Punching down is the stuff of slapstick, and most Indian comedies are all about slapstick humour. Kundan Shah took the position of the hapless Indian underdog and punched up at the establishment. His heroes were lower-middle income men trying to get by, and sometimes get back, at institutional injustice. No wonder then that the seminal Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro (1983), a great departure from slapstick comedies at the time, came from Shah.
The 70-year-old filmmaker, who also co-directed the television shows Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi (1984), Nukkad (1986-’88), Manoranjan (1987) and Wagle Ki Duniya (1988-’90) and the films Kabhi Haa Kabhi Naa (1994) and Kya Kehna (2000), died of a heart attack in his sleep in Mumbai on Saturday.
Born in a Gujarati family, the commerce graduate did not go off script till he decided to study direction at the Film and Television Institute of India in the 1970s. As an undergraduate in 1968, Shah had idled about for a year until his building secretary goaded him: “Tu kya Romeo ki tarah pura din ghoomte rahta hai? Life mein kuch karne ka ya nahin?” (‘Why do you keep roaming around all day like a Romeo? Don’t you want to do something with your life?), according to Jai Arjun Singh’s book Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro: Seriously Funny Since 1983.
A voracious reader but not a film buff yet, Shah began applying for jobs in publishing houses. He worked at the Popular Prakashan publishing company before applying to the institute on a friend’s recommendation.
At the institute, Shah found his muse – comedy. He studied the silent comedies of Charlie Chaplin and the Marx brothers. His experiments with humour culminated in the 23-minute nearly silent diploma film Bonga, a nonsensical mishmash of comedic elements with the gangster genre.
His peers Saeed Mirza and Naseeruddin Shah were surprised that such a seemingly serious man had come up with something as loony as Bonga. As revealed in Singh’s book, Shah’s frequent collaborators wouldn’t say that he was a funny person himself.
“I’m not too interested in humour for its own sake, though, of course, I respect those with the talent to make others laugh—that’s an art in itself. But personally I use it as a medium, a vessel.”— Kundan Shah.
Shah struggled for the next few years trying to meet ends meet like most of his batchmates. Among those who stuck it out without returning to their hometowns were two friends who opened a photo studio and became industrial photographers. Their financial woes and tragicomic routines, coupled with Shah’s own harrowing experience of dealing with ration offices and government officers in Mumbai, became the genesis of Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro. He turned down the offer to assist Richard Attenborough on Gandhi (1982) and concentrated on writing the script even as Mirza had already made two films and Vidhu Vinod Chopra was on his way to making his first.
Made on a shoestring budget of Rs seven lakhs, Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro was released in 1983 after being stuck in the cans for a year. The film found critical attention but not a substantial audience. However, Shah won the National Award for Best First Film of a Director.
Shortly after the film’s release, Shah along with others directed one of Doordarshan’s first and most popular sitcoms, Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi, written by satirist Sharad Joshi. Shah went on to direct more acclaimed television series, including Nukkad and Wagle Ki Duniya.
While Nukkad, featuring an ensemble cast, dealt with the daily struggles of Mumbai residents living a hand to mouth existence, Wagle Ki Duniya was based on RK Laxman’s Common Man cartoons and told the story of high-strung sales clerk Srinivas Wagle (Anjan Srivastav). Though these shows lacked the latent anger of Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro, they carried the running thread of Shah’s preoccupation with the “little person” and his travails established in his debut feature.
Shah’s only film in the 1990s was the coming-of-age romantic film Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa. Shah Rukh Khan, yet to make his mark, played the manchild Sunil, who is hopelessly in love with the town beauty Anna (Suchitra Krishnamoorthi). Riding on Shah’s strengths of crafting humour out of middle-class anxieties, and particularly Jatin Lalit’s hit music, the film was a box office success.
Over the next decade, Shah churned out a series of family-friendly and comedy-laced social dramas that were devoid of the rage and desperation present in Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro. Shah was planning to make a sequel. “There are a lot many Tarnejas now in comparison to when Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro got made,” Kundan Shah said in 2015, referring to the corrupt builder character Tarneja (Pankar Kapoor) from the movie.
The sequel never materialised. Naseeruddin Shah wrote in 2008, “Maybe his (and I shrink from using this weighty term) world view has changed with his subsequent monetary success, which, though well-deserved, has perhaps severed his connections with his muse: the underbelly of life. He does seem removed from the position of nervy onlooker and underdog and placed in one of repute and responsibility.”
In between, Kundan Shah directed the sombre drama Teen Behenein (2011), about three sisters who commit suicide because their parents cannot afford their dowries. The film has not been released in theatres till date. His final film was the political satire P Se PM Tak (2015), about a prostitute who arrives in a town during election season and ends up becoming the chief minister. It flopped and was quickly forgotten.
In a career spanning a little over three decades, Shah could have produced more. In 2002, when asked about the reason for the six-year gap between Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro and Kya Kehna, Shah said that the film industry has not always been willing to accept his vision. “I can only make what I can make, the rest I cannot,” he said.