The Hindustan Times has this good-looking package which divides the Hindi cinema of the past 75 years into five eras, with separate essays on each. I contributed a short piece to the 1977-92 section, with Jaane bhi do Yaaro as the fulcrum. The piece is below.
(Yesterday, as it happens, was the anniversary of JBDY's release – I discovered only a couple of years after my book was published that the film's release date coincided with the date of my own advent into this so-called world. Some things are apparently “meant to be”…)
“Jaane bhi do Yaaro just happened somehow,” the late Kundan Shah told me once. He looked distracted, as if he still hadn’t understood why this small, madcap satire that he put together with a group of friends – almost in the spirit of a student film – had become a canonised cult classic. “We didn’t make it with the idea that anyone would ever watch it.”
We did watch it, though, over and over until it became one of the most-quoted Hindi films of its time – from “Thoda khao thoda phenko” to “Gutter ka paani alag, peene ka paani alag” to “Maine vastra-haran ka idea drop kar diya”. For those of us who first saw it as children on TV, the most astonishing thing about JBDY was that it was full of “boring” art-movie actors – Naseeruddin Shah, Om Puri, Pankaj Kapoor – and yet it was wacky and frenetic and more outrageous than anything in the mainstream: a corpse on roller skates, slices of cake being tossed about, the Pandavas trying to disrobe Draupadi. It wasn’t until years later that one grasped the acerbic social commentary below the zany surface.
In some ways, the hard-to-categorise nature of JBDY makes it representative of the most enduring Hindi cinema of that period. When we think back on the late 1970s through the 80s, we speak in binaries: “mainstream vs parallel”, “commercial vs art”. There is something to this categorising (with the escapism of a Manmohan Desai at one end of the spectrum and the grittiness of a Govind Nihalani at the other), but many notable films occupy an unclassifiable middle ground between those modes.
“Unclassifiable” because the official Middle Cinema was still around, as were its directors who had begun their careers a decade or two earlier: this period saw Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Gol Maal, Khubsoorat and one of my favourites, the underappreciated comedy of marriage Rang Birangi; Basu Chatterjee’s Khatta Meetha and Chameli ki Shaadi; Gulzar’s Angoor and Ijaazat. Add to this the work of Sai Paranjpye – evergreen, feel-good films like Chashme Baddoor, about a diligent young man and his roguish pals, and Katha, which transposes the hare-vs-tortoise fable to a Bombay chawl.
But equally notable were some films that are hard to label. Vidhu Vinod Chopra, who assisted his FTII buddy Kundan on JBDY (and gave his name to one of the protagonists), made the meta-movie Khamosh the next year, a murder mystery set on a film shoot, with Shabana Azmi and Amol Palekar playing versions of their real-life selves. Saeed Mirza, another of Kundan’s close friends, made Mohan Joshi Haazir Ho, which again combined slapstick comedy with social commentary (through the story of an elderly man who tries to fight injustice).
Then there was the work of Pankuj Parashar, which included some droll films that are still under-watched – the Farooque Shaikh-starrers Ab Aayega Mazaa and Peecha Karo – as well as better-known works: Jalwa (a Beverly Hills Cop remake with Naseeruddin Shah as a muscular action hero!) and Chaalbaaz, which used mainstream stars (Sridevi, Rajinikanth, Sunny Deol) and a familiar Seeta aur Geeta-inspired story but was full of off-kilter moments where it seemed to be winking at the audience and saying let’s not take all this seriously.
In some obvious ways, the 1980s wasn’t a quality decade for commercial films. Even as a boy who loved the “dhishoom-dhishoom” and the testosterone-fuelled posters (with three heroes glowering at us), and waited breathlessly for the Friday release of titles like Jaan Hatheli Pe and Mardon Waali Baat, on some level I knew this wasn’t “good cinema”. In earlier eras, the 1950s for instance, Indian films had been in conversation with other movements around the world (being influenced in form and content by Hollywood, while also trying to emulate the socialist cinemas). But in the 70s and 80s, most mainstream Hindi films were cut off from the outside world, in a vacuum, regurgitating old formulas and archetypes. In the years leading up to liberalisation, before India opened up and let the world in, culturally and otherwise, there was a sense that the film industry didn’t know what it was trying to be.
However, there are important exceptions, such as the films of JP Dutta (Ghulami, Hathyar) and Rahul Rawail (Arjun, Dacait) which were more stylish and visually inventive than most of what else was happening in the decade. There are also some of the breezier Amitabh Bachchan-starrers, which, while obviously being big commercial films, defied Angry Young Man formulas: light comedies such as Do aur Do Paanch (in which Bachchan and Shashi Kapoor try to out-prank each other), or the rambunctious Satte pe Satta (inspired by Seven Brides for Seven Brothers), hold up better today than his more conventional action films.
There were standalone hits like Disco Dancer, which would become a huge success in the USSR. There was the young Govinda’s disruptive presence, with nascent signs of his comic talent even in his pre-David Dhawan phase. And there were the films with the gloriously inventive villains’ dens: from blockbusters like Shaan and Mr India to less successful works like Teesri Aankh which, amidst its overall mediocrity, has a magnificent climactic musical-fight sequence where a singing Dharmendra infiltrates a lair and finds himself in a multi-level video game.
In fact, one can imagine the hapless photographers in Jaane bhi do Yaaro, Vinod and Sudhir, caught in one of those plush lairs with spiky walls and shark tanks – after all, one of the crazy characters who never made it to the final version of JBDY was a short-sighted hitman called the Disco Killer, played by a young Anupam Kher!
Another of my favourite JBDY anecdotes is that the film almost had a scene featuring a philosophical talking gorilla, the costume for which would have been the werewolf get-up used in Raj Kumar Kohli’s big-budget multi-starrer Jaani Dushman. That little story encapsulates the zanier side to this era, in which very different varieties of films brushed against each other in unexpected ways.