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Khalid Mohamed rewinds to the days of laughter with the King of Comedy, Mehmood



The last image I have stored of Mehmood is that of an ailing, helpless septuagenarian, in a baggy white kurta and brown cashmere shawl, propped up in a chair in a Versova apartment. His eyes were bloodshot red, which he explained had persisted as the after-effects of tear-gas shells in a road incident, which he would prefer to forget.

 

Self-mockingly, he had joked, “Even comedians have to look as if they can cry, without glycerine.” Evidently, he was on heavy medication, and despite his deteriorating health, he was sure he would