Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro: The silhouette of a new India

A still from Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro.  

Often, one revisits a classic with some trepidation. This worry accompanies you whether it’s a book you devoured the first three times you read it (in the space of two years), or a piece of music you haven’t heard in a while, but which used to be a constant soundtrack at a point in your life, or a movie that you loved when you first saw it, and have loved ever since, except you haven’t really seen it again that many times. As happens, you could now find the book to be juvenile or badly hacked together, or the album you loved boring and pompous or just dull, the movie embarrassingly dated and crude in its making.

When this happens you feel like you’ve lost a precious part of your life, as if a part you considered essential to the machine of your memory has fallen off, leaving the whole thing rattling and wheezing. It is with exactly this anxiety, I decided to go back to a great favourite of my early 20s — Kundan Shah’s comedy, Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro (JBDY).

The first bit of the film is hard work, and one feels an almost parental panic, as if watching one’s child fluffing the lines in a school play, lines one was sure the child had memorised. There are these two sorry jokers, sitting in front of a photography store they’ve opened in a posh row of shops right on Mumbai’s Haji Ali. They wait for guests they have invited to the inauguration, swatting flies off the samosas and mithais. People come towards them and walk by. The two berate each other. It’s not going well for them but for the film neither.

All for laughs

This is a clunky beginning, when we are now used to the immediate, seamless suction of contemporary storylines that don’t allow the viewer to breathe for the first 20 or 30 minutes.

Naseeruddin Shah and Ravi Baswani work hard to get us laughing; in 1983 I remember them succeeding; today it takes about 10 minutes, till they realise what the competing photo store has done to sabotage their opening. But JBDY is like a man-eating tiger, once it acquires a taste for your laughter, it keeps wanting, and getting, more, relentlessly, either through direct attack or stealthy stalking that pounces the joke on you from some unexpected angle.

As you get pulled into the crazy trapeze-act of a narrative you start making a list in your head: how many different things in our reality today does this mad film anticipate? And how is it possible that the skewering of these things is still so fresh and painful today? Competitors trying to sabotage each other? Check. Men who think they are in a position of power ‘coming on’ to women to the point of molestation? Check. Real estate developers shoving aside the poor and capturing heritage sites for their buildings? Yes, watch the film and compare it with the latest story about slum clearances in Mumbai, or the obscenely tall buildings coming up in Kolkata.

Corrupt government officials dancing to the tune of dapperly dressed millionaires? Yes, literally and figuratively, only the sums, a few paltry crores, with even ‘lakhs’ being mentioned, dates the movie.

Shifting scenes

The scene on the high platform, where Commissioner D’Mello (Satish Shah) makes the first deal with builder Tarneja (Pankaj Kapoor) and his moll (Neena Gupta), the platform constantly moving through 360° panoramas of skyscrapers and the sea beyond as these comic villains make Swiss cake out of rules and regulation, can now be regarded as one of Indian cinema’s great symbolic scenes; just replace the ‘Commissioner’ with a bank official, customs officer or an environment babu; in Tarneja’s place put one of the Modis, a Mallya or some other slimy oligarch; as the morals plummet, the characters’ silhouettes rise against the backdrop of a ‘new’ India, making the deals, selling their souls, shafting the country.

If you’re from Kolkata, you’ll recognise the fallen chunk of flyover, if you’re from any Indian metro you will note the ruthless scoop-hunting, if you’re Indian you will recognise the headline-hungry media which turns out to be as corrupt as the people it’s targeting.

Even as it repeatedly stabs your consciousness of the contemporary, the film also comes to you as an amazing time-bubble. This is a Mumbai still full of the classic Fiats, people’s bungalows still do not have guards, flyovers are still something newish. Then there is the delicious technology, almost like an independent character in the movie. People have a style with which they pick up the phone from the cradle; the phone sets have long cords, put to a stomach-destroying funny scene in one instance.

Everything hinges on the two protagonists’ SLR cameras and the rolls of film they develop and enlarge in the darkroom. At one point Shobha (Bhakti Barve), the editor of the newspaper, says, “Laash ki photographs ke blocks nahi chhapey…,” (the blocks of the photos of the dead body haven’t been made), indicating an old hand-worked, pre-offset press where you had to make ‘blocks’ of photos you wanted to use. Most hilariously, Tarneja’s rival builder Ahuja (Om Puri, in his best comedy role) actually drives an old Austin from the 1950s. Then — imagine the complete absence of self-censorship — there is the direct reference to A.R. Antulay’s resignation from Maharashtra’s Chief Ministership for corruption, and time and again posters of Indira Gandhi used ironically in the background, at a time when she was Prime Minister.

Spinning and slapping

In terms of offence-busting, the film takes no prisoners: Punjabis, Goans, Marathis and Malayalis are all seriously lampooned; there is a whole long scene when everyone is in a burkha, spinning around and slapping each other; the climax tears apart to massive comic effect the whole Draupadi vastra-haran scene, throwing into it the Akbar-Anarkali-Jehangir story for good measure.

For all its slashing satire and zany slapstick, JBDY is replete with references to the cinema that has come before. There is, of course, the whole photography thing with a camera accidentally catching a murder in a park that’s a direct homage to Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up, there are numerous references to classic Hindi cinema, there is also a tongue-in-cheek nod to Mani Kaul, as the posters of his film Uski Roti pop up in the background. There is a simultaneous salaam and slap to that great anthem of the Left, ‘We Shall Overcome’, repeated here as a coda in its Hindi version, ‘Hum Hongey Kaamyaab’.

Satirical cinema

Speaking of homages, looking at the film 35 years after it was made, one realises how much younger Indian film-makers in turn now owe to this fountainhead of satirical cinema. Finally, all anxiety gone, one can once again burst out laughing hours after seeing the film. Among the favourite things that set me off are the sozzled Ahuja trying to convince a corpse that he needs to change the stepney on its coffin and the scene with the line that should be emblazoned as the motto of all wealthy Indians — ‘Thhoda khaao, thhoda pheko!’ (‘Eat some, throw some!’)

As for the meta-cinema, looking at the credits tells you a whole another story. The fresh, young Naseer, Ravi Baswani, Satish Shah, Pankaj Kapoor and Neena Gupta need no introduction, but working behind the camera (with some cameos in front of it as well) are Vidhu Vinod Chopra, and Sudhir Mishra; Renu Saluja (one of India’s best editors till her too early passing) is one of the assistant directors and also edits the film, various others who would go on to become huge in the industry are throwing in their efforts for this film that Wikipedia informs us cost $14,000 to make in 1983. As for Kundan Shah, whose best film this continues to be, it remains a mystery why he never again made a comparably funny film.

Finally, fun or not, JBDY leaves us with a question. It wasn’t that films weren’t being banned or chopped up by the censor board at that time; for instance, Indira Gandhi had Aandhi banned because the story ran too close to her own life. But one can’t help wondering if such a direct, raw, recognisable satire would make it past the censors, face public outrage and timorous film distributors in this day and age.

The columnist and filmmaker is author of The Last Jet-Engine Laugh and Poriborton: An Election Diary. He edited Electric Feather: The Tranquebar Book of Erotic Stories and was featured in Granta.

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Printable version | Oct 12, 2021 4:28:14 PM |

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