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The original choice for Ahuja’s role in ‘Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro’ was... not Om Puri

Pankaj Kapoor was to play the builder Ahuja, but when he was cast in the larger role of Tarneja, Om Puri made his celebrated comic debut.

Jai Arjun Singh’s definitive and hugely entertaining study of Kundan Shah’s Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro is packed with anecdotes about the making of the classic comedy. Among them is the story of how Om Puri, previously known for his deadly serious roles, got cast as the permanently drunk builder Ahuja, who is so smashed that he can’t tell the difference between a corpse in a coffin and the driver of a car.

Actually, [Pankaj] Kapoor was first hired to do the Ahuja role and was ‘promoted’ to Tarneja afterwards. This left a gaping blank space next to the name ‘Ahuja’ in the cast list.

‘Ask Om Puri,’ suggested Ranjit Kapoor.

‘Are you sure?’ Kundan said.

Puri had a reputation for being a serious young man who did serious roles. His star-making performance in parallel cinema was as the mute victim of caste exploitation in Govind Nihalani’s hard-hitting Aakrosh, a film as different in tone from Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro as it was possible to be.

But Ranjit had directed Om on the Delhi stage in Bichhu and he knew that performing comedy was well within the actor’s skill set: the role had required tremendous comic energy and many strange physical movements that no acting textbook could possibly prepare you for—it was the perfect learning curve to prepare him for Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro. Just fifteen days before shooting was scheduled to begin, Kundan approached Om for Ahuja. Om, who, like Naseer, was looking to shrug off the ‘serious actor’ tag, grabbed the opportunity. ‘I had no sense of humour at the time,’ he remembers. ‘I did not crack any jokes and was very introverted. This was a chance to prove my versatility.’

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The classic moment when Ahuja finds D’Mello’s body.

As Om searched for how best to play the character in the very limited time he had to prepare, Ranjit Kapoor suggested he give Ahuja a crass Haryanvi accent; it would certainly mark the character out from all the others. However, it wasn’t until the last moment that Om really ‘got’ his character. Art director Robin Das has an amusing recollection of watching the actor try on different moustaches in a makeshift make-up room shortly before his first rehearsals. ‘He was sticking them on, all the while muttering to himself, “Yaar, mujhe yeh character mil nahin raha.” Then suddenly, he stuck the third moustache on, looked at himself in the mirror and’—here, Das mimics Ahuja’s slurred, bucolic speech perfectly—‘grunted out loud: “Oyye, mujhe karakter mil gaya!”’

Om’s accent would bring a north Indian touch to the film. Kundan, incidentally, never approved of it, but it is appropriate in a way; Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro may be a Bombay film, but the evils depicted in it belonged to the country as a whole.

Excerpted with permission from Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro, Jai Arjun Singh, HarperCollins India.

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London then and now – As experienced by Indians

While much has changed, the timeless quality of the city endures.

“I found the spirit of the city matching the Bombay spirit. Like Bombay, the city never sleeps and there was no particular time when you couldn’t wander about the town freely and enjoy the local atmosphere”, says CV Manian, a PhD student in Manchester in the ‘80s, who made a trip to London often. London as a city has a timeless quality. The seamless blend of period architecture and steel skyscrapers acts as the metaphor for a city where much has changed, but a lot hasn’t.

The famed Brit ‘stiff upper lip, for example, finds ample validation from those who visited London decades ago. “The people were minding their business, but never showed indifference to a foreigner. They were private in their own way and kept to themselves.” Manian recollects. Aditya Dash remembers an enduring anecdote from his grandmother’s visit to London. “There is the famous family story where she was held up at Heathrow airport. She was carrying zarda (or something like that) for my grandfather and customs wanted to figure out if it was contraband or not.”

However, the city always housed contrasting cultures. During the ‘Swinging ‘60s’ - seen as a precursor to the hippie movement - Shyla Puri’s family had just migrated to London. Her grandfather still remembers the simmering anti-war, pro-peace sentiment. He himself got involved with the hippie movement in small ways. “He would often talk with the youth about what it means to be happy and how you could achieve peace. He wouldn’t go all out, but he would join in on peace parades and attend public talks. Everything was ‘groovy’ he says,” Shyla shares.

‘Groovy’ quite accurately describes the decade that boosted music, art and fashion in a city which was till then known for its post-World-War austerities. S Mohan, a young trainee in London in the ‘60s, reminisces, “The rage was The Beatles of course, and those were also the days of Harry Belafonte and Ella Fitzgerald.” The likes of The Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd were inspiring a cultural revolution in the city. Shyla’s grandfather even remembers London turning punk in the ‘80s, “People walking around with leather jackets, bright-colored hair, mohawks…It was something he would marvel at but did not join in,” Shyla says.

But Shyla, a second-generation Londoner, did join in in the revival of the punk culture in the 21st century. Her Instagram picture of a poster at the AfroPunk Fest 2016 best represents her London, she emphatically insists. The AfroPunk movement is trying to make the Punk culture more racially inclusive and diverse. “My London is multicultural, with an abundance of accents. It’s open, it’s alive,” Shyla says. The tolerance and openness of London is best showcased in the famous Christmas lights at Carnaby Street, a street that has always been popular among members of London’s alternate cultures.

Christmas lights at Carnaby Street (Source: Roger Green on Wikimedia Commons)
Christmas lights at Carnaby Street (Source: Roger Green on Wikimedia Commons)

“London is always buzzing with activity. There are always free talks, poetry slams and festivals. A lot of museums are free. London culture, London art, London creativity are kept alive this way. And of course, with the smartphones navigating is easy,” Shyla adds. And she’s onto something. Manian similarly describes his ‘80s rendezvous with London’s culture, “The art museums and places of interest were very illustrative and helpful. I could tour around the place with a road map and the Tube was very convenient.” Mohan, with his wife, too made the most of London’s cultural offerings. “We went to see ‘Swan Lake’ at the Royal Opera House and ‘The Mousetrap’ by Agatha Christie. As an overseas graduate apprentice, I also had the pleasure to visit the House of Lords and take tea on the terrace.”

For the casual stroller along London’s streets today, the city would indeed look quite different from what it would’ve to their grandparents. Soho - once a poor suburb known for its crime and sex industry - is today a fashionable district of upmarket eateries and fashion stores. Most of the big British high street brands have been replaced by large international stores and the London skyline too has changed, with The Shard being the latest and the most impressive addition. In fact, Shyla is quite positive that her grandfather would not recognise most of the city anymore.

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