Interview Hindi

Kundan Shah birth anniversary: Satish Shah recalls making of Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro

Satish Shah speaks about the qualities of his dear friend and shares interesting anecdotes from the making of Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro, a film few members of the cast believed in.

Kundan Shah and a still from Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro (1983)

Keyur Seta

Filmmaker Kundan Shah, who died on 7 October 2017, would have turned 70 today (19 October). Of all his film and television projects, the one that is best remembered and loved is the classic dark comedy Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro (1983).

Veteran actor Satish Shah, who was Kundan Shah's batchmate at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune, was an integral part of the film. In an exclusive conversation with, Satish Shah spoke about the qualities of his dear friend and shared behind-the-scenes stories from the making of Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro, a film that very few members of the cast believed in initially. Excerpts:

How and when did you first get associated with Kundan Shah?

We happened to be from the same institution [FTII]. He was ahead of me by one year because the direction course was for three years. Mine was for two years. We passed out together. I did his student film, which is normally known as a diploma film. Every director has to make one before he passes out. His marks are judged on that. I happened to play the main character in that movie. That is how my association with him started. He then came out [of the institute] and for a few years he and I struggled. He directly went back to London because he saw no future here.

Why was that?

Well, those days were different without CDs, DVDs and videos. All we had was our black-and-white picture; not even a colour picture. All that the direction department had was a student film to show, which was not very conveniently on CD or DVD.

We had to book a theatre, get the reel from Pune, gather a couple of producers or directors and show them [the film] together. Many of them didn’t show up. And you had to pay from your pocket for that trial theatre. 

Kundan Shah, as you would know, wasn’t an impressive-looking man till he talked cinema. Nobody gave him that kind of a chance. I mean, this is just a hypothesis I am putting out. He felt dejected. He went back to London.

One thing he was very good at was typing. He could type 100 words a minute. He became a steno or something out there, as he told me. Then another colleague, Saeed Akhtar Mirza, was making a film [Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyon Aata Hai (1980)], which also featured me in a small role. He instigated him to come back. He returned and assisted Saeed and he came back into the flow again.

Neena Gupta, Satish Shah, Pankaj Kapur and Satish Kaushik in Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro

How did he start his career as a director?

There was some script competition organized by NFDC [the National Film Development Corporation]. He submitted a script and it got the second prize with some cash prize.

Some people on the committee understood the kind of cinema this guy wanted to make. They offered him to make a movie out of the script with a budget of Rs6 lakh. But he didn’t want to make this movie. He wanted to make another movie, which became history. It was Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro. With great difficulty and a budget of Rs7 lakh he made the movie.

That’s where I come in again. He couldn’t afford commercial actors because they would ask for money, which he didn’t have. In fact, he had to pay money to the scriptwriters. They were more important as they were not from FTII. Most of the budget was for the script and settings. I think the only known person in that movie was Naseeruddin Shah. After that, Ravi Baswani. We all were unknown. But the film gave me some credibility. People started knowing my face, though the film didn’t run for a long time. It did only 8-9 weeks, which was nothing in those days. In those days 15 weeks was the average and silver jubilee was a hit.

But Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro went on to become an all-time cult classic later. 

I can tell you one thing proudly that I was the only actor who believed in Kundan while making that film. All other actors had their doubts. But they were doing it because, I guess, they had nothing else to do.

This reminds me that Sudhir Mishra had mentioned at a film festival that Om Puri got convinced on the last day of the shoot that this can be a good film.

Yes, Om Puri was the most disoriented in that movie. He had no clue what he was doing. Few scenes which he did with me he enjoyed because I was a dead body, but I was suggesting all the time what to do and what not. I gave him a few punchlines also. But I couldn’t say a word, being a dead body. So I gave it to my partner. But there was no one-upmanship there. He was also my batchmate. We passed out together. We all were working towards making a good movie. But I am sure the other actors, including Naseer, didn’t trust the movie. 

