When Jai Arjun Singh was approached by Harper Collins, his first thought was to do a book on the Kamal Hassan-starrer Pushpak. However, it took one mention of Kundan Shah’s 1983 comedy by commissioning editor Saugata Mukherjee to change his mind. “I realised this would be a compelling film to write about,” Singh said in an interview. “With Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro, you just know there’d be an interesting behind-the-scenes story. Coincidentally, I’d just seen the film for the first time as an adult a few weeks back, after a gap of 17-18 years.”
While Singh does drop a warning coda early on in the book (“It is difficult to describe this film to someone who hasn’t experienced it first-hand”) chances are most of his readers would be familiar with this, Hindi cinema’s ultimate cult film. Nearly two decades after its release, fans still quote its absurdist lines, discuss the philosophical implications of Satish Shah’s highly entertaining corpse, and write mini-theses on the Marxist (Groucho Marxist) Mahabhratha sequence. Even dedicated viewers of the film, though, should find plenty that’s new in this breezy (yet thorough) piecing together of how the film fell into place. Singh speaks to most of the major players – among others, director Kundan Shah, screenwriter Ranjit Kapoor, actors Naseeruddin Shah, Ravi Baswani and Om Puri – and uses their first-hand reports to illuminate why the movie played out the way it did.
While Singh had written about this film on his blog Jabberwock, he decided to approach his first full-length by not “pre-deciding how the book was going to be. I decided I’d keep my mind open and if something interesting came up during the research process, I’d go with it,” he said. He stressed how different the film might have turned out if the script hadn’t been through multiple iterations, and the crew hadn’t been receptive to new ideas while shooting. Shah’s original English script had a talking gorilla and Anupam Kher playing an inept hitman called “Disco Killer”. These ideas were shot and subsequently dropped, as were many others, notes Singh in a fascinating chapter entitled “Outtakes from the Shadow Films”. This was as much due to the vision of the filmmakers and the legendary scissor-fingers of editor Renu Saluja (her contribution, along with Shah and Kapoor, is singled out by the author as most vital to the film) as it was to NFDC tax regulations, which stipulated that movies shorter than 2 hours 25 minutes fell under a different slab (Yaaro clocks in at 2 hours, 24 minutes).
The more one reads Singh’s book, the more one is struck by the fact that Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro may not only be one of India’s best-loved comedies, but also the encapsulation of the possibilities of a moment when a supremely talented bunch of individuals decided to collaborate on a project that seemed jinxed from day one. Its cast and crew reads like a non-mainstream honour roll – besides those mentioned above, Pankaj Kapoor, Satish Kaushik, Sudhir Mishra and Vidhu Vinod Chopra were all involved with the production – and Singh cites not only FTII, where the director and most of the actors studied, but also NSD, of which Ranjit Kapoor and Robin Das, the art director, were alumni, as important founding grounds for the film.
What makes Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro all the more unique is the fact that it has proved surprisingly resistant to imitation. When asked why, Singh mused “I don’t know if it’s too mystical to suggest that when Shah and Kapoor came together, it was a once-in-a-lifetime thing. Maybe other directors didn’t have the same sensibility. Or maybe some did, but didn’t have a crew that was on the same wavelength.” In such a situation, what might Yaaro’s legacy be? The book points in some surprising directions. Sudhir Mishra, for instance, remarks how the harrowing scene where two cops beat up Shiney Ahuja’s character in Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi had, to his mind, an undercurrent of black humour that was a result of his having worked on Shah’s film. Singh also mentioned Pankaj Advani’s Sankat City and Peepli Live as films possessing the same absurdist comic outlook. Ultimately, though, the best analogy for Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro’s ethereal lightness, and well as its elusiveness, can be found in Akhtar Mirza’s advice to Shah: “Your script is like snow, so it’s floating. If you put all this logic into it, it will become ice and sink.”
A version of this piece appeared in Time Out Delhi.