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March 14, 1998


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The comic spirit

Heptanesia Mumbaikar

Dada Kondke. Click for bigger pic!
Thump Thump Thump, you call that music?" Dada Kondke asked me angrily. "Disco! -- that's all you hear these days. Every music director wants disco because they can't compete with Naushad or C Ramachandra. So they devise this mindless stuff. Songs that go... Aayee mein thin thak thin thak... for fifteen minutes.. then just as the record ends... you hear the next line.. Diwani Diwani. Music directors think only big orchestras can produce music. My music directors too think the same way. I said okay when they asked me for a 150-man orchestra, but insisted that they use only 35 musicians for the song. The rest, I said, would have to sit outside the recording room." As a former musician who once peddled his talent on Bombay's Tin Pan alley, Bollywood's disco craze in the early eighties made him fume.

Art films were another peeve. In another interview, published in The Illustrated Weekly of India in June 1984, he asked me why film-maker Jabbar Patel wanted to experiment with cinema. "Why does he want him to experiment with films? Let him experiment with agriculture!" Dada Kondke declared. Jabbar Patel has not spoken to me since.

For much of the last twenty years Dada Kondke was the Marathi superstar, the man with the Midas touch. Up for canonisation in the Guinness Book of World Records as the maker of the largest number of silver jubilee hits -- he never actually made the listing -- he was a garrulous man. His words came faster than an AK-56. A staccato burst punctuated with appropriate one-liners and embroidered with elaborate gestures.

When I met him, he was the toast of the masses. My encounters were constantly interrupted by fans who stormed into his sombre office at Tardeo in central Bombay. They came from all over Maharashtra to see their hero and he never disappointed them, readily agreeing to being photographed with his fans, most of whom were anxious to tell him about their favourite scenes from his films. Some came especially to invite him to weddings of their children/nephews/nieces/siblings in distant parts of the state. I have known no other star so remarkably accessible and down to earth in all my acquaintance.

''Everyone tells me I am a star and I should act like one," he told me when I interviewed him for Bombay magazine in May 1982. "My staff berate me when I call up someone who hasn't called in a long time. 'You don't do that,' they say, 'you are a star.' They tell me not to accept paan on the sets. 'You may be poisoned,' they tell me. Tell me why should I act like a star? The day I do so, it will mean that I've fallen on very bad days."

He fell on very bad days early on in life. He was born in Lalbaug, Bombay's textile quarter where people live in damp, dirty pigeonholes. ''I was a terror in Lalbaug. Anyone creating trouble would taste my wrath. Anyone teasing a girl in our mohalla? Dhadam! I was there. Soda water bottles, stones, bricks -- you name it and I've fought with it."

When he was not brawling, he survived on the Rs 60 he made every month packing groceries at Apna Bazar, the local supermarket. His route to comedy began when all his relatives, barring his elder brother, died within one particularly horrific year. "I was shattered. Why did God have to do this to me? I didn't talk to anyone for a year, ate as little as possible. I thought I was going mad and then suddenly, I decided that I would forget my sadness and make people laugh. That's how I took to comedy."

Almost simultaneously, he began playing a stellar role with one of those neighbourhood bands that played tunes like Raja ki aayegi baraat and Come September at marriages in the locality. Twenty years later he was still proud of his achievements ("I mastered every instrument there was") with the band and the lifelong friends he had made there. ''Those are among the happiest days in life," he once recalled. "I still go and meet my friends in the band. When I go to their houses, they wonder where I should sit. I tell them, 'Don't worry, I am the same person who played with you in the band,' but no one listens. I don't like it.''

The band whetted his appetite for the arclights and before long, he had played the last waltz and hit the road with a play, Icha Majhi Puri Kara (Fulfil my wish). It ran for 1,500 nights all over the state and Goa and made Kondke a star. Wherever he performed, people would flock to see him. No inn-keeper would hire rooms out to the troupe for fear that the crowds would turn violent.

