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Remembering Ravi Baswani, the theatre maestro and ‘cement’ of Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron

From Delhi to Bombay, theatre to cinema, Ravi Baswani remained an actor’s actor.

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New Delhi: Many remember Ravi Baswani as the man who had a picture of Marlon Brando hung on a wall in his Connaught Place home. Many might remember him by the different characters he played on stage, celluloid or television. From the college-going Jomo in Chashme Buddoor (1981) to Kumar Bhairav, the struggling actor who latched onto the Pathak sisters in the Doordarshan TV show Idhar Udhar (1985), to the first victim of the scammer couple in Bunty Aur Babli (2005), he assumed different avatars with panache.

But most of all, he is remembered as Sudhir Mishra, the incorrigible photographer in Kundan Shah’s classic Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro (1983).

“To me, Ravi was Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro,” Kundan Shan, director of the film, once said. “He was the comic cement of the film. When I got him on board, I knew that a key component had been taken care of.”

Today, Baswani would have been 73 years old. ThePrint takes a look at his life, his finest comic moments and his legacy.

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From Bombay to Delhi, theatre to film

Born on 29 September 1946, Baswani was a Dilliwala who developed his acting skills during his time at Delhi University, where he was part of Kirori Mal College’s dramatic society.

“I first met him at St Stephens College. He had been invited to direct a play, Ballabpur Ki Roop Katha. It was a major hit,” recounts photographer and Museo Camera founder Aditya Arya to ThePrint. “That time Stephens was known for its Shakespeare society. Hindi plays were not popular there, but he came and turned it around,” he adds.

Even though Baswani did not receive formal training as an actor, he was extremely self-driven. He regularly hung out with students from the National School of Drama and was a charismatic and active member of Delhi’s thriving theatre scene. He even had a brief stint teaching theatre at the elite Modern School, Barakhamba Road in New Delhi in the early 70s.

Being a Delhi boy through and through, Baswani was initially reluctant to go to Bombay (now Mumbai) to pursue his dreams. “I worked as a management trainee after college…I thought if cinema was ever going to be a part of my life it would come to me”, Baswani once told Jai Arjun Singh, the author of Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro: Seriously Funny Since 1983.

It was through the Delhi theatre circuit that Baswani got to know Naseeruddin Shah. When Naseeruddin was preparing for his role as a blind man in Sai Paranjpye’s movie Sparsh (1980), Baswani read the script of the film and knew at once that he too wanted to be in it. “I was so impressed that I told Naseer I have to be involved with this film, even if it meant working as his personal spot boy,” Singh remembers Baswani saying.

He managed to land a job in the production department of Sparsh, but it wasn’t long before he won over Paranjpye, who eventually offered him his first role via a handwritten note: “How about doing a role in my new film Dhuan Dhuan? It’s a super-duper comic role with miles & miles of footage. A star crazy, movie crazy pal of the hero Farooq Sheikh”, she wrote. “If it is yes, come to Bombay for a ‘do’ on the 3rd Sept. Rajdhani will be paid to and fro….If you can’t come to Bombay, it’s okay. But I must know very quick”.

And just like that, Baswani got his debut role in the film that was eventually called Chashme Buddoor. The rest is history.

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Improvising through the chaos of Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro

Baswani’s role as the girl-crazy bachelor Jai aka Jomo in Chashme Buddoor caught the eye of director Kundan. This led him to the defining role of his career – the comical photographer Sudhir Mishra in Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro (1983) that won him the Filmfare Award for Best Comedian in 1984. Incidentally, his character was named after director Sudhir Mishra, who was then an assistant director of the film.

Looking back, Kundan had once admitted that the making of black comedy was riddled with conflicts and altercations. “It’s so ironic that behind the funniest film ever made, tempers were so high”, recalls Arya, who had come on board to take stills for the film and stayed with Baswani for the duration of the shoot.

“There was no money. The film was made in merely 5.5 lakhs,” he says, referring to the modest budget that the National Film Development Corporation (NFDC) had provided for it.

Actors would get impatient when lunch wouldn’t arrive, and Kundan would get upset when the actors took many takes, fearing they would run out of expensive film stock. Arya remembers how Naseeruddin, Satish Kaushik and Baswani would often get into arguments while trying to work out scenes.

There were constant improvisations, which often led to delays and arguments about things being “illogical”. The absurdity of the film had to constantly be gauged, the question “Yeh kya ho raha hai?”, a line that is now the mainstay of the film’s most hilarious ‘Draupadi‘ scene, would repeatedly come up, says Arya.

But owing to his theatre background, Baswani was an extremely skilled improvisational actor. In these moments, it was Baswani who would prove the morale booster for the entire cast and crew, his confidence and natural talent for comedy shining through. According to Singh, Baswani was one of the few people who was sold on the film just after reading the script for the first time. He related to the material completely and understood all the satirical undertones.

The film may have flopped in theatres at the time, but it received immense critical acclaim and remains a cult classic till date. “It is a matter of pride that you were involved in a film like this. There’s no doubt about that,” Baswani had said in an interview.

“A unique responsibility fell on you in doing something like this. It’s a very nice feeling that you have been part of the cinema of a film which, 25-26 years later on is still talked of as today, or yesterday,” he had added.

Baswani was not only sarcastic, quick-witted and full of puns on screen but he also carried his dry humour with him onto the streets, into real life. Constantly observing those around him, he would try out different characters. “Sometimes we’d wonder if he’s still the same guy, or if he’s practising on us,” says Arya.

Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro and Chashme Buddoor remained the highlights of his career, and even though he continued to get work, there was never again a breakout lead role that could trump the appreciation he received with his first two films.

David Dhawan dedicated his 2013 remake of Chashme Buddoor to Baswani. Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro, which was digitally restored and re-released in 2012 to enthusiastic audiences, will also see a remake soon. Baswani was in the process of directing his own film when he passed away in 2010 while scouting for locations for shoots. He was 63 at the time.

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