HOW DO YOU DESCRIBE Kundan Shah’s Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro to someone who hasn’t seen it? You can outline the plot (naïve photographers get drawn into a situation involving unscrupulous builders, a corrupt police commissioner and a self-serving magazine editor). You can talk of the many modes of humour the film employs—farce, surrealism, black comedy, the Theatre of the Absurd, the Keystone Kops. You can explain that the people who made it were influenced by the silent movies of Chaplin and Keaton, the non-sequiturs of Groucho and Chico Marx, the physical comedy of Kishore Kumar and Mehmood, the whimsicality of Jacques Tati, the wry political humour of 1960s Czech cinema. But none of these briefs would begin to justify how this small, modestly budgeted movie became a cultural phenomenon.
You have to experience Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro for yourself to see how it uses exaggerated humour to make pointed observations about social concerns, making the viewer chuckle along as it holds up a harsh, distorting mirror to reality, how it segues between wordless slapstick and fast one-liners; how it frequently does away with credible scene setups and narrative consistency; how it does all of this with characters that are deliberate caricatures rather than nuanced people.
When I was asked to contribute to a Harper Collins’ series on iconic Indian films, JBDY wasn’t the first movie I thought of. However, when it came up during a discussion, I knew instantly that it would be a very interesting film to write about.