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November 22, 1997


'It's not funny'

V Gangadhar encounters Rajindernath, comedian of yesteryear.

Rajindernath. Click for bigger pic!
Watching old Hindi film comedian Rajindernath go up and down his fabulous Cuffe Parade flat was like sitting through one of his movies. He had the same, measured walk, suggesting an almost comic gravity; his expressions, his gestures, a trifle excessive. He even talked with the same animation, only the topics are different, more meaningful.

It must be admitted that most Bollywood comedians do not make intelligent conversation on screen. The script does not allow them the latitude of intelligence. In one of his most famous roles as Popatlal in Jab Pyar Kisise Hota Hai, Rajindernath wore drag throughout and kept jumping around. What kind of conversation can anyone expect from such a bloke, you asked yourself.

And when you meet him, you rue the tendency to confuse the man for his image. For Rajindernath is an intelligent, well-read, articulate individual, with definite views on a variety of subjects, especially upon the shift in moral values.

Even while busy with films and television serials, he is a popular attraction at stage shows, both in India and abroad. "Every two months or so, I am out on these shows, which are popular in London, New York, and the rest of America," he explained.

Clad in shorts and a sports shirt, Rajindernath was prepared to talk on any topic. When tea was brought in, he gently reprimanded the servant for putting in too much milk and then got on with the conversation.

We had begun discussing some television serials he had worked in when Rajindernath expressed his displeasure with most foreign serials and musical shows. He was particularly incensed by MTV and Channel [V].

"They are crude, vulgar, and propagate an alien culture. These shows are harmful to our teenagers who development an unhealthy attachment to such programmes. And this filth is going from bad to worse," he grumbled, adding that this kind of "entertainment" was unhealthy for the younger generation.

He is more upset because he has a college-going daughter, who he'd like to keep away from such values. His 22-year-old son works as a purser with Qatar Airways. The proud father showed me the photograph of the handsome young man, in his airline uniform. "He showed no interest in films and is quite happy with what he is doing," he said.

Like his father. In a career which spanned nearly 40 years, Rajindernath has acted in nearly 200 films. Now he acts infrequently in films. "Nothing is certain in today's films," he said. "The dates of release, even the titles -- everything keeps on changing."

Rajindernath's family was from Peshawar in the North Western Frontier Province, now in Pakistan. But, the family shifted to Madhya Pradesh (then called the Central Provinces). The eldest son, actor Premnath, who died sometime ago, was born in Peshawar; the rest of the children, including Rajindernath, were born in MP. Rajindernath's father retired as the inspector general of police, Rewa state, one of the Central Provinces's many princely states.

He attended various schools in the region and studied science at the Darbar College, Rewa. One of his classmates was a serious-looking thakur boy, Arjun Singh, currently an important man in the Congress hierarchy.

"We are still in touch," said Rajindernath. "Whenever I go to Delhi, I occasionally contact Arjunji."

Rajindernath played pranks through college and was often punished for it. Occasionally he acted in college plays, sometimes as a girl.

Meanwhile, elder brother Premnath was trying his luck in Bombay. He was the most handsome in the family and had the most imposing physique. Perfect hero material, said Rajindernath.

Rajindernath wasn't too interested in studies and quit college to follow his brother to Bombay.

"I too worked in most Prithvi theatre plays," he recalls, "Like Shakuntala, Pathan and others. We were one big family and I was friendly with Rajji, Shammiji (of the Kapoor clan) and the rest of the Prithvi group." His sister Krishna married Raj Kapoor and this brought the families closer.

Nice friends apart, Rajindernath had a hard time making it in Bollywood. Premnath urged him not to give up. So the greenhorn kept pegging away, doing bit roles in several films just to keep body and soul in one piece. He played the villain's sidekick in Ghulam, Begum Aur Badshah, small roles in Hum Sub Chor Hain and Premnath's own production, Prisoner of Golconda and gained some understanding of how the industry worked.

Click for bigger pic!
Finally, his luck turned in 1959 after S Mukherjee offered him a comedian's role in Dil Deke Dekho, a musical comedy with a new-look Shammi Kapoor and a new girl, Asha Parekh. The film was a superhit and Rajindernath finally found his niche - comedy.

