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Archives for : October2017

Mumbai – Raj Thackrey’s right to disrupt life

Jyoti Punwani

On Thursday, Maharashtra Navnirman Sena chief Raj Thackeray took out one of his massive morchas which blocked traffic and inconvenienced lakhs of train commuters going home from work. Police had denied him permission but such niceties never bother any Thackeray.

Those not inconvenienced were feeling indulgent towards the MNS rabble-rouser for once, because this time, his cause wasn’t the usual anti-‘ outsider’ obsession. The morcha was supposed to be a protest against the Elphinstone Road stampede and its target was supposed to be PM Modi‘s bullet train.

But Raj Thackeray proved that he was incapable of going beyond disruptive identity politics. Though he criticised Modi in his speech, his main demand was that the railways evict hawkers from railway stations and foot over-bridges within 15 days.

Many commuters had voiced the same demand after the Elphinstone Road disaster. But coming from Raj Thackeray, and backed by an ultimatum, Mumbaikars knew what it meant. When the MNS chief burst into the limelight in 2008, it was by getting his “boys” to thrash North Indian hawkers and taxi drivers. Any doubts that his target this time too were ‘outsiders’, were cleared by his ultimatum that if the authorities didn’t follow his diktat, his “boys” would do so.

This was an obvious instigation to violence made at an unauthorised rally. Did the Mumbai police take any action? One report said they filed a case against the MNS for illegal assembly. No mention was made of sections relating to promoting disharmony between groups, or instigating violence.

None of this should surprise us. Whoever is in power, the first family of Maharashtra remains above the law. Where Raj Thackeray is concerned, his ultimatums are a lways taken seriously by the government.

Prithviraj Chavan and Devendra Fadnavis are believed to be more conscious of rules than other CMs of Maharashtra have been. Yet, both these disciplined politicians have also bowed down to Bal Thackeray‘s nephew and clone. Chavan even transferred a police commissioner who had averted a major riot on the eve of Eid in 2012, a man reputed to be his own choice, a day after Raj Thackeray took out a rally demanding the top cop’s ouster. That rally was also taken out without police permission.

It should be emphasised that Raj Thackeray is only the leader of a failed political party. Most of his MLAs have left him. So even the only value he had – of being a useful splitter of the Shiv Sena “Marathi manus” votebank – no longer exists.

Yet, he gets to disrupt life in the country’s financial capital whenever he wants.

In August, another massive rally disrupted life in Mumbai. That was the Maratha Kranti Morcha, a culmination of many morchas taken out by Marathas across the state over the last year, demanding reservation and spewing anti-Dalit rhetoric. Marathas are the politically dominant caste in Maharashtra; in the countryside, they rule like zamindars of yore. At Mumbai’s rally, some of them turned up in fancy cars.

On the eve of the 2014 Assembly elections, the Congress-NCP government announced 16 per cent reservation for Marathas in education and jobs, a decision which was struck down by the High Court.

For decades, the Congress and NCP were seen as Maratha parties. But the BJP government has pursued the case for Maratha reservation in court as enthusiastically as its predecessor. The real surprise, however, was the way the government facilitated the Maratha morcha in Mumbai. It diverted traffic, provided water and portable toilets.

None of this would have been worthy of comment had ordinary protesters in Mumbai not found it near-impossible to get permission to protest outside the tiny cage-like enclosure of Azad Maidan. Even groups of 15 can barely raise placards for 15 minutes outside Churchgate or CST before police arrive to shoo them off. In July 2015, a demonstration at Dadar against Yakub Memon’s impending execution was aborted even before it could begin, and the 20-odd persons gathered there were arrested and charged.

There was a time when morchas would begin at Azad Maidan and end at Churchgate. PILs by Churchgate residents put an end to that expression of democracy. Today, protests at Azad Maidan remain a dialogue between speakers and their followers. They make no dent in the consciousness of the rest of the city. The Adivasi morcha in 2011, the student-Left-Dalit morcha to protest Rohith Vemula’s suicide in 2016; the ‘Not in My Name’ morcha in Dadar recently, have made an impact. But these have been exceptions.

So when a divisive demagogue, or a dominant community wanting even more benefits, gets the red carpet treatment from the government, it makes you angry.

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Monstrous Indian Income Inequality

Image result for Income Inequality

There is a dire need to rise above the empirical level in explaining income inequality.

The monstrous inequalities of capitalism in India have been plain for all to see, but now, the celebrated author of Capital in the Twenty-first Century, Thomas Piketty, and his colleague Lucas Chancel at the World Inequality Lab, Paris School of Economics, have provided the numbers, at least as far as incomes are concerned. Their working paper “Indian Income Inequality, 1922–2014” is provocatively subtitled “From British Raj to Billionaire Raj?”—arousing Indian academic economists from their stupor on such matters, and goading journalists to think aloud.

According to the Chancel–Piketty paper, India has emerged as the country that has recorded the highest increase in the share of the top 1% in national income over the past three decades, from 6.2% in 1982–83 to 21.7% in 2013–14. Indeed, the latter figure is the highest level recorded since the establishment of income tax in 1922, overtaking the British Raj’s record of the share of the top 1% in national income, which was 20.7% in 1939–40.

