A cult filmmaker (1947 – 2017)

Kundan Shah is perhaps the only Bollywood filmmaker who has given us the ideal black comedy disguised as entertainment, in the entire history of Indian cinema. He passed away in Mumbai on 7 October 2017, a couple of weeks before he was to celebrate his 70th birthday. The reasons why people have all but forgotten this great filmmaker is: (1) He stopped making films for several years, (2) His later films flopped wherever they were released, (3) His marketing was very poor, and (4) The entire style, approach and attitude of the industry had changed since he began way back in 1983 with his wonderful film Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron.

Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron was produced by the National Film Development Corporation (NFDC) on a meagre budget of Rs. 7 lakhs and featured actors who were with Shah when he was a student of the Pune Film and Television Institute. He also was the co-writer of the film, with Satish Kaushik. The film introduced Indian cinema to satirical comedy for the first time, and was well accepted as not being slapstick.

Noted film critic Maithili Rao rightly comments, “Its cult status has only grown over the years and the satire – for all the choreographed mayhem, the film’s indictment of corruption is cause for despair – remains relevant to this day.”

Ironically, Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron was a commercial failure when it was first released perhaps because in the ‘happily-ever-after’ ambience of that time, the ‘sad’ ending did not gel with audience. Today, reality and sad endings are accepted by the audience. His second film Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa for which he wrote the screen play was a love story with a lot of punches that also made it a kind of different family drama with touches of realism. For the first time, a very fresh and new talent Shahrukh Khan plays a hero who is a failure at everything, in exams, in love, in life and as a son to very naïve and good-natured parents. Shah bagged the Filmfare Critics Award for the Best Film for this film and Shahrukh was noticed as a natural and spontaneous actor who could play any role the way the director wanted him to.

In 1998, Shah directed his third feature film Kya Kehna which had a social message on the changing moral values among the urban youth. Actor Preity Zinta established herself as an independent leading lady of the film with Saif Ali Khan pitted opposite her in a thoroughly negative role. But despite the lavish budget, this was not the Shah we had witnessed in his earlier films and in his wonderful television serials. It pleaded the cause of the unwed mother who is stigmatised by society for becoming pregnant while her lover moves around scot-free. But the film had a logical lapse – why should a girl still in school get pregnant instead of concentrating on her studies? But times had changed and the film released in 2000, was a big box office hit.

The films that Shah directed after this one were all flops and fell by the wayside, forgotten, but not forgiven. He almost disappeared into oblivion after these films. But Shah will be remembered by the mass television audience for his revolutionary television serials that were very entertaining, filled with intelligent comedy and excellent performances and characterisations. Among them are Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi, Circus and Nukkad.

Wagle Ki Duniya adapted from cartoonist R.K. Laxman’s pocket cartoon of the common man was so popular that its limit of six episodes on television had to be extended to 13, and Anjan Srivastava of IPTA (Indian People`s Theatre Association) became a household name and character for all time. One critic remembers that Shah’s cupboard was spilling over with film scripts in various stages of completion but in a cruel and throat-cutting industry constantly in unfair competition, where you are as good as your last film, there were few producers prepared to back Shah’s unconventional approach to cinema as entertainment.

– Shoma A. Chatterji is a freelance journalist, film scholar and author, who has won the National Award for Best Writing on Cinema.