Good-Bye Kundan Shah

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.

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10 thoughts on “Good-Bye Kundan Shah

  1. I don’t think that Kundan wanted to do another of his gems…not in this time. I am happy that his legacy is intertwined with ShahRukhs life…by his name, by his 1st movie that ShahRukh loves so much, by KhabiHaanKhabiNaa, by his TV work ShahRukh was involved, too…a man to cherish, a man to remember 🙂

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  2. Given the scope of your forum, this may not be directly relevant, but Mr. K. Shah’s greatest impact on Indian culture today was on what he did to the Indian television industry, where he quickly followed up Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron with directing India’s first significant sitcom – Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi, and the distinct ripple effects of that one show. That television series was to urban Indian audiences in terms of popularity what Friends was to U.S. urban audiences, roughly a decade later, when both series were running on broadcast television. It arguably had a trade impact as well, because finally it was commercially viable for the ‘cast and crew’ types from the Delhi theater scene to get paid, what lefties call a ‘living’ wage these days in the U.S., on this new phenomenon called television that was now permitted to be used for entertainment purposes.

    Prior to this era, there was only a handful of state-sponsored television channels that was mainly a tool for Mr. J. Nehru’s legacy propaganda for the virtues of Fabian socialism. Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi (Mr. K. Kumar, yes that one, sang the title track) led to, along with the parallel preachy soap opera phenomenon that was launched at the same time called Hum Log (headlined by Mr. A. Kumar, yes that one, the elder sibling of Mr. K. Kumar), all in the second half of the 1980s the following works of visual creativity:

    (1) Nukkad (Mr. P. Malhotra, he of Narang from the Don remake fame, was part of an ensemble cast)

    (2) Fauji, brought a Mr. S.R. Khan in front of the camera

    (3) Buniyad. brought the Sippy’s of Sholay fame to television, which in turn encouraged the B.R. Chopra family to bring Mahabharat onto the small screen

    (4) Circus, where Mr. S.R. Khan and Mr. A. Gowarikar (of Lagaan and Swades fame) started acting under Mr. K. Shah’s direction

    (5) Malgudi Days, which brought R.K Nayan’s work to the small screen via Mr. S. Nag (who’s native tongue was not Hindi, i.e., came from a ‘Southern’ ethos), and was exponentially better than what Mr. D. Anand’s ‘Northern’ ethos did to R.K. Narayan’s Guide [I have no criticism of Guide, I’m making comparison to highlight the genius of Malgudi Days]

    Unlike Hum Log, the unadulterated intent of these new shows was entertainment, not some preachy warning on the frailties of the human condition (they were going for Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White preference for entertainment, not Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the de’Urbervilles that Hum Log was anchored to in terms of cautious social commentary in order to build some egalitarian society; another way to put this opinion is they were Awaara (specifically Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi) and it’s Bollywood follow-ups to Russia after that nation’s populace had been spoon-fed major doses of Battleship Potemkin, et. al. in between two World Wars).

    Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi’s success also created an impact on the work for women, via another show that came promptly thereafter: Rajani, starring Ms. P. Tendulkar and directed by Mr. B Chatterjee (yes that one, the one that created Rajnigandha in 1975), as the entertaining take-no-prisoners female ‘hero’, that was going to right society’s wrongs. Now a female actor, with a desire to eventually become a mother, could get a solo starring role, directed by someone of repute, with a steady above-average paycheck, regular hours and no off-site shoots. The idea that women could economically and socially thrive in Indian entertainment, as economists put it, was now feasible.

    So here’s five conclusive impacts of Mr. K. Shah.’s Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron on the India television :

    (1) it is now ‘normal’ for the purpose to television to entertain, no longer is broadcast media limited to “today the nation’s politicians said the following public policy A, B, C, … in the legislature” type news; from a U.S. perspective, Indian television went from CSPAN to NYPD Blue, with Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi being the equivalent of the 26 Emmy nominations that show received for its first season (Wikipedia claims this is some sort of record)

    (2) it is now ‘normal’ for people with Bollywood “cred” to not be embarrassed to work on TV (Mr. A. Bachchan for the local chapter of “Who wants to be a millionaire’; Mr. A Khan imitating Oprah for ‘Satyamev Jayate’; Mr. S. Khan on the local chapter of Bigg Boss)

    (3) it is now ‘normal’ (courtesy the ripple effect of Rajani) that women that want a measurably successful and long career in entertainment can do so without having to worry about someone launching them in Bollywood (a certain Ms. E. Kapoor of the “Balaji” conglomerate comes to mind)

    (4) it is now ‘normal’ for ‘Southern’ natives to create Hindi entertainment (Messrs. Priyadarshan, Ratnam, Murugadoss, …)

    (5) The phenomena created by that show by Mr. K. Shah contributed to Mr. S.R. Khan being in Bollywood; he could show up in Bombay with video tape of his TV performances to show to producer-types, doing action (Fauji) and comedy (Circus) in color.

    It did help that color came to Indian television a couple of years prior to this show via the 1982 Asian Games being held in New Delhi, so the technology needed to create cultural phenomena was now available. (The Indian government created a loophole for the 1982 games to allow the tax-free import of color television sets). The Thomas Hardy type story can be told without discomfort in black-and-white, but entertaining like a story of Wilkie Collins excites the human brain a lot more when the human brain can experience entertainment in lots of color.

    Regards.

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    • I like your insight although I already read a lot about the impact, Kundan Shah had on Indian TV because i wanted to know how much he was involved with ShahRukh’s way into the filmindustry and why ShahRukh has such high opinions about him.

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      • Claudia, Mr. S.R. Khan’s favorable opinion of Mr. K. Shah, I suspect, is also from them sharing a similar, tinged-with-cynicism, dry sense of humor. Consider that Mr. K. Shah named his two protagonists in the farcical Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron, the film he is known for, after his two assistant directors on that movie: Vinod Chopra and Sudhir Mishra, and supposedly cast Mr. V. Chopra as a bit player in one of the legendary end sequences (in that same Hindi film; I don’t recall that performance, but Wikipedia does make this last claim).
        Yup, that Mr. V. Chopra (the producer of P.K. – adjusted for inflation, the highest Hindi film of this century so far, according to this forum) and that Mr. S. Mishra (maker of Chameli – otherwise known as the movie that showed the world that Ms. Kareena Kapoor is one of the greatest actors in Hindi films – and Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi – whereby ensuring that the stunning physical beauty of Ms. Chitrangadha Singh was captured on celluloid) first became famous because creating their namesakes in a movie made on a modest budget was Mr. K. Shah’s idea of worthwhile humor.
        Regards.

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