The extensive touring did Kondke's comedy a world of good; it laid the foundation for his ability to entrance rural and urban audiences alike. Asha Bhosle, who never missed a Icha Majhi show in Bombay, recommended him to the legendary Marathi film-maker Balaji Pendharkar.

Throughout his career, Kondke's films were denounced for their liberal sexual innuendo, their excessive double entendre, even their titles (Andheri Raat Mein Diya Tere Haat Mein). The plots were feeble, featuring the sexual adventures of a Chaplinesque simpleton in striped shorts. Each film had little to distinguish it from the others in Kondke's oeuvre. The jokes were repeated as often as his co-star, Usha Chavan. The censors and critics may have turned apoplectic at Kondke's cinematic license and idiom, but for most of the late seventies and eighties he could do nothing wrong. Marathi audiences loved everyone of his films, making the Chawl Kid a millionaire many times over with a fancy penthouse apartment at Shivaji Park overlooking the maidan where kids like Sachin and Vinod grew up.

Kondke eventually faltered when he tried to transport his formula to Bollywood. When I first met him in the summer of '82, he had just finished a two-year search for an original script to make a grand entry in the Hindi film world. ''All the writers I met told me that the comedy would evolve somewhere in the middle of the film. I failed to see how when there are eight murders in the first reel itself. What do you get by making people cry? So I decided on a Hindi remake of my Marathi film Ram Ram Gangaram.' The film did modest business in what the Hindi film industry snootily calls B and C class centres (the boondocks literally) and further attempts in Bollywood were rebuffed by tepid audiences.

It is not that Kondke was unaware of the bizarre and byzantine ways of the Hindi film industry. ''Hindi film people are like Charan Singh," he once said. "They make a mad dash to catch your feet and later abuse you. Most of their affection comes to the fore only in public." Used as he was to the straight ways of the Marathi film industry, he was stunned by the games people in Bollywood played. ''Even if you go to an actress like Sulakshana Pandit who has no films, she will tell you she is working in 36 films. Thirty-six seems to be a favourite number in the Hindi film industry," he said wryly.

By the mid-eighties, he had turned his attention to politics and was one of the Shiv Sena's biggest cheerleaders. N T Rama Rao had then defied the pundits and become chief minister of Andhra Pradesh, and Kondke too dreamt of a bigger political role when I last interviewed him. The Shiv Sena was a year away from returning to the path of power and Kondke felt that Bal Thackeray would offer him a seat in the state legislature. "I want to be chief minister," he confessed in a moment of candour. A resident of Shivaji Park would in time become the Sena's first chief minister, but his surname would be Joshi, not Kondke.

Kondke never got a chance to add MLA to his name, and soon enough his reputation as the Marathi movie Croceus was usurped by his nephew Vijay whose weepie Maherchi Saadi became the biggest grosser in the history of Marathi cinema. Somewhere on the way, Vijay, whom Dada Kondke had proudly brandished as his heir during our interviews, had broken his uncle's heart. And in the last Kondke interview I read, he spoke with bitterness of betrayal and the death of trust.

I cannot, however, believe that Dada Kondke died a broken man. He had far too much spunk for his spirit to have been broken. True, he was lonely. The bluster hid the pathos of a man so desperate for company that he often collected a carload of people and paid for their booze, so that he would not have to travel to Pune alone. But Dada Kondke was a survivor. He was not the sort of man who would fade away like many of his contemporaries, long forgotten.

Are you not frightened of failure, I once asked him. ''Success and failure are immaterial. I don't get turned on by either. I reached my peak long ago, perhaps when I was touring Maharashtra with my play. Failure will make me more determined," he said. When he was born, he added, the pandits seeing his kundali predicted he would be a resounding failure. ''Now that's a joke, isn't it?''

Heptanesia Mumbaikar works with Rediff On The NeT.

'The undisputed king of Marathi cinema'
Dada Kondke dead

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