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From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 5, Issue 34, Dated Aug 30, 2008
CULTURE & SOCIETY  
25 Years of a Classic

‘Hum ho gaye kaamyaab?’

It may be a cult film today. Back then, it was insanity. NASEERUDDIN SHAH looks back on the gritty elation of Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro

SATISH SHAH clad in a burqa being wheeled along on roller skates by Ravi Baswani and myself on the crisscrossed pavement of Napean Sea Road and remarking that all his fillings seemed to have turned loose. The entire unit asleep in their positions awaiting the arrival of Bhakti Barve at 3 am, returning to shoot in Alibagh after a stage performance in Bombay. Organising a coffin to come barreling down Malabar Hill, then moving back uphill from the direction it came. The costume person being dispatched to Goregaon from Marine Drive at three in the morning to collect the laundered white suits which were needed but hadn’t been delivered. Discovering, after boarding a local train which wouldn’t stop till the next station, that my camera had been filched on the platform. Spoofing the Mahabharata on practically empty stomachs, arguing about logic in the telephone scene — just a few of the myriad memories of the making of Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro that shall never fail to turn me moist-eyed and nostalgic.

25 Years of a Classic
Plot thickens Naseeruddin Shah and Ravi Baswani

In those days, the titles of films were not identified by abbreviations, we just called it “this f—-ing film we’re shooting now”. It was the pre-monsoon summer, the locations were the streets of Bombay and, above all, these were the pre ‘air-conditioned trailers for actors’ days. Unlike in these slick times, no wall-to-wall video coverage of the shoot occurred either; barely a photograph exists. I had become a bit of a villain even before the cameras rolled, having taken the unit further into the heat by causing a two-week delay in starting the film because my (then would-be) wife and I had decided that getting married on April 1 would be amusing. So, having bullied Kundan Shah into agreeing to the postponement, I arrived on April 15, straight from honeymooning in Goa to the most nightmarish shoot of my life. Nothing compares with it still!

When someone who has just caught the film on late-night cable delightedly asks, “shooting must have been such fun, no?” the simple answer should be an abrupt, unequivocal “No!” but I think all of us, without exception, smugly concur that it was (and in hindsight it sometimes even seems like it was), though the word ‘fun’ applied to a budget roughly equivalent to the cost of a day’s shoot on a Shahrukh Khan extravaganza is stretching the facts. The cast had some wonderfully talented and highly respected but hardly marketable, and in some cases unrecognisable, actors. The shooting took place in some of the roughest locations imaginable and, often watched by hordes of jeering onlookers, these wonderful troupers had to try and be funny, all the while attempting to keep the sweat from pouring into their eyes. There were scenes demanding stuff which could rightly only be performed in cartoon animation — being asked to stand still on roller blades was the least of the excesses. The 12-hour shifts always got extended, sometimes by as much as 24 hours! We were all being paid peanuts, bringing our food from home and cribbing like hell, but to a man standing by the director and the film.

The script of Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro seemed to have been revealed to Kundan Shah in an inspired moment of transcendental, if not downright hallucinogenic, lunacy. I had never read or seen anything like it at the time, and while I was not absolutely sure that it was even coherent, I itched to have a crack at it. The cloak of ‘serious’ actor weighed too heavy on my shoulders and I just had to fling the accursed thing off. Little did I realise how utterly serious and strenuous this job would turn out to be and how many flaming, friendship-endangering rows would erupt while making this “little funny film.”

The legend of Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro has grown in slow ways. We were all convinced this film would be significant, though none had any inkling of how abidingly popular it would become. In fact few even dared hope it would get a release. We knew the odds were stacked — not in our favour; we knew we hadn’t a hope and yet we felt compelled to do it. We were souls trapped in hell. Perhaps that is why the compliments we now receive for it feel like heaven.

25 Years of a Classic
Queen knave Bhakti Barwe plays games with Naseeruddin Shah

THE FILM was not an immediate success, but over time it has come to have a sort of cult reputation. I think it has struck a chord with audiences because of the unassuming way in which it speaks of corruption and the struggle of the underdog. None of these themes were novel, but Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro’s off-centre presentation caught people’s fancy. Kundan himself — if he were to walk past you — would strike you as the kind of person you wouldn’t notice at all. You’d probably take him for an accountant, which he nearly became until the film bug really got to him. I knew him at the Film Institute for almost a year before I was sure I could distinguish him from two of his classmates. All three had beards, wore similar spectacles and seemed to carry the weight of the cosmos on their shoulders. I dreaded seeing the kind of films they would go on to make. Therefore Kundan’s off-kilter view of the world (first seen in his diploma film Bonga) was a total revelation. I fell in love with the title before I even saw the film, and if you are at all familiar with institute diploma films, you will understand why. Apart from the punishment of having to see these things, you first have to decipher the titles which invariably go something like Metamorphosis cum Genesis or Tribheeshan ki Mrigtrishna, or And unto the endless void. In this world, the title Bonga sounded like lovely nonsense, and the film itself fulfilled its promise of being a completely nonsensical piece of work, and perfectly in key. What distinguished it from the work of most film students was its sense of humour — and the fact that in no way did it strive to be a masterpiece. It made me laugh and it made me think. I’m not quite sure why, but it reminded me of The Owl and the Pussycat, though I’ve never told Kundan that. I also remember being intensely curious about what it would be like if this man were to make a serious film. It has taken me nearly 20 years to realise that Jaane Bhi, his first film, is a truly serious work, though at the time it was being shot I did not even find it funny.

What is not funny, however, is the question of why Kundan can’t follow it up. Talk has been rife for too long about a sequel. Only the man himself can answer why it hasn’t happened. And he’s not telling, but I think what he’s not telling is that to be able to generate that extreme and that intense an energy from that many participants takes some doing: it’s tough to summon that adrenaline on demand. It’s there when it’s there and it drives you. Then, Kundan had no alternative but to make this film and to make it as well as he could — and he did. But it seems he has other alternatives now. Maybe his (and I shrink from using this weighty term) world view has changed with his subsequent monetary success, which, though well-deserved, has perhaps severed his connections with his muse: the underbelly of life. He does seem removed from the position of nervy onlooker and underdog and placed in one of repute and responsibility.

Am I suggesting that it is exclusively someone deeply aware of his fraying trousers and wornout shoes who will possess a vision of the kind that made Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro? Not at all. I am only wishing Kundan could at least get the pieces of the jigsaw out again and start identifying them. If they start falling into place then, as earlier, he’d better be sure he has his “shit sorted out” or a holy mess will result. Earlier we survived because he could marshal all of us, who, from time to time, hated his guts but were willing to die for the film. This kind of coming together of energies occurs very rarely and only accidentally. For those touched by it, the memory is goose-pimply, it causes sweat to break out on the brow, the blood to rush to the temples and the knuckles to go white. So actually, instead of vainly hoping for a sequel, let’s just give thanks that this one actually happened. •

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 5, Issue 34, Dated Aug 30, 2008
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‘I am the joker villain’
Twenty-five years after the release of his classic comedy, KUNDAN SHAH battles the voice in his head and Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro II

‘Hum ho gaye kaamyaab?’
It may be a cult film today. Back then, it was insanity. NASEERUDDIN SHAH looks back on the gritty elation of Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro

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