Naseeruddin Shah, in a not-so-recent article in a newsmagazine wondered why Kundan Shah wouldn’t get on with the making of a sequel to his cult film Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro (JBDY). And he isn’t the only one who’s asking. The film which had started out being comic outpourings of a man angry with the system turned out to be “a good satire,” in the words of Kundan Shah, “I don’t know what you mean by cult but comedy, I believe, outlasts everything else. There are classic tragedies of Sophocles and others but even a not-very-great comedy survives. Comedy overall doesn’t age so fast. Think Chaplin, for example. I was making a comedy – an issue-based one. I set out to make something which was relevant to me. Because I’ve a comic perspective, it comes easy to transform the anger and frustration to whatever one may have read in the morning papers into putting it down in a funny way. That’s how it happened.
Still, JBDY turned out to be India’s most biting comic satire ever and remains relevant even 27 years after its release. And the majority of JBDY alumni, if we may call them that, have all gone on to see great success. From its actors—Naseeruddin Shah, Om Puri, the late Bhakti Barve, Satish Shah, Ravi Baswani, Pankaj Kapoor, Neena Gupta, Satish Kaushik, to its crew members Sudhir Mishra, Bidhu Vinod Chopra, cinematographer Binod Pradhan, the late editor Renu Saluja and music composer Vanraj Bhatia have all known fame and fortune. Almost everyone has won national or international awards.
Yet, of this motley group, few at the time believed in JBDY. Comments Sudhir Mishra – assistant on direction and story and now a prominent filmmaker: “All these actors came from serious theatre and believed that this is some kind of nonsense, but let’s do it because what is there to do otherwise? At least we can all go to the shooting, have a cup of tea and get some food. I don’t think anybody had an idea of how the film would turn out. It was only when Naseer and all saw the first cut that they suddenly realised—and Kundan became this filmmaker to watch out for. I remember Om telling me at the end of the shoot, ‘Yaar, script bahut achchi hai.’ He had just walked through it and only at the end realised that the script was great!”
“Frankly,” said theatre veteran Ranjit Kapoor, credited with JBDY’s dialogues along with actor-turned-filmmaker Satish Kaushik, “at the time of writing, I did not think of this film as a comedy. JBDY is a very serious statement. There were elements of black humour in the script already but they needed to be underlined, which was done through dialogue.”
Satish Shah’s role of the most ‘alive’ dead body catapulted him to immediate stardom. “That was my contribution,” Shah recollects with relish. “I said, ‘Kundan listen, I am a dead body. I can’t perform so at least let me put on the expression as per the scene. I can react to whatever is going on around me. When I am Draupadi, I’m coy. If everybody is scared of me, even I am scared. If you’re playing a rigor mortis to this extent - which is impossible in any case, I may as well do this. I guess he was too preoccupied with other things to argue with me. So he said, ‘Jo karna hai kar!’ (Do whatever you want)”.
But while Shah was still ‘alive’ there were moments which made him and others feel that certain sequences promised ‘real’ death. The crane sequence in the beginning of the film was one. “I don’t know what we were thinking going up in that crane,” says Shah. “It was a bloody risky shot and how we did it we don’t know because there is no way we would have lived, if we’d fallen from there. We were on this palna (swing) like thing which was meant to take up cement bags and we said, ‘We dare not give you a retake - for our own sakes’! I could see people this big (indicating 2cm height between forefinger and thumb) from the top and on top of that, someone said, ‘you know, it should go around in circles so as to give a panoramic view’ which screwed us even more. I wouldn’t do it today even if I were given a crore.” Satish Kaushik remembers it too: “I told Kundan, ‘Shoot ka pehla din hai. Kya kar raha hai, yaar? Mar var jayenge!’ (It’s the first day of the shoot. What are you doing? Suppose we die?) And he said, ‘Cast toh badal sakta hoon!’ (I can always change the cast).”
Talking of changing the cast, Kaushik was one who wheedled his way on the bandwagon for he just wasn’t content assisting on dialogues, despite Kundan often declining his offers to act! “I was involved only in my casting! I kept thinking of how to impress Kundan. I remember telling him, ‘Sir mein yeh wala role bhi kar sakta hoon, Sir, yeh bhi kar sakta hoon’ (I can do this role or I can do that role) and he’d keep saying ‘Shut up, Yaar! Abhi koi role nahin hai.’ (Shut up! There is no role yet for you) and I went, ‘Sir, par sun toh lo!’ (Sir, but at least hear me out!) ‘Mein har role ke liye apne ko suggest karta rehta tha’ (I used to suggest myself for every role) because I was there all the time. The rest were struggling and had to go to other shoots. I was there everyday since I was helping with the dialogues.” It was finally the enactment of the phone sequence (in which he shares screen space with Naseer) which landed Kaushik his role.
