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A cult above

The genius of Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro lies in Kundan Shah’s story that led to the classic ‘concept film’

books Updated: Jan 14, 2011 22:04 IST

Doing a book about Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro presented a minor conundrum for me. If you’re writing with seriousness and depth about a movie, you want to be able to dwell for at least some time on the distinct language of cinema, the tools a filmmaker uses to achieve a particular effect — the carefully thought-out use of lighting, framing and shot-composition, for example. You don’t want to reduce the film purely to its story and concept.

This is, of course, equally true of good literature. Shakespeare didn’t think up the plots of any of his most acclaimed plays — he took stories that had been floating about for decades or centuries, reinvented them with beautiful language, and gave the characters astonishing psychological depth.

In other words, most critics would agree that the ‘how’ is more important than the ‘what’. But Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro is an example of a film where the premise is much more vital than the execution. Here’s essentially what happened: first, writer-director Kundan Shah wrote an English-language script titled ‘Opening Ceremony’, drawing on anecdote, topicality, personal experience and his own madcap sense of humour. Then, dialogue-writer Ranjit Kapoor — a man with a similar comic sensibility — helped Shah fill out that story and turn it into a working Hindi screenplay. It might be said that at this early stage, most of what makes Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro so popular today was already in place before a scene had been shot.

That isn’t to undermine the contributions of the crew members — including some of the most talented theatre and film people in the country — who worked hard to transform the script into reality. But speak to the movie’s admirers today and you’ll hear them gushing mainly about the wacky dialogues, or about the idea of using slapstick and black humour as a vessel for social commentary — something that is still very rare in Hindi cinema. Even discerning fans are happy to overlook the fact that the finished film has some shoddy scenes that look like they were thrown together on very limited resources. (As indeed they were. Forget carefully planned framing and composition — time and money were at such a premium that when they realised part of the famous Mahabharata climax had been shot on exposed stock, they couldn’t go back and re-shoot it.)

Writing about this movie, therefore, I found myself spending a lot of time on the back-story: Shah’s personal journey into movie-making, the things that moulded his worldview, the experiences that went into the creation of the script, and the many inspired scenes that were written but for one reason or another never made it to the final film. Imagine a talking gorilla who philosophises about the human condition. Or a ‘disco killer’ played by a young Anupam Kher. Or a scene where the corpse played by Satish Shah beats Om Puri in a game of chess. Researching Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro’s tortuous journey from script to finished product, I understood a great deal about the randomness of the moviemaking process, and my pre-set ideas about what a film should be got a shake-up. Even in its rawest, most hurriedly put-together moments, this cult classic is a reminder of how powerful a ‘concept film’ can be.

Jai Arjun Singh is the author of
Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro:
Seriously Funny Since 1983

First Published: Jan 14, 2011 22:01 IST