SHOMA A.CHATTERJI | 10 OCTOBER, 2017
Kundan Shah (1947-2017): A Tribute
I had gone to meet Kundan Shah at his modest Sion flat many years ago for an interview. I was working on a series on television actors and directors for a television magazine. Around that time, his hilarious sitcom Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi was one for which couch potatoes would anxiously wait every Friday evening for the next funny episode to unfold.
Though the directorial credits were shared among three good directors, namely Kundan Shah, Manjul Sinha and Raman Kumar, for those who had seen Shah’s first film Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron could easily identify his signature on an episode directed by him. He was a master of black comedy and Indian cinema has never seen a successor who could pick up his mantle and carry the flag on.
The closest successor if one can call it that came many years later in Khosla Ka Ghosla directed by Dibakar Banerjee. But JBDY remains the most outstanding black comedy to hit the Indian screen.
Kundan Shah turned out to be one of us, ordinary, modest to a fault and completely oblivious to the recognition and the awards his first film had brought him. The interview went off very well and though I lost the notes I had taken and any copy of the published piece, I have marked it as one of the most memorable interviews of a cinema personality during my career. Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi was one of the first sitcoms and one of the biggest hit shows on Indian television after the state-owned television, Doordarshan, started sponsoring its programs.
One of the USPs of YJHZ was the characterisation of actor Satish Shah who played a different character in each episode ranging from a thief to a furniture salesman to a lawyer and his character lead to side-splitting laughter. The one episode I remember very clearly is the one in which Satish Shah wears a long kurta over loose pyjamas, carries a jhola on one shoulder and takes out a bottle now and then. It is the most hilarious take on the immortal character of Devdas ever seen. Shah played a smitten lover who took to the bottle because he believed the woman had jilted him and Satish played is so well that everyone laughed at Devdas’s tragedy than felt sorry for him.
Nukkad (Street Corner) (1986 to 1987) telecast over 40 episodes was another telesoap the television could easily identity with. It was jointly directed by Kundan Shah and Akhtar Mirza and was entirely a character-driven series that used much-used stereotypes fitting the title but turned them on their heads to bring in a blend of fun and sadness, of struggles, entertainment and emotion, a bit of success and lots of failures, arrogance and innocence.
The serial was centered on the downtrodden and the poor – the beggar, the drunk, the teacher, the electrician, the small-town restaurant owner, the young man who runs a bicycle repairing shop, the paanwallah, the cobbler, the waiter, the sweeper, the unemployed shayar, the trumpet player, the grocer, the man running a silverware shop, the hawaldar, the domestic maid, the suited and booted, loudmouth vagabond and so on.
One wonders how the Shah and Mirza could keep control over so many characters spread over 40 episodes so well that each character stood out among the rest and relationships built in a street corner was the cornerstone of the entire serial. The serial held up a mirror to the marginalized people in the city who no one notices or befriends. It shed light on the juxtaposition of different degrees of affluence or the lack of it, education and the lack of it, employment and the lack of it without waving a flag or raising slogans of social realism. It also underlined the fact of how people from different strata can become close friends despite differences in language, culture, education, status, and so on. The actors were marvellous; some were drawn from FTII alumni while others came from different theatre groups in Mumbai.
Once the first series of telecast of Nukkad came to an end, another serial by Kundan Shah began. Wagle Ki Duniya (literally: 'Wagle's World') was a televised version of famous cartoonist R.K. Laxman’s pocket cartoon of “the Common Man” that appeared every day in a national daily. It was produced by Durga Khote and Shah directed it while Doordarshan ran it on its channel from 1988 to 1990. If Nukkad held up a mirror to the lower middle and working class, then Wagle Ki Duniya reflected the daily struggles and problems faced by the urban middle class symbolised by the character of Wagle, a character that made Anjan Srivastava a household name and Bharti Achrekar who played his wife, a much-sought-after actress.
Srinivas Wagle is both a metaphor and a character who is a simple, bumbling sales clerk living with his wife and kids in a housing complex and struggling with day-to-day problems. In course of time, it became so popular among the television audience that its initial run of six episodes was extended to 13 and by the time it ended, the series had acquired cult status. The serial brought back “the middle class man who lived in a flat with electricity, enough to eat and ironed clothes to wear. Respectability on a budget was a daily challenge.” (Tomorrow’s India: Another Tryst With Destiny, ed. B.G. Verghese, Viking by Penguin Books, 2006.)