There were others who were brought in. Om Puri’s ‘Aouja’ (Ahuja) was originally meant for stage and television veteran Vinod Nagpal but when he declined, Puri, then a struggling actor, was called. For someone who was simultaneously working on Ardh Satya (for which he won the National Award for Best Actor) the role of a Punjabi drunk builder was very much a considered departure, just as it was for Naseer - the star of every film of parallel cinema those days. In an interview with Tehelka magazine in 2008 Naseer said: “The script of JBDY 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’.”
Friendship-endangering is the correct phrase. Everyone fought everyone on the sets. Says Satish Shah: “I remember the kind of fights we used to have with the Vinod Chopra who now calls himself Vidhu Vinod Chopra. He was handling our production those days. I don’t know what they fought about but they fought a lot and I always enjoyed it when they were fighting! They were fighting to the extent that Naseer would threaten to leave and Vinod would come and convince Naseer, then Kundan would go berserk and ballistic and we would all come in, without knowing what has happened, why it has happened and try to pacify both the parties and go on shooting and in public places like Hanging Gardens and Marine Drive where I am supposed to be a dead body on skates – My God!
“Naseer does throw tantrums but those who know him don’t take him seriously because they know that he is doing so for no selfish reason. He had a terrible fight with Kundan over that telephone scene with Satish Kaushik – where they come back to back and Naseer said, ‘Logically, it wouldn’t work’ and Kundan said, ‘If you’re convinced about it, it will….’ Likewise, I remember there was this scene where he along with Bhakti (Shobhaji, the editor) comes to my bungalow and cons me into posing for photographs. Again, he wasn’t convinced. But I had a flight to Goa and those days I couldn’t afford to miss a flight or a movie. Neither the direction department nor the actors had any clue how they’ll do it and I was in so much of a hurry, I knew I had to have it done because if we didn’t do it, I’d miss the flight. So I said, ‘Naseer, it depends on us. You adjust to whatever I do and I adjust to whatever you do’ and Kundan said, ‘but nahin ho sakta, kaise ho sakta? (It can’t be done. How can it be done?) and I was like ‘Yaar (Buddy), it’s a performance scene – don’t go into those bizarre things of cuts and stuff, just let us perform. Naseer started taking pictures and asked me to turn around into the picture and I turned around, and then I turned back and he said, ‘Idhar dekho, udhar dekho’ (Look here, look there) and then ‘Idhar-udhar kya dekhta hai / naak-moonh dekho’ (Why are you looking here and there? Look at your nose) and I did just that. All of it was totally improvised and we pulled it off.”
But the absurdity of it hit one and all. Om Puri recalls the sequence with the dead Commissioner D’Mello when he finds him in the coffin under the flyover: “The scene of the car is such an absurd one. Anyone can see that it is a coffin but no, one told oneself that ‘listen, you’re so sozzled, so drunk that you can’t see it. You have to imagine that it is a car and he’s sitting there holding the steering.’ Then there was this absolutely ridiculous scene on the telephone; later the sequence of Hum laash leke bazaaron mein daud rahe hain (We’re running around with a dead body on the streets). It was totally bizarre. But then, think Chaplin. He used to do ridiculous stuff with such a serious face and not that we consciously thought of him when doing our scenes, but since we were exposed to his kind of cinema, somewhere at the back of our minds… it must have been there.”
Ravi Baswani playing Sudhir Mishra, was a perfect foil for Naseer’s Vinod Chopra, and won the Best Comedian Award at Filmfare in 1984 for his efforts and has since gone on to head the Acting Department at the Film and Television Institute of India. Since neither of the two protagonists were supposed to be detectives and yet had to be instrumental in unraveling all the tangles they got into, Baswani’s emotions had to carry the voice of the determined, honest but scared bloke. But there were times when plain greed ruled the roost. In the cake sequence for instance, when they are on this secret and serious mission to photograph the tenders, all he can think of is the cake that is being served and there’s no way he’s going to be left out of eating it too! Hence, “Thoda khao, thoda phenko.” “Maza aaya?” “Nahin.” “Ab aaya?” “Haan!” (with Satish Shah wondering if he’s the making the noises!) is today one of the film’s best remembered and oft repeated dialogues.
It would be hard to imagine what JBDY would have been like without the presence of its ‘official’ villain Tarneja aka Pankaj Kapoor, today acknowledged as one of the finest actors ever to have graced the Indian screen. Kapoor was then still a name to be recognised. But he played the suave, cunning, quick-on-his-feet and corrupt builder to perfection, whose smiles never made it to the eyes.
Brilliant performances had to be offset by equally brilliant technique. After all, four-and-a-half hours of footage had to be turned into a coherent three-and-a-half hour compact film. The late Renu Saluja, editor on every single important film in the parallel cinema movement, including Bandit Queen was the only one in consonance with Kundan’s vision for JBDY. “Renu is intrinsic to the film.” Says Mishra “you can’t imagine it without her cutting style. She enjoyed working with Kundan the most because she also liked comedies. Kundan is a very brutal director, in that he doesn’t fall in love with his material. He is always willing to see another side - other than how he has shot it and sometimes you take a scene and construct it totally differently. The Mahabharat scene is once such. It is made entirely on the cutting, which is completely mad. There’s a total lack of continuity. If you look at it carefully, the editing in that sequence is revolutionary. Renu broke all the rules but in such a way that one doesn’t notice it. It is very, very brilliantly cut.
