Aug 2, 2010

That's a wrap, Mr. Baswani

From what I can tell, the actor Ravi Baswani did not have a fan club or a Facebook page. And why wouldn't that be? IMDB lists fewer than 30 movies in his filmography, over a thirty year film career. Most of those movies never amounted to anything much. Some were nothing more than complete duds. Even his last public performance seems to be for a very unamusing ad for Mirinda.

Yet, to film-people and viewers of certain vintages and tastes, Ravi Baswani is a name that evokes several happy memories. Of chasing and being chased by Duryodhana. Of being turned into a chauffeur by Winnie Paranjape. Of losing a newly bought handkerchief in a girl-wooing scheme promoted by Amitabh Bachchan. Of being partly responsible for an entire generation both eating their cake and throwing it out of the window. And of being in a fabulous parody/tribute of ye olde hindi film songs.

You will notice that Baswani's reputation was built largely on his appearance in two movies. One is the much loved and much feted Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro. The other is Chasme Buddoor, which according to me, has been the least watched of all the great Hindi films of the last 40 years. In both, he is in danger of being thought of a comic sidekick and a weakling. But it was never his place in the grand scheme of things to play the hero. To his credit, he always held his own: in Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro, trying to keep the moral compass in shape in a deeply immoral setting, while exhibiting shiftiness, jealousy and pusillanimity in Chasme Buddoor. In both senses, he was the guy next door - someone certain to lose out1.

As it often happens, we learned more about Ravi Baswani after news of his death (from a heart attack, after looking for locations for his directorial debut) came in (see 2). He was 64 - which meant his acting debut in 1980 was at the ripe old age of 34. That he was a highly regarded theatre actor (as most of these can-really-act Delhi-wallahs are). That he was straight-talking, even caustic at times, and said such things about movies like Jodhaa Akbar such as: It's like [Ashutosh Gowariker] said, "Bring me all the bad actors. I’m going to make cinema out of that.".. (And even that he was probably living a couple of kms away from my house in Santacruz (E), long ago!)

On one hand, Ravi Baswani never did much else that rivalled his two most famous films in terms of attention. On the other, in those, he achieved much more than many in Bollywood ever do in an entire life. The length of a career is never a good measure of anyone's work, and there are several people both inside and outside film industries that this could apply to. Perhaps he was too hemmed in by the nature of his comic success, the inevitably stereotyping, and for being a thoughtful person in a time and place that made such people go extinct very soon.

Still, as with most obits, this made me evaluate the place such a person had in my life, and I'm surprised to know that it was significant, even if brief. And what better excuse to pull out Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro and Chasme Buddoor once again, to marvel at the writing and the little touches, and the people that chipped in to make our little lives worth living.

* His last known interview; another interesting interview (from 2003)
* Ravi Baswani played the moderator on an Indian version of Whose Line is it Anyway. He also did a fair bit of TV during the heydays of DD, and perhaps his last major TV role was in the slightly offbeat Just Mohabbat
* The latest film I've seen him in was in Naseeruddin Shah's debut directorial venture.
* I've read obits mention that his name in Chasme Buddoor was "Jai Lakhanpal". They might be wrong. One, to my ears, he says 'J. Lakhanpal' ("brother of B.A.Lakhanpal") and not "Jai". Second, I always thought he was making the whole thing up, because it was obvious he had no such brother. (Incidentally, a man named Dinesh Lakhanpal was an assistant director on the film in real life.)

The wonderful parody/tribute song sequence from Chasme Buddoor:

[1]: In a post called Who's playing the lead, I used Jomu's un-heroic inability to start his motorcycle to wonder if we would be the heroes of our films. It seems strangely appropriate to RB's life.

[2]: See an interviews with Kundan Shah and a post by Sudhir Mishra


Unknown said...

It really is astonishing that with two main features, he still managed to capture the imagination of the whole media...not sure too many others can reach there...and it's almost indicative of 'i live life on my own terms' whether or not that was his intent...

no mood to sign in said...

it's good to read a post about baswani.

your other post sounded very interesting as well. i think you've hyperlinked it incorrectly; had to google 'Who's playing the lead' to reach it. Nice post, that, as well. I loved that you connected The Walter Mitty day dreaming part with Chhoti Si Baat.

and your blog tagline has been repeating in my head ever since i read it. hilarious.

Unknown said...

NMTS: thanks for the kind words. I've corrected the incorrect link.

I overheard a Punjabi girl at a nearby lunch table say 'yeh to but obvious hai ke...' and found it irresistable :-)