Friday, April 15, 2016

Flyovers, fans, Anupam Kher and disco killers (in which life outdoes satire)

[My latest Mint Lounge column]

Holding a ceiling fan above her head, like a Mother India lurching under the weight of a misshapen, three-pronged plough, Rakhi Sawant entered the press-conference arena. I want fans removed from ceilings across India, she told journalists (as well as two admirably straight-faced men sitting next to her), because this will help suicide rates drop. The context
– but did you really need one? was the death of the TV actor Pratyusha Banerjee, around which a voyeuristic little media carnival had grown. I was surprised Sawant didn’t demand a ban on the Shah Rukh Khan-starrer Fan, or ask that those big water tanks in the hinterlands be torn down, because who doesn’t remember Veeru’s “sooside” threat in Sholay?

Still, hers wasn’t the most absurd declaration made in recent years by a public figure, and it isn’t close to being the most irresponsible or dangerous. People who hold positions of power, or are generally taken more seriously than Sawant, have been enlivening our news channels and Twitter feeds in many ways, from proposing chowmein as a cause of rape to implying that the 1984 anti-Sikh riots couldn’t be compared with the 2002 Gujarat violence. And when real life becomes so loopy that sharp satire starts looking frail in comparison, I always think about a low-budget film that marks one of Hindi cinema’s craziest dalliances with dark humour.

Some years ago I worked on a book about Kundan Shah’s Jaane bhi do Yaaro (JBDY). When you spend 15 months closeted with a single movie, you never want to see or think about it again. But it feels like reassessment time now: increasingly there are signs that JBDY – known for its inspired lunacy, exaggeration and non-sequiturs – was more restrained than we had thought.

Consider these situations. 1) A foot-bridge constructed for an international sporting event falls apart. Responding to this public embarrassment, a chief minister notes that at least the bridge hadn’t been meant for athletes or officials – it was only for spectators. 2) A flyover, built in an overcrowded locality, collapses, killing several people. Even as photos circulate of an arm of the flyover stretching over a balcony of a nearby building as if to say howdy-do to the residents within, an executive from the construction company piously calls the incident an Act of God. 3) Another flyover comes crashing down. A construction magnate expresses regret during a TV interview but assures viewers that his company had used the best-quality “imported cement”. This was a case of sabotage, he surmises.


The first two are from real life – Delhi 2010 and Kolkata 2016 respectively – while the last, set in 1983 Bombay, is from a Jaane bhi do Yaaro scene featuring the oily builder Tarneja (played by the young, delightfully deadpan Pankaj Kapur). All three represent degrees of responsibility-shirking, but compared to the first two speakers Tarneja is at least circumspect while expressing himself in a public space. In private he says many outrageous things: when a worried engineer tells him they need 5000 more bags of cement, he goes, “Have you heard of the Kutch desert?” Yes, says the engineer, it’s very big. “Well, don’t let it get any bigger. Take some sand from it and make up the shortfall of cement bags,” Tarneja replies, like a headmaster imparting moral-science lessons to a disobedient boy. But that’s what the dominant tone of JBDY is, over-the-top, which makes it even more telling that its villain seems positively coy when facing a journalist’s camera. In today’s world, where people in high places seem to be competing with each other for the Best Speech from the Cuckoo’s Nest award, he would not have had any such compunctions.

Leafing through early drafts of the JBDY script, I was reminded of scenes that didn’t make it to the final film – such as the ones involving an overconfident hired assassin known as the Disco Killer. Some of the comedy featuring this character was pure slapstick (“goliyan do” he tells a rookie, and since he has a cold, the rookie hands him cough-drops instead of bullets – which he then tries to load into his gun) but much of it is darker in tone. Given his poor eyesight, he prefers to shoot when his target is walking in a crowd rather than alone, because “ek aadmi pe nishaana lagaane mein pareshaani hoti hai. Bheed mein main poore bheed ko khatam kar sakta hoon (it’s harder to shoot at just one person; it’s easier to finish off a whole crowd)”.


This line puts me in mind of another little connection between satire and life. Before the Disco Killer subplot was scrapped, the goofy hitman was to be played by a youngster named Anupam Kher. Today, of course, Kher is a respected character actor and talking head. One of his recent proclamations, made in the heat of the uproar about “anti-national” university students, evoked the image of a nation undergoing “pest control” to weed out problematic elements – an idea that neatly sidesteps nuance in favour of dealing wholesale with groups of people who don’t conform to a narrative. I have a feeling that the short-sighted Disco Killer – a character who may have been too wacky for Jaane bhi do Yaaro, but perhaps not for the real world of today – would have approved of such crowd-control methods.

9 comments:

  1. :)

    Loved...every..word.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Topical and accurate.
    On a slightly unrelated side note: As I stay outside India, I have decided to look up the current "correct" way of professing loyalty to the nation when it is time for my yearly vacation to my land.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Just keep yelling Bharat Mata ki Jai to yourself every few minutes. Also get moist-eyed when you are here, talk a lot about mitti, and tell people you feel like you are living in vanvaas.

      Delete
  3. Any chance of a director's cut of JBDY?
    SR.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Nope. There isn't any surviving "extra" footage - and in fact some of the most intriguing scenes, like the one with the philosophising gorilla, were never even shot.

      Delete
    2. Then any chance of a director's cut screenplay?

      Delete
  4. I enjoy reading your posts..thanks !

    ReplyDelete
  5. Clap clap clap, sire. This is wonderful.

    ReplyDelete