Bhagwan - The little big man

V Gangadhar

Shola jo bhadke, dil mera dhadke...

Bhagwan Just a hint of the tune, and your feet move instantly. In a manner - the rolling of eyes, the slight jhataks and those little mataks - that is so typical of the most famous male dancer in the Hindi film industry.

And if you think the reference here is to Aby Baby alias Amitabh Bachchan, you've need to have a second thought coming. 'Cause the AB style of dance is not new - or unique. Bachchan was inspired into creating his dance style after he watched a short, fat, round actor move easily, in perfect syncronisation to the music of the moment.

Bhagwan's style of dance was so effervescent, the audience could not help following his tune. Be it 1952, 1962 or 1992, the impact of the songs - especially of Shola jo - from his film Albela have not changed.

I first saw the film, somewhere in the 1950's, at a theatre in Fort Cochin. Twenty years later, I saw it again. This time, it was a morning show at Bombay's Apsara cinema. And, in both theatres, the reaction was the same. The enthused audience whistled, clapped its hands, stood on the seats and generally went berserk as the lively, melodious tunes of Albela filled the hall.

This is one movie that has stood the test of time. To date, its music is a must at every Indian celebration. And urban youngsters, who are normally used to gyrating to Michael Jackson, still boogie enthusiastically to Shola jo bhadke at various discotheques.

Albela was the brainchild of ace comedian-dancer Bhagwan. In the days when he was a much sought-after member of Hindi filmdom, Bhagwan would spend a lot of time with his close pal, music director C Ramachandra. The duo would while away the hours listening to music or to Chitalkar playing the harmonium. Eventually, it would be Chitalkar and an up-and-coming Lata Mangeshkar who would record one of the all-time favourites songs of Hindi cinema - Shola jo bhadke, dil mera dhadke.

Ramachandra, who was already a famous figure in the film world, was also a very outspoken person. And he hounded Bhagwan make a film with a social theme. "I will help you," he promised. "The world will never be able to forget the music I will provide for your film." Seated in a restaurant at Churchgate, they discussed the plot of the film. And decided that the film would contain at least a dozen memorable songs.

Till then, Bhagwan had just been another filmmaker - the creation of a wide-eyed child who was fascinated by the magic of silent cinema. Even though he had his origins in the labour-dominated areas of Parel and Dadar, even though he did not know where his next meal was coming from, Bhagwan always managed to scrounge around for the seven annas that he needed to watch a film and eat some channa.

Little Bhagwan adored Master Vittal, one of the more popular heroes of the silent era. Though his movies were mainly stunt-oriented, Bhagwan was transported into a world of his own, into a world that was far away from his poverty-infested real world.

Forced to give up studies after the fourth standard, Bhagwan did a lot of odd jobs. In between, he would work out at the local gym in order to improve his physique. His aim was clear - he wanted to join the film industry.

Bhagwan Finally, he got his chance in 1930. After years of haunting the studios in the hope that he would some day be discovered, producer Siraj Ali Hakim gave him a small role in the silent film, Bewafa Aashiq. Bhagwan was so thrilled, he refused to leave the studio even after his work was completed. Nor was he ready to leave the studio even when it was time to shut down the sets for the day.

He quickly learnt all the aspects of film-making, even as he continued to act in a series of stunt film like Bahadur Kisan, Criminal and so on. Meanwhile, more and more people started expressing an interest in financing films. There was a demand for directors and Bhagwan was more than willing to try his hand.

Soon, he was wielding the megaphone for limited-budget films. "I made films for less than Rs 65,000" he recalls. "These were the kind of films where the director had to design costumes and even arrange meals for the unit. But it was worth it."

His film could not be acclaimed as great, but they were profitable ventures. The period saw a spate of action films, including Bhagwan Dada's Dosti, Jalan and Bhedi Bangala. Bhagwan was as popular a star as Fearless Nadia, and the crowds thronged the theatres for their films. But the trend was changing, a fact that was pointed out to him by Raj Kapoor. "Dada," he urged, "zamana badal gaya hai. Social picture banao."

The result was Albela - a film that was in tune with newly independent India. Both the young and the old loved it. It ran for more than 50 weeks at the theatres where it was shown. At some places, the collections even surpassed Raj Kapoor's Barsaat. It was to join the ranks of Sholay, Mother India and Ganga Jamuna as a landmark in Hindi cinema.

Albela was a simple, uncomplicated movie. A poor man (Bhagwan) from an orthodox family dreams of becoming a kalakar. His family is indifferent to his ambitions, the people who know him poke fun at his aspirations. Until the day he comes in contact with a well known female singer, portrayed by the popular Geeta Bali.

The singer recognises the tremendous talent and never-say-die spirit of the hero and encourages him. Very soon, they become a famous singing pair. Romance blossoms between the pair and the film ends on an all's-well-that-ends-well note.

Bhagwan Bhagwan, obviously, was nobody's heart-throb. Portly and slow moving, he could not compare with the heroes of his day like Raj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar or Ashok Kumar. But he was ideally cast as the simpleton who loved music and singing and was determined to make a mark. The rest was history. The film became a super hit, Bhagwan had everything he had dreamt of - money, fame, friends, luxury.

Unfortunately, he turned out to be a 'one-hit' wonder. He made Labela and Jhamela. Both films failed miserably at the box office. With failure came some bitter lessons. His large circle of friends, who lived at his expense, deserted him. He was forced to adopt a more austere way of life, to sell his cars and bungalow.

Everything changed, except his addiction to movies. Initially, Bhagwan was offered good roles in films like Mister Lambhoo and Bhagambaag. Soon, though, he only got bit roles. It became difficult to run the household. But Bhagwan was not worried; after all, he had been born and brought up in poverty.

Besides, Bhagwan could not adapt himself to the needs of modern-day Hindi cinema. Nor did he believe in looking back. Nostalgia was of no use to him. Similarly, he was not worried about the future. "Jo hoga," he shrugs, "wohi hoga."

Today, there are no bungalows. Or cars. Or close friends. Instead, the 80-something Bhagwan lives in a chawl in suburban Dadar, Bombay. His house is poorly furnished. But it is still the same house where music director Ramachandra, actor Om Prakash, lyricist Rajinder Krishan and others spent long hours weaving dreams of great movies, wonderful roles and lilting tunes.

Photographs : Courtesy Kamat Foto Flash

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