There are other striking aspects of India’s appallingly unequal growth process that need to be highlighted. While incomes of the bottom 50% of the adult population (above 20 years) over the period 1980–2014 grew at 89%, and that of the middle 40% (individuals above the median income and below the top 10% earners) by 93%, those of the top 10%, the top 1%, the top 0.1%, the top 0.01%, and the top 0.001% grew at 394%, 750%, 1,138%, 1,834% and 2,726%, respectively. Indeed, India has recorded what could be the highest gap between the growth of incomes of the top 1% (a growth rate of 750%) and the growth rate of incomes of the full adult population (187%). And, while the incomes of the bottom 50% grew in China over the period 1980–2014 by 312%, those of the bottom 50% in India grew by only 89%. Further, while the growth rate of incomes of the middle 40% over the same period in China was 615%, the corresponding figure for India was just 93%. Indeed, the growth of incomes at the very top of the income distribution in India (that of the top 0.001%) was 2,726%; the corresponding figure for China was lower, 2,546%.

Both China and India have recorded appallingly unequal growth over the last three decades, but in China, even though it is not a democracy in the sense of permitting free expression of public opinion, its growth process over the period 1980–2014 has been relatively much less unequal than India’s. The bottom 90% of its population captured 56% of the national income growth compared to what India’s bottom 90% did, a mere 34%. Indeed, in India, the middle 40% seems to have benefited the least (as compared to China, France, and the United States) from the total national income growth over this period. It is not India’s middle class (the middle 40%), but merely the top 10% of the population (80 million adult individuals in 2014)—“Shining India”—that has inordinately benefited from the growth of national income over the last three decades (it captured 66% of that growth).

The Chancel–Piketty paper is striking in the sense of putting numbers to the well-known fact that India has been “shining” by-and-large only for the rich. The paper, however, does not quite rise above the empirical level in explaining income inequality. Data never really speaks for itself; a theory is necessary to make sense of it. Moreover, in this case, the data is largely derived from tax declarations, which, as one suspects, are often falsified. And in the case of the very rich who control corporations, the distinction between their income as individuals and the income of the enterprises they control is, at least in part, artificial. For instance, much of their consumption expenses, and the personal ones at that, are passed off as company expenses. What the eminent economist D R Gadgil wrote in 1949, that “tax evasion by the rich may … have to be taken as a chronic feature of the Indian economic situation” (Pacific Affairs, June 1949, p 122), is applicable to the whole period, 1922–2014, under consideration. In this light, the Chancel–Piketty estimates of income inequality may be considered the lower bound of the prevailing inequality.

As regards the top 10%, and especially the top 1%, much of their income probably comes from profits from business, dividends and interest from stocks and bonds, rent from land and buildings, and salaries and bonuses deriving from management control in business enterprises, the latter more like property income rather than income from work. Moreover, over the last three decades, it is likely that real wages have been lowered relative to labour productivity, thus increasing the share of property incomes over incomes from work in value added. And, even within property incomes, the eschewing of antitrust action to reduce monopoly power has concentrated profits in the hands of the big oligopolies to the relative detriment of small businesses.

Of course, the access of big business to undervalued assets of the public sector, of mineral and forest resources, of land, and of the allocation of the spectrum for telecom should not be forgotten. The larger picture over here is of a financial aristocracy lording over a process of corporate-led jobless growth. As eminent macroeconomist Amit Bhaduri puts it, the basic recipe of such growth, very simply, is that if 10 persons, each producing two units, are displaced from the petty-commodity production economy and five find employment in the corporate sector with a labour productivity of eight units, employment and livelihood possibilities have halved, but output has been doubled. Of course, to incentivise such corporate investment, natural resources, including land, are transferred to the corporate business enterprises cheap. And the corporate business houses return the favour through handsome donations to the political parties that have enabled them to acquire the undervalued assets. In the process, contesting elections become prohibitively expensive for persons or parties that do not have access to such donations. Corporate-led jobless growth and corporate-led democracy then rule the roost (“On Democracy, Corporations and Inequality,”EPW, 26 March 2016).

That income inequality has attained and even exceeded levels prevailing during the British Raj is the tragedy of an India ruled by a bourgeoisie that has been the product of the long degenerative process of colonialism spanning the last quarter of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th, when the country witnessed a decline in real per capita income and millions were the victims of man-made famines even as the moneybags thrived. The brutality of colonialism and the perniciousness of its ideology of racial superiority, then; the cruelty of semi-fascism and the harmful effects of its ideology of Hindutva, an Indian variant of Nazism, now. Hindutva, besides inculcating a demonic drive towards cultural orthodoxy, is also firmly on the extreme right of the political spectrum, and the force wielding it, the Sangh Parivar, has been employing methods that are a mix of electoral politics and illegal violence. Moreover, this political force is bent upon smashing what it perceives to be any threat to the model of appallingly unequal growth whose income-inequality “results” the Chancel–Piketty paper has now laid bare.

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Our fights must begin in our homes, in our choices, in our language and in our refusal to ignore the hate

Everywhere I look, I see hate


I never wanted children. It was a political decision, as much as it was a personal one.

