It is the Indian quizzer's ultimate Hindi movie. If you didn't know what a "black comedy" is all about, watch Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron. It is comedy with depth and purpose that continues to stand quietly but unforgettably on a pedestal of its own.
A mark of any great film is if one can watch it repeatedly and keep discovering nuances in the story and performances: you can do this with "Jaane...". The reason for this "repeat-vasool" quality is the generously sprinkled collection of in-jokes, graceful lampooning of individuals and institutions, no-holds barred satirical references and an irreverent yet healthy disregard for sacred cows. Indian quizzers have long cut their teeth at movie trivia with "Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron". From classics like What are the screen names of Naseeruddin Shah & Ravi Baswani in the film?" (A: Vinod Chopra & Sudhir Mishra, from the names of director Kundan Shah's friends assisting him in the movie), Which personalities inspired the characters of the scandal-sheet editor Shobha Sen and the cake-eating and apparently gutter-loving Commissioner D'Mello (A: Shobha De and Julio Ribeiro (a joke on his virulent anti-corruption stance) respectively) to the wildly obscure but hilarious self-referential From whom have the photographers taken a loan? (A: a man named Kundan Shah). I can go on and on.
This profusion of trivia doesn't trivialise the film: on the other hand, it underscores the wit and wisdom in the screenplay. If you were so inclined, a viewing of this (may I now start saying "cult"?) movie could provide you with hajaar allegories to ponder over. As a student of film history, you might consider another aspect: an attempt by another fresh batch of graduates of the FTII along with other like-minded friends to make a film according to their sensibilities, also providing a crucible from which their names emerged radiant; any film now beginning with the credits reading Kundan Shah, Vidhu Vinod Chopra, Sudhir Mishra, Naseeruddin Shah, Renu Saluja, Binod Pradhan, Satish Kaushik, Pankaj Kapur, Om Puri, Satish Shah, Neena Gupta (and a near miss from Anupam Kher) would be considered pretty top-notch. A sort of schoolboy dream-team, it seems today.
The story is good-meets-evil, innocence-meets-cynicism. Photographers Vinod and Sudhir want to make a living, no one will let them be. Sucked into exposing corruption, they're engulfed with it and only have the body of the man-in-the-middle D'Mello (would it be fair to call Satish Shah's role "deadpan" ?) to show for it. A wonderfully written climax involving a staging of the Mahabharata (fittingly the only Indian epic that embraced realpolitik as a way of life) provides the final nail in the coffin: the common man pays for his optimism again. Kundan Shah excelled at the genre of tragicomedy: his subsequent successes on television revealed his flair for understanding what life in the middle of the sandwich was all about, and why Satya does not always lead to Jayam.
Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron was a singular spark, in retrospect. Its makers had varied kinds of success, some succumbing to the other lunacies of commercial art while some were caught on the fence. Why "Jaane..." works for me is because it is always consistent to its levels of illogic. The phone scene with Albert Pinto (another delightful self-reference with Naseeruddin Shah), the cake-throwing sequence, the round-figure bribes, Om Puri (taking off on his father's Punjabi accent) towing the coffin-on-wheels and the incredible sight of a de-moustached Satish Shah in a sari swaying around on stage are just a small sample of one of the most creative efforts ever on Indian cinema. Also commendable are the slices from reality, with the reference to the collapse of the Byculla Bridge and A.R.Antulay's troubles. Sure, this NFDC-financed effort trips only in the production values, but won its dues from the critics, picking up National Awards. But I cannot help feel a tinge of pathos for the fact that hardly anyone in Indian cinema dared follow this trendsetter, including the makers themselves. But humming the anthem of Hum Honge Kaamyaab Ek Din, in the spirit of it all, if I may say so : Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron.