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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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