“No woman can call herself free until she can choose consciously whether she will or will not be a mother.” This had been activist Margaret Higgins Sanger’s rallying call that  I had made my own. But the finalities of life that we mark for ourselves have a way of unravelling when faced with the mortality of the people we love. Nothing prepared me to confront my father’s mortality. Three days after his surgery, that lasted close to 14 hours, I sat in the hospital lounge exhausted, when I saw three women sobbing. I recognised them from before. Their father was diagnosed around the same time as mine. After four months of pain, agony and multiple sessions of radiation therapy, the doctors had given him no more than a week to live.

They looked like my family – father, mother and two girls. Our fathers were the same age and had the same diagnosis. They lost him, but mine had survived.

Two months later, I got on a flight to return to the life I had left behind. I was alone with myself after a very long time, and the life I had left behind looked different than the one I wanted now – with a child. I wondered why and what had changed? Was it the encounter with my father’s mortality? Had this encounter made me chose motherhood? Did I want to see my parents live on through my child? Was it is the proximity to death, that reduces everything to primal need to procreate?

I didn’t know. I couldn’t articulate with certainty “why” I wanted a child, the way I could articulate my decision when decided not to have children.

There is a beautiful line in Odyssey: “Nobody, That is my name. Everybody calls me Nobody.”  I have always liked that line. The choice to not be yourself, for a brief moment. Being yet unbeing, to be free from my name, and its history, even if it lasts only for a while. Tabula rasa, a clean slate, just long enough to think, to make arguments afresh, and anew. I wished then, that just for a few hours could be a nobody. But there are no quiet spaces to contemplate counterfactuals in the reality of everyday life.


On the first day of the jurisprudence course, over a decade ago, my philosophy professor concluded the lecture with, “Always reserve the right to change your mind. Nothing in life is a foregone conclusion unless and until your life has ended.” That statement had made an impression on the 19-year self. Over the years I started all my lectures with the very same quote.

“Reserve the right to change your mind. Nothing is a foregone conclusion until you are gone.”

The decision to have a child is not merely a private matter; it is a significant political decision. Now that I had changed that stance,  every political position I had believed in, every argument I had ever made in furtherance of that position had to be reconsidered and adjudicated again.

When I became pregnant and found out that it was a girl, I became preoccupied with what it meant to raise her within the institution of family?  The family is still a political unit, heavily regulated by the state, often reducing women to their bodies. Desire outside the bounds of heterosexual marriage continues to be criminalised, and rape within marriage remains legitimate. The most intimate, visceral parts of our being – love, desire and lust remain governed by law, violence and social mores.

By bearing her, I was bearing witness to life in ways I had never perceived before. In her, I saw the map of my being, my limitations, my prejudices and predicaments that I would pass on to her. To raise her as a thinking-desiring-political being in this highly unequal and unjust society, I had to become infinitely better.

While I struggled with these questions, on a fateful morning news started trickling in that Hyderabad University research scholar Rohith Vemula had died. The details of the events that led to his death were cruel and heartbreaking.

Six months after Rohith’s death, a talented Palestinian-Syrian dancer, Hassan Rabeh, living as a refugee in Lebanon, jumped to his death after a last breathtaking performance – as those who saw it described it. Then there is little Aylan Kurdi found along the Turkish shore, whose mother decided to risk her children to the ocean because the land was no longer safe.

Everywhere I looked, I saw hate, and indoctrination clothed as an education.

Then Pakistan’s outspoken, fearless and self-made working-class heroine Qandeel Baloch, was found dead in her home. Her brother, confessing to her murder, said: “Yes, I killed her last night. Strangled her to death… I am not ashamed of killing her.”

The social media that had made her a star applauded her brother for “doing the right things” and called her “a disgrace”. A woman who had transgressed boundaries, questioned power and undressed the farce of religious clerics on national TV, would not be allowed to live.

Margaret Atwood, writing in Second Words (1983), narrates the incident when she asked a male friend why men felt threatened by women. He replied, “They are afraid women will laugh at them and undercut their worldview.” She then asked her female students why they feel threatened by men. They answered, “We’re afraid of being killed.”

Leading up to her murder, Qandeel had openly declared her fear of being killed.

Every woman I have ever met, at some point or another has feared violence, for thinking and speaking her mind, and sometimes just for existing. In 2017, why is thinking, speaking and merely existing as a woman a radical act?


My little girl turned one recently, and in the past year, I have been perpetually angry, upset or afraid.

I saw gruesome photographs of a mentally disabled woman, Otera Bibi, being lynched and killed, were circulated widely. I felt sick. For the next week, I couldn’t sleep, I often awoke up caught in a nightmare I couldn’t outrun. But I knew that my nightmares were often other people’s permanent homes. I could wake up from them; others couldn’t.

When I found out that Gauri Lankesh was murdered, I felt like a truck had hit me. I did not know Gauri Lankesh. I had met her briefly in the company of a friend, who introduced her as the patron saint of the young and the rebellious. This was soon after the murder of another scholar MM Kalburgi. Trying to lighten the conversation she had said, “Banglore’s quota is done for a while. They won’t come after another one of us for a while.”

