Film-maker Kundan Shah was briefly back in the news with the 2 November re-release of a restored print of Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro. Shah granted interviews for the nth time on how the madcap satire on corruption in high places got made (it took a series of miracles, from all accounts). His filmography extends beyond the 1983 movie—his first—to the comedy Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa (1993) and the teenage pregnancy drama Kya Kehna (2000), but like Ramesh Sippy and Sholay, Shah is condemned to one-hit wonder status. He will be best remembered for Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro, which has aged beautifully because although Indian offbeat cinema and the language of comedy have both changed, graft in India simply refuses to go away.
Shah was one of the upstart talents of the phase in Indian film history that lasted from the 1960s to the 1980s and was labelled parallel cinema, art cinema, festival cinema or the Indian New Wave, depending on whom you speak to. The films have outlived their film-makers: Many of the directors have either faded out or tried to make peace with the Hindi film industry.
When they return to the big screen, the results can be embarrassing for admirers of their earlier work. Saeed Mirza’s Ek Tho Chance, waiting for a release since its completion in 2009, isn’t a patch on his earlier films. Ketan Mehta’s Rang Rasiya is finding it hard to arrive in the cinemas because it contains adult-themed sequences, but the fact remains that the 2008 movie is at best a middling biopic of Raja Ravi Varma (it stars Randeep Hooda as the painter, for starters).
Much of parallel cinema was bankrolled by the government-run National Film Development Corporation (NFDC), which has now released famous and lesser-known titles on its DVD label Cinemas of India. Some movies have aged badly, while others lose their charm when they get benchmarked against whatever else was happening in the world at the time. Indian film-makers were still discovering the joys of realist cinema when directors in the rest of the world had moved on to experiment with form and narrative. The Japanese were finding ways to bring traditional theatre into the movies and the French were deconstructing American film genres, but Indian film-makers, with exceptions like Ritwik Ghatak in Bengal, G. Aravindan in Kerala and Mani Kaul and Kumar Shahani in Mumbai, remained in thrall to social realism. That’s hardly a bad thing in itself, but the boundless possibilities of cinema, which become painfully clear every time a retrospective of an international film-maker is held in India, remain to be explored here.
Yet the Indian New Wave on the whole posed the only real challenge to the sentimentalism and escapism of commercial Hindi cinema. Parallel film-makers examined with seriousness, and occasional naïveté, the issues facing India in its post-independent years. The business of film-making in India has been transformed radically, but social exploitation has hardly disappeared—rather, it has taken new shape and form. Contemporary film-makers haven’t yet come up with an independent language that can effectively challenge Bollywood’s overall preference for brain-numbing cinema. That’s why Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro remains one of the definitive movies on corruption in India. Despite its age and its flaws, the film’s lessons have more relevance than ever before in Annus Kejriwalis.
The restored DVD of Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro is available for Rs.199. Also see www.nfdcindia.com/cinemasofindia/home-video-01.htm