Thursday, December 23, 2010

Yeh kya ho gaya? How The Book came to be written, part 1

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.


  1. "just to say that I admire it more for its concept than for the execution"

    If this is how the book is written.... nudge nudge :-)

    (Sorry for trolling, Dilip!)

  2. watch it with pen and notepad in hand and you'll find that parts of it are shoddy

    Jai: I think that's precisely what makes it a fascinating film. As Sarris writes in his Notes on Auteur Theory :

    "Interior meaning is extrapolated from the tension between a director's personality and his material"

    In JBDY's case, the satire is more penetrative since it is buried beneath several layers of slapstick and broad comedy.

    In a polished Oscar-worthy Stanley Kramer film, the message would've been placed on the surface without being buried underneath crude interludes. Which is why none of his films merit comparison with a masterpiece like JBDY.

    JBDY illustrates how on-the-surface crudity can often be the key to artistic achievement. McCarey's Duck Soup is another film which, despite its crudeness, remains an ageless classic as opposed to earnest, albeit dated, films of the same period like All Quiet on the Western Front.

  3. Shrikanth: I think you've misunderstood what I was saying. When I say that parts of JBDY are raw and shoddy, I'm not talking about the fact that the medium is slapstick/broad comedy. I'm saying (and I don't know how to put this too tactfully) that parts of the film are shoddily or hurriedly made - that there are problems with the editing, continuity and performances, much of which is a result of the low budget and the need to wrap things up as fast as possible.

    In that sense, for example, I think Duck Soup is a much better executed film than JBDY (especially if you make a minor provision for the fact that it was made nearly 50 years earlier). You can't put them in the same boat just because they are both slapstick comedies.

    Besides, for all your dragging of poor Stanley Kramer and his "surface messages" into this, I think JBDY is also overtly polemical in a couple of places - certainly when compared to Duck Soup, which never let social commentary get in the way of its relentless funniness. (To be fair, Groucho's personality was largely responsible for that.) In fact, it could be said that one reason why Jaane bhi do Yaaro has such a high standing among a certain type of middle-class Indian viewer is that it provides you the comfort of being entertained while also being constantly aware that this film is saying serious things.

    But yes, I think that Sarris quote, in a different way, does apply to Kundan Shah and JBDY.

  4. Jai: Got it. Maybe I'm overplaying JBDY as a film since it's been a long while since I saw it.

    high standing among a certain type of middle-class Indian viewer is that it provides you the comfort of being entertained while also being constantly aware that this film is saying serious things

    I think this observation applies more to films like 3 Idiots and Rang De Basanti than JBDY.

  5. I think this observation applies more to films like 3 Idiots and Rang De Basanti than JBDY.

    Probably - what I'm saying is that it does apply to JBDY too. One possibility that disturbs me is: what if JBDY had been a better-executed film (smoothly shot, performed and edited, no scenes that played like raw cuts) but at the same time had toned down its social commentary a little bit and focused even more on the lunatic comedy? In that case, would the film have been as acclaimed as it is today? Probably not, and that would be unfortunate in my view.

    In a related context, I also think about Kundan's second feature Kabhi Haan Kabhi Na. I wouldn't say that it's as important a film as JBDY, but it was a more polished, well-rounded work in some ways (again, the result of more resources and a more experienced crew) - and in its own understated way, it made sharp observastions about communal/family life and the process of personal growth. But even those who praised it made a point of comparing it unfavourably to JBDY.

  6. Duck Soup is a great comparison where I am concerned. It didn't have the best sound, had a bit of continuity flaws. The lighting is also pretty poor; The framing isn't the best either.

    It works though. As you yourself say Jai, Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa didn't work as well as JBDY and you wonder how much the production values had to do with.

    Why would better production values harm a film would be the big question I guess. I think the lesser production values add a bit of unintended realism to analyze it just on the surface. I am sure there would be a lot more reasons when we analyze it indepth.

  7. Jai: That was a good point. Traditionally, we have tended to associate a "well-made" film with the following features :

    - A seamless transition from scene to scene using techniques like dissolve

    - Careful attention to plotting which ensured that all pieces fall into place by the end of the film.
    Eg: The Thin Man, The Best Years of Our Lives.

    - A clearly defined dramatic arc with a beginning-middle-end and easily identifiable protagonists/villains/comic-reliefs.

    These classical virtues which were once regarded as indispensable are today condescended upon by movie critics and perhaps even movie-makers. No wonder a film like JBDY has a greater cult following than the Shahrukh-Kundan collaboration.

  8. As you yourself say Jai, Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa didn't work as well as JBDY and you wonder how much the production values had to do with it

    Pratyush: I didn't say any such thing :) I said it was a more finished film than JBDY in some ways, and implied that it was a bit of a pity that it was dwarfed by JBDY's cult reputation. I know I find it very odd when people say Kundan didn't do anything worthwhile apart from JBDY.

    But yes, the better/lesser production values question is a very complex one, and I think the only way to address it would be to look at how it affects individual films, rather than make sweeping statements. In some ways, JBDY benefited from the budget constraints and the fact that its unit was made up of non-starry people who hadn't yet developed big egos; but in a couple of ways it also suffered from the lack of resources and the inexperience of its crew.

    And again, I don't think Duck Soup is such a good comparison. It's definitely a better-produced (studio) film, especially if you consider when it was made - the sound and lighting problems you're talking about are probably a function of the technology of the time, combined with print erosion. JBDY, on the other hand, suffered from budget to the extent that when they discovered that part of the Mahabharata climax had been shot with exposed film, they couldn't go back and reshoot it. (You can see the glow on the edge of the frame for a few seconds, when Naseeruddin Shah and Vinod Chopra are on screen together.)

  9. On Duck Soup, and I hate to go on about it, when you look at some thing like The General or some of Chaplin's seminal works and compare it, Duck Soup pales where production values are concerned. I guess we will disagree on the Duck Soup example and end it there. Coming to the more interesting part.

    Yeah, the aspects have to be looked at individually. Kabhi Haan Kabhi Na was top drawer stuff. I really love where you do not go for the typical bollywood ending as it is a cop out in a lot of the cases. KHKN was such a beautiful film. I really love it. :) Kya Kehna would have also succeeded if it didn't try to bring the aspects of typical bollywood films. I don't know if he did that to get a wider audience but the script was definitely very lose and with a lot of flaws. It was a brave attempt neverthless. Some works become things you are identified with forever whatever you do in the future. I was thinking regarding this a month or so back actually when some one raised the question of Gowarikar and Lagaan. Swades for instance is a far better work in my opinion or would certainly stand as good as Lagaan as a film. Which is another point which makes me look with awe at the great directors. Kurosawa did Rashomon. Then he did Ikiru. Then he did Seven Samurai. 99% of the directors couldn't ever top Rashomon (and though I do think Rashomon is his best work, he is more identified for Seven Samurai). You can give other examples like Hitchcock say.

  10. Shrikanth, Pratyush: I think you might also be interested in this interview I've done with author/journalist Mayank Chhaya. Only the first part (of three) is up so far, but you can start reading it.

  11. Jai:
    Really hoping you could get the publisher to release a PDF/eBook to buy.

    - Request from all Kindle owners :)

  12. Hello.
    I've read this piece a little late in the day but couldn't resist adding my two bits. You know, Kabhi Haan had no shadow of a chance against JBDY because of it's sheer lack of acting talent. in JBDY, each and every two bit actor, including that foreman who raises his arms were hungry, idealistic actors out to change the world and that youthful belief in their own madness adds that crazy layer to the film. Whereas Kabhi haan...enough said.