I try to remember her face after she had made that comment. I wonder if she had laughed. The more I try, the less I remember. But I recollect her as being defiant and fearless, and full of chutzpah.

Gauri Lankesh was an intelligent, strong-willed, brave, and audacious women who spoke truth to power. I want my daughter to be that person when she grows up. Powerful, fearless and glorious. And if I raised her to be this woman, what would I do if someone then put a bullet in her marvellous mind?

What would I do?

I didn’t know how to mourn Lankesh. I had met her once and barely knew her. Before I could find the words or the silence, an anti-Lankesh hysteria had spread. Even her lifeless body had become seditious.

“She was an anti-national and deserved to die”, was the narrative that was repeated and circulated from the pedestal of hate and the newsrooms, into the nation’s living rooms and WhatsApp chat messages.

In Banglore, the cyber crime police arrested, Malli Arjun for posting, “One person with leftist ideology is dead, other such people will also meet the same fate.”

Arjun, 22 and unemployed, confessed to posting hate messages, through multiple online profiles and ids. The Delhi Police registered a FIR against Shillong native Vikramaditya Rana for threatening violence against her and several female writers, journalists and activists including Arundhati Roy, Shobhaa De, Kavita Krishnan and Shehla Rashid through Facebook posts. Rana has been posting hateful messages on Facebook that go viral.

“Not an iota of sympathy for Lankesh, and the killers should have shredded her body with bullets and even blasted apart her apartment.”

“Serves her and her kind right for the damages these so-called journos have caused our nation.”

“Let the shooting of #GauriLankesh serve as [an] example to those anti-nationals who masquerade as journalists and activists.”

“Episode of serial assassinations of all anti-nationals.”

While such statements shocked a few, many more agreed with him. Like Arjun, Rana had multiple accounts. A cursory look at this page reveals a litany of hate and bigotry. His accounts were regularly suspended. But he returned triumphant, to dispense more hate to his compatriots who validated and applauded his hate. Lankesh was just his most recent target.

The troll is not just a troll to be dismissed. Let us not forget the political usefulness of the mob and their power. They are not the means to power; they are the power of hate thriving amongst us. They are not marginal or the fringes, they are the republic. Rana and his “friends” are a virtual mob, contagions of hate dispersed throughout the country, bleeding a nation to death. Their words, no matter how vile become justified when wrapped in the flag.

As I tried to reconcile my anger and argument, my partner showed me a Facebook notification:

“Gauri Lankesh – that bitch was an anti-nationalist.”

This was no troll; this was someone we knew. This was an urban middle class grandmother of two, who had posted this comment on  Arnab Goswami’s fan-page. My partner had seen the notification and was visibly disturbed. It took him another day to show it to me. A week since we are still coming to terms with the reality of these words.

Violence is not always armed, but its language can be weaponised.

The battles we are fighting are in our own homes, the ideology of hate is no mythical monster. It lives in the hearts and tongues of people we know, people we are related to, people we call our friends. This hate is not singular, it spreads and infects everyone it touches, not just its willing participants.

These words that signify so much hate will escape the realm of social media, and defiantly march into our homes and find other targets.

No matter what the violence, and how we employ it on others, we always bring it back home with us. You cannot spew hate on others, and then not let it infect our lives and those around us.

Hate lives in the intersections of multiple acts of violence through space and time.

Our fights must begin in our homes, in our choices, in our language and in our refusal to ignore the hate

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India – Why Dalits aren’t afraid to breach caste silos now

The moustache protests underline the confidence of a generation raring to question hierarchial traditions

A protest at Jantar Mantar, New Delhi, against the atrocities on Dalits in Saharanpur, Uttar Pradesh.
A protest at Jantar Mantar, New Delhi, against the atrocities on Dalits in Saharanpur, Uttar Pradesh.(Sushil Kumar/HT File Photo)

Who is Dalit?

The answer, in the not-so-distant-past, was predictable: A starving farmer from the rural hinterlands of India conveniently removed from intelligentsia of urban India – a comfortable construction that kept any discussion of caste away from the living rooms of 21st century India.

Not anymore. Buoyed by constitutional protections, enterprise and affirmative action, the community now occupies spaces hitherto “reserved” for dominant castes and transforming what it means to be Dalit: No longer a mute sufferer of caste oppression to be rescued but confident individuals raring to claim their legitimate rights and unwilling to tolerate bias.

The recent protests against a rash of attacks on Dalits in Gujarat for sporting a moustacheshowcases this resilient spirit. Dalit men from across India mobilised on WhatsApp, Twitter and Facebook to post selfies of themselves with moustaches to signal their defiance.

Though one of the attacks is now under doubt and might be fake, the underlying point made by the protesters is unequivocal – that a new generation of Dalits won’t be sated in a discourse of caste that views them as passive sufferers.

A result of this assertion has been an expansion of the conversation on caste, from basic subsistence to web access, gender, political power and higher education – and growing resistance in situating caste in the body of the Dalit body, instead seeing that bias as shaping our lives, economies and social structures.

