There are certain cultures in India, and I have observed them rather closely, where people constantly speak like Commissioner D’Mello when they’re trying to be funny: “Main jaata. Main kaarta. Ulloo ka pilloo. Mazaa aayi?” These are perfectly normal adults otherwise. They were merely struck by an adorable epidemic called Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro, which got unleashed into India in 1983. Since then, these weird gents (and they’re mostly men) haven’t stopped laughing with a film.
It’s a mystery why a certain movie, or any work of art, survives public memory while others don’t: why’s Sholay the greatest film ever made, but Shaan or Shakti are not; why did Andaz Apna Apna, despite starring Salman and Aamir Khan stay practically unnoticed when it opened in 1994, but became a quotable cult within a decade. Publicity or marketing can at best determine how well a film is known, when it releases. It can never quite dictate how it will be received or worshipped years later.
Like many others, I associate my favourite movies with the memory of how they hit me first when I watched them on the big screen (Satya remains right on top). The young, upper middle-class generation that actually championed Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro had never really seen the film in the theatre. It’s just re-released now, 30 years after. They’d watched the movie, over and over again, sometimes in parts on VHS tapes, and then on DVD, many a time on Doordarshan’s several re-runs.
Over years, they broke the script down into best sequences, or even best scenes from within those sequences: the “Mahabharat” episode, the “telephone” madness, the cake throwing scene.... They sought their new favourite characters with each fresh viewing: builder Tarneja (Pankaj Kapur), his rival Ahuja (Om Puri), his moronic minions Ashok Namboodiripad (Satish Kaushik), Priya (Neena Gupta).... And they began to separately relate with one loved dialogue after another: “See Aiye”, “Shant Gadadhari Bheem, shant,” or , “Toda khao, toda pheko,” gradually building a monumental aura around a film that now has no rivals from the ‘80s decade. There was obviously enough material in the cake to constantly splice into smaller pieces, and savour each for its own worth, though none of it individually is supposed to make any sense. I guess this is easier to do this with comedy. Some gags age well.
What separates Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro from hundreds of similar farces that fly is that the film still has very strong legs to stand on. It was one of the most serious comments on corruption in the media and real estate, both of which haunt urban India much more now. Two buffoons Sudhir (Ravi Baswani) and Vinod (Naseeruddin Shah) are photo-journalists who stumble upon a construction scam and dead-body during the course of their freelance magazine assignment. Shobha (Bhakti Bharve; named after Shobha Kilachand, popular gossip mag editor then) is the cunning owner of the news magazine. It’s called Khabardar.
A media outlet, similarly titled Tehelka, carried out similar sting operations that rocked the nation in the early 2000s. D’Mello (Satish Shah) in the film is named after one Rebello, who used to be the municipal commissioner at the time. The commissioner green-lights a flyover for a major cut, or commission, as it were. The bridge eventually collapses. So do several other bridges and roads and flyovers in this country. You read about them in the newsmedia, some of which you don’t even trust anymore; the builder mafia control the terribly planned ugliness that pass off as cities. The story of unethical, incredible India continues. Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro rings truer still.
This intensely dark satire on the Indian state was funded by the Indian government, made at a budget of Rs 7 lakh, of which Rs 15,000 went to the only legitimate star in the cast – Naseer. The other bright talents, all of whom became popular faces and names thereafter, were still on the fringes of fame and success. These actors and filmmakers had nothing to lose, beyond 45 days of a film shoot. Nobody could've been setting out to make a classic.
Public memory is a strange mystery. Decades after that madness, what survives isn’t Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro, the film, anymore. That film is what people saw (or did not see) when it opened to a rather lukewarm response in theatres in 1983. It’s now turned into a secretly coded society that only genuine fans can decipher or penetrate. These devotees like to mix their Mahabharat with Mughal history. They talk in Punjabi-Hindi like the drunk Ahuja, and don’t mind driving a coffin around. Kundan Shah is God in these circles. Well, he never quite made anything like Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro after. But then, nobody else did. And no one else can either. And we will never know why. Or maybe we do know why, and so we keep going back to the same film.