In the early 1980s, an amateur film-maker, who had once almost lived his dream as a film school graduate only to forsake it, picked up the threads and created a film so bizarre it ruffled the sameness of India’s then “parallel” cinema. This 1983 slapstick comedy, with its pleasant oddities, defied logic. Yet, it was not all fun and games. Twenty-eight years later, author Jai Arjun Singh tells you why. Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro, the book, is as gripping and evocative as Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro (JBDY), the movie.
Divided into four sections, the book chronicles a series of unplanned events leading up to the making of a film that has been seriously funny since 1983. The first few chapters tell of how the idea for the film was born in the most uncanny fashion and “the script that would eventually have audiences roaring with laughter was founded on anger and despair”. These portions would instantly strike a chord with those who can tell good cinema from bad.
The arty tone of the book then glides on to a more identifiable one. The chapters that follow recount how a bunch of movie-making enthusiasts — most were enriched with theatrical and film-training experiences — came to form a cohesive group, in an earnest attempt to give shape to that idea. Interspersed in the narrative are excerpts from conversations with the cast and crew.
The chat is, for the most part, with JBDY director Kundan Shah — the man who conceived the “madness”. Drawing on a photographer buddy’s inconsequential boat-catching incident, he wove a plot around a photographer duo that was to feature in this dark comedy as the endearing protagonist twosome played by Naseeruddin Shah and Ravi Baswani.
The film is the story of two idealist photographers who find themselves embroiled in a corrupt nexus involving magazine publisher Shobha (Bhakti Barve); builders Tarneja (Pankaj Kapoor) and Ahuja (Om Puri); and public servants. Even as the duo is hired by the publisher to spy on some shady construction deals, the venal commissioner of police, DeMello (Satish Shah), is murdered by Tarneja and the photographers chance on the evidence. A hyper hunt for the corpse brings the chasers to a theatre where a Mahabharata episode is being staged — this is also the film’s most hilarious scene. In an anti-climax, the film ends in the duo being falsely implicated, thus hitting a sweet spot between humour and pathos.
But the first scribble was nowhere near the final script. The book is also a curtain-up for the original JBDY script, Opening Ceremony, dubbed “bloody thing” by Kundan Shah, who just wanted to “finish it”. This, however, was just the beginning of an eventful journey that entailed a lot more madness than the movie offers. For, what explains a team of newcomers, pressed for time and money, getting together in a spirit of revived camaraderie to make a film with a modest budget, and then nonchalantly wait for its release?
The exacting task of getting on board the cast and crew of this cinematic adventure, including some of the country’s choicest film and theatre talents, has paid off — behind-the-scenes anecdotes are aplenty. The bits about the struggles of a hapless crew, finely balanced with chunks on happy accidents, invoke vicarious excitement. Crew members disguised as burqa-clad women running about haphazardly, frenetic activity at a beach house shooting spot, and silhouetting an evening shot for want of lights are just a few of the many insane moments. But such instances of heightened absurdity cautiously highlight the importance of limitations in art. On the silhouette impromptu, Kundan Shah laughingly wonders, “People tell me this was a case of making virtue out of necessity. I don’t know about the virtue, but there certainly was a lot of necessity.” Necessity is also the central theme of the book.
But the real meat is the chapter that unveils some of the deleted, also the funniest, parts. A “talking gorilla” which, according to Kundan Shah, “could be the most ethereal visual in the film”, never made its debut. And, a “disco killer” sequence, shot at the costliest of the film’s locations, had to be painfully jettisoned at the filming stage.
Yet, the movie that “wasn’t made” but “happened” since “everything ‘fell into place’” remains a landmark in the annals of India’s non-commercial cinema. In a way, the book sincerely attempts to further the cause of alternative cinema. The author does labour the point, but backs it every time with striking anecdotes — like the one about the use of posters of lesser-known films on walls during the night scenes in JBDY.
Why should anyone who hasn’t known about the movie read this book? Don’t even try. “This book isn’t even meant for such philistines anyway,” says Singh. Maybe he is being condescending but the book is, after all, meant to be enjoyed solely by the JBDY followers who take pride in their cult zealotry. But the narrative is engaging enough to make you a JBDY fan. You would want to read it to know what it was like to make a film with talents drawn from low-key cinema in the days when the kitsch bug had bitten the box office. And you would also like to know why, after 28 years, the JBDY team is “still scratching their heads over how this chaotic, low-budget movie turned into such a phenomenon”.
JAANE BHI DO YAARO
Seriously funny since 1983
Jai Arjun Singh
272 pages, Rs 250