The moustache protests, for example, broke out of the traditional mould of dharnas and rallies and took over a medium that is often crowded by voices from dominant castes. The twirling moustaches and facial hair also underlined the significant but little-understood ways in which caste governs gender, and how any conversation on masculinity is incomplete without probing how endogamy and caste inspire masculine behaviour — the oft-used synonyms of Jat, Khsatriya or Rajput to signify virility is a clue to this relationship. In Gujarat, the dominant castes’ objection was linked to a struggle for power and how visible masculinity was punished to deny that.

Caste is about power. The new wave of Dalit protests understand this well and therefore targets the bastions of power: Academia, political representation and culture. From the protests sweeping universities demanding a more equitable culture that goes beyond mere admission to Bhim Army’s muscular response to subtle and overt ways of caste governance in western Uttar Pradesh, a new generation of Dalits are taking off from the eighties groundwork of their Dalit panther ancestors

This is a transformative moment because such movements are on their way to expelling the possibility of dominant caste bastions and their markers — English-speaking, university-educated, foreign-travelled individuals from “good” families — and effecting an expansion of the caste conversation.

So if you asked the question, Who is a Dalit, today, the answer could be as varied as India: The Dalit could be the daughter of a bureaucrat, the topper of the country’s toughest examination, a social media expert, a village headman or a political commentator.

A vast majority of them are still poor and lack basic amenities but impoverishment, soiled clothes and broken English are no longer the only reference points to talk about caste. They’re no longer the labourer who dies 15 minutes into a movie, they’re Newton.


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#SundayReading -Kundan Shah- The Making of a Classic- Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro

Kundan Shah: The making of a classic

Kundan Shah, who died of a heart attack in Mumbai yesterday morning at the age of 70, made 10 films in a career spanning three decades. But his life and work was almost entirely defined by one film, the 1983 cult favourite Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro, considered by many to be the greatest Hindi comedy of all time. No filmmaker has since come close to achieving the perfect mix of burlesque, camp, irony, satire, and slapstick achieved by Shah and his bunch of young and relatively inexperienced cast of actors and technicians. In this rerun of a piece published a decade ago in Man’s World magazine, Jerry Pinto puts together an oral history of the making of the film that nearly never got made.

In 1983, a film was made by a young director, straight out of the Film and Television Institute of India (hereinafter the Institute). It was not a funny film in the ordinary sense of the word. We had had many funny films. Some of them were pure slapstick, some started as comic and then went on to become tragic, some were physical comedy, some were lifts. But there had been nothing like Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro before this.

Come to think of it, there’s been nothing like Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro after it.

The story? It begins with two photographers, and get a load off those two names, Vinod Chopra (Naseeruddin Shah) and Sudhir Mishra (Ravi Baswani) who set up a photo studio. They don’t have any clients but they have faith in themselves and in their anthem, ‘Hum honge kaamyaab ek din’. Then one day, Shobha Singh (Bhakti Barve) the editor of Khabardaar, an investigative magazine, walks into their shop-front with an assignment. She wants to uncover the corruption of a builder Tarneja (Pankaj Kapur) who has been bribing Commissioner D’Mello (Satish Shah) to get his tenders passed. Tarneja is the kind of builder who does not mind mixing concrete with sand. He does not mind if people die. He only minds if they smell.

In the course of pursuing Tarneja for photographic evidence, they happen on a murder in progress. This is a bow to Michelangelo Antonioni‘s Blow Up (1966), so the park in which they discover the body is called Antonioni Park. It’s about as clever a way of acknowledging a reference as any. The script seems to have been like a huge vacuum-cleaner scooping up everything that came along, from the borrowed suits in which the two photographers inaugurate their store to contemporary references such as the bridge collapse that starts off the climax, which acknowledged the collapse of a bridge at Byculla in central Mumbai, a bridge that fell before it had been completed. And when it is almost done, you can see the film’s socialist heart in the moment when at a press conference with Tarneja, a reporter asks a question that is almost a speech. There are lines in the film that acquired cult status, as did the film. When D’Mello comes back from a study tour of America, he notes how advanced that country is. “Wahaan peene ka paani alagh, gutter ka paani alagh,” (There drinking water flows separately from sewage) he says and everyone nods, suitably impressed. And there is a demented sequence in which he is told that Americans get half their thrills from eating and half from throwing away some food. The ‘thoda khao, thoda pheko’ sequence is a comment on the waste-makers of America and a nice piece of slapstick since Sudhir is hanging around outside the window and wants some of the cake that Vinod is guzzling— how I am enjoying writing this — with Commissioner D’Mello. But the set piece — and what everyone remembers most vividly — is the chase with D’Mello’s body and the ensuing commotion in the disruption of a mythological play.


Kundan Shah, Director, Story writer

I have never been close to comedy in my life. At my Gujarati school in Aden, we were shown some Chaplin films but if I had to spend my money and buy a film ticket it would have been for an action film or a drama. But I read indiscriminately, anything I could lay my hands on. I read what might be called pulp and when I came to college in Mumbai and met a senior who was well-known for his reading, I began to borrow the classics from him. But I read those as pulp as well. I read Dostoyevsky and Balzac like they were novels by James Hadley Chase. I did not see any difference. They were all telling stories, gripping human stories. Those were the influences with which I went into the Institute.

