Kundan Shah (1947-2017): The man who found laughter in woe is no more

Kundan Shah’s credits include ‘Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro’, ‘Nukkad’ and ‘Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa’.

Punching down is the stuff of slapstick, and most Indian comedies are all about slapstick humour. Kundan Shah took the position of the hapless Indian underdog and punched up at the establishment. His heroes were lower-middle income men trying to get by, and sometimes get back, at institutional injustice. No wonder then that the seminal Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro (1983), a great departure from slapstick comedies at the time, came from Shah.

The 70-year-old filmmaker, who also co-directed the television shows Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi (1984), Nukkad (1986-’88), Manoranjan (1987) and Wagle Ki Duniya (1988-’90) and the films Kabhi Haa Kabhi Naa (1994) and Kya Kehna (2000), died of a heart attack in his sleep in Mumbai on Saturday.

Born in a Gujarati family, the commerce graduate did not go off script till he decided to study direction at the Film and Television Institute of India in the 1970s. As an undergraduate in 1968, Shah had idled about for a year until his building secretary goaded him: “Tu kya Romeo ki tarah pura din ghoomte rahta hai? Life mein kuch karne ka ya nahin?” (‘Why do you keep roaming around all day like a Romeo? Don’t you want to do something with your life?), according to Jai Arjun Singh’s book Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro: Seriously Funny Since 1983.

A voracious reader but not a film buff yet, Shah began applying for jobs in publishing houses. He worked at the Popular Prakashan publishing company before applying to the institute on a friend’s recommendation.

Kundan Shah.

At the institute, Shah found his muse – comedy. He studied the silent comedies of Charlie Chaplin and the Marx brothers. His experiments with humour culminated in the 23-minute nearly silent diploma film Bonga, a nonsensical mishmash of comedic elements with the gangster genre.

His peers Saeed Mirza and Naseeruddin Shah were surprised that such a seemingly serious man had come up with something as loony as Bonga. As revealed in Singh’s book, Shah’s frequent collaborators wouldn’t say that he was a funny person himself.

“I’m not too interested in humour for its own sake, though, of course, I respect those with the talent to make others laugh—that’s an art in itself. But personally I use it as a medium, a vessel.”

— Kundan Shah.

Shah struggled for the next few years trying to meet ends meet like most of his batchmates. Among those who stuck it out without returning to their hometowns were two friends who opened a photo studio and became industrial photographers. Their financial woes and tragicomic routines, coupled with Shah’s own harrowing experience of dealing with ration offices and government officers in Mumbai, became the genesis of Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro. He turned down the offer to assist Richard Attenborough on Gandhi (1982) and concentrated on writing the script even as Mirza had already made two films and Vidhu Vinod Chopra was on his way to making his first.

Made on a shoestring budget of Rs seven lakhs, Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro was released in 1983 after being stuck in the cans for a year. The film found critical attention but not a substantial audience. However, Shah won the National Award for Best First Film of a Director.

Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro (1983).

Shortly after the film’s release, Shah along with others directed one of Doordarshan’s first and most popular sitcoms, Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi, written by satirist Sharad Joshi. Shah went on to direct more acclaimed television series, including Nukkad and Wagle Ki Duniya.

While Nukkad, featuring an ensemble cast, dealt with the daily struggles of Mumbai residents living a hand to mouth existence, Wagle Ki Duniya was based on RK Laxman’s Common Man cartoons and told the story of high-strung sales clerk Srinivas Wagle (Anjan Srivastav). Though these shows lacked the latent anger of Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro, they carried the running thread of Shah’s preoccupation with the “little person” and his travails established in his debut feature.


Shah’s only film in the 1990s was the coming-of-age romantic film Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa. Shah Rukh Khan, yet to make his mark, played the manchild Sunil, who is hopelessly in love with the town beauty Anna (Suchitra Krishnamoorthi). Riding on Shah’s strengths of crafting humour out of middle-class anxieties, and particularly Jatin Lalit’s hit music, the film was a box office success.

Aana Mere Pyaar Ko, Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa (1994).

Over the next decade, Shah churned out a series of family-friendly and comedy-laced social dramas that were devoid of the rage and desperation present in Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro. Shah was planning to make a sequel. “There are a lot many Tarnejas now in comparison to when Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro got made,” Kundan Shah said in 2015, referring to the corrupt builder character Tarneja (Pankar Kapoor) from the movie.

