The 1980s are dismissed as one of the worst decades for Hindi cinema, but a charitable survey of the period reveals something else – a dazzling variety of films of all styles, persuasions and levels of egregiousness, a storytelling idiom heavily influenced by Hollywood and music videos, and a moral order in which right and wrong are clearly defined. Those who do not pine for ’80s cinema’s conscientious heroes, ditzy heroines, dastardly villains with bizarre names, scrappy action sequences and strobe-lit songs performed by break-dancing actors in garish threads are clearly deceiving themselves.

The ’80s was also the peak of Indian New Wave cinema. One of its stars was Naseeruddin Shah, the brilliant actor whose training at the National School of Drama and the Film and Television Institute of India made him the natural choice for the serious dramas of such filmmakers as Mrinal Sen, Shyam Benegal and Ketan Mehta. By 1986, Shah had done his share of critically lauded but poorly paid work. When Pankaj Parashar rolled out Jalwa in 1987, Shah was ready to apply his Method acting techniques to channeling his inner Rambo.

To watch Shah pumping iron, baring his well-sculpted chest and reducing gangsters to pulp, look no further than Parashar’s immensely fun and inventively filmed romp, which is also a cautionary tale about drug abuse.

Jalwa (1987).

Was Jalwa a copy of Beverly Hills Cops, as it is often described to be? “It’s better than Beverly Hills Cop,” Parashar said. “The editing pattern is better, for one thing. I once met that movie’s director [Martin Brest] in a hotel lobby in California and told him that I had remade his film without his permission, and done it better, and he laughed.”

Jalwa is a law and order drama packed with wackiness, relentless action, memorable characters, a Goa setting and a Latin pop-influenced soundtrack. It’s also one of the best-known narcotics dramas to roll off the Hindi industry’s assembly line, but it initially didn’t start out that way. Jalwa was suggested by maverick independent producer Gul Anand, who was responsible for Sai Paranjpye’s Chashme Buddoor (1981), Basu Chatterjee’s Khatta Meetha (1981) and Ketan Mehta’s Hero Hiralal (1988).

Anand, who died in 1995, had an unerring eye for filmmakers who could deliver realistic entertainers. He called the FTII-trained Parashar after watching his stylish Doordarshan detective show Karamchand and asked the 28-year-old filmmaker to deliver a smart commercial movie.

The initial plan was to make a Commando-type film with Hemant Birje and Kimi Katkar, who had starred in B Subhash’s Adventures of Tarzan (1985). Katkar was too expensive for what would be a Rs 19-lakh production, according to Parashar. Meanwhile, Shah, who had liked Parashar’s FTII documentary Malfunction, told the director that he would like to work in his next movie.

When Parashar ran into Shah at a party, he saw a scrawny and bearded actor. “I jokingly told him that I was making Tarzan with Hemant Birje, and he told me, I will do your Tarzan, and I will build my body,” Parashar said. “I thought he was joking. Gul said Naseer is fantastic and can play anything, even Mickey Mouse, but I was not convinced. When we went to meet Naseer next, he had already joined the gym at Searock Hotel [in Bandra].”

Naseeruddin Shah. Courtesy PLA Productions.

The drug angle was added later by Parashar, Anand and the third writer, Rajesh Majumdar. Kamlesh Pandey wrote the witty and conversational dialogue.

The plot of Jalwa hews close to Beverly Hills Cop. Shah’s irreverent Crime Investigation Department inspector Kapil has lost his younger brother to brown sugar. Kapil is on a one-man mission to neutralise drug suppliers, and when we first see him, he is dressed as a drug-addled beggar with buck teeth and a wig. It’s the first of many disguises Kapil will adopt, and the first of many occasions on which Shah will demonstrate his talent for mimicry.

In one of the movie’s clever in-jokes, Kamini Kaushal, who plays Kapil’s mother, confesses that her favourite hero is Dilip Kumar, and that she was carrying Kapil when she went to watch Kumar’s Ganga Jumna (1961). Kaushal and Dilip Kumar were a rumoured item back in the late 1940s.

When Kapil’s childhood friend Albert (Pankaj Kapur) dies after stumbling upon a drug stash hidden in a cashew nut consignment being exported by a Goan company, Kapil takes a leave of absence and travels to Panjim to avenge Albert’s death. He meets nightclub singer Jojo (Archana Puran Singh), who also has a drug-addicted brother (played by a young Cyrus Broacha), and is smitten by Jojo’s beauty and easy-going manner.

The role of Jojo, a cross between Madonna and Gloria Estefan, was initially offered to Dimple Kapadia, Parashar reveals, and even Pallavi Joshi and Kamiya Malhotra were screen-tested. Singh, who was making her movie debut, is Jalwa’s glamour doll, but her relationship with Kapil crackles with chemistry. Singh’s hip-swinging moves by the sea to the beats of Remo’s single-lyric song “Dekho Dekho Yeh Hai Jalwa” surely inspired Urmila Matondkar’s calisthenics in Ram Gopal Varma’s Rangeela 18 years later.

Puran Singh was as fresh to the screen as was Shah to the universe of muscle-flexing action. The movie’s atypical casting wasn’t restricted to the re-introduction of Shah as a pinup-worthy leading man. The cast includes baritone-voiced newsreader Tejeshwar Singh as remorseless drug lord DD, Rohini Hattangadi as DD’s cigarette-smoking and sari-wearing enforcer Sribaby, Johnny Lever as the masseur Murthy, and Dalip Tahil as a cruel punk in leather.

