After watching Romeo and Juliet for the first time, the joke goes, a philistine from Yorkshire remarked, “Nice play, but a bit full of clichés.” When it was released in 1983, Jaane Bhi do Yaaro’s (JBDY) tepid performance at the box office did not augur the film’s immense influence. But Kundan Shah, who passed away on October 7, managed what few film-makers in India have achieved — to elevate farce to satire and make audiences laugh out loud at the quotidian tragedies at the dark core of a corrupt and compromised system.
Perhaps the greatest testament to JBDY is that it continues to appear avant-garde in 2017. Over three decades since the film first hit the screens, it has gone from a cult obsession to a perennial classic, its themes and jokes more resonant with each passing year. The struggle of two young photographer-entrepreneurs to make it big works better than ever in times of Start-up India; the double-dealing and hypocrisy of a media preening with self-righteousness will strike a chord with many and the unbreakable nexus of impunity between politicians and their money-bags continues to have a wide resonance. Most of all, one can only marvel at the irreverence of arguably the funniest sequence in Indian cinema: Everyone from the divinities of the Mahabharat to emperor Akbar are lampooned in the “play” scene, starring a dead body with the best punchlines.
With his first film, Kundan Shah managed the greatest artistic feat — for those in on the joke, its dialogues are already the most delightful clichés. There is a lack of self-consciousness in the way JBDY laughs at the world, a quiet courage in the way its plot refuses to take the lazy way out — its heroes, played by Naseeruddin Shah and Ravi Baswani, are irredeemable underdogs and remain so to the bitter end. In a world that celebrates winning at all costs, Kundan Shah has left us with a great lesson — it’s worth celebrating the nice guy, even when he finishes last.