The fast-crumbling chawl in an emaciated by-lane was a brisk 10-minute walk away from Dadar station. I had been asked by Pritish Nandy, editor of The Illustrated Weekly of India,to report on one of the most heart-stirring rags-to-riches-to-rags stories of Bombay show business.
“Don’t be soft on him. Hit him with questions on why he’s become a pauper,” was the brief, a task I could never quite relate to. “I’ll try,”I responded evasively. Needless to say, despite that caveat, I melted like a candle on seeing the diminutive actor-dancer-producer in the midst of his noon siesta on a mattress and pillow which urgently needed a wash.
The room with peeling walls and cracks was without any ventilation. A small mori (toilet space) for a bath and ablutions were right next to him. In a kitchenette at a near-distance, a young woman from the family was preparing a lunch of bhakris and aloo bhaji. “We can’t afford non-veg anymore,” shrugged his son, a photojournalist, who after days of pleading with my interviewee, had fixed the meeting. I was requested, “Please speak with him as loudly as you can, he can barely hear.”
Bhagwan Abhaji Palav, was born 1913 in Amravati, to a textile mill worker of Bombay. The son, a trained wrestler in his fledgling years, followed his father to the big city, would scale up the walls of the studios and join the queues of junior artistes to play bit roles in the silent movies.
Given the gift of the gab, Bhagwan Dada– who was never called by his full name – secured investments to produce low-cost films at about Rs 50,000 each, organizing the costumes, décor and meals for the team, himself. The quickies didn’t tote globs of money but did land him a sufficiently significant role in the silent film Criminal.
Reports of those days confirm that he co-directed his first film Bahadur Kisan with Chandrarao Kadam in 1938. From thereon till 1949, he resumed belting out more low-budget stunt capers catered for the working class, usually casting himself in the Chaplinesque mode as a slow-witted but champion hero.
Unfortunately, all of his early films were destroyed in a fire at a laboratory in a far-flung suburban laboratory. Even stray excerpts don’t exist of his money-spinner Tamil film Vana Mohini (1941).
Pause. At the Dadar kholi, “Dada get up and eat something,”the voice from the kitchen yelled. Bhagwan mumbled, “I don’t want to eat,” and continued to sleep. On being woken up forcibly, he too one look at me and groaned, “Yeh ladka kaun hai? Isko khilaa do khaana.”
The photo-journalist propped his father against the pillow and berated him like he would a child, “Stop misbehaving before a guest. You had been told that a patrakar was coming today.”
Bhagwan Dada immediately pulled a straight face. I was sitting on a chatai close to him. Sizing me up with his rheumy eyes, he laughed.“You chashmish, kya ghoor rayela hai?” he admonished me since I was cleaning the vapour off my first pair of numbered spectacles. “Have you come to my kholi to write a sad story?,” he asked me straightaway. Let me tell you, I don’t need your sympathy. Go, go away from here chashmish. Mera ek time tha, ab who khalaas ho gaya.”
Who didn’t know that? The 5’ 6”-inch puckish actor had rocked the nation by his unique dance moves to the C. Ramachandra-composed danceable songs of Albela (1951), Shola jo bhadke, Bholi soorat dil ke khote and Oh Kismat Ki Hawa Kabhi Naram as well as the lullaby Dheere Se Aaja Bagiyan Mein.
The dance set pieces executed in tandem with Geeta Bali, are pure classics, which continue to score hits on YouTube in the new age of derivative disco dhamakas.
At the time of the film’s release, the Albela songs were an invitation to boogie in the cinemas’ aisles, whistle, clap, and shower coins on the screen. And as stories go, projectionists at scores of Cinema Paradisos would be forced to halt and repeat the Shola jo bhadke track – with a Hawaiian backbeat no less. Now, if that wasn’t paisa vasool for the price of a ticket, what was? Incidentally, Albela was consequently dubbed in Tamil as Nala Pillai (1953).
