Some faces are not legendary, but so memorable that they become the defining image of their time. Ravi Baswani’s was one such face. Those raised on the Doordarshan and VHS diet in the 1980s will likely break into a wicked smile at the mention of the goofy-eyed, wiry little guy with geeky frames and childlike enthusiasm. It’s safe to assume that he may have remained yet another lovable sidekick on the fringes of mainstream Bollywood if not for the legion of absurdist humour fans who rescued him from near-oblivion. What also helped the Ravi Baswani revival was the rise of film clubs, the Internet and a young audience yearning for the soothing comforts of nostalgia. But mostly, his popularity is directly linked to ‘Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro’, a small-budget film from 1983 that has become a byword for black comedy in India. As the cult around ‘JBDY’ grew (something similar happened to Hollywood’s ‘The Big Lebowski’) so did Baswani’s fan base.
Interestingly, his first two films ‘Chashme Buddoor’ and ‘Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro’ are also his best known ones. Unfortunately, they were also the proverbial albatross which he wore till the very end of his life. Looking back at his career, he once joked that he would have been a legend if he had died after those two films. “I would have become the James Dean of Bollywood,” he quipped. It’s true that Baswani never really came out of their shadow and did anything as significant again in his life. Much of his later work (he continued to act through the 90s and noughties) is eminently forgettable. Perhaps, he was hoping for a new life when he announced that he would turn director. Unfortunately, he died in 2010 even before his film could take off.
So, what qualifies a two-hit wonder, an average Joe who did not make his film debut until his mid-30s as the most popular comedian of Eighties Bollywood?
Revisiting ‘CB’ and ‘JBDY’ today, it’s easy to see why a certain generation found Baswani beloved and special, a jester who through personal humiliations, false braggadocio and trying to be the Big Man in a Little Man’s Body created his own shtick. After seeing Baswani’s on-screen antics one got the impression that he must be just as goofy in real life. Watching him you imagine that if you ever met him and discovered that he was a serious person and not the buffoon that he portrayed on cinema your whole world would come crashing down. Both Sai Parānjpye’s ‘Chashme Buddoor’ and Kundan Shah’s ‘Jaane Bhi Do Yare’ derive their power from Baswani’s sheer comic genius. “To me,” Shah says in Jai Arjun Singh’s excellent book ‘Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro: Seriously Funny Since 1983’, “Ravi was ‘Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro.’ He was the comic cement of the film.”
Some actors slip into legend merely by the chance act of being part of a classic film. In Baswani’s case, in both ‘CB’ and especially ‘JBDY’ he was essential to the script. At the same time, he brought his own unique interpretation to his characters. These were not solo hero films. He had to fight his way in. In ‘JBDY’, in all probability, he could have easily got swept away by the tsunami of young talent from FTII, NSD and Delhi theatre circuit. But such was his personal charm that he held his own. What unites the two comedies is the bonhomie of bromance. ‘JBDY’ is a quintessential Bombay film while ‘CB’ is set in Delhi. Delhi sent its best boys to the ‘JBDY’ unit. Baswani was one. Like many young actors, he craved Bollywood but wanted to do it on his own terms.
In 1981’s ‘Chashme Buddoor’, a comedy about three flatmates vying for the attention of their pretty neighbour played by Deepti Naval, Baswani brings a touch of zaniness and ‘Bollywood struggler’ vibe to the role. Next came ‘Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro.’ For an audience used to corny commercial fare (Amitabh Bachchan’s ‘Coolie’, Jeetendra-Sridevi’s ‘Himmatwala’ and Sunny Deol’s ‘Betaab’ had released the same year as ‘JBDY’ and were major box-office hits) it’s not difficult to imagine today what a black sheep ‘JBDY’ must have been in its time.
Made for next to nothing with virtually a new cast that had storm brewing inside them, ‘JBDY’ has gone from underground hit to a cult classic. Besides critical acclaim, the film has attracted its fair share of academic interest and no Greatest Bollywood Films of All Time list is ever complete without its inclusion. Modern critics have a field day reading meanings into it, suggesting there’s more to it than just a bizarre plot and a collection of sometimes-sardonic and sometimes-silly one-liners. Knowing Shah’s cinematic influences, one could venture to broadly classify the film as a cross between Marx Brothers and Chaplin. That aside, ‘JBDY’ is also a triumph for the comedy genre itself, which is not taken seriously in India unless there’s a ‘serious’ angle or message in it. In its attempt to expose a serious theme like corruption in the Indian system, an issue that remains painfully relevant, ‘JBDY’, like all best satire, contains a grain of truth. Many labels have been applied to the film, from socio-political satire to absurdist but director Kundan Shah has famously sneered at an analysis of any kind. Shah often says that directors can’t watch their own films without finding fault in them. His logic seems to be, what is enjoyable to the audience is painful embarrassment to the maker. As he told ‘Tehelka TV’ some years ago, “We are looking minus. You (the critics) are looking plus.”
What appears to be a definitive “plus”, however, was that Shah had a fantastic cast and crew on board which helped transform the written material into something both comic and tragic. Read the many behind-the-scene accounts and one can infer that the actors improved on the material. The cast includes Om Puri, Pankaj Kapur and Satish Shah but Naseeruddin Shah and Baswani are undoubtedly the film’s Big Two. They play the down-on-luck, idealistic photographers who get mixed up in the builder-media-police nexus. While Naseeruddin Shah was a minor celeb on the set thanks to his rising profile as arthouse cinema’s leading man it was Baswani who walked away as the scene-stealer. The much-senior Naseer had known Baswani from the latter’s theatre days in Delhi. The story goes that Naseer was visiting Delhi when Baswani happened to lay his hands on Sai Paranjpye’s script for ‘Sparsh’. It so impressed him that he begged Naseer to recruit him as his spot boy. They eventually hired Baswani for props and it’s entirely possible, Baswani liked to joke, that Paranjpye offered him ‘Chashme Buddoor’ as a “bonus” for his backstage work in ‘Sparsh.’
Naseer and Baswani’s off-screen bond translated well on screen. Their easy camaraderie is evident in every single frame they are in together. An odd pair, they could not have been more different as actors though. By all accounts, Baswani was spontaneous and improviser as opposed to Naseer’s “serious and thoughtful” actor.
Besides Naseer and Baswani, so many talented actors and technicians contributed to ‘JBDY’ that it’s impossible to tell whose film it really is. It is mostly seen as a collaborative effort and even director Kundan Shah had to defend ‘The film wasn’t made, it just happened’ charge that has haunted him all his life. Author Jai Arjun Singh’s book does a marvellous job at resolving some of the question marks and riddles about the film. From Singh’s rendering, we definitely know that Kundan Shah asked Baswani to prepare the skit for the time bomb scene and it was the actor who came up with the famous ‘Amazing lighter’ gag. So, there you have it. The character of the enthusiastic Sudhir was as much his own interpretation as the writers’ creation.
In his brief career, Baswani did everything from madcap to slapstick but his comedy never devolved into vulgar and gimmicky. It was always good-natured and clean, the old fashioned way. No wonder, in later years he felt a sense of disenchantment with the constantly deteriorating standards of comedy.
“We’ve all lost our innocence now,” he told Jai Arjun Singh. “The loudness of comedy in recent times is very disheartening. It’s all about verbal diarrhoea – all this Laughter Challenge nonsense.”
Luckily, the Ravi Baswani brand of humour was anything but that.
(Shaikh Ayaz is a writer and journalist based in Mumbai. He also paints.)