Well, this is sad! One of the great directors has passed away, depriving us of more great films. Although he did give us two all time classics, so I guess I shouldn’t be greedy.
I still think of Kundan as part of the “young” group of filmmakers. But that is just because his spirit was so young. He was almost 40 when he made his first film, Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro. But it was such a young film, in every way, it feels like he should have been younger.
Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro was one of the first classics to come out of the Indian Institute of Film and Television students. Kundan Shah, Naseeruddin Shah, Pankuj Kapoor, they were all just starting out. And they wrote something that you could only make with the brashness of youth and nothing to lose.
(This scene alone would make it a classic)
Only, Kundan did have something to lose. He was older, and a director/writer, this was the film that would follow him his whole career. And it was a terrifying film, taking society and holding a mirror up to it, challenging the viewer to change, and challenging the viewer to think. That is how he started and that spirit never quite left him.
It softened over the years, after Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro, he moved into television into smaller simpler stories. And then there was Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa, his second great film. A small happy movie, that was still radical. Making us root for the “bad guy” in the romance, making us fall in love with the loser in love. And presenting the radical argument that all people are essentially good, mafia Dons, angry fathers, the local priest, they all just want good things for everybody. And in the end, you can always change and be better and earn those good things for yourself. Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro was an angry screed about society’s failures. Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa shows how it can succeed.
Those two films alone would be enough for most directors, they would just rest on their laurels and never work further. But Kundan was different, he did more. He wasn’t ashamed to try something a little different, or scared. So he made Kya Kehna, a film with flaws, but with a radical central storyline: a single mother who keeps the baby with the support of her family and community. And Dil Hai Tumhaare, which did not quite gel together as a story, but was still remarkably different as a whole. And Hum To Mohabbat Karega, a twisted thriller, completely unlike anything he had directed before.
Auteur theory says that a director should have an individual stamp on all his films. Kundan is the anti-auteur. For him, the needs of the film itself are paramount. If it is a cynical social comedy, it will be dark and cynical and funny. If it is an optimistic small town love story, it will be sweet and bright. A family love story will be warm, a thriller will be cold, a family drama will be touching with shades of grey.
That’s why I am sorry not to see more from him. Because I am sure whatever he did next would be completely different from what he had done before.