Very sad to hear about the passing of Ravi Baswani. I met him in March last year in Mumbai, and at first glance he looked a bit sturdier than I’d expected; his two best-known roles - as Farooque Shaikh’s rascally bachelor pal Jai in Chashme Baddoor and as the high-strung photographer Sudhir in Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro - 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 Baddoor has him leaping nimbly to and fro in a single-minded effort to kick-start a scooter into life; 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 Ravi’s thick moustache, which made him look vaguely like a major-general (and which he carefully combed with his hands at regular intervals throughout our conversation). But his voice was still just as boyish as Sudhir’s. “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 in Andheri, “This is like the bloody political system – nothing works around here!”
We talked mainly about Jaane bhi do Yaaro and about that tiny window of time in the early 1980s when Ravi played the two movie parts that got him such a large fan following. In the late 1970s, he told me, he was a Delhi boy sporadically involved with theatre – he had been into acting since his school and college days but never really thought of it as a profession. “I worked as a management trainee after college, and that's where I was exposed to such fine terms as Job Satisfaction,” he said with a chuckle. Going to Bombay in search of film work was not something he was thinking about – “I thought if cinema was ever going to be a part of my life it would come to me.”
Which is what happened. Naseeruddin Shah – whom Ravi knew through the Delhi theatre circuit – was getting ready to film Sai Paranjpye’s Sparsh and he happened to show Ravi the script. “I was so impressed that I told Naseer I have to be involved with this film, even if it meant working as his personal spotboy.” Eventually Paranjpye asked if he would handle Properties for the film, and Ravi and his theatre group (called “Non-Group”!) became closely involved with behind-the-scenes work. Paranjpye was so impressed (in an interview to Filmfare, she said “Thanks to Ravi Baswani and his team, if I asked for a pink elephant at night, it was there in the morning”) that she cast him in Chashme Baddoor.
After the Bombay premiere of that film, he was going to return to Delhi to resume his theatre work when a friend asked him to direct and act in a play for him. Kundan Shah, who had enjoyed Chashme Baddoor, attended one of the shows and was enthralled by Ravi’s talent for manic humour and by his glass eye, which gave him a mad-scientist look at times. He had already thought of Ravi for the role of the high-strung Sudhir, and this performance made up his mind.
“To me, Ravi WAS Jaane bhi do Yaaro,” Kundan says today, “He was the comic cement of the film. When I got him on board, I knew that a key component had been taken care of.” Ravi would bring exactly the hoped-for qualities to the role. His Sudhir is hyper-excited, paranoid, marked by childlike swings of emotion: when he’s morose he is the picture of incurable 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. In scenes such as the one where he yelps “Jaane nahin doonga!” at the rent-collector, he resembles nothing so much as a Chihuahua snapping away at someone’s heels. This makes him a perfect foil to his more poised, idealistic partner Vinod (played by Naseer). It also places the responsibility of pulling off the broader comic scenes on his shoulders – something that would carry a real-life resonance during the shooting, as Naseer became increasingly unconvinced about some of the comedy and Ravi occasionally had to mediate.
In fact, Ravi was one of the very few people involved with Jaane bhi do Yaaro who was sold on the script at first reading. “I didn’t think there was anything unacceptable in it. It made perfect sense to me and I believed in the absurdity, the dark humour, etc.” On more than one occasion, his confidence and talent for improvised zaniness was a morale-booster to the other members of the cast and crew during a very difficult shoot where people were often asking each other the immortal question “Yeh kya ho raha hai?”
“During that shoot there was innocence and there was the passion to do something really well,” Ravi told me, “We weren’t competing with each other or looking over each other’s shoulders. Aisa laalach kabhi nahin tha ki main lead role kar rahan hoon ya kuch aur kar raha hoon? Everybody was throwing suggestions around, multi-tasking...you can't imagine the level of enthusiasm. When Kundan shouted 'Taking!', there were 15 voices that answered in a chorus 'Giving!' We had absolutely no idea that we were involved in something that was going to be a cult or a landmark or whatever. We were just doing our work as best as we could. It was like the Gita’s philosophy: Aasha kiye bina apna karm kar lo.”
His own career never really took off post-1983, but he was stoical about it, preferring to dwell on the positives. “After satellite TV came in, the repeated telecast of JBDY and Chashme Baddoor has led to a resurgence of viewers who talk to me as if the movies were made just yesterday. When I speak to college students or young interns at workshops, the admiration is there to see – there is a quiet pride that one was involved with such films.”
His first VHS copy of Jaane bhi do Yaaro came from Doordarshan as late as 1990, eight years after the film was made. “Now it’s more widely available but sad to say, though we are told the prints are digitally remastered and rerecorded and all that shit, the quality is still very bad.” There isn’t much of a culture of film preservation in India, I remarked, and Ravi nodded in agreement but then let out a short laugh. “True, but kya iss country ki priority film preservation hai? You know what I mean, right? There are so many other things that need to be preserved, which is not happening.”
Towards the end of our talk, a trace of regret showed itself. “We’ve all lost our innocence now,” he said. “The loudness of comedy in recent times is very disheartening. It’s all about verbal diarrhoea – all this Laughter Challenge nonsense. Even some fine comedians are getting involved with this circus, purely for money’s sake.” But he said even this with a smile, 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 immediately after Chashme Baddoor and Jaane bhi do Yaaro were released. “I would have been a two-movie legend by now.”
[Did a version of this for the Hindustan Times. Photos courtesy Aditya Arya, who knew Ravi well since the 1970s and who worked as stills photographer on JBDY. More on that here]