Kundan Shah died of a heart attack in Mumbai on October 7. He was 70. The director of the classic comedy Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro and the television shows Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi and Nukkad trained to be an accountant before enrolling in the Film and Television Institute of India in 1973. In Jai Arjun Singh’s account of the making of Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro, Shah talks about his formative years and his early influences.

There are all indications that Kundan Shah was destined to follow the path taken by scores of good Gujarati boys from baniya families: pursue commerce in college and then join their father’s import-export business or start something of their own. Looking at him even today, you realize how well he would have fit the part.

‘If he were to walk past you, you’d take him for an accountant,’ Naseeruddin Shah wrote in an article for Tehelka magazine, and nothing in Kundan’s appearance or routine disproves this idea. Conservatively dressed, he goes to his two room office (located a couple of buildings away from his house) in the morning and maintains the hours that you would expect from someone in a non-creative profession. Those who have dealt closely with him say that he is a workaholic who revises and re-revises his scripts and makes detailed notes and drafts for everything he does; but outwardly, there is little hint of that fabled beast, the Temperamental Artist. At first glance, he resembles the titular everyman from Wagle Ki Duniya, the popular TV serial he directed in the 1980s. (In an amusing black-and-white photo taken on the sets of that show, Kundan looks more Wagle-like than Anjan Srivastava, the actor who played the role.) It’s no surprise that he was pitch-perfect in his one-minute, two-line role as amild-mannered pharmacy-store attendant scared of a ruffian in Rabindra Dharmaraj’s 1981 film Chakra.

But it’s when you start talking to him that you feel the full force of his rage and curiosity, the willingness to hold a magnifying glass to things most of us take for granted—rare qualities in a man now in his sixties, an age where even the most radical people tend to slip into quiet acceptance. He rants about the crippling hegemony of power, condemns the nexus between politicians, big business and media, directs colourful abuse at just about anyone in a position of authority (industrialist, politician, media baron), wonders aloud whether Marxism might not have been the best idea after all (‘Communism has become a bad word because of Stalin and others, but at least it was based on good intentions’) and whether we should all go back to the single-TV channel era, given the rubbish on the tube these days.

The journey to ‘Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro’

Politically, it’s obvious that Kundan leans towards the Left, but there’s something abstract about his criticisms—he isn’t anti-Congress or anti-BJP, he’s against any party that has become so big that it has lost touch with the struggles of the man on the street. No wonder that the idea of the ‘little person’ carried along by a tide beyond his control, struggling just to make it from one day to the next, runs through much of his work. There’s a wonderful scene in his dialogue-less short film The Hero, where Deepak Dobriyal, playing a sprightly commuter on the bridge connecting two platforms of a suburban station, is swamped by the sea of humanity that has just emerged from a Mumbai local train. The shot immediately evokes scenes from Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro: Vinod and Sudhir at the inauguration of Beauty Photo Studio, being ignored by—almost overrun by—a group of people headed for the photo studio next door; the spectacular aerial shot of hundreds of ordinary people scurrying about their daily lives while the powerful builder Tarneja holds a self-aggrandizing press conference dozens of feet above them; the final image of Vinod and Sudhir, dressed in prison clothes, walking amidst a large office-going crowd.

Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro (1983).

But for all Kundan’s outpourings, it doesn’t take much for a childlike enthusiasm to show itself—as when he excitedly discusses the conspiracy theories outlined in the cult Internet film Zeitgeist (which he greatly admires): was 9/11 an inside job? Does a secret clique of people really control practically everything in the world? ‘Don’t you agree that we live in a banana republic?’ he asks after pausing for breath. Then he lightens up, chuckles. ‘Being frustrated is part of my job,’ he says. ‘If I’m not frustrated I can’t write.’

Until he was thirteen, his family lived in Aden, where he studied in a Gujarati-medium school, and some of his earliest memories are of the children’s magazines supplied by a ‘mobile librarian’ who would go from door to door. Thrillers were his entry point into the world of literature and they also provided him with a means of articulation. ‘Our school textbooks were boring—textbooks always are—so I began entertaining myself by using the language of thrillers and pulp fiction to answer questions in school . . . and I would even get good marks as a result of it! Obviously, one had to read the textbooks to know the material, but I didn’t care to write my answers in the same, dull language.’

