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Khalid Mohamed flashbacks to actor-director-producer-writer-lyricist Manoj Kumar, the original Mr Bharat

Manoj Kumar as Bhagat Singh in Shaheed (1965)

Either you were apprehensive about the lavish productions which he wrote, edited and directed, as strident calls for patriotism.

We have that inherent nationalist fervour unconditionally. Why was he bludgeoning that theme constantly?

Or we were wont to view them repeatedly for their entertainment vigour, stirring dialogue, fluid photography, chartbusting music scores, the instant draw towards A-list actors, and their lengthy running time touching three hours which assured full value for the price of a ticket.

For starters, Manoj Kumar was an adequate actor, influenced majorly by Dilip Kumar (it was a bit of a chortle to see them crossing acting swords in Aadmi and Kranti)

On another note, it was no secret that Manoj Kumar had often ghost-written the dialogue and script situations of the films he had acted in (for instance, Asha Parekh has vouched for the fact that he contributed considerably, in the last-minute writing alterations to Raj Khosla’s Do Badan, 1966, insisting on a tragic ending).

Moreover, he did tackle topical and controversial subjects – like the abysmal condition of the farmers, the widening gap between the underprivileged and the cash barons, noise pollution, the growing fascination for migrating to the First World Countries –  during the prime of his career as a director. Ergo, he cannot be cavalierly ignored, whatever your overview may be of him.

He was born Harikishan  Giri Goswami in 1937 to a Brahmin family in Abbotabad (now in Khyber Pakhtunwala, Pakistan). With the partition, when he was 10, the family moved to Delhi, where he completed school and graduated from Hindu College with a B.A. degree. But the lure of a film career impelled him to move to Bombay.

He named himself Manoj Kumar after the character portrayed by Dilip Kumar in B.Mitra’s Shabnam (1949), a barely passable copy of the Stewart Granger American film Caravan about a struggling writer.

After a Herculean struggle, Manoj Kumar made his debut in the forgettable Fashion (1957), followed by the equally mediocre Sahara (1958),Chand (1959) and Honeymoon (1960). He landed his first leading role in Kaanch ki Gudiya (1961), Piya Milan KiAas (1961), Suhag Sindoor (1961) and Reshmi Roomal (1961). Although none of them were commercially successful, he had made his screen presence felt.

The knuckle hard knocks changed in 1962 when he starred in Vijay Bhatt’s Hariyali aur Raasta opposite Mala Sinha, followed by Shaadi, (1962), Dr Vidya (1962) and Grahasti (1963).

His big ticket turned out to be Raj Khosla’s mystery thriller Woh Kaun Thi? (1964) with Sadhana, thanks to its taut script and Madan Mohan’s inspired music score including the tracks Lag Jaa Gale and Naina Barse Rimjhim, both  rendered superbly by Lata Mageshkar. 

Although Shammi Kapoor had already essayed the same role two years ago, Manoj Kumar was on the roll in 1965, with a biopic of the Independence revolutionary Bhagat Singh. Directed by S. Ram Sharma, it was lauded by the then Prime Minister of India, Lal Bahadur Shastri. And there was no looking back after the whopper successes of the romantic musical Himalay ki God Mein and Raja Nawathe’s iconic whodunit Gumnaam.

Next year, he forged ahead by reuniting  for Do Badan, that doomed love story with Raj Khosla, still cherished for songs composed by  Ravi, like   Raha Gardishon Mein , Jab Chali Thandi Hawa and Lo Aa Gayi Unki Yaad.

Plus, he scored another success with Shakti Samanta’s breezy Sawan ki Ghata (1966),which paired him with  Sharmila Tagore. Patthar ke Sanam (1967), with Waheeda Rehman, was yet another upper. As an actor of escalating popularity, he eventually founded his own production banner Vishal International Films.

