Kundan Shah passes away: How the Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro director brought joy into the insipid 1980s
The mere mention of Kundan Shah, the director of the seminal Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro (1983) is enough to make a cinephile smile, but there was much more to the filmmaker than this cult classic. In many ways, Shah, the acclaimed filmmaker, who passed away on 7 October 2017, was responsible for bringing much joy into our insipid existence in the 1980s.
The 1980s have been derided for being the worst phase for Hindi cinema but it was also a period where a new breed of filmmakers from across the spectrum came into their own. In an era where five or six different generation of popular filmmakers ranging from a Raj Khosla, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Raj Kapoor, Nasir Husain, Vijay Anand, to Yash Chopra, Brij, Manmohan Desai, Prakash Mehra, to Rahul Rawail, Subhash Ghai, and Mukul S. Anand were making films, the Parallel Cinema movement that had begun with Mani Kaul and Mrinal Sen’s Bhuvan Shome and found it’s feet with Shyam Benegal’s productions in the 1970s was delivering its best works. If the decade had started with Saeed Akhtar Mirza’a Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyon Aata Hai (1980) and scaled greater heights with Govind Nihalani’s Ardh Satya (1983), Kundan Shah’s debut Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro set the gold standard for the slapstick comedy genre that continues to remain peerless even after three and a half decades.
A graduate of the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Shah’s Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro not only revived the genre that had not seen much interest since the early days of Kishore Kumar but also captured the abject hopelessness of the common man in the 1980s. The story of two bumbling photographers Vinod Chopra (Naseeruddin Shah) and Sudhir Mishra (Ravi Baswani), who unearth the murder of the municipal commissioner (Satish Shah) by a property developer Tarneja (Pankaj Kapur) directly referred to the state of affairs in then Bombay. A satirical indictment of what was wrong with us as a nation back then, the film’s climax where the two photographers that were representative of the common man get framed for the collapse of a flyover was also an unmistakably scathing reminder of how the janta paid the price. The film’s long-drawn climax where the two photographers, the commissioner’s dead body, and nearly every single character become a part of a stage production of Mahabharat audaciously commented on the helplessness of the common man.
More than Shah’s films, it was his body of work on the small screen that made him a well-known name across India. Television in the India of the 1980s had just one channel, the national broadcaster Doordarshan (DD) and Shah’s Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi (1984) was a landmark moment in India’s television history. DD had just started sponsoring its programs and Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi became one of the first sitcoms and also the biggest hit show on Indian television. Shah had also formed Iskra, a production house with fellow FTII alumni Saeed Akhtar Mirza and they produced Nukkad (1986) a series set on a Bombay street corner and later went on to direct Manoranjan (1987) a comedy based on the film industry and in 1988, he helmed Wagle Ki Duniya (1988), that was based on RK Laxman’s character, the common man.
In the 1990s Shah returned to films after a decade-long absence with Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa (1994) and found an instant connection with the audiences. Co-written with Pankaj Advani, Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa released in the same period when Khan had two massive hits in Baazigar (1993) and Darr (1993) and the actor great critical acclaim and remains one of his finest performances. Shah also directed the pre-marital pregnancy drama Kya Kehna (2000), which became a surprise hit but his later films Hum To Mohabbat Karega (2000) and Dil Hai Tumhaara (2002) were near washouts
A writer once said that a person needs just three things to be truly happy in this world: someone to love, something to do, and something to hope for. For most Indians in the 1980s, the presence or absence of the first two — someone to love and something to do — hardly mattered thanks to the general mood of all-around disdain that engulfed everyday existence. For a majority of us, the only thing that was worth seeking was something to hope for and anyone, or anything that even suggested that in any degree was lapped up with both hands. It is for this very reason that Kundan Shah mattered more to millions of Indians than one would like to imagine. A dazzling mix of the comic and an acute sense of failure of human aspiration, Shah’s art was not interested in hiding the fact that life was cruel. Yet at the same Shah could make it deeply compassionate. Hindi cinema is very conscious to resolve things and as the narrative races towards a conclusion it often trades just about everything in order to set it right but Shah’s finest works — Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro and Kabhi Haan Kabhi Na or Wagle Ki Duniya — couldn’t care less.
Although Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa very conveniently has a ‘girl’ (Juhi Chawla) waltzing in at the last moment to soothe the heartbroken boy (Shah Rukh Khan), this could be attributed to it being a ‘commercial’ film but despite being an aberration to this dictum, Shah’s works somehow instilled hope. Even that glimmer of hope was good enough for us back in the day. Kundan Shah and his work and what it means to us could be best encapsulated by a quote from John Guare’s play Landscape of the Body where the Irish-American playwright observed: “It's amazing how a little tomorrow can make up for a whole lot of yesterday.”