“That flyover scene of Om Puri which is now a classic - they made it on the editing table. They’ve taken the best parts of Om’s performance and constantly cut to the dead body which is actually not necessary. I mean, why cut to the dead body?” he asks incredulously. Cut to perfection - Invisible: The Art of Renu Saluja, published by GraFTII on Renu Saluja enumerates in her words, her editing style: “When I put the scenes together, the final product changes a lot. A film editor structures the film. Film is not just shot in a sequence, it is shot without continuity. As editor, you have to keep the best of everybody’s work and that’s a great responsibility. So film editing is structuring the film and giving it pace. It’s like the final script of a film.”
But shooting that script must have given JBDY cinematographer Binod Pradhan nightmares. Kundan himself admits that he owed a lot to his cameraman for the visual capturing of his vision. Explains Mishra, “This film, the pace at which it was shot because of the lack of time and budget, was shot with total disrespect to the cameraman - in the sense that we were not considering his problem at all. For instance, when they go for the dead body in the forest kind of loghouse and all of them are running from one staircase to another; someone is hanging from the balcony; someone else is jumping from it; two people are running with the coffin, till the time they all start going downhill - that whole sequence must have been shot in one hour - must be some twenty, twenty-one shots or so. It was shot that fast and in comedy you’re covering action from all angles. You have to get this person’s point of view and then another’s reaction. You have to take everyone’s reaction shots, so it’s tough for the cameraman to give or even maintain any kind of a look. You must ask him how it will work best but we were too busy with our problems because we had too many of them. It must have been tough. But Binod is one cameraman who understands the mood or the spirit of the film. He is also half a filmmaker, quite in tune with the film he’s on, his camera work is not outside the film.” Today, Binod has won awards for his work in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Devdas, Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, Munna Bhai MBBS; Rang De Basanti and 1942: A Love Story.
And then there was the production department which had to battle everything and bring everything to order within the tight budget of some Rs 7-9 lakh. Vinod Chopra, now one of India’s most successful producer-directors, was Kundan’s production controller. Chopra was reciprocating the gesture since Kundan had assisted him on his first feature Saaza-e-Maut. Not that he’d bargained for the chaotic job that he was entrusted with. It is well documented that the meals came from Kundan’s house and how each one had fallen asleep on their positions at least once during the crazy, nightmarish schedules – including Binod who fell asleep on the eyepiece of the camera. It was only when nothing happened after Kundan called out “Action” that everyone realised he was asleep! But Puri recalls just how bad the situation was: “One day, during the middle of the shoot, someone said, “Yaar, ek chai toh pila do… (Get me a cup of tea) and Deepak (Qazir) who was also part of the production unit apart from doubling up as Assistant Commissioner Srivastav yelled back, ‘Abhi toh pi thi chai ek ghanta pehle.’ (You just had tea an hour back!) and I remember thinking, ‘Yaar, itna bura haal budget ka… ki chai ke liye bhi…! (Gosh, is the scene this bad with the budget? That you’re being told that you’ve just had a cup an hour back!)’
In hindsight, most people associated with the film states that Kundan Shah ‘allowed’ them to do their own thing. Kundan says so himself: “I didn’t direct the film. They directed themselves. I don’t know what I did. I didn’t know what I’d set out to do. I just knew when something wasn’t working. Today, I can say it worked. But there were days when something wasn’t working and I kept saying it wasn’t working but I couldn’t place my finger on it at that time.”
Satish Shah concurs: “I still insist that JBDY happened. It wasn’t made. It made itself. Of course, it was a brainchild of an individual, someone’s baby and Kundan Shah was there but we all contributed wherever, whenever we were required to. Kundan always knew what he wanted. Kundan’s problem is he knows what he wants but he can’t tell you what he wants. So its ‘nahin aa raha woh, aisa kucch karo, nahin woh theek nahin hai, waisa kucch try karo.’ (It’s not working. Try something like this. No, that’s not right or try something like that!) If you ask him questions, he gets confused. Visually, he knows what he wants but sometimes he could not explain.”
Mishra believes that JBDY is a great film but it could have been even better if all the actors had understood the kind of comedy Kundan wanted it to be. “Ultimately Kundan compromised in the sense of what the actors understood. I have a feeling that he imagined a slightly softer film. The comedy as Kundan saw it in his mind was more delicate, less obvious but I don’t think anybody could grasp that so the acting and everything else became broader which works in terms of its popularity because the essential idea was so good.”
Does this give you a sense of why a sequel to Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro can never be made? It’s because this kind of madness can only happen once.