To cut to the present, even while Manoj Kumar – eventually nicknamed Mr Bharat - at the age of 86, the Dadasaheb Phalke awardee (2016) is in and out of hospital because of his fluctuating health. Meanwhile, the patented brand of cinema of patriotic fervour, which he acted in, wrote and directed, has been witnessing a galloping revival over time.

Manoj Kumar & Zeenat Aman in Roti Kapada aur Makan (1974)

On August 15, 2018, the Indian Independence Day, two films with nationalism as their central theme released. But were Reema Kagti's Gold, showcasing Akshay Kumar, and Milap Milan Zaveri's Satyameva Jayate, toplined by John Abraham and Manoj Bajpayee, remotely comparable to the repertoire of the trendsetting veteran? Sorry to say, they weren’t.

While Gold travelled back in time to recall India's first gold medal win by its field hockey team at the 1948 Olympics, Satyameva Jayate revolved around a vigilante combating ongoing corruption in the highest echelons of law enforcement. In terms of quality, Gold was a notch or two above the mind-bashing Satyameva Jayate. Yet, given their timing and star power, both the films were welcomed by the audience with open arms, toting up impressive ticket sales.

In the new millennium, there have been quite a few premium quality Bollywood mainstream films focusing on the nationalist spirit. Count among them, Ashutosh Gowariker's Lagaan (2001) and Swades (2004), Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra's Rang De Basanti (2006) and Shimit Amin's Chak De! India (2007), with which, incidentally, Gold shared a similar script palette but paled majorly by comparison.

Quite steadily, in the vein of yesteryear's Mr Bharat, Akshay Kumar has been consolidating the image of a hero determined to address socio-political issues, courtesy a rapid series of cause-oriented films like Baby (2015), Airlift (2016), Rustom (2016; not surprisingly, he bagged the Best Actor National Award for this one), Toilet: Ek Prem Katha (2017) and Pad Man (2018).

John Abraham, abandoning the thrillers and comedies he was identified with, joined the let's-do-right-by-our-nation with Madras Café (2013), Parmanu: The Story of Pokhran (2018) and the aforecited Satyameva Jayate, and continues to do, as they say, more of the same.

Salman Khan, too, has attempted to showcase himself as a champion of the national cause, with crowd-pleasing results in Bajrangi Bhaijaan (2015) and as a secret agent in Ek Tha Tiger (2012) and its sequels Tiger Zinda Hai (2017) and Tiger 3 (2024).

Shah Rukh Khan has parachuted into the same groove with Pathan and Jawan (2024). If action, in these instance, has been both the Khans’ forte, Manoj Kumar's was his power of persuasion, articulated through rooted-in-the soil plots and rousing dialogue. On streaming channels biopics of freedom fighter Usha Mehta(Ae Watan Mere Watan with Sara Ali Khan) and Main Atal Hoon (Pankaj Tripathi as Atal Behari Vajpayee), have become as regular as rain.

At his peak, during the 1960s and '70s, Manoj Kumar appeared to be overwhelmingly influenced by the Nehruvian ideal of a progressive, industrialised India. His most significant stories told of polarised conflicts between characters who believed in moral codes versus those who had gone wayward. 

It  goes without saying that it was always inevitable that the actor would turn to direction, which he did with Upkar (1967). Dedicated to the upliftment of farmers as advocated by Lal Bahadur Shastri - derived from the slogan ‘Jai Jawaan, Jai Kisaan' (long live the soldier, long live the farmer) - the moralistic hero here clashed against a self-centred brother, played by Prem Chopra, steeped in debauched values (clubbing, drinking, womanising). Through intercuts of the simple rural versus the flashy urban lifestyles during the song sequence Gulabi Raat Gulabi, the point was effectively underscored.

Manoj Kumar's approach may have been annoyingly simplistic but yet impactful. Although the lines of dialogue verged on the bombastic, at least they didn't ever lapse into Hinglish, the excessively jingoistic and the ungrammatical.