The patrician Tejeshwar Singh, who was also one of the founding members of the Indian division of Sage Publications, did only one film role after Jalwa (Chai Pani Etc in 2004), but Archana Puran Singh, Hattangadi and Lever went on greater attention and fame. Lever, the gifted comedian and mimic, was relatively unknown until Jalwa, and his scenes with Kapil are among the movie’s highlights.

Tejeshwar Singh as DD. Courtesy PLA Productions.

Parashar made his debut with Ab Aayega Mazaa (1984) and became a household name with Karamchand on Doordarshan. The 1985 serial, starring Pankaj Kapur as a carrot-chewing private eye, became so popular that officials at Doordarshan asked Parashar if he could use the show’s influence to push through a positive message.

“We had tackled police corruption and a kidney transplant racket as well as two episodes on drugs that were very hard-hitting,” Parashar said. “The episodes were funky and had rock music, and people started calling me.” One of the callers was Gul Anand.

Parashar had absorbed his share of international arthouse cinema at the film institute, but he was free of the creative confusion that marked some of his peers. “I remember that when Satyajit Ray came to the institute, we went to speak to him, and he said that water finds its own level and you can only make the films that are inside you,” Parashar said.

Some of the shots in Jalwa were a tribute to the films Parashar had watched at FTII, such as an editing trick inspired by Francois Truffaut’s French New Wave classic Jules et Jim (1962) that was used in an action sequence.

For Jalwa, Parashar boldly cast from among the pool of Indian New Wave talent rather than the mainstream industry. Hattangadi had already played the venerable Kasturba in Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi (1982) and a frustrated socialite in Govind Nihalani’s Party (1984), so Sribaby must have been a violent departure for her.

“I had previously cast her in Karamchand as a headmistress who falls in love with Pankaj Kapur’s character,” Parashar said. A video cassette of the movie was sent to the actress who inspired the name of Hattangadi’s character, Sridevi, and she was charmed enough to headline Parashar’s Chaalbaaz (1989). A Seeta and Geeta remake starring Sridevi at the peak of her powers, Chaalbaaz also features Hattangadi as an evil aunt.

Rohini Hattangadi as Sribaby and Johnny Lever as Murthy. Courtesy PLA Productions.

It was Gul Anand’s idea to cast Tejeshwar Singh, who had famously announced the imposition of the Emergency in 1975 on Doordarshan. Anand also had a good rapport with the A-listers. He had persuaded Amitabh Bachchan to appear as himself in Chashme Buddoor, and the superstar repeated the favour in Jalwa.

The sequence is one of the funniest in the movie. Two Goa police officers have been assigned to watch Kapil. Hosi (Akash Khurana) is a stickler for the rules, while Ramu (Satish Kaushik) is a movie buff. As they wait for Kapil to materialise, Ramu brags about his “childhood friend from Allahabad”, who suddenly shows up and causes Ramu to faint.

Amitabh Bachchan and Satish Kaushik. Courtesy PLA Productions.

“Bachchan was Gul’s lucky charm,” Parashar said. “When we went to meet him, he said he wasn’t doing guest appearances any more. He finally agreed and asked me what I would pay. I said I could only afford a rose.”

Bachchan was shooting Shahenshah at Film City at the time, so a unit camped outside his set. “Initially, he had one word of dialogue, ‘No’, but by the time he came to us, we had come a whole page,” Parashar said. “Bachchan read the page twice and read out his dialogue in a single take.” He was given a bouquet of flowers for his effort.

Apart from a few sequences in Mumbai, Jalwa was shot mostly in Goa. The unit travelled in a bus and finished the film ahead of schedule. Cinematographer Sunil Sharma, who had previously worked with Parashar in Karamchand, went wild with handheld camera movements and innovative framing, giving the film its manic energy. The movie was a big hit, and the production costs were recovered from the Mumbai circuit alone.

Mumbai must have especially warmed to the peppy soundtrack, composed by Anand-Milind, and Goan musician and singer Remo’s groovy beats. Parashar had previously seen Remo at a rock concert, and he cast him in a small role as a beach shack owner. The earworm “Dekho Dekho Yeh Hai Jalwa” was not originally supposed to be in the movie.

There’s another anecdote about how it was included. Parashar was passing by Remo’s house at 2am and saw the lights on. Remo was recording some music at the time, and when asked to compose a tune for the promotion, he sang the line that became the film’s anthem. “My hair stood up, and I asked him to make a scratch, which he gave us at 4am,” Parashar said.

Jalwa has remained popular over the years, said Gul Anand’s sister, Jayshree Anand Makhija, who now manages the family banner PLA Productions. “I am in the process of restoring the film and Hero Hiralal,” Makhija said. “Jalwa doesn’t seem one bit dated. It continues to do very well on satellite television, and we have recently re-sold the rights of Jalwa along with Chashme Buddoor and Hero Hiralal to Sony Television.”

The movie is especially relevant at a time when another drug-themed movie, Udta Punjab, has hogged the headlines for its runs-in with the Central Board of Film Certification. Jalwa got tax-free status in its time because of its clear anti-drug message. “The problem has spiralled in a terrible way, and films like Jalwa and Udta Punjab need to be seen,” Makhija asserted.

Chashme Buddoor was re-released at the same time as its remake by David Dhawan, titled Chashme Baddoor, in 2013. Will Jalwa ever come back to the big screen? “If I get an opportunity like Chashme Buddoor, I will definitely re-release the movie,” Makhija said.

Audiences deserve to revisit Jalwa’s many achievements – its successful hybrid of Indian and American narrative styles, effortless humour and coolness, and unconventional cast, especially its insouciant chest-baring hero, who lifts weights as easily as he carries off his role.

Naseeruddin Shah and Archana Puran Singh. Courtesy PLA Productions.