The other day, I met a man who had seen Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro over a hundred times. And he had turned up for yet another show because he loved the film more than anything else he’d seen. Why? Because of the story, the acting, the non-stop madcap laugh-out-loud sequences. And then he added, it makes us angry and sad and thoughtful at the same time, and then we laugh again. It is like life itself.
Kundan Shah, the man who gave us Indian cinema’s blackest comedy, whose brilliance remains undiminished despite its datedness, is no more. And he would have been the first to smile sardonically at the outpouring of grief today: this is one filmmaker who was forced into near-oblivion during his lifetime because he never did get a chance to fashion an equally memorable second inning.
Sure, he did the likable Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa, one of the few films in which Shah Rukh Khan plays a loser-in-love-Sunil, instead of the winner-takes-it-all-Raj. It was the only other of his films which was worthy of our time. Almost everything else he directed after these two, including Kya Kehna, in which Preity Zinta plays a teary unwed mother, was so radically different, and not in a good way, that it was almost as if someone else had made them. Instead of sharpness and satire, and irony and cynicism, we got cheesy, overwrought melodrama.
Raj was the man of the moment, and Bollywood’s future; Sunil got left behind. So did his maker.
Despite the landmark JBDY, there were no takers for the kind of cinema that Shah wanted to do. He took refuge, like did so many others, in television, and gave us those wonderful sitcoms Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi, and Nukkad, which combined his hallmark earthy wit and homespun wisdom.
The enlightened period when the National Film Development Corporation supported and funded a spate of superb films, JBDY included, proved short-lived. Mainstream cinema lost its moorings in the ‘80s, and the FTII-trained filmmakers and other similar minded idealists who wanted to change the world were left floundering.
His companions in spirit, Ketan Mehta and Saeed Akhtar Mirza, managed to carve a more productive path, which kept them working, even if the zest that was apparent in their earlier films, Mirch Masala and Bhavni Bhavai, and Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyon Aata Hai and Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro, dwindled after a while.
But for Shah, the gap between his dreams and reality kept widening. He never bettered JBDY, which is, if anything, even more, relevant today than it was in 1983, the year it released.
Getting Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro off the ground and into theatres was a miracle. Somehow the stars aligned to create the coming together of the young and restless Naseeruddin Shah, (the late) Ravi Baswani, (the late) Om Puri, Pankaj Kapur, Neena Gupta, Satish Shah and Satish Kaushik on the screen to bring alive a scrappy screenplay. Behind the scenes too there was a whole array of talent, including Vidhu Vinod Chopra and Sudhir Mishra. They contributed their time for practically nothing, grousing at the lack of resources within their borrowed sets, and the rot in the state of the nation.
Starving artistes in garrets are romantic only from afar, and only for a short while: the JBDY cast and crew pulled off a near-impossible feat coasting on passion, a cussed won’t-give-up attitude, and the generosity of friends. The film got made, but it was always going to be one of its kind. There would never be another.
Rank commerce and pragmatism won: Kundan Shah lost. So did we.