The persisting hangover of the British Raj was critiqued in Purab Aur Paschim (1970), its awkward aspect being a mini-skirted, blonde, drinking, smoking, ultra-westernised lead female protagonist, Saira Banu. Clashes between the excessively privileged and the marginalised were detailed in Roti Kapda Aur Makaan (1974), what with its graphic rape scene featuring Moushumi Chatterjee, and Zeenat Aman, representing the uber upper class singing away Hai Hai Yeh Majboori, in pouring rain, to a beneath her social-status Manoj Kumar.

Saira Banu & Manoj Kumar in Purab aur Paschim (1970)

A common man's struggle to make ends meet in a fast-paced city, coming apart at its seams, became the springboard for Shor (1972). And the  multi-starrer period extravaganza Kranti (1981) paid homage to the courage of the 19th century freedom fighters.

Indeed, one of the first to design multi-starrers, Mr Bharat also displayed a flair for technical craftsmanship and extracting top-of-the-charts music scores, particularly from Kalyanji-Anandji and Laxmikant-Pyarelal. In fact, his elaborate song picturisations went on to be brazenly imitated.

Manoj Kumar & Jaya Bhaduri in Shor (1972)

Success, however, can breed excess. The actor-filmmaker repeated his chosen formula till it became predictable and off-putting. In addition, since the 'angry young man', anti-Establishment persona symbolised by Amitabh Bachchan became a mega-phenomenon in the mid-‘70s, the patriot was left out in the freezing cold.

From someone who had delivered ground-breaking, reformist entertainers, a plainly tacky follow-up like Clerk (1989), among other commercial disasters, was laughed off the screen, and is mocked as one of the most unintentionally, howlarious comedies ever.Incidentally, the Pakistani star couple, Mohammad Ali and Zeba,were part of the supporting ensemble.

The attempt to encourage his son, Kunaal Goswami, as a hero, paired with Sridevi no less,in Kalaakar (1983), and then a role in Kranti, backfired unfortunately. Kunaal is now said to be running a catering business in Delhi. Similarly, Manoj Kumar’s brother, Rajiv Goswami, couldn’t make it in B-town despite a bunch of films, including Painter Babu (1983), co-featuring Meenakshi Seshadri.

With creative decline and age, Manoj Kumar isolated himself, speaking only when spoken to. However, when choreographer-turned-director Farah Khan spoofed his acting mannerisms in Om Shanti Om (2007), he expressed his displeasure in the media and threatened to take her and producer Shah Rukh Khan to court. The embarrassing episode was subsequently sorted amicably.

On the few occasions I had met Manoj Kumar at his bungalow in Santa Cruz, he was stoic and even buoyant about returning to the studios for his last hurrah. Try to visit him at hospital today, and he apologises, "Wait till I'm a bit more better please."

That today's screen patriots – be it Vicky Kaushal in Uri, Sunny Deol in the two Gaddars, the trinity of Khans and Akshay Kumar in a spate of films -owe much to Manoj Kumar.Perhaps that will never be acknowledged. After all, the showbiz credo is 'out of sight, out of mind'.

Of the sporadic announcements of a comeback by the original Mr Bharat, none has materialised. The last time he was seen on big screen was in a sidebar role in the barely-remembered Maidan-E-Jung (1995). One of his long-cherished dreams has been to direct his personally-authored script Naya Bharat. Would the Old School of patriotism connect with the audience today? After all, there are innumerable players in the arena which the actor-producer-writer-lyricist-director was once solely identified with. His political beliefs have witnessed a shift too; with the necessity of the times, he officially joined Bharatiya Janta Party before the 2004 general elections.

Over a ‘phone chat Manoj Kumar had said to me quite matter-of-factly, "It's not as if I have any copyright claims over the name Bharat. Anyone and everyone is Bharat. I am happy that superstars like Salman Khan, Akshay Kumar, Ajay Devgn and Vicky Kaushal are playing heroes who can bring about a social awakening, a new dawn, a Naya Bharat (new India)."


Khalid Mohamed is a Mumbai based film critic, screenwriter, producer & filmmaker

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