Kundan Shah was a FTII pass-out in direction. For his first directorial debut, he managed to make his first film because National Film Development Corporation agreed to produce it. This was the back story of Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron (1983) that fetched him the Indira Gandhi National Award for the Best First Feature of a director. The most interesting part is that he gathered many of his FTII friends to act in the film who later became household names very popular as actors of great merit. You see them young and slim including Satish Kaushik and Satish Shah, Neena Gupta almost a skinny version of herself, Om Puri, Pankaj Kapoor, Naseeruddin Shah and Ravi Baswani. The sole exception I guess was Bhakti Barve who portrayed the corrupt editor of a magazine and came from Marathi theatre. 'Indiatimes Movies' ranks the film amongst the 'Top 25 Must See Bollywood Films'. The film was part of the NFDC Retrospective at India International Film Festival in 2006.
His next feature came eleven years later. Kabhi Haan Kabhie Naa (1994) which unspooled an unusual tale of a hero who is an ordinary boy who lies through his teeth to his naïve parents who believe him. He even loses the girl he falls in love with because she does not love him back and marries her fiancée in a sad finish which evokes much delight and entertainment than making the tear glands work overtime. This was among Shahrukh Khan’s earliest films sans the star mannerisms he acquired later with success. Shahrukh Khan got the Critics Award for Best Performance from Filmmaker and reportedly, he took a token amount of Rs.5000 as an advance and a total sum of Rs.25,000. He later bought the rights to the film under his own banner Red Chillies. Goga Kapoor played a hilarious don in the film who had a weakness for “sad songs” that added that much-needed touch of tenderness that would otherwise have been a hackneyed role.
Kya Kehna (2000) reveals a different Kundan Shah placed in a changed ambience of filmmaking and films, with glamour, chutzpah, lots of colour and reasonably good star names. For the first time, one finds Shah trying to rid the unmarried mother of the social stigma that accuses her for her pregnancy and allowing the man responsible to go free. Kya Kehna won numerous accolades including the Best Story Award for Honey Irani and a nomination for Best Actress for Zinta at the 46th Filmfare Awards. But it established Preity Zinta as an actress to reckon with and through a Parsi couple, brought in some light-hearted humour into the serious film.
The film was a box office success and emerged as one of the highest grossing Bollywood films of 2000, and was declared a "hit" in India. However, despite the excellent performances by the main cast, it shows a Kundan Shah totally out of sync of his characteristic way of presenting satire so beautifully and black humour so well that made him a class unto himself in Indian cinema. In retrospect, one wonders whether he really believed in the theme he was dealing with – demanding acceptance and respect for a schoolgirl who gets pregnant instead of concentrating on her education.
Kundan Shah was a living example of the fickleness of a film industry that fails to recognize a creative master of cinema despite the person’s success rate both in cinema and on television. For seven long years, he did not have work and lived in forced retirement though no one ever heard him complain. Kabhie Haan Kahbie Naa also had elements of a family drama with small town stereotypes woven in very movingly. When Sunil (Shahrukh Khan)’s father discovers that the mark sheet his son showed with top marks in all subjects was fake, it brought in the emotions of a father who feels betrayed by his own son beautifully. Jatin-Lalit’s musical score was another highlight of the film. It was released tax-free in Maharashtra and Delhi on release. The 134 minutes of the film’s running time did not have a minute of boredom.
Many years later, I met him again at the complex of the FTII Pune and when I introduced myself, he did not recognize me at all but kindly pretended that he did. He was waiting for his daughter who had gone in for her viva before admission. A director of his stature could easily have sought backdoor entry especially as he was an alumnus of the same Institute. Like any normal parent, he was anxious about how his daughter would perform. He smiled and we conversed for a while. When I asked him after his wife, he said she had gone to find out about vacancies in the hostel! Imagine a director like Kundan Shah approaching the Institute like any ordinary parent! He was shy, ever-smiling and no one who did not know him would associate him with the films and the serials he had made, bringing laughter into the lives of the masses whose daily lives were devoid of some honest fun!