When the family shifted to Bombay and he joined an English-medium school, he struggled with the new language for a while and then, once again, turned to thrillers for education as well as nourishment. Even as he moved to more highbrow books, he maintains that he came to literature through pulp fiction. ‘Machiavelli, Camus, Stendhal, I read them all, but I read them as pulp,’ he is fond of saying.

There were no playgrounds in Sion, but there were movie halls. Old movies would be clubbed together—there would be a ‘Filmistan week’, for instance, where films like Munimji and Paying Guest would play as a double bill. ‘We went for morning shows, mainly. It was pure entertainment.’

Though he didn’t yet have a professional interest in films, at a subconscious level he was registering little things about what made them tick. And an early, intuitive understanding of comedy grew around the same time, even though he had no special interest in the genre.

The message in ‘Paigham’

A light-hearted scene from the Dilip Kumar–Vyjayanthimala starrer Paigham was his introduction to the idea of the ‘comic foil’—the person who has to be the butt of a joke and through whose predicament the audience gets its laughs. In the scene, which has nothing to do with the main narrative of the film (‘It could easily have been left out, but it stayed and became a beautiful, fortuitous moment’), Dilip Kumar and Vyjayanthimala are sitting together, having just sung a song. ‘There must have been other girls beside me in your life?’ she asks him casually, not a commonplace topic of conversation in a 1950s’ Hindi movie. Kumar assures her that she’s the only one, but when she keeps probing, he invents a story about a fantastic love affair. As Vyjayanthimala starts getting more and more jealous, comedy develops.

When the time came for deciding what subject to take in college, the school headmaster asked everyone in the class what they wanted to do. ‘I was petrified, I had no idea what to say when my turn came.’ His turn never came. The headmaster just looked at him, said, ‘Oh, you’re a baniya’s son, so you’ll take commerce’, and moved on to the next boy.

The boy stuck to the prewritten script and took commerce. But he kept reading books and watching movies.

At the film institute

A dazed and confused young man is sitting in the Deccan Queen heading from Bombay to Pune. Having spent nearly four years working in the promissory department of a publishing house—a secure, orderly, 9-to-5 job—he is on his way to the Films and Television Institute of India (FTII) for an interview, driven by a compulsion even he can’t understand. He’s nervous: he doesn’t know much about world cinema beyond popular American and British films. But here, in his compartment, is a boy reading a book about a 1940s’ Italian film called Bicycle Thieves. ‘Fuck, this is my competition,’ he thinks. A while later, when the scenery outside becomes picturesque, he sees a poet manqué sitting on the steps and gazing out dreamily. ‘Another of those artistic types!’ He loses hope.

At the campus, he discovered that even facial hair carried an authority of its own in cultural circles: nearly everyone else was wearing beards that made them look serious and scholarly, and Kundan was clean shaven since he was working in a regimented job. He had never been in this sort of milieu before.

‘There was a bunch of interviewers sitting in this fucking big semi-circle,’ he says; among them was Hrishikesh Mukherjee, the highly regarded director of such films as Anupama, Satyakam and Anand. Luckily, they didn’t ask him questions about Fellini or Antonioni; instead, one of the professors who taught scriptwriting started discussing literature with him, and this was an area where he felt at home. A smooth throwaway line helped too: when the principal warned him that film-making could be a frustrating profession, Kundan replied, ‘But frustration is a part of every creative activity—you have to turn your frustration into creativity.’

He was selected for one of the ten seats in the direction course. There had been 130 candidates, most of them well bearded). His father was worried that he was giving up the security of a job, but Kundan’s idea was to while away three years at the institute and see whether he was any good at it or not— otherwise, he would start over again.

Excerpted with permission from Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro Seriously Funny Since 1983, Jai Arjun Singh, HarperCollins India.