movie became a cultural phenomenon.
You have to experience Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro for yourself to see how it uses exaggerated humour to make pointed observations about social concerns, making the viewer chuckle along as it holds up a harsh, distorting mirror to reality, how it segues between wordless slapstick and fast one-liners; how it frequently does away with credible scene setups and narrative consistency; how it does all of this with characters that are deliberate caricatures rather than nuanced people.
When I was asked to contribute to a Harper Collins’ series on iconic Indian films, JBDY wasn’t the first movie I thought of. However, when it came up during a discussion, I knew instantly that it would be a very interesting film to write about.
Like most other movie-lovers of my generation, my relationship with Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro goes back a long way. As a child I saw it many times on Doordarshan, never in a movie theatre. The fragmented memories involve adults guffawing in front of a black-and-white television set in the living room. Every viewing seemed to centre on the famous Mahabharata climax, which was a cultural touchstone for so many of us growing up in the 1980s. There was also the spine-tingling darkroom scene where Vinod (Naseeruddin Shah) and Sudhir (Ravi Baswani) enlarge a piece of film to discover that they’ve captured a murder. But it was the last few seconds of the movie, the coda that followed the framing of the innocent heroes, which stayed etched in my mind: Vinod and Sudhir walking about in prison clothes, Lata Mangeshkar’s soothing voice (very incongruous to this scene) singing “Hum Honge Kaamyaab,” the sudden, strident sound of drumbeats, the protagonists looking directly into the camera and making a throat-slitting gesture, the brief shot of the Gateway of India and the sickening ‘thud’ with which the film ends.
Watching it for the first time as an adult in 2008, I re-lived—and loved—the wackiness of the screenplay, the college-skit feel of the production, and the bizarre, unexplained moments. At the same time, I felt a little ambivalent about the film—I admired it more for its concept than for the execution. Watch it closely, with notepad and pen in hand, and you find that some scenes are jarring and shoddy. You can tell that it was made on a very small budget, in less-than-ideal conditions, by struggling artists who weren’t sure if the whole thing would even come together, much less reach an audience. You can see the last-minute changes and deletions, the hurried incorporation of last-minute ideas that felt right, the abrupt cuts and the lack of options available in the editing room. And yet, these very aspects of the film were what ultimately made researching and writing about it such a pleasure.
Kundan Shah looks more like the everyman Wagle from the popular TV serial he directed in the 1980s than a temperamental artist or a ‘creative type’ (“If he were to walk past you, you’d take him for an accountant,” Naseeruddin Shah wrote in an article for Tehelka). But speak to him for a while and you see the off-kilter sense of humour, the hidden rage and the talent for exaggeration that came together so fortuitously in an English-language script titled ‘Opening Ceremony,’ which was the genesis of Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro. After having spent a few hours with Kundan, the book began to come together in my mind. Many people contributed in various ways to creating the JBDY legend, but for me, truly understanding this film was inseparable from understanding the man in whose mind the story was born. (The working title for the manuscript in my head was “Kundan Shah and the Making of Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro”.) The first fourth of the book is about this Gujarati boy from a business family who, in most other parallel universes, would never have worked in a creative field (good Gujarati boys from baniya families study commerce in college and then join their fathers’ import-export business), much less helmed one of the wackiest films made in this country. In a sense, this is the first big joke in the inside story of Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro.
Kundan’s improbable journey was the first of many chance events, twists and turns that marked the making of this film. As I met other members of the unit, the anecdotes began to flow, bringing with them a sense that there was something almost mystical about the way the production came together. “Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro wasn’t made—it just happened,” more than one member of the crew told me independently during my interviews. “We had freedom without responsibility,” said Kundan, acknowledging that little was expected of this low-investment movie, produced by the government-sponsored National Film Development Corporation—and that it therefore became a playing field for some of the country’s finest theatre and film talents, who worked together with a camaraderie that they would never recapture.
In a small, dingy room in central Delhi, the dialogue writer Ranjit Kapoor—described by Kundan as the film’s architect—spoke of the long days that he, Kundan and Satish Kaushik spent fine-tuning the script in Hindi. There was no time to waste, so Kapoor and Kaushik had gone to Bombay and stayed at Kundan’s house for a month. As the script progressed, the wall outside Kundan’s house was slowly turning red—Kapoor chewed on paan when he was concentrating hard on something—and the changing shade could have well served as a barometer for how the script was coming along.
