The trope of a big city has always been a cornerstone of Hindi cinema right from its early days until now. The big city either represented as a force of good or evil, has had an overwhelming narrative attached to it. It transforms lives for good or for better and is either serenaded or cussed at in Hindi film songs. In narrative it forms the background, mostly to establish the mise en scène, a stage where all the acts and plots are played out. Cinematography-wise it is chiefly its iconography which is evoked usually by representing an oft-repeated collection of images. These images include certain iconic monuments, buildings or other places mostly serving as a backdrop. Both the narrative and iconography are executed in a way that makes the identification of the city obvious and identifiable.
The kind of representation of the big city in the story and iconography in these films tends to follow a set template. There are few distinct plots and iconography which are identified with particular cities and are employed invariably in most films. Mumbai which is arguably the most frequently represented city in Hindi cinema has few usual narratives associated with it including the underworld, struggles of Bollywood, fashion industry and a hectic lifestyle. Similarly, when it comes to iconography of Mumbai there are few images which are mobilised frequently such as the CST terminus, local trains, Juhu beach, Marine Drive and the recent addition, the Sea Link. In both these scenarios both the narrative and iconography tend to stick to the template and lack a dynamic engagement with the city rendering the task of a new imagination highly unlikely.
One film however stands apart in representing Mumbai and doing so the trope of the “big city” as well. 1983 classic comedy, “Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro” directed by Kundan Shah and written by Ranjit Kapoor, remains an exception in the new wave movement. A comedy unlike the serious cinema usually associated with the movement, this film nevertheless took up political and economic issues like not many before or even after it. Employing both the farcical-improvisational as well as a scripted form of comedy, this film dealt with the idea of “big city” and Mumbai in particular in a very different way.
The big city was represented differently than others, first and foremost through the narrative. The heroes of the film, Sudhir and Vinod played by Ravi Vaswani and Naseer Uddin Shah, are two broke photographers who are not new to the city unlike the protagonists in most films made on big cities and yet are unfamiliar with how the nexus of politics and business operate in the city. This point of view allowed relatability for the audiences belonging to middle and lower middle classes who in their struggle to thrive or even survive, remain oblivious to how rich and powerful run and operate their respective cities. All the murky scenarios of the real estate sector of the city (the focal point of the film) are revealed to the audiences through these two characters.
Even though the film is made in Mumbai the story remains allegorical in scope across space (especially hyper-urbanised metropolitans and upcoming cities) and time (the film remains uniquely relevant even today). Thus, Mumbai plays a character in the film, that of a “big city” which is witnessing rapid economic activity and attracts profit seeking business dealings and alongside corrupt officials seeking to benefit from this rat race. In fact, in most instances barring one or two there are no references explicitly made to Mumbai, rather the phrase “this city” is used increasing the allegorical quotient of the film.
Also, the story of the film was inspired by events and issues from the city itself but these were not singular or unique in nature. The issues of collapse of a flyover, the drainage problem, the cement black marketing addressed in the film were, as Shah reveals, all inspired from the real events of Mumbai. But as one notices these issues were and even now are prevalent in most metropolitan and even upcoming cities. This kind of inductive-deductive approach in writing of a film is rare and shows the brilliance of the writer-director duo behind the film.
But in a film, the narrative is only as strong as the way it is shot. It is here that one witnesses the success of the film in reimagining the iconography of Mumbai and ways to mobilise it. This is particularly challenging since Mumbai as a cityscape has perhaps been used the most in Hindi cinema rendering possibilities of reimagination few and far between.
One of the most important aspects about camera work which impacts the narrative is the use of vertical camera work. There are two point of views communicated, one being through bottom-up and the other through top-down shots. The former are employed when the real estate landscape is introduced in the film as the reality of real estate tycoon Tarneja, played by Pankaj Kapoor, is being revealed to Sudhir and Vinod. A montage of towering images of skyscrapers and tall buildings of Mumbai is introduced with a background narration about the corrupt dealings of Tarneja. Thus, through Sudhir and Vinod audiences are made to realise that behind tall buildings and towers which are associated readily with the narrative of development and urbanisation there is a world of murky dealings and corruption in the real estate sector.
On the other hand top down shots are used to communicate a self-reflexive perspective for the audiences witnessing the common public situated in a big city. In a series of shots featuring Tarneja’s press interaction with some reporters, the camera zooms out to show a sea of common public walking across a street while in the background we hear the narration about the reality of the city vis-à-vis its stark socio-economic inequalities and the deplorable condition in which masses are forced to live.
What is also noticeable is that in both these shots a socio-economic imagination of Mumbai is portrayed by featuring its architecture and living scenery and yet none of Mumbai’s landmarks or familiar imagery are displayed. Common public remains a part of many other scenes in the film, which shows a dynamic engagement with the city in the neo-realist tradition of new wave cinema.
Besides the realistic portrayal there was also artistic scripting of scenes innovatively using Mumbai’s landscape. A theme to portray a stark contrast between the plush opulence and conspiracies being hatched in the city, could be discerned in multiple scenes. In one of the early scenes in the film Commissioner De Mello played by Satish Shah and Tarneja along with his associates played by Satish Kaushik and Neena Gupta are discussing their plans to cut corners in the building bylaws to illegally allow the latter to construct additional stories in one of his buildings. The first part of the scene is set on a revolving open roofed crane usually found in constructions sites. As the four characters discuss their sinister plans the crane rotates with tall buildings and Mumbai’s vast landscape visible in the background. In the following part, as the scene continues, we see the dark silhouettes of the four characters walking through an unfinished building with the naturally illuminated beautiful landscape of Mumbai visible behind as they continue their conversation from before.
Similarly, in one of the latter scenes where Sudhir and Vinod have found the dead body of the murdered commissioner under a flyover we see the well-lit flyover in the backdrop as the two reporters are mulling over their plans to expose the murderers, sitting beneath the bridge. These scenes are just a few examples of how Mumbai’s dazzling scenes are contrasted with the revelations of corruption and crimes.
There is also an attempt to portray alternative imaginations to those themes which are usually associated with Mumbai as a city. For instance in the scene featuring the flyover discussed above, we see the posters of movies pasted on the sides of the pillars of the bridge behind Sudhir and Vinod. These posters instead of featuring the then mainstream Hindi film superstars like Amitabh Bachchan, Rekha, Jitendra or Sridevi, reference new wave cinema by displaying images of a film like Chirutha starring Deepti Naval. The penultimate scene shot in both on and off stage of a shoddy, local theatre staging a poorly performed scene of Mahabharata with broke and unrehearsed actors reveals another hidden crevasse of Hindi thespian world with a hysterically funny and improvisational comedy sequence.
All in all, Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro provides a string of images from Mumbai which provides a different reality of the city than what is usually portrayed in Hindi cinema. This imagination interacts with the common public, contrasts excesses in form of wants and opulence with conspiracies and reimagines narratives commonly associated with the city. In doing so it uses Mumbai’s landscapes which are usually not witnessed in Hindi cinema in a way that does not make the city too identifiable but rather leaving it open for an allegorical reading. But most importantly it provided a point of view which connects common people’s perspective about a big city with that of the audiences while making this imagination of the city relevant across time and space. If Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro still remains a cult classic it is because its narrative and cinematography worked in beautiful synchronisation with each other such that what hints and clues were sought to be given by its writing were effectively communicated with its camera work as well.
(This article is inspired by discussions among members of Opinion Tandoor Film Appreciation Club).