Kundan Shah passes away: How the Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro director served anger with bittersweet laughter
A faded, once-black curtain worn so scant over time it might as well have not been there, led into a tiny quadrangle of overgrown grass. Three long rows of wooden benches sat shakily on the sand-laid ground, split in the middle for ease of passage.
If you were lucky, you got aisle seats – the best in the house – to cast your gaze at the giant, long-ago-white screen that had withstood the ravages of rain and multiple (wet) objects hurled at it in much passion.
It reflected whatever images the projector facing it at the other end of the quadrangle threw at it. Of course, it clacked more than it worked, that projector. Also, the venue had no roof. Which also meant you were blood for the colony of ‘vampirical’ mosquitoes lying in wait.
Theatre was really a misnomer for Thekkekara Talkies, Kechery, in interior Thrissur. Sometime in May 1988, Thekkekara Talkies hosted a screening of director Kundan Shah’s debut film, Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro.
It was the first of the many screenings I would engineer for the film over the years. I first saw Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro (JBDY) a year earlier at Thekkekara Talkies. That day, the credits had just rolled after a show of the raucous comedy, Nadodikkattu, starring Malayalam star Mohanlal. I was in Kerala for the annual ritual holiday with family.
As always after any show there, I made my way to greet the man who ran the place. Mundu-clad, in his sixties, nostrils and white towel stained brown with the snuff he was addicted to, Kunji Mohammad also knew every film there was to know. And had a frightening memory for every single one of them.
That day, he was particularly gleeful. He pointed to a few large tape spools at his table. “Saw it last night. Adipoli kalakkan.” (That was Kunji Mohammad Uncle speak for ‘It’s awesome’).
There was no other show scheduled until first show (at 6 pm). It meant only one thing. I was in for a special screening. At 15, faced with watching a film versus yet another trudge across fields and kachcha roads to visit a far-flung mofussil temple, JBDY trumped. In ways.
That day, I walked back home, mind blown and swirling with demented lines, outrageous set pieces, unreal plot devices of which there were few. I couldn’t pinpoint what exactly it was that I connected with.
At the time, the line that stuck was, ‘Thoda khao, thoda pheko, bahut mazaa ayega,’ which Inspector D’Mello (played by Satish Shah) tells the businessman Tarneja (Pankaj Kapur), enamoured by the wasteful US culture.
Over multiple viewings of the film, and there were so many I have lost count over the years, you realise it is the utter black of Shah’s comedy. The craftily channeled anger at a crumbling, corrupt system and a social commentary, into a work that was a barrel of laughs.
Back home in what was then Bombay, there were entire weeks where friends and family were subjected to impromptu JBDY pop quizzes. They popped up at JBDY theme parties. They headlined messages on sticky notes when handing out JBDY CDs as gifts.
Pretty much any line from the film worked. At random. Like just so much verbal pullquote to be summoned when apt. Or even when not.
Enough was never enough. Which is the beauty of Kundan Shah’s film. You don’t get tired of a JBDY OD. Ever.
An unexpected meeting with Kundan Shah many years later, at a small gathering, and things fell into place. Much like his film, he draws you in without even trying – with that trademark short burst-growl laughter, piercing self-awareness and his wholly self-taught exposure to literature and cinema.
“Arre yaar, if I tried, I would construct an absurd comedy out of ‘Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday; I can’t be sure.’ Socha tha maine kayi baar (I thought of it often). That’s just the way I looked at it.”
Shah was referring to the opening lines of one of Albert Camus’ best known works, The Stranger. At the best of times, the novel is somber, if macabre, in its absurd expression.
But that was just Kundan Shah’s unique perspective at play. One that made the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) graduate use comedy as his tool of expression. And one who interpreted everything he read through pulp-coloured lenses.
“Do what you’re good at. It took me many tries, I f**king lost count. But I realised comedy came best to me.” Shah was an easy raconteur, bringing on the laughs at will.
His stories are speckled over multiple interviews across print and television. How he derived inspiration from Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci’s Letter To A Child Never Born, to peg his film, Kya Kehna (2000), starring Preity Zinta. How he referenced that famous interaction between Charlie Chaplin and Pablo Picasso, masters of silent gesture, to explain how he came to work so closely with the illustrator and cartoonist, RK Laxman on their television collaboration, Wagle Ki Duniya (1988-1990), starring Anjan Srivastava and Bharati Achrekar. It was a testament to his charisma that his stories sounded just as interesting each time he narrated one.
He also spoke about Nukkad (1986-1988), with shy nonchalance. That seminal television show he directed along with Saeed Akhtar Mirza, for Doordarshan in the Eighties not only spawned some of the best known characters on Indian television – Khopdi, Guru, Kaderbhai, Hari, to name just a few – it also redefined TV consumption.
Then there were of course, Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi (earlier in 1984), Manoranjan (1987), and his film, Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa (1994), all of which made for, well, intense manoranjan.
He made the everyday commonplace grandiloquent. “Desh ki unnati agar kisi cheez se hoti hai, toh who hai gutter. Woh gutter ke liye jiye. Aur gutter ke liye mare. Marte hue unke aakhri shabd thei gutter. (If there is a measure of a nation’s progress, it is with its gutter. They lived and died for the gutter. Their dying word was gutter),” says the self-serving Commissioner Shrivastav in JBDY.
He served anger with so much bittersweet laughter. “Hum honge kamyab ek din (We shall overcome some day),” which the two poverty-stricken youngsters from JBDY doggedly chant despite untold setbacks.
And his unique perspective sparked an inspired sequence in Shor In The City, when three youngsters find an abandoned bag on a local train laden with guns and explosives. Two of them immediately want to hawk the explosives off to prospective buyers.
But, “This is too much. Yeh Akbar kahan se aa gaya?” Turns out one of them secretly held on to one bomb because he wants to burst it. Just to see what happens.
That sequence almost had Tusshar Kapoor’s bootlegger character Tilak, saying, “Shant, gadhadhari Bheem, shant,” to the excitable Mandook (played by Pitobash Tripathy), so as to say ‘calm the f**k down.’
Thing is, no matter how much you try, it remains just that. A trial. Because there is only one Kundan Shah. Just as there is only one Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro. All else pales.