I wrote my first dialogue, which was supposed to be a very important moment, a seminal moment, something that would decide, they say, what kind of filmmaker you would make and it failed miserably. So I sat down to analyse why I had failed. And the day I failed that dialogue test, I began preparing for my diploma film. For one and a half year, I worked on it until I was ready to look at what I had done. And I discovered that what I had written was a comedy. Bonga, my diploma film, helped me find myself. I believe every director makes a single film, makes it again and again. Guru Dutt made a film about a tortured poet in Pyaasa, a tortured film director in Kaagaz ke Phool, a tortured woman in Saahib Bibi aur Ghulam. And I think I made Bonga again and again. Bonga was not about corruption; it was about life. The story is irrelevant. I believe the less the story, the better the film. As part of the course, we were also supposed to write the script of a feature film. It was not compulsory but I decided to do it anyway. All these play an important part in the making of Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro.

At that time, I was writing a film based on One Wonderful Sunday by Akira Kurosawa. I hadn’t seen the film but I had heard about it. It was supposed to be about a Sunday that a young couple who are also broke spend together. So I thought I’d do my own spin on it. My wife was out of town and I was visited by a friend who had come from Hyderabad. He was part of a collective of Institute students who had gone there, determined to make films cheap, make the right kind of films as a collective effort. They did make some films but the community was collapsing and two of them, an editor and a director, were left behind. They had gone into business as industrial photographers and the editor was better at photography so he was ordering the director around, making him hold the reflector. He told me all these stories in the night he was here, and we laughed endlessly. He told me how they used their studio to try and patao girls…

The next morning I woke up and I began writing the script with this basic idea in mind. I threw out most of his stories. I just kept the basic outline. At that time, the Film Finance Corporation announced a script competition so I put in the script that I had written at the Institute because it was ready. That won the third prize, after Massey Sahib and Godaam and part of the deal was that prize winning scripts would be financed by NFDC. Now I had no intention of making that film so I told them I would need to make it in 35mm. They said I couldn’t have that kind of money, only enough for 16mm. So I said I would give them another script and I began to write Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro furiously. They said that it would have to go through the committee again but I was willing to take my chances rather than make a film I didn’t want to. And the script committee approved the script and I had the money and I was ready to go.

Sudhir Mishra, screenplay writer, also played an uncredited reporter

The film would never have been made if NFDC had not produced it. It was a time of independence for NFDC. There were people like Shyam Benegal and Aravindan on the board and they passed a whole bunch of projects that would have frightened the babus. In the early 1980s, no Indian producer would have touched the project. They would not have been able to conceive of it, they would not have been able to translate that script in their heads into a film.

KS: I wrote the film with a certain kind of anger. I had been the secretary of my building and the water pipe and the sewage pipe ran side by side. There was a leak in the sewage pipe which was gushing out in a stream. I tried to get the cement necessary for the repairs but that was the time cement was controlled.

“We are drinking sewage water,” I told the man in charge of cement. “So is everyone in Bombay,” he said. And that was how the ‘gutter ka paani alagh’ lines got written.


KS: Casting took some time. Naseer was fixed. He knew me and he had agreed to do my film. He was shooting in Pune when he called me to meet him. I thought he wanted to back out but instead he said, “I will give you 45 days. I’m willing to play whatever role you want me to.” I had seen Ravi Baswani in Sai Paranjpe’s Chashme Buddoor and I knew I wanted him. Vijay Tendulkar told me when he saw the film, “He’s the key. He’s holding it together.”

SM: Casting the role of Shobha Singh gave Kundan nightmares. Most of the women in parallel cinema refused it. Even Bhakti Barwe who eventually did the role, refused to dub for it. So Anita Kanwar dubbed her voice eventually.

KS: Casting Shobha was the difficult part. Deepti agreed but she was busy. I went to see Bhakti Barve in Hands Up, a Marathi play. There was a moment in it where she’s taking vengeance on someone, and she has to turn to the villain and laugh, turn away from him and cry, turn back and laugh…and I knew I had my actor. I knew she didn’t have comic potential. I knew she had problems. She was asthmatic and how many times could I tell these guys to stop smoking? And then she didn’t want to dub, I think because she was a stage performer and was afraid of messing up. But Anita Kanwar was a godsend.


Pankaj Kapoor, played Tarneja

I remember going for story sessions with Kundan, to try and get a hold on my character. Inevitably, he would end up doing accounts, so that wasn’t much help. But then he was working on a budget that would make a shoestring look sumptuous and I understood, we all understood, that he was committed to making the film and to getting it finished. But that meant we didn’t get much of a chance to discuss my character in great depth. For instance, I was 27 at the time and was supposed to play a 45 year old. On the morning of the shoot, it was discovered that I did not have a costume so Renu and I rushed to a store nearby and bought me a silk kurta and a pair of spectacles to age me.