The sequel never materialised. Naseeruddin Shah wrote in 2008, “Maybe his (and I shrink from using this weighty term) world view has changed with his subsequent monetary success, which, though well-deserved, has perhaps severed his connections with his muse: the underbelly of life. He does seem removed from the position of nervy onlooker and underdog and placed in one of repute and responsibility.”

In between, Kundan Shah directed the sombre drama Teen Behenein (2011), about three sisters who commit suicide because their parents cannot afford their dowries. The film has not been released in theatres till date. His final film was the political satire P Se PM Tak (2015), about a prostitute who arrives in a town during election season and ends up becoming the chief minister. It flopped and was quickly forgotten.

In a career spanning a little over three decades, Shah could have produced more. In 2002, when asked about the reason for the six-year gap between Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro and Kya Kehna, Shah said that the film industry has not always been willing to accept his vision. “I can only make what I can make, the rest I cannot,” he said.

Kundan Shah.
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Changing the conversation around mental health in rural India

Insights that emerged from discussions around mental health at a village this World Mental Health Day.

Questioning is the art of learning. For an illness as debilitating as depression, asking the right questions is an important step in social acceptance and understanding. How do I open-up about my depression to my parents? Can meditation be counted as a treatment for depression? Should heartbreak be considered as a trigger for deep depression? These were some of the questions addressed by a panel consisting of the trustees and the founder of The Live Love Lough Foundation (TLLLF), a platform that seeks to champion the cause of mental health. The panel discussion was a part of an event organised by TLLLF to commemorate World Mental Health Day.

According to a National Mental Health Survey of India 2015-16, conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS), common mental disorders including depression, anxiety disorders and substance use disorders affect nearly 10% of the population, with 1 in 20 people in India suffering from depression. The survey reported a huge treatment gap, a problem that is spread far and wide across urban and rural parts of the country.

On 10th of October, trustees of the foundation, Anna Chandy, Dr. Shyam Bhat and Nina Nair, along with its founder, Deepika Padukone, made a visit to a community health project centre in Devangere, Karnataka. The project, started by The Association of People with Disability (APD) in 2010, got a much-needed boost after partnering with TLLLF 2 years ago, helping them reach 819 people suffering from mental illnesses and spreading its program to 6 Taluks, making a difference at a larger scale.


During the visit, the TLLLF team met patients and their families to gain insights into the program’s effectiveness and impact. Basavaraja, a beneficiary of the program, spoke about the issues he faced because of his illness. He shared how people used to call him mad and would threaten to beat him up. Other patients expressed their difficulty in getting access to medical aid for which they had to travel to the next biggest city, Shivmoga which is about 2 hours away from Davangere. A marked difference from when TLLLF joined the project two years ago was the level of openness and awareness present amongst the villagers. Individuals and families were more expressive about their issues and challenges leading to a more evolved and helpful conversation.

The process of de-stigmatizing mental illnesses in a community and providing treatment to those who are suffering requires a strong nexus of partners to make progress in a holistic manner. Initially, getting different stakeholders together was difficult because of the lack of awareness and resources in the field of mental healthcare. But the project found its footing once it established a network of support from NIMHANS doctors who treated the patients at health camps, Primary Healthcare Centre doctors and the ASHA workers. On their visit, the TLLLF team along with APD and the project partners discussed the impact that was made by the program. Were beneficiaries able to access the free psychiatric drugs? Did the program help in reducing the distance patients had to travel to get treatment? During these discussions, the TLLLF team observed that even amongst the partners, there was an increased sense of support and responsiveness towards mental health aid.

The next leg of the visit took the TLLLF team to the village of Bilichodu where they met a support group that included 15 patients and caregivers. Ujjala Padukone, Deepika Padukone’s mother, being a caregiver herself, was also present in the discussion to share her experiences with the group and encouraged others to share their stories and concerns about their family members. While the discussion revolved around the importance of opening up and seeking help, the team brought about a forward-looking attitude within the group by discussing future possibilities in employment and livelihood options available for the patients.

As the TLLLF team honoured World Mental Health day, 2017 by visiting families, engaging with support groups and reviewing the successes and the challenges in rural mental healthcare, they noticed how the conversation, that was once difficult to start, now had characteristics of support, openness and a positive outlook towards the future. To continue this momentum, the organisation charted out the next steps that will further enrich the dialogue surrounding mental health, in both urban and rural areas. The steps include increasing research on mental health, enhancing the role of social media to drive awareness and decrease stigma and expanding their current programs. To know more, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of The Live Love Laugh Foundation and not by the Scroll editorial team.