Ravi Baswani and Satish Kaushik in Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro

Mishra had also said that Naseeruddin Shah had logical issues with some scenes. 

Partially he was right, because the way Kundan worked nobody could have imagined that he is going to make this film. He was in love only with his script and the movie. He wasn’t attached to anything else.

What he thought didn’t necessarily come across to us. But because I had done his diploma film, I knew exactly how his brain worked. So, I was the only actor in the whole film who didn’t have a fight or discussion with him regarding a scene. He didn’t have to direct me what to do. I did everything on my own. 

I had a small difference with him when I suggested that I am a dead body, but since he is making a comedy, let me take some liberty. He said, ‘What liberty do you want to take as a dead body?’ I said, 'Well, I will change my expression according to the intensity of the scene.' He said, ‘How can a dead body change expressions?’ I said if a dead body can get along for days on skates without decaying, this can also happen. And if you do it convincingly, people will enjoy it.

He eventually agreed and that became the highlight. I would give full marks to Renu Saluja, the editor, for getting Kundan Shah’s thoughts on the film as he had imagined on to celluloid. She was also a batchmate.

Kundan Shah then revolutionized television starting with Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi.

Hum Log was based on the 20-point programme [then prime minister] Mr Rajiv Gandhi had suggested. Hence, it was a semi-government project. Whereas the very first independent, entertaining serial on Indian television was Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi. There were no strings attached. It was pure entertainment made by a private person, Mr SS Oberoi, who is no more.

It was a brainchild of Kundan Shah and Manjul Sinha. Again, both were batchmates. We were together day and night for a year and a quarter. There was no looking back after this serial for me. Thanks to Kundan for that, because with faces like ours, in those days, we could not have been slotted by commercial filmmakers. We had nothing in our hands to show them what we could do unless we did it.

Then they formed their own group with Saeed and all and they made Nukkad, Circus, Intezar, Manoranjan. I wasn’t involved in them because by that time I had gone very busy. Also because for Circus he took the whole crew out of Mumbai and they stayed there for days and months. Wherever the circus went, the crew would go. 

Naseeruddin Shah and Satish Shah at Kundan Shah's funeral. Picture: Shutterbugs Images

How was your equation with him till his last days?

Wonderful. We were very good friends. We didn’t meet that often but, unfortunately or fortunately, we met just a month before he passed away. The last thing we did together was an interview on an FM radio station. Then he came to my house. He had lunch and sat till evening. He had his evening tea and then he left at around 5:30 or 6 pm. 

That was the day we also discussed the second part of Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro. I was asking him how I could get involved because my character was already dead [in Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro]. He said, ‘I don’t know. We will try something to bring you back as a twin. Sab hawa mein baatein ho rahi thi [It was just an exploratory discussion.]

I was of the opinion that Part 2 should not be made. It cannot be made. He also being a very noble friend said, ‘Listen, if my actual and original crew and star cast agrees, only then will I go ahead. Otherwise, even if someone gives me Rs10 crore, I will not go ahead because that film cannot be made without you all.’ 

Considering his enormous talent, don’t you think he should have made more films?

This is a very important question. Why didn’t he make many films? Because he was not cut out for our regular film industry. He didn’t have a way with people and producers on how to market himself; how to show yourself larger than life.

He didn’t believe in those things. He just believed in his work and in himself. I used to always tease him about it. He was most uncomfortable with heroines. He didn’t know how to communicate with them. That’s why in most of his films he took heroines who were newcomers. Like Suchitra Krishnamoorthi in Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa (1994). In Kya Kehna (2000) he took a commercial actress, Preity Zinta, but all thanks to producer Ramesh Taurani. Also by that time Kundan had built up a reputation of [being] a very good filmmaker.

But he was not cut out for the industry. He was too much of a gentleman. Too much of a dreamer and a hardworking man. All these things made for a bundle of contrasts in him. He would lose his temper and within half a minute he would become normal. A wonderful human being! I miss him a lot.