Once more, with the same feeling

"Hello, India.' Kya haal hai yaaro'? This is Vinod and Sudhir , jumping back out of the box, which was first opened nearly 30 years back. All `ijj' well? After we were led off at the end of our cult film, with that noose around our necks, did we leave behind a cleaner, less corrupt country? Are the roads less potholed, the air less polluted, is there less poverty? Tell us everything ".

I've had long imaginary conversations with those two hapless heroes from 'Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro', and last week they were speaking to me all over again, their digitally restored selves appearing as fresh as paint in a state-of-the-art multiplex screen. Here they were, the camera-clad duo who start a studio with a spring in their steps and hope in their hearts. And their fruitless `inauguration', with a table full of snacks and cold drinks and a few precious beer bottles ( back in 1983, beer was still considered a pricey, faintly exotic drink, especially when it came to serving it in harsh daylight, not safely after dusk). And that crafty conspirator ruining their big day, leading them into having adventures which make up the bulk of Kundan Shah's classic film : 'JBDY' didn't find too many takers when it first came out, but has steadily built for itself a reputation and a slavish adoration that only seems to grow with each passing year.

I've had occasion to revisit the film several times in the intervening years. But the experience has never been less than superlative, each viewing adding to the layers that already exist. The lines are all there, each element in the frame has played out in your head, and you can safely join in without fear of missing anything. After last week's viewing, the question I've often asked myself came roaring back : why does this film, made on such a thin budget that would make a shoestring blush, which, in fact, nearly did not get made, have so much power? And so much relevance? And, more importantly, why didn't such a film get made again?

Shah has been on record on the huge problems the unit faced while making the film, chiefly of finding the funding, before the National Film Development Corporation (NFDC) stepped in. He has spoken of the anger and the frustration that went into its making, that gave the film its unique combination of laughter and darkness : 'Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro' is the only true black comedy made in Hindi cinema. The credits read like an alumni association of some of the brightest names in Hindi cinema ( Vidhu Vinod Chopra, Sudhir Mishra, Renu Saluja, Pavan Malhotra ; practically every fan of `JBDY' knows that the characters of Naseerudin Shah and Ravi Baswani were named after those first two guys, who went on to establish themselves as filmmakers with their very own styles ).

And that is the supreme irony. That those who were even peripherally involved in the film went on to find their voice, and their place in the industry. But Shah himself got lost. His shockingly slender filmography includes one good film which brought freshness to the rom com, the Shah Rukh Khan starrer `Kabhi Haan Kabhi Na'. He also made the overtly sentimental 'Kya Kehna', in which Preity Zinta 's tryst with illegitimacy and motherhood moved us to tears not because of the inherent worth of the film, but its soppiness. The rest, three or four, are not even worth mentioning.

It's not as if the subjects of blight and the state was not taken up by Bollywood, post 'Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro' : if anything, the economic polarization that was the inevitable corollary of post-liberalisation, and the imbalance that grew out of it, including the rise and rise of scams and scamsters, has only seen a steady rise. Politicians and policemen were always the favourite punching bags of filmmakers, even in the era before Shah's film, and they have remained staples even after. What set 'JBDY' apart was the way Shah melded light-hearted, slap-a-stick situations with corrosive rage to highlight the systemic decay that we were being subjected to : the villains were no larger-than-life manically ho-ho-ho-ing Mogambos who lived in their fantastical den, but innocuous sounding fellows like D'Mello, and Ahuja and Tarneja, whose corruption is far more scary precisely because it is so every day.

In one of the funniest, most prescient sequences in` JBDY', a cake becomes the centerpiece of greed, with pieces of it being flung out to all comers : sharing ill-gotten bounty is the only to survive is the lasting lesson that Vinod and Sudhir learn at their peril. The "thoda khao, thoda phenko" line that sends us into paroxysms has been the motto of our service providers, the corruption so endemic and entrenched that it has even forced eminent economic advisers to the government to advocate the 'legalisation of bribes'. In a system where bribe-giving-and-taking is the only legitimate currency, what chance is there for a film that showcases honesty as the best policy?

It was all right to do it back then simply because no one had done it precisely like that before. And there was no scope to do it after: naivete was no longer good box office. 'JBDY' was a product of its times, and in retrospect, it seems like a time of innocence, a time of confidences, where divvying up goodies was good enough to keep everyone going. We can watch 'JBDY' today ( it has been extended for another week at PVR theatres after an overall successful run, except, intriguingly, in Allahabad and Lucknow, where it has done badly ) and laugh at the nostalgic rush it gives us. But let a filmmaker try doing a' JBDY' redux now, and they will be laughed out of court, because everyone wants everything to themselves. Sharing? You must be joking, surely.

"Kuch mat phenko, sab kha jao".


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