Since his son had intervened, my interviewee was easing up and stated, “Chal poochh, kyapoochhne ka hai.” Whisking a quarter bottle of rum from under the mattress, eyes a-twinkle, he quizzed, “Four eyes, drink lega kya?”, didn’t wait for a reply and poured generous pegs into two steel tumblers, adding a few drops of water and laughed wryly, “Cheers! Cheers!”
After two hours spent in an Old Monk haze, I came away with a narrative which explains his amazing success to the descent on skid row. Excerpted quotes:
. Don’t go by my height and shape. I always won some money or certificate in Amravati as a wrestler, you know I was an akhaade ka kushtiwalla.Then I worked in Bombay as a mazdoor, after all I had watched my father working at day and night shifts at a textile mill. Bahut solid tha main. Bombay film industry wanted good lookers but no problem, I made it and produced so many stunt films which the labour class people enjoyed.
· Raj Kapoor was fond of me, he advised me to make a romantic musical. Albela banaya aur phir kya? I became a lakhpati. I owned a studio, I bought seven imported cars for each day of the week. Of them I loved the Chevrolets the most. I had a 25-room bungalow at Juhu in my possession. I became a sharabi kababi, gambled at cards and the race course. Drinks and women were my weakness. I was unfaithful to my wife (Shashikala, not to be confused with the actress). Sach toh yeh hai, I had ignored my family. Maybe it was God’s way of punishing me. From a mazdoor millionaire I became a pauper.
· After Albela, I produced Jhamela (1953) with Geeta Bali and La Bela (1956) with Kum Kum and Helen, on the same lines. They flopped. But I had produced many films, I could have just sold Albela to survive. Lekin some business partners cheated me of every rupee I had. Who knows whom the rights of Albela or any of my films belong to? Bas khel khatam, paisa hazam.
Geeta Bali & Bhagwan Dada
· I am flattered that Amitabh Bachchan, Mithun Chakraborty and Govinda have said that they imitate my dance moves. Waah, unko thank you bolna. To keep this house going, I continue to accept every role, even if it’s one scene. My only request to the producers is to send me transport, a taxi will do. I’m exhausted at the end of the shooting. I return home, drink my navtaak (quart) and go to sleep. Whatever food is served at the studio, I have.
· None of the big stars has kept in touch except for three of the greatest ones. Raj Kapoor would always make inquiries about me till he was alive. So does Dadamoni (Ashok Kumar) who drops by with fruit and homeopathy medicine. Dilip Kumar also makes it a point to drive all the way from Bandra to Dadar. He calls me down to his car and takes me for a long drive. Geeta Bali is no more. No other heroine has ever made a call, maybe because I’m too old. In any case, I don’t have a ‘phone any more.
· No, I haven’t asked for monetary help from any of the film industry’s welfare associations. I’m too proud to do that.
· There is one fact that I deeply regret in life… that I was responsible for Lalita Pawar’s facial paralysis. For a scene in one of our early films (Jung-e-Azaadi, 1942), I had slapped her so hard that her left eye was damaged forever. That is unforgivable.
· What use are interviews? Even if you write good things about me, it’s too late. Everyone has to go some day. It would have been good to go in a Chevrolet but rehne do, how will I know what’s happening when I’m no more. No one cares.
He was right. The published interview fetched its share of “How sad is that?” letters to the editor, but that’s it. Pritish Nandy remarked, “If I told you to be tough, I was just kidding.”
Bhagwan Dada passed away, aged 88, following a heart attack in that Dadar room in 2002.
Fourteen years later, an earnestly told Marathi biopic of Bhagwan Dada -- Ekk Albela, was released, featuring Mangesh Desai as Dada and Vidya Balan in a cameo as Geeta Bali.
Vidya Balan & Mangesh Desai in Bhagwan Dada-Ekk Albela(2016)
For this Chashmish, though, Bhagwan Dada, will always be the grand old man on a grimy mattress, who had whipped out of a bottle of rum. Cheers, sir.
Khalid Mohamed is a Mumbai based film critic, screenwriter, prodcucer & filmmaker.