An unsung master of satirical comedy
December 7, 2017

One of the tragedies of life is that some eminent men who had lived out their talent while they were alive and then forced into a retirement they were not prepared for, are remembered only after they have passed yonder. Human memory is a very fickle master and one more genius to be remembered only after his demise is filmmaker Kundan Shah who passed away in his sleep of a heart attack in Mumbai recently. Shoma A. Chatterji on the man who had a magical touch with black comedy

Born into a Gujarati family, Kundan Shah was so thoroughly middle-class in his lifestyle, his cultural convictions and his behaviour that when he became famous for his amazing directorial debut Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron (1983) followed by some wonderful soaps for television, no one who did not know him would believe that this was the same Kundan Shah who had such a magic gift for black comedy and could express it through the language of cinema so well.

Yet, when times changed, Shah somehow could not cope with the the market demands of the film industry where never mind whether he produced a hit or not, the producers felt he simply did not belong and practically shunned him and forced him into professional seclusion. For seven long years, he was lost in the lonely desert of anonymity and unemployment. Yet, he never lost that shy smile on his face, or his cheerful but shy demeanour.

Kundan Shah Image One
Kundan Shah poses before a poster of his cult film.

Shah graduated from FTII, Pune, and got the National Film Development Corporation to produce his first film Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron that had no romance, no item number, no heroine, but lots of black humour that struck home as it was pinned with low-key doses of satire on corruption between and among builders, real estate people, promoters, the top brass of the police and even the police commissioner. Within this scenario, two struggling photographers set up a photo studio and get caught up in one messy situation after another. Their naiveté is construed as stupidity and in the end too, even when they show the police who the real villains are, they are shunted out and jailed and the villains go scot-free.

A young Naseeruddin Shah and Ravi Baswani play the bumbling photographers forever being fooled and taken for a ride by the two-timing, corrupt editor (Bhakti Barve) of a paper named Khabardar and the takes are so hilarious that the audience goes into side-splitting laughter in every other scene. The municipal commissioner (Satish Shah) who gets murdered becomes the funniest of corpses in the history of Indian cinema as the two photographers struggle with his dead body as proof to nab the real estate culprits (Pankaj Kapoor and Om Puri) and end up in a small theatre where Mahabharat is being staged and the dead body is decked up in a sari to play Draupadi!

The film did not meet with much commercial success when first released, but over time it acquired the status of a cult film and its digital version was released in 2012. Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron fetched Shah the Best Director for First Film Award as well as the Filmfare Award which also bestowed the Best Comedian of the Year award to Ravi Baswani. With Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron, Kundan Shah actually opened a new window to show the film industry and the audience that Hindi cinema had greater alternatives to provide entertainment than defined by the clichéd dishoom dishoom action, songs and dances around trees and the hero-villain-heroine triangle. Even the villains evoked laughter and the exaggerated artifice of the promoter’s girl (Neena Gupta) who he uses as a honey trap for corrupt government officers triggers laughter instead of anger.

Every act of corruption and bungling had satire punched into it, cleverly veiled with humour. The two immortalised scenes in the film are the act put on by the two photographers as they find themselves trying handle the funniest corpse in the history of Indian cinema and the climactic scene of the staging of Draupadi’s vastraharan scene in the end where the corpse is draped in a sari with the end pulled down to hide the face, thus, killing two birds with the same stone – a corpse is made to stand erect enough to play Draupadi and this corpse happens to be a tall man. When things get messy on stage, the curtain is pulled down and then pulled up again to stage a scene from Anarkali with the same corpse now playing Anarkali!

Shah’s second film Kabhie Haan Kabhie Naa was very different. It dealt with the unrealistic dreams of an ordinary young man, Sunil, whose dreams revolve around Anna, the girl he loves and refuses to believe that she is in love with another young man and is also engaged to be married to him.

A very young and fresh Shahrukh Khan entertained us all as Sunil who, obsessed with his dreams, fails to take life seriously and fails in his exams. He makes contacts in the underworld to get a fake mark sheet which makes his father throw a grand party only to be shocked when he realises that the mark sheet was faked. In other words, Sunil is a very ordinary boy who is a failure in life but that does not make him an antisocial human being.

The third Kundan Shah film, Kya Kehna, was a commercial success but it did not bring out his signature of treating an ordinary story with such brilliant and intelligent humour that a cult classic like Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron became in course of time. The remaining films flopped at the box office and were also not worthy of carrying his name in the credits and after that, despite his strikingly original debut film and some great television soaps like Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi, Nukkad, Wagle Ki Duniya and Circus, apart from Manoranjan, some of which he co-directed with Manjul Sinha and/or Akhtar Mirza, the signature was boldly inscribed into the episodes he directed. Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi used a middle-class family as the central focus but it also became a platform for other characters to step in and make us all laugh with their eccentricities, regional accents and odd behaviour.

Nukkad centered on a street corner which the word nukkad means, characterised by the marginally sidetracked men and women who the mainstream crowd needs every minute but does not care to pay attention to, be it the electrician or the young man who runs a cycle repairing shop or the simple teacher, the fightercock domestic maid, even the beggar, all of who make their presence felt with their individual mannerisms, likes and angst.

Wagle Ki Duniya adapted from R.K.Laxman’s daily pocket cartoon, the famous ‘common man’, was extended from the initial episodes to 13, so popular it became among couch potatoes. Circus featured Shahrukh Khan in the main role with other characters springing out of the small-time circus tent with the back stories of pain and pathos and exploitation.

Sad that a man of the calibre of Kundan Shah who not only created his own genre of black comedy but also introduced actors who became famous names later on, had to pass away almost in invisibility and the humiliation of forced retirement.

October – December 2017