Four decades ago, late director Kundan Shah came third in a screenwriting competition. His prize was getting his script produced by the National Film Development Corporation of India (NFDC). Unconvinced by the work that won, Shah quickly wrote a new script and went into production. The film in question? Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro.
Despite its shoestring budget, JBDY would go on to become Shah’s magnum opus, earning cult status and redefining Hindi cinema while ushering in a new wave of talent including Naseeruddin Shah, Om Puri, Satish Shah, Pankaj Kapur, late Satish Kaushik, Neena Gupta, Bhakti Barve, Vidhu Vinod Chopra, Sudhir Mishra and Ravi Baswani. Since its release in 1983, Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro has come to be remembered as one of the greatest satires our country has seen, taking aim at the rampant corruption in media and politics. The film is a testament to the power of humour and social commentary and has endured the test of time, proving to be even more relevant to our country’s current context.
The narrative follows two unfortunate photographers, Vinod (played by Naseeruddin Shah) and Sudhir (played by Ravi Baswani) who open their own studio in Mumbai’s Haji Ali area. Business gets off to a disastrous start, but their luck changes when they’re approached by Shobha Sen (played by Bhakti Barve), the editor of ‘Khabardar’, a publication which exposes the scandalous lives of Mumbai’s elite. The three start working on a story to expose the corrupt relationship between the dishonest builder Tarneja (played by Pankaj Kapur) and the immoral Municipal Commissioner D’Mello (played by Satish Shah). In the process, the two photographers uncover a web of deceit, murder and corruption. The film ends with one of the most memorable climaxes in Indian cinema history—a chaotic mock trial in a graveyard, encapsulating the absurd and ludicrous situation the characters have found themselves in.
The film’s ‘Mahabharata’ scene is one that stands out for its unparalleled physical humour, which includes Commissioner D’Mello’s corpse performing a role in the play (Yes, they did it before Weekend at Bernie’s). It also features one of the film’s most iconic quotable dialogues. Om Puri (who plays drunk builder Ahuja) acts as a sunglasses-wearing Bheem in the play and at one point says, “Draupadi tere akele ki nahi. Hum sab shareholder hain.” It’s hard to imagine a scene such as that being passed by the censor board in today’s day and age. And even if it went through, it wouldn’t be long before people in the country were up in arms for “disrespecting our country’s culture”.
Throughout the film, Kundan Shah and crew expertly lampoon various aspects of Indian society, from money-hungry officials to sensationalist media, all while constantly reiterating that the only one who gets caught in this crossfire of the upper echelon’s power dynamics is the common man. The inspired writing is backed by incredible acting performances. Naseeruddin Shah and Baswani’s chemistry is palpable, and helps us empathise with their characters’ plight. The two leading actors are supported by the rest of the cast, who put up inimitable performances that boost the film’s humour quotient.
Even though the film is revered by critics and fans now, back when it was being shot, there were very few people on set who believed in what they were doing. “The shoot was the worst I have ever had, the worst,” said Naseeruddin Shah in an interview with The Eastern Eye, a British weekly newspaper. “There was no money for anything, for any extras. Throughout there was always the feeling that this film was not going to get made.”
“There were two people who believed in the film,” Sudhir Mishra told Money Control in an interview. “One was Ravi [Baswani] and the other was Satish Shah. They had both done comedy. Comedy supposes that realism is not the only way of looking at life. It presupposes stylisation and an irreverent way of life.”
It’s hard to believe that the majority of the cast and crew didn’t see the brilliance that they were a part of. But we must thank our stars that they powered through, giving us one of the most powerful films our country has ever seen. JBDY transcends time and will continue to be relevant as long as corruption and immoral practices are part of Indian society.
The film is available on Mubi and YouTube.