Everyone wanted him to clown around in their films. The crowd of producers grew thicker around his house after he played the popular Popatlal in Jab Pyar Kissi Se Hota Hai. There were big banners and leading producers like Nasir Hussain, Sunil Dutt, Dev Anand, L V Prasad, G P Sippy and others seeking his brand of comedy.

And as often happens in Hindi cinema, once a comedian, you're always one. But can a comedian have any real impact on a Hindi film? He shrugs.

"The comedian is only part of the show," he explains. "His role depends on the writer, director and the producer. A film has to have good comic situations which must be an integral part of the plot."

Rajindernath pointed out that few screenwriters and directors then had a flair for comedy. He mentioned Nasir Hussain and Bappi Soni who had directed films like Jaanwar and Pyaar Mohabaat. Unfortunately, most Indian writers and producers are sober people, he said. Lacking real interest in comedy, they often tried too hard, pushing things to excess using weird situations, mannerisms or costumes.

"I mentioned his odd outfit in Jab Pyar Kisise Hota Hai. "So what?" he bristled. "It was the concept of the writer. Don't forget, the costume clicked."

Did he perform any special roles which he remembered? Rajindernath sipped his tea and pondered over the question, "There was a film I made for Gemini in the south, Teen Bahuraniyan where I had a very satisfactory role. The Train with Rajesh Khanna and Nanda was good too. And of course, Dil Deke Dekho and Jab Pyar Kisise Hota Hai. But unless the comedian's role is part of the screenplay, he can't make any impact."

Rajindernath's eyes light up when he talks about the foreign comedians whom he was drawn to.

" Arre saab," he said enthusiastically, "I have never missed any of the Laurel and Hardy films. Sitting on the 10 anna stalls, I used to laugh my guts out. Bob Hope was another favourite. In the later years, I like Peter Sellers a lot. His was sophisticated comedy."

Why didn't Hindi cinema, unlike Hollywood, offer us full-length comedies, I asked Rajindernath.

"American films cater to a world audience They can afford to make total comedy films. But our audiences are different. They want all kinds of masala in their films -- fighting, romance, songs, harassment by the mother-in-law... And, finally, a bit of comedy. Producers dare not take chances with a full-length comedy."

He agreed that some of the exceptions to this rule had fared well at the box office -- like Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi and Chupke Chupke.

Indian comedians were a varied lot, he said. Mimicry and buffoonery experts never clicked on the screen because they can't produce anything original. Mimicry experts do well in stage shows, mimicking other famous personalities. But put them in front of the cameras and ask them to do something original. They will sweat and flop."

Every Indian film comedian, said Rajindernath, had his own individual style. Just the entry of comedians like Johny Walker and Keshto Mukherjee used to arouse laugher in the audience. If Mehmood's dhoti-raising antics were a bit crude, we have to blame the director and writer for creating such a character, he said.

I referred to the gradual disappearance of the comedian from the Hindi screen. These days, the heroes and villains doubled up to do comic routines. Where did that leave the genuine comedian?

"Let them do it. Who bothers?" he snapped. "Producers want to experiment and save some money. But barring Amitabh Bachchan and Dharmendra, which other hero has a flair for comedy?" With that rhetorical question, he predicts the return of full-time comedians to the screen.

Now we step on potentially soft soil. Are comedians and other character actors treated well, I ask. Depends on how you conduct yourself and what your track record is, he replies. "I've been around for more than 35 years and I know my place in the industry. And I get due respect for my seniority and professionalism." But he is not happy at the Hindi film industry which, he said, now includes people who have no creativity, no sense of history.

"The days of Raj Kapoor, Bimal Roy, Mehboob Khan and V Shantaram are over. Today, anyone with money can be a producer," he lamented. "Even if my servant wins a big lottery he can produce a film." When Raj Kapoor's Mera Naam Joker failed, said Rajindernath, some upstarts in the industry whose films had achieved fluke success, even began lecturing Raj Kapoor on film production, he said, going on to lament the lack of respect in the younger generation.

Raj Kapoor would not smoke in front of V Shantaram and his other seniors. But today's upstarts smoke, drink and flaunt their affairs in public. 'It only shows their lack of culture and breeding. And today's producers are prepared to satisfy every whim of such upstarts," he growled.

Today, the comedian finds nothing funny in the world. Burgeoning slums and environmental pollution bother him. But he finds solace in gardening on the terraces of his flat, and travelling to interesting places in India and abroad.

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