At first glance, Ravi Baswani looked a bit sturdier than I'd expected when we met in March last year. His two best-known movie roles — as the roguish bachelor Jai in Chashme Buddoor and as the high-strung photographer Sudhir in Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron — had fixed him in my mind as a wisp of a man permanently in danger of being blown away by a strong breeze, in the style of the great silent-screen comedians.
One of the best sight gags in Chashme Buddoor has him leaping nimbly to and fro in a single-minded effort to kick-start a scooter; it's slapstick, but it's also balletic and done with tremendous comic timing, and it's my favourite Baswani memory. Watching it, you almost feel like the scooter will kick this little man back.
Nor was I prepared for his bushy moustache, which gave him the initial appearance of a major-general (and which he carefully combed with his hands throughout our talk). But the voice was as boyish as ever.
"It says 'Push' but you can't push it, you can only pull," he complained jocularly about the recalcitrant door of the Café Coffee Day, "Nothing works around here — it's like the bloody political system."
We spoke mainly about the small window of time in the early 1980s when Baswani did the two movies that gained him such a large fan following. Before that, he was a Delhi boy sporadically involved with theatre, and going to Bombay in search of film work was not on his agenda — "I thought if cinema was destined to be part of my life it would come to me."
Which is how it turned out when Naseeruddin Shah — whom Baswani knew through the theatre circuit — showed him the script of Sai Paranjpe's film Sparsh.
"I was so impressed that I told Naseer I had to be involved with this movie, even if it meant working as his personal spotboy."
He ended up scouting for locations and properties for the film, and Paranjpe was so impressed by his work that she cast him in her next production, Chashme Buddoor.
After the Bombay premiere he was about to return to Delhi when a friend asked him to act in a play. Writer-director Kundan Shah came for a show and was enthralled by Ravi's talent for manic humour and by his glass eye, which gave him a mad-scientist look at times.
"To me, Ravi WAS Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron," Kundan says today, "He was the comic cement of the film. When I got him on board, I knew a key component had been taken care of."
Baswani brought exactly the hoped-for qualities to the madcap comedy. His Sudhir is hyper-excited, paranoid, marked by childlike swings of emotion: when he's morose he is the picture of pessimism, but a few seconds later he's on his feet again, this time impractically cheery even when there isn't much to be cheery about.
Much of the responsibility of pulling off the broad slapstick rested on his shoulders, which was just as well, for Baswani was one of the very few people who instantly took to the bizarre script.
"It made perfect sense to me — I believed in the absurdity and the dark humour."
His talent for improvised zaniness was a morale-booster to the other members of the crew during a shoot where people often asked each other the immortal question "Yeh kya ho raha hai?"
Though his career never took off post-1983, he was stoical about it, preferring to dwell on the positives.
"On the sets of the films I worked in, there was innocence and there was passion," he said, "We weren't competing with each other or thinking about posterity, we were just seizing the moment and doing our best. But it's gratifying that young viewers today know about those movies — when I speak to college students at workshops, the admiration is there to see."
Towards the end of our talk, a trace of regret showed itself.
"The loudness of comedy these days is very disheartening," he said, "It's all about verbal diarrhoea — there's a poverty of ideas."
But even this was said with a chuckle, and with the same matter-of-fact humour he showed when he quipped in a magazine interview a few years ago that he should have taken a cue from James Dean and died after Chashme Buddoor and Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron were released.
"I would have been a two-film legend by now."
Jai Arjun Singh's monograph on Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron will be out this year