The Indian audience became acquainted with Kundan Shah and his flair for comedy only after the release of his first feature film — Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro — in 1983. The very next year, the sitcom Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi became a rage among TV audience, soon after it started airing on Doordarshan. But for those who studied with him at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) in the mid-1970s, Shah’s obsession with comedy was common knowledge.
According to those who knew Shah, while he was a student at FTII along with Vidhu Vinod Chopra and Saeed Mirza, the director studied the style, as well as the philosophy of masters of comedy, such as Charles Chaplin, Bustor Keaton and Chico Marx. In fact, his diploma film project Bonga (1976) was a comedy that portrayed a bank robbery attempted by a bunch of crazy men, played by his batchmates.
“He had a deep interest in comedy. In fact, he had written several research papers on the subject. So, when he decided to make his diploma project a comedy, it was a natural choice for him, although it could be seen as a risky idea because it’s the diploma film that you take from the institute and showcase outside to get work,” said Amit Tyagi, dean (Films), and a junior of Shah from the institute.
Tyagi, who also worked as an editing assistant for Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro, said while making the film, those working on it, including Shah, were aware that they were making something that was unlike anything attempted in the Hindi film industry before. But nobody anticipated the amount of appreciation the film, now considered a timeless classic, went on to achieve.
“The film was the result of collective efforts of people from the FTII and the National School of Drama. For Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro, Vidhu Vinod Chopra was the production manager. It was an understanding that Kundan, Vinod and Saeed had reached while they were at FTII… that they would help each other out during their first films. Earlier, when Chopra was shooting for his feature Sajaye Maut (1981), Kundan had done his bit by being the production manager,” said Tyagi.
Shah’s inclination towards socially-conscious comedy and political satire was obvious when he was studying at FTII, remembered film historian Anil Zankar. “He was a year senior to me at FTII. From the very beginning, he had a special interest in comedy. Also, he was among the first few directors who made a big name for themselves in the Indian television industry, with Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi. Even years later, when he made Kabhi Haan Kabhi Na with Shah Rukh Khan, the film wasn’t a carrier of stardom. It bore Kundan Shah’s distinct imprint,” said Zankar.
Last week, Shah spent two days at FTII as a panelist, discussing the work of Hrishikesh Mukherjee. Organisers of the event said that they chose to invite Shah as the chief guest for the event due to his remarkable understanding of the comedy genre, and the common thread that connected the two filmmakers, humour arising out of middle-class absurdities.
Those who knew him also remembered that although he achieved great success, he remained accessible and humble, and was ready to help everyone around him.
Last week, when he was at FTII with his friends, Shah insisted that they all share a drink in the evening. When one of his friends pointed out that Shah had stopped drinking years ago, on the insistence of his daughters, he retorted, “Yeah, I don’t drink. But I am at FTII after a long time, I have to”.