The daunting thing about having written a book on Jaane bhi do Yaaro is the number of encounters I’ve had with people whose relationship with the film is more intense than my own. Whenever I mention the book to one of these ardent fans – someone who claims to have seen the movie fifty or more times – they respond by pirouetting around the room and reciting entire sections of the script. They toss one-liners at me like Satish Shah throwing pieces of cake out of the window in the “Thoda khao, thoda phenko” scene. “Heck, you’re better qualified to write about this film than I am,” I’ve heard myself say on some of these occasions, only half-jokingly.
I’d love to be able to proclaim that this book was the culmination of a lifelong ambition to write about Jaane bhi do Yaaro – that Kundan Shah’s cult classic is closer to my heart than any other movie, that I’ve watched it dozens of times over the years and been spellbound each time. But that wouldn’t be true. What happened was more mundane.
More than two years ago, during a chat at a book event, the Harper Collins India editor V K Karthika told me about a series they were planning on Indian films and asked if I’d like to contribute to it. After my neck had recovered from the whiplash caused by excessively vigorous nodding, I began thinking about cherished movies I might be able to write about: an early frontrunner was the inventive, dialogue-less Kamal Hassan starrer Pushpak (which I blogged about here), and I also considered a few underrated mainstream films, but I wasn't sure about being able to sustain a whole book on any of them. (Sidenote: when I first heard about the movie series, I misunderstood that it was going to be a single book with a collection of 3,000-word essays by different writers. This complicated the brainstorming process more than somewhat. Writing an essay about a single film is very different from investing time and energy in a 55,000-word book about a single film.)
Then Jaane bhi do Yaaro came up during a discussion with the series editor Saugata, and something clicked immediately. I recognised that this would be a very interesting film to write about – with many potential talking points – and that gathering material on it would be fun. There was also the pleasing coincidence that I had watched JBDY just two weeks earlier – for the first time as an adult, and after a gap of at least 18 years.
If you believe in predestination or “stars aligning” or “the universe conspiring to make something happen” (I don’t – bah!), here’s a bit of information you might enjoy: three weeks before my meeting with Saugata, during a chance visit to the Landmark store in Gurgaon (a place I very rarely go to), I happened to see the Moser Baer DVD of Jaane bhi do Yaaro and picked it up on a whim. If it weren’t for that unlikely visit, I wouldn’t have re-watched the film recently enough to be really enthusiastic about it. Astonishingly, in the two years since that day, I haven’t seen another DVD of it in the dozens of times I’ve been to music stores in Delhi. You’d think this film would be easily available, but the only other DVD I’ve seen in all that time was Kundan Shah’s personal copy, in his office.
Of course, like most other movie-lovers of my generation, my relationship with Jaane bhi do Yaaro goes back a long way. As a child I saw it many times on Doordarshan, and of the many fragmented memories it were the last few seconds of the movie - the coda that follows the framing of the innocent heroes - that stayed etched in my mind: Vinod and Sudhir walking about in prison clothes, Lata Mangeshkar’s soothing voice (very incongruous to this scene) singing “Hum Honge Kaamyaab”, the sudden, strident sound of drumbeats, the protagonists looking directly into the camera and making a throat-slitting gesture, the brief shot of the Gateway of India and the sickening “thud” with which the film ends.
How those drumbeats and that gesture haunted me all these years! When my wife and I first talked about Jaane bhi do Yaaro, it turned out that this was her most vivid memory of the film too.
Watching it through adult eyes in 2008, I liked some scenes and performances a great deal, I loved the wackiness of the screenplay and the bizarre, unexplained moments such as the scene where Tarneja (Pankaj Kapur) sprays perfume under the armpits of a foreman (who beams gratefully as he raises his arms). But to return to my original admission: if I had to make a personal list of my 10 favourite Hindi films (and no, I'd never actually do this), I’m not sure if Jaane bhi do Yaaro would figure on it.
This is not to undermine the film, just to say that I admire it more for its concept than for the execution. I think it’s an important movie for many reasons, including its blurring of the line between Serious Cinema and Entertainment (which are facile and misleading distinctions in any case). However, watch it with pen and notepad in hand and you'll find that parts of it are shoddy. You can tell that it was made on a very small budget, in less-than-ideal conditions, by struggling artists who weren’t sure if anything would come of the endeavour. You can see the haphazard way in which it must have been put together, the last-minute alterations and deletions, the lack of options available in the editing room, the compromises necessitated by budget or scheduling.
And yet, this very aspect of the film was what ultimately made researching and writing about it such a pleasure. I’m going to abruptly end this post here because I’ve just finished an essay about the researching and writing process for The Caravan magazine. Will put the whole thing up when the January issue of the magazine is on the stands. So watch this space, and - as ever - look out for the book.