Kundan Shah (1947-2017): Master of capturing grace in nonsense

The filmmaker’s undeservedly short oeuvre is best recalled with the hilarious Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro and his TV shows

October 07, 2017 09:42 pm | Updated December 03, 2021 10:46 am IST

The one thing that binds all of Kundan Shah’s work is the streak of comedy—of a varied kind

The one thing that binds all of Kundan Shah’s work is the streak of comedy—of a varied kind

The 1983 cult classic, Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro ( JBDY ) the feature film with which Kundan Shah made his debut as a filmmaker also turned out to be an albatross around his neck, whose success he couldn’t live down. However, there is lot else that Shah deserves to be credited for. Like giving the Badshah of Bollywood, Shah Rukh Khan, one of his early roles in the TV series Circus, that Shah directed along with Aziz Mirza. He also gave SRK one of his earliest, best and most beloved roles in films-as the bumbling, blundering man-boy Sunil in Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa (1993). Shah was also one of the many who ushered in a revolution in Indian television by being part of series like Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi , Circus, Nukkad and Wagle Ki Duniya that would rival, rather better, the best on view on the small screen right now .

These two films and the TV serials represent the best of a body of work which, ideally, should have been far larger and weightier. Shah’s cupboard was spilling over with film scripts in various stages of completion, as both filmmaker Ashutosh Gowariker and Sudhir Mishra, would have us believe. But in a cruel and competitive industry, where you are as good as your last film, there were not many backers for Shah’s idiosyncratic ideas.

The one thing that binds all of Shah’s work is the streak of comedy-of a varied kind. Mishra says that he could capture “grace in nonsense”, something that was evident even in the 23 minute comic-gangster short- Bonga- his diploma film at the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune.

 

JBDY may not have set the box office on fire when it released some 35 odd years ago but gained in cult stature over the years through TV screenings, DVD and online release. It also won Shah the Indira Gandhi Award for Best First Film of a Director and gave Hindi cinema a mix of brutal satire and rollicking slapstick that it hadn’t been seen before.

The hilarious cake scene, with that famous line ‘thoda khao, thoda phenko’ (eat some, throw some), the play on the word ‘gutter’, the riotous Mahabharata-Salim Anarkali-Draupadi cheer-haran mash-up on stage-many of JBDY scenes, gags and jokes have been memorised by film buffs, quite like the dialogues of Sholay .

But the humour was not for laughs alone. It was used to underline the highly cynical view of the absurdist reality, where justice, goodness and honesty don’t necessarily triumph over evil. Here was a comedy that was far from feel good, didn’t end with happily ever after, but with what Mishra refers to as a “joyous dance towards death”. Perhaps the one equivalent I can think of in the same comic space is Leo McCarey’s biting take down of fictional Freedonia, war and nationalism in Duck Soup starring the Marx Brothers-Groucho, Harpo, Chico, Zeppo-and a towering Margaret Dumont.

27isbs_jaane bhi

27isbs_jaane bhi

 

There are Marx Bros influences in JBDY . The FTII graduate inventively referenced the films and filmmakers he had admired and internalised. There’s Duck Soup written all over the iconic mirror and secret phone call scenes between Naseeruddin Shah and Satish Kaushik. With the Mahabharata on stage sequence Shah doffs his hat to A Night at the Opera climax. Then there is the brilliant tribute to Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blowup (look for the name of the park where the body is spotted for the first time, through a picture at that). The code “Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyon Ata Hai” which Naseeruddin Shah gives to Satish Kaushik is actually the name of Saeed Mirza’s film on which Kundan Shah worked as an assistant and in which Naseeruddin Shah played the lead character, Albert Pinto. There was the other in-joke. The lead characters were named after production controller Vidhu Vinod Chopra and assistant and co-writer Sudhir Mishra.

It’s a film that reveals more as you view it over and over again-Vanraj Bhatia’s superbly thrilling, ominous score, Anita Kanwar’s fantastic dubbing for Bhakti Barve, Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s cameos-as a photographer at the start of the film and as Dushasana in Mahabharata scene.

The comedies that Shah directed on TV took a different route. Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi , in which he collaborated with Manjul Sinha and Raman Kumar, was subtle situational comedy written by Sharad Joshi with Shafi Inamdaar and Swaroop Sampat playing a couple-Ranjit and Renu-with Satish Shah donning a different role in each episode. It was his coming of age series as a comic actor. Rakesh Bedi played Renu’s younger brother Raja and Tiku Talsania as Ranjit’s boss became famous for his catchphrase—“ Yeh kya ho rahaa hai !” One the most popular episodes was “The sofa cum bed” in which their neighbour’s sofa gets wrongly delivered to Renu and Ranjit and they come to claim it when there are guests at home.

Nukkad ’s comedy could be placed in the realm of Raj Kapoor’s cinema of the tramp, reflecting a socialist ideology. It was more bittersweet than funny, about smiling through tears than laughing out loud. Set in a street corner, offering slices of lives of its many working class and lower income group characters it turned them into household names. For the longest time we knew Dilip Dhawan as Nukkad leader Guru, Rama Vij as Teacherji and Avtar Gill as Kaderbhai, the owner of the small restaurant that is their rendezvous. No one knew that alcoholic Khopdi’s actual name was Sameer Khakhar and that Ghanshu Bhikari was an actor called Suresh Bhagwat.

Wagle Ki Duniya , based on R.K. Laxman’s characters, had Anjan Srivastav as a common man, a clerk in a multinational, and Bharti Achrekar as his wife. It dealt with the day-to-day problems of the middle class in a light-hearted way.

 

Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa which came after a gap of almost ten years won Shah the first Filmfare Critics Award for Best Movie in 1994 and got SRK the critics award for Best Actor. It was an effective and affecting portrayal of a flawed but likeable character. A liar and loser as portrayed by SRK was never so harmless or so relatable. Shah’s keen eye for details can be seen in the way he adds quirks to Sunil’s persona—he always enters and leaves a room through the windows, never the doors. The love story doesn’t end happily ever after but there is hope—every loser will have his day.

In 1998, Shah directed a film starring Preity Zinta in the lead, Kya Kehna , which became the surprise hit of the year but was totally at odds with his comic touch. On teenage pregnancy and single motherhood, it divided a lot of us young women on the issue of abortion—was it anti-abortion or pro-choice film? It still has us debating, discussing and fighting over it. What followed hereafter was eminently forgettable— Hum To Mohabbat Karega (2000), Dil Hai Tumhaara (2002) and Ek Se Badhkar Ek (2004).

The last of his works I remember seeing was Teen Behenein (2005) a tad too sentimental and preachy low budget film on a relevant issue—it was about three sisters who commit suicide because their parents cannot afford their dowries. Then there Shah’s segment Hero in the omnibus Mumbai Cutting in 2008 with a Chaplinesque tramp, played by Deepak Dobriyal, trying unsuccessfully to board a train and getting crushed by the waves of humanity. It was Shah going back to his favourite character—the underdog.

Just a week ago, I discussed Shah and the brilliance of JBDY that he couldn’t repeat with Naseeruddin Shah. The actor spoke of the madness at shoot: “We would have these raging arguments but ultimately Kundan would have his way and I am glad he had his way. I did give him a lot of grief unnecessarily”. It was film the actor claims he had no faith in. But it remains alive and kicking. JBDY ’s bribes worth Rs 1 lakh may seem like a pittance now, but at a time when corruption has increased manifold the film’s absurdist take on the builder-administrative mafia continues to ring true.

In the many scripts in Shah’s cupboard there would be one called JBDY 2 . It’s time someone cleaned the dust off it, updated it and turned it into a film.

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