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December 29, 1997


Funny face

V S Srinivasan

Mehmood. Click for bigger pic!
Mehmood is one of the best-known comedians of India. Both praised and reviled for his various performances, Bhaijaan as he is better known, first made his mark as a villain in Guru Dutt's CID and Pyaasa. But he found his niche with his role as a comedian in Sasuraal. The years are showing now, lining the face, bleaching the hair, leaving a tired old man to tell his funny story.

Mehmood was born in Nagpada Neighbourhood House at Byculla, son of Mumtaz Ali, himself a comedian who had even played hero in Jeevan Prabhat opposite Devika Rani.

"I used to tag along with my father when he went to the studios even when I was a five-year-old," he recalls. By the time he was eight, the family had shifted from Nagpada to Malad, closer to where Bombay Talkies was located. "I liked going along with him but I didn't want to become an actor...

A massive Dobermann sits close at hand, tongue lolling out of open mouth as the old man marshals his thoughts.

"I used to fly kites, play with top, steal mangoes, tamarind and kaju (cashew) from the neighbours when we used to go to our village. In fact in Mumbai, (You better write Mumbai) I even had a gang of my own... The Golden Gang."

With Laila on the sets of Dushman Duniya Ka. Click for bigger pic!
Mehmood was a precocious child, even knowing to drive at eight though the police never caught him at it. It was at the same age that he began doing bit roles. But it took till CID and Pyaasa before he found recognition. Followed by Abhimaan, Sasuraal and Choti Behan.

After a long and not always illustrious career, Mehmood decided to launch his son Manzoor in Dushman Duniya Ka. Despite Shah Rukh Khan and Salman Khan doing cameos for him free of charge, roles they came and sought of Mehmood, the film was a dud. And the effect of that failure can be seen in that tired face, in the absence of the ebullience he was famous for. He prefers to talk of the past now...

"Whenever I see myself in the mirror, I look at my big eyes and nose and wonder if I don't look like a villain. But whenever I used to come on screen they used to laugh... because I was a very good mimic. I used to entertain all my aunts and uncles, showing them how each of them walked, talked and behaved... Nutan and Pradeep Kumar used to sent their car to me at my kholi at Malad and ask me to entertain them. They wanted to laugh and I used to help them out."

But his roles still weren't very funny. It took Sasuraal for audiences and directors to discover the comedian in him.

"I was never typecast, nor did I have style of my own which one could exactly identify with," claims Mehmood. "My observation was very powerful and I was a good mimic. That made me a good comedian," he claims, notwithstanding the many mimics today who imitate his broad south Indian accent, his evocative use of eyebrows and his "lungi" jokes that tended to verge on the vulgar.

He is slow to answer questions about his closeness to Aruna Irani and Shubha Khote beyond a terse, "I had a good jodi with Aruna Irani and Shubha Khote. We generally used to be paired together as we had a great sense of timing when we acted together."

Click for bigger pic!
Press further and he begins talking about the kind of bare-chested tomfoolery that passes for comedy in comparison with what he and these actresses used to do... Draw him back gently to the same question and he slips away again like quicksilver beneath your thumb. You get it: he doesn't want to talk about it.

Oddly enough, in most of his movies his character was called Mahesh, starting with L V Prasad's Chhoti Behan, a big hit. Thereafter Prasad kept the character in all his five films. The name stuck when Mehmood worked with Pramod Chakravathy.

"I have been very fond of Shivji even as a child. I used to hang a calendar with his picture in my kholi." And when veteran actor Ashok Kumar told him there was a trishul (trident) on his forehead, Mehmood decided there was something to the name Mahesh (another name for Shiva) that spelt success. No matter he couldn't see the mark Ashok Kumar had described.

Despite those comic roles, what Mehmood liked best was mimicry.

See, my role in Sabse Bada Rupaiyya is of Tolaram Jalan of Filmistan... People who knew Tolaram Jalan could see that I was playing him. The dialogue -- "The whole thing is that -- belonged to him. I even copied his behaviour and his style of walking..."

In Humjoli, he played a triple role, playing, with naming them, Prithviraj Kapoor, his son Raj Kapoor and grandson Randhir Kapoor. "I copied Papaji's (Prithviraj Kapoor's) heavy baritone, Raj Kapoor's voice (that slid into falsetto ) and his stiff hand, and Daboo's vigorous shaking of the head. I have heard someone talk like a goat and that's what I am doing in my forthcoming film."

Call it lateral or quirky thinking, he likes to compare people to cars and trucks.

Click for bigger pic!
"There was this Ford car with a round back that used to remind me of Winston Churchill. Sometimes another car reminded me of Durga Khote or Madhubala," he laughs.

He married Meena Kumari's sister Madhuri in 1953 and divorced her in 1960. The next year he married Nancy, an American. He bought a stud farm in Bangalore and got into agriculture till he ran into some trouble with the income tax department. He sold all he had and returned to stay with his children.

In his career, he says, it was he who introduced people like Sanjeev Kumar and Amitabh Bachchan to people in the industry and who helped Vinod Khanna, till then a villain, to bag a positive role.

And, he is quick to assert, it wasn't only comedy he excelled in."I used to be good in emotional scenes too. I never had to put glycerine in my eyes. I never believed in that. In Kunwara Baap I thought about my son who actually had polio and I cried. I believe that if you cannot cry yourself you cannot make others cry."

To bring on real tears before the camera he even used to think about his parents who did not live to see his success. But movies today have slid down a long way from those high standards of authenticity.

If one shows nudity, puts a lot of swear words in it, the censors allow it to pass. I still can't understand how (Shekhar Kapur's) Bandit Queen was released. I had seen the uncensored version and it was terrible... In my times even if we used to say sala (brother-in-law, obliquely a pimp), the censors used to cut it out. We could not even call out to a policeman, "Aey havaldar." But today I see Dimple Kapadia calling a minister a bhadwa (pimp)."

Only Johny Lever, he claims, is good, essentially "because I see myself in him today. He is able to do good comedy because he is a mimic and that is why he will last the distance." Now he hopes to set up a Cine Comedian Trust with Lever.

"We will organise programmes and the proceeds will go to an orphanage or some charitable organisation. We will not take any money from that. I will try to go to the villages and tell people not to have so many children... I would like to do a lot more provided my health permits. I want to do so many things..."

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