Ravi Baswani, played Vinod Chopra

There are any number of little details that go into the making of comedy. In Chashme Buddoor, for instance, I suggested to Sai that my character should have a lighter that never lights. “Who will notice?” she said. “I don’t care if no one notices,” I said. “I will know my character better. He’s the kind of guy whose lighter never lights.” Later, it became useful because there was a moment when he looks for a match and finds the insecticide and jumps to the conclusion that Farooque’s character is going to commit suicide. In Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro too, there were little things like that. In the last sequence, I run in chased by Dushasan. Then Dushasan chases me back. Then I run in wearing his costume. Then he runs in wearing a kachcha. Then I run in carrying my sword with Dushasan’s kachcha on its tip. In the madness of that scene, you might not even see it, but for me, it’s an additional little moment. Before working with any director, at that time, I tried to do my homework. I knew that Sai Paranjpe for instance needs her handbag if she needs to think. I knew that Prahlad Kakkar screams a lot. I went to story sessions just to see what Kundan would be like. And I went and saw his diploma film, Bonga to get into his mind. I discovered that he was a director who would need actors who could translate his ideas for him. I also found that he shouted a lot. Not that he meant anything by it but he shouted. Our sound engineer told me that the maximum wastage of footage was on Kundan saying, “Cut-cut-cut-cut-cut-cut-cut.” So where does one cut?

Vanraj Bhatia, music director

I was the default music director for the whole of the parallel cinema industry. It was a mistake I made and I regret it. I suppose I got typecast. They were all supposed to take me along with them once they hit the big time but none of them did. And the ones who did, like Vinod Chopra, forgot. I believed in them, these Institute guys who would come over, tell me their stories and drink my bar dry. I believed in their dreams and I did everything I could to help them along. I remember when they shot the scenes in the lift outside the building under construction, it was somewhere in the vicinity. So they all trooped over and asked for tea. I told them I could not give them all tea and that I had had my lunch and drove them out again.

Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro was a comedy, I was told. That was fine. Music for comedy can be dreadful if it is used in the way it is used in cartoon films. But Kundan told me that he did not expect me to do any Mickey Mousing for the film. But then there were these endless scenes like the coffin scene where I was expected to compose an endless melody to go with it. He did not want any songs, he said. They all said that in those days. If they had songs, they were in the background. They were very foolish. They were wannabes who were full of half-digested Bresson and Goddard and since their New Wave gods did not use songs, how could they?

RB: Naseer and I had worked together. We sat down to talk about what we were going to do. I told him, “All these guys are going to do something because this is their big shot. Let’s not do anything. Let’s play it straight.” He agreed. That didn’t mean we didn’t think things through or respond to the moment, but we played it straight and I think it worked.


Naseeruddin Shah, played Vinod Chopra

The shoot was the worst I have ever had, the worst. There was no money for anything. It was April and May when we were shooting and it was hot as hell. And throughout there was always the feeling that this film was not going to get made, but also the feeling that we had to do something to get it done.

Vidhu Vinod Chopra, Production Controller, also plays Dushasan

I ended up playing Dushasan in the Mahabharat scene at the end because it was that kind of film. I wanted to pay the actor Rs 500. He wanted Rs 1000. I couldn’t afford him, so I did the role myself. Being production controller was a mad job. Once, I remember asking Kundan Shah what time I should ask the buses to come to take the crew from the Madh Island shoot where we were doing the ‘kuch khao, kuch pheko’ scene. He said he was starting at seven am and would be done by five. I decided to give him a buffer and add five hours. I called the buses by ten. Do you know when we knocked off?10 am the next morning. At one point, I remember seeing Kundan with his eye fixed on the viewfinder in the camera. He stayed there a very long time. So I went up and shook him and found he had fallen asleep on the camera!

NS: I had just got married around that time. I remember telling Ratna [his wife] that I would be late. I wasn’t late that night, oh no, I came home the next night. And that was only because Ratna got really worried and called NFDC. They told her we were shooting at their guest house and she turned up there with food. I think she had a picture of the entire cast and crew as sleeping beauties. Something had gone wrong with the magazine and it had been taken out to repair and everyone fell asleep almost where they were standing.

SM: I think most of the actors didn’t have faith in the film. They had all been trained in Mr Benegal’s kind of cinema. But they were also helping Kundan whom they knew in different ways, and whom they liked despite the fact that he carried a briefcase and an umbrella instead of wearing the kurta and carrying the jhola of a radical. All the actors were sceptical of the film at some level but there wasn’t much else they could do. In 1982, what was there?

NS: I didn’t believe the film would work. I thought we were making the stupidest film ever. I remember once I told Kundan, ‘You’re thinking in animation!’

SM: I think the film might have been much much better if the actors had been willing to trust in comedy. The film is the worse for the actors not understanding the grace of nonsense. Comedy of this kind is a gentle lament. Their idea of comedy was Moliere as performed in the National School of Drama in Delhi. This lack of understanding meant that they kept trying to get out of the nonsense and return to their realist framework. In a comedy, you should never step out of the mode in which you are. I think if the actors had allowed it, Kundan would have made a much better film. Though I think Satish Shah understood it.

RB: I went on the sets and Kundan was banging his head on the wall. He didn’t want to shoot the telephone sequence. “How will anyone accept that two people are talking to each other on two extensions of the same telephone in the same room?” he asked. I said, “Don’t worry, this is comedy. They will accept it.”

