Obituary

Everyman’s director

Print edition : November 10, 2017

Kundan Shah, a 2014 picture. He was different from many of his contemporary film-makers. Photo: PAUL NORONHA

A still from the movie "Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron". Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Kundan Shah (1947-2017) stole hearts with his meaningful craft that offered a peek into middle-class lives.

IN other times, he would have been much celebrated, his ability to engage with viewers hailed for its sheer honesty, and his simplicity seen as having its own appeal. But Kundan Shah’s arrival in the world of cinema was when the nation of almost a billion was revelling in its easy numbers, and quantity was chosen over quality. When film-makers took pride in directing three films at the same time and heroes boasted about working in half a dozen films a year, Shah’s meagre haul of three films in his first 15 years in the industry was easy to miss. Yet he bucked the trend, offsetting the lack of numbers with immeasurable quality.

Back in the 1980s, when he began his career as a director, the vast multitudes treated cinema as just an escape from the humdrum of life, and films merely provided dollops of distilled fantasies. It was hardly a surprise then that Shah’s debut, Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro (1983), received a lukewarm reception initially at the box office. The expectations from the film were low. Then the word spread. And a film that was in danger of fading away from the big screen suddenly gained popular acceptance. Having been ousted from the daily-four-shows run, as was the norm then for any mainstream film opening at cinemas, the film became quite a money-spinner in the morning-show slot. At Delhi’s Shiela cinema, it completed an incredible diamond jubilee. In Mumbai, it kissed half a dozen silver screens. Approbation for the movie was merely deferred, not denied. Connoisseurs could not have enough of the satire; the masses too gradually warmed up to it.

The movie soon became the subject of debate in seminars and lit up many a literary evening. People who had not frequented the cinema for years ventured out to watch it. More than 20 years after its release, when the film was screened at the International Film Festival of India in Goa, it attracted such a crowd that the hall’s management had to make an exception to rules by allowing people to sit on its carpeted staircase. When Shah came to introduce the film, he was mobbed for autographs. That he had made five more films since Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro was irrelevant. A book on the making of the film followed not much later.

As time passed, retrospective greatness was conferred on Shah’s film. The illustrious film-makers K. Asif, Kamal Amrohi and M.S. Sathyu had to their credit classics such as Mughal-e-Azam, Pakeezah and Garm Hava. None of them was able to repeat the feat. Mughal-e-Azam was a period romance, Pakeezah, the tale of a courtesan, and Garm Hava captured the lingering effects of Partition. But romance, history, nautch girls, pain and pathos have been an integral part of literature and cinema for long. Not so humour. Shah charted a course of his own with humour in his cult classic. That he failed to reproduce the magic of this film only underlines its status as the work of a genius.

Though hailed widely for his skills, Shah was different from many of his contemporary film-makers. Unlike Shyam Benegal, Goutam Ghose or Adoor Gopalakrishnan, silence was not always celebrated for its eloquence in Shah’s cinema. Rather, silence and speech were often locked in a tussle, and the one with greater strength of purpose prevailed; neither speech stained silence nor silence shut out dialogue. The two were helpful neighbours.

Similar was his pursuit of perfection. Though he never quite achieved it in any of his films, Shah did not fail for want of effort. For his film Kabhi Haan, Kabhi Naa (1994), he shot and re-shot scenes with Shah Rukh Khan, some of them a hundred times. It was not ruled by caprice but because of a relentless drive to improve. That it took time, patience and money mattered not to Shah. After all, he was not in the industry to make movies for a first day, first show crowd, films to be devoured one weekend and forgotten the next day. He was ready to learn, to labour and to wait. But for all his hunger for cinema, he made only three films in the first 15 years or so; he doubled the tally over the next 14.

He waited almost a decade after his first film to come up with Kabhi Haan, Kabhi Naa, Shah Rukh Khan’s introduction to cinema, although a couple of other films of his made it to the box office before this one did. Kundan Shah was never to work with Shah Rukh again; a more market-savvy director would have been happy to rope in the top hero for more and more movies. After all, Shah had persuaded him to come to cinema after the success of Fauji on the small screen, and Shah Rukh had even stayed with Shah in his initial days in Mumbai. But for Shah it was not Shah Rukh’s heady popularity at the box office that mattered.

After Kabhi Haan... viewers had to wait another six years before they could set their eyes on Shah’s next film, Kya Kehna (2000), marking Preity Zinta’s debut. If Kabhi Haan... was the story of a loser, Kya Kehna marked a radical departure even for Shah. There was not a hint of humour here as the director tackled teenage pregnancy with sensitivity. Defying all odds, Kya Kehna, which too had been delayed for release, went on to do a jubilee run. Yet, for all his success, Shah remained in the shadows.

Kya Kehna was also to be his last taste of success at the box office. His subsequent efforts in the form of Hum To Mohabbat Karega, Dil Hai Tumhara and Ek Se Badkar Ek did not yield much returns, thus setting the template for his quiet departure from mainstream cinema. However, like any genius looking for one last hurrah, Shah succumbed to temptation and, after more than a decade’s absence from cinema, came up with P Se PM Tak. The film, however, failed to cause any ripples whatsoever. And Shah moved back into the shadows, bruised, battered at the box office, but undaunted in spirit, very much a profile of courage. He carried his convictions like a badge of honour. He discovered that the industry could be a hard place, more so for a man of values.

Success in television

Unlike his chequered innings in cinema, Shah had a consistent one on the small screen. Television was more accommodating of his gentle humanness and innate zest for meaningful craft. After his first film, he directed many episodes of Nukkad, a popular serial in the mid 1980s. Not to forget that delightful comedy Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi, which made Shafi Inamdar and Swaroop Sampat recognisable faces in public. It also gave Rakesh Bedi such an indelible comic image that he made a career out of it.

Then followed Wagle ki Duniya, which was another peek into the life of a middle-class, middle-aged couple. It endeared Anjan Shrivastav to the common man so much that he was never able to shake off the tag of Mr Wagle for the rest of his career. Dilip Dhawan, famous as Guru of Nukkad, who starred in Shah’s tele-series Intezaar as well, was always better appreciated as Guru until his death.

His work was not so much an attempt at entertainment as an effort at extinguishing darkness. For evidence, just rewind to his association with the small screen, how he came to be associated with Nukkad and Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi when serials around large families and Partition ( Hum Log and Buniyaad) were hugely popular.

He leaves us with the luxury of nostalgia and also a sense of beguiling wistfulness: what could have been, what should have been. But that is something only posterity can decide. After all, the audiences in 1983 too took time to appreciate Shah’s genius.

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