Take two out-of-work photographers, blend in a media sting-operation, a couple of unscrupulous builders, a corruption scam and the body of a municipal commissioner, and the heady concoction you get is the cult-classic comedy we all know today as Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro. “If we knew it was going to be this big, we wouldn’t have made it this way,” smiles the director, Kundan Shah. Around a makeshift stage hosting a special session with the filmmaker at the Mumbai Film and Comic Convention, fans are gathered dressed in costumes inspired by their favourite movie and comic-book characters. Supergirl in the front row was busily taking notes, Darth Vader plonked comfortably on the floor, camera phone in hand, while Batman and Superman looked on too.
Exactly how ‘big’ did the movie turn out to be? One look at this crowd and the question is answered straightaway. The movie is about 30 years old and the fans surging around the stage are mostly 20- and 30-somethings, who were either not born or were too young then to understand what the movie stood for. Yet, all of them hang on to every word of the director, laugh out loud when the movie clip plays on the screen onstage, and mouth the dialogues alongside.
Made on a budget of Rs 7 lakh, the 1983 release features a talented line-up of actors such as Naseeruddin Shah, the late Ravi Baswani, Satish Shah, Om Puri and Pankaj Kapoor among others. Aparna Sen, acclaimed Bengali actor/director, too was to be a part of the movie. “But she fell asleep during the narration. People normally do,” Kundan Shah jokes. The role of editor Shobhaa eventually went to Marathi-actress Bhakti Barve.
“I feel like I am the luckiest director in the world. People generally don’t remember the directors of comedy films. But even after all these years, people know and remember me as the director of Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro,” he remarks gleefully about his directorial debut.
Regarded one of the funniest movies ever to come out of Bollywood, Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro is a comedy with a conscience, dealing with issues such as corruption, poverty, food wastage, consumerism, and religious intolerance — all of which, of course, remain relevant to this day. What’s outstanding is that the movie takes these very serious issues and bundles them into a fun, side-splitting, hard-hitting gag-ride interspersed with social messages.
The inspiration for the movie dates back to the ‘grim struggle’ of post-FTII (Film and Television Institute of India, Pune) days, says Shah. After passing out in 1976, a couple of his former classmates had been reduced to opening a photo studio due to lack of opportunities in the film industry. This sparked off the idea for the film.
“I interpret comedy as a fight for dignity. I have to get what is mine and I will fight for it. The characters in the movie are doing the same. They are fighting for their bread. I don’t like ‘smart aleck’ humour,” he says, observing that comedy movies often lack this edge, this desperate need for survival that pushes characters to the limit, to illogical heights.
However, the movie did not make a good first-impression. “When it was released it had a fairly OK reception. Most people found the comedy too slapstick and beyond conventional logic,” reminisces Shah. But he sees the slapstick as part of the larger narrative focusing on serious issues. For instance, the famous ‘thoda khao, thoda phenko’ (‘eat a little, throw a little’) scene, where cake slices are thrown out the window, was a comment on food wastage and the consumerist culture.
“Comedy has a long shelf-time. There is a lot of humour behind sadness. Serious action actors like Douglas Fairbanks have faded away, but everyone remembers Charlie Chaplin. Over the years, comedy just gets bigger and better,” he says, explaining why the movie finds acceptance even today.
While confident about his filmmaking basics, thanks to his FTII training, he remembers being apprehensive about handling comedy and its various aspects such as spontaneity and improvisations. He built the film as he went along, he says, adding that he still feels embarrassed when he sees the movie and wishes he had done more.
Well, that just might happen too, what with his plans for a sequel with the original characters and star-cast in place. Picking up from where the original left off, the sequel will track the characters thirty years on. This one will be more political though, he clarifies. That is all right, Mr Shah, as long as it makes us laugh as hard as the first one did, and think much more too.