SM: The shoot was chaotic. I remember the sequence at Madh Island which was shot at a stretch for four days without a break. Naseer would go away and fall asleep and come back for his shot. And the food was ghastly. There was roti daal and aalu baingan for breakfast and there was roti, daal and baingan aalu for lunch. And since Kundan was Gujarati, there was sugar in the daal!

RB: When we were executing the sequence with Satish Shah as the corpse, I gave him my personal guarantee that we would not let him fall so he could go limp. In that sequence, the in-joke was that the expression on the corpse changed from one moment to the other. He was looking down when we’re up among the lights, he’s looking up when we enter the auditorium, he’s coy as Draupadi and so on. You don’t get it the first time but you may on the second viewing and that will add to the pleasure of it. And even if you don’t know you’re making a legend—and we didn’t know it—you have to assume that any film you do should make people want to come back the second time.

PK: On another location visit, Renu (Saluja) and he and I went off to see a building under construction. There was a lift, a small one, about four feet by two feet. No, it wasn’t a lift, it was a glorified bucket. Up we went in it and since it had one side open to the air and the sea and the sky, I froze. But not Kundan. “We will shoot in this,” he announced. Now, I knew the scene was one which had Neena Gupta, Satish Shah, me, my assistant and it would have to have the cameraman and the focus puller and perhaps Kundan himself all in it. Luckily when we returned to terra firma, I noticed a much larger lift and pointed it out.

On the day of the shoot, we all got into the lift, almost everyone on the set seemed eager for a ride. I kept saying, “No, maybe there are too many people” but the owner had assured Kundan that he took building material up by the tonne so we all got in. And we began to rise…until we came to about the sixth floor. Then we stopped. Kundan leant out and kept shouting to the lift operator. “Take us up,” he would shout and the lift operator would look left. “Or take us down,” he would shout and the lift operator would look right. Finally, he shouted, “Take us close to the building.” The lift operator did so and then I tried to tell everyone to get off slowly, not to panic, but there was a stampede. That meant as people jumped off, the rest of us who were inside the lift would swing out into the air. It was the grace of all the gods that no one got hurt. Later, the lift operator told us that the chain had begun to fray and moving us up or down would have caused it to break. But no one seemed to be bothered about this. When scary things happened on this shoot, people just ignored them. I have never worked with a team so hell-bent on getting the job done.


NS: Do you know that Anupam Kher acted in Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro? He was playing a character called Disco Killer. He was supposed to be a gunman who had been hired to bump us off but a gunman who kept on missing. His entire track was eliminated. I don’t know how Renu Saluja did it, but she did it. There was enough to make another hour or so of film.

SM: Renu Saluja’s role in making the film what it is cannot be underestimated. First of all, she took a three and a half hour film and cut it down. Kundan and Renu practically rescripted the film in the editing room. I know this for a fact, it was one of her favourite films. I sat through the editing and I enjoyed it immensely. It was like going to some kind of master class. If you look at the last sequence, that famous Mahabharata sequence, that’s her work, it’s a rhythm that she gives to the whole of it, the way in which she keeps the whole thing moving while never calling attention to the editing. It was a magnificent feat because it meant that for the first time an editor was achieving that rare and mystical thing: comic timing. It was only when we saw the first cut, that the actors realised what they had done. They had worked on a legend. They absolutely loved the film from then on.


SM: It was very badly released. I remember going to Baadal cinema in Mahim, and finding that there wasn’t even a hoarding outside the cinema to announce that it was playing inside.

KS: It was very badly released. That’s NFDC. But without them the film would never have been made. No one would have understood the script. No one would have taken the chance. But it has found its audience. It finds them still.


RB: What a let-down Bhakti was. Speak no evil of the dead and all that but she was terrible. And what a boon it was that she didn’t want to do the dubbing or wasn’t interested enough or whatever. I don’t care. Anita Kanwar reinvented the character entirely with her voice. That’s the only thing that works for me in Bhakti’s performance.

PK: Frankly speaking, I wasn’t very satisfied with that performance. I know it worked but it was a little too stylised. I was supposed to be playing the role Om (Puri) eventually played. But I don’t regret it because it was a wonderful time. There was such passion and such purity, such commitment to the cause of cinema, such a wonderful feeling. I thought I would not experience that again until I did Maqbool with Vishal Bhardwaj and once again, I felt I was back making cinema.

NS: For someone who spent the entire shooting schedule despairing of the kind of film we were making, I was proved wrong. I would never have guessed that generations of young people would still be watching it 20 years later…

KS: I believe that every director has a curtain in front of him, between his thoughts and the film he thinks he is going to make and the film he does make. The film he does make is a shadow play. Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro is a shadow of the film I wanted to make. And all the rest have been shadows of Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro.

SM: There are people who ask me ‘When are you going to make another Hazaaron Khwaahishein Aisi?’ and I feel like saying, ‘Never’. Because I made Hazaaron Khwaahishein Aisi. There isn’t another one hiding in me. If Kundan never made another Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro, it was because there wasn’t another one in him.

RB: I should have died after that film. I might have become the James Dean of India, a legend. Kya actor tha, they would have said, just two films and then he died…. But that didn’t happen. Anyway, jaane bhi do, yaaron

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