In a hotel in Juhu, the actor Pawan Malhotra—who had served as a production assistant on the film at the age of 22—animatedly described procuring dead rats from the Bombay Municipal Corporation, which had a hall full of trunks with dead rats, for a shot that lasted three seconds. Naseer recounted his many problems with the script’s lack of logic, graciously conceding that his doubts turned out to be misplaced. (“I was wrong—I should have been less high-strung, and possibly I was suffering from performance anxiety because I hadn’t done this sort of comedy before.”) Everyone spoke in hushed tones about a four-day location shoot in Alibag that turned into a running nightmare, people and equipment strewn about the place, little to eat and nowhere to sleep. Hunger, desperation, the need to find an outlet for creativity...these were some of the building blocks of this movie.
Reading the original English script as well as the final Hindi script—both of which included a lot of material that wasn’t eventually used—helped me understand Kundan’s remark that every film “is a shadow of the film it might have been.” Anyone who’s seen Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro knows that it has a lot of weird moments, but there could have been much more: a talking gorilla who analyses the human condition (while dressed in a costume borrowed from the 1970s shaitan movie Jaani Dushman), a short-sighted disco killer who enjoys shooting into a crowd, a conversation featuring a deferential Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, a chess game won by Commissioner DeMello’s corpse!
Long before production began, some of the key members of the unit were already in place; Kundan was part of a small group of friends—Renu Saluja, Vinod Chopra and Sudhir Mishra among them—who were ready to don multiple hats for this film. Years before they became well-known directors themselves, Chopra and Mishra not only lent their first names to this film’s protagonists, they also worked on the mundane aspects of production: checking out locations, preparing schedules, supervising the daily spending. Saluja, who would soon become one of the country’s most respected film editors, was present for each day’s shooting and kept an eagle eye on continuity.
Ravi Baswani may have seemed an atypical choice for the second lead alongside Naseer, but he was also one of the very few people who were instantly sold on the script. When Kundan signed him on he knew he had an actor who could carry off the more comical elements of the script. Om Puri—playing an atypical comic role—and Pankaj Kapoor slipped effortlessly into the parts of two contrasting villains, the loud, drunken Ahuja and the quietly menacing Tarneja. Satish Shah, who had played the lead in Kundan’s Film and Television Institute of India diploma film Bonga, was a little miffed at having to ‘play dead’ for most of the film, but made up for it by giving the corpse selective expressions in each scene. And the popular Marathi theatre actress Bhakti Barve agreed to play the magazine editor Shobha, though Kundan reckons this was “probably because she felt sorry for us!”
In an overt way Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro is a dated work—very much a product of its time—but it remains painfully topical in so many ways that matter. Watching the scene where a newly built flyover collapses because the builder “mixed cement into sand instead of mixing sand into cement,” one thinks about the countless similar incidents we read about in newspapers every day—the buck-passing that accompanied the fiascos preceding the 2010 Commonwealth Games, for example. Even lines that are incredibly hilarious carry strong undertones of rage at the world’s injustices. Making a speech about the benefits of a new bridge, the smarmy builder Tarneja says, “Aage jaake log is flyover ke neeche ghar basaaenge” (“People will make their homes under this flyover in the future”), and his listeners applaud heartily. The same scene contains the proclamation “Ek din ke liye shahar ke sabhi gutter band rahenge” (“The city’s gutters will remain closed for a day to mark the commissioner’s death”)—a funny line to be sure, but also a dig at the sycophantic tradition in India of having official holidays to ‘honour’ a leader’s memory.
The question implicitly raised by this film’s very particular brand of humour is: in a world where people live under the flyovers on which other people drive their expensive cars, where the authorities can shrug when told that the residents of a colony are drinking muddy water, why can’t a time bomb be used as a cigarette lighter? Why can’t a corpse travel on roller-skates and then turn up as Draupadi on a stage, with the righteous Pandavas intent on disrobing her while the evil Kauravas play saviours? Where do you set the limits of absurdity?
What does the success of Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro—with its many flaws and many flashes of brilliance—tell us about the strange workings of the creative process and about the relationship that develops between a work of art and its audience? These are some of the questions I’ve tried to explore in my book, which unfolds in a narrative non-fiction style: a story with a beginning, a middle and an end. In the process of writing it, my admiration for the film—and for the people who made it against many odds—has increased. Even with its awkward, amateurish moments, there’s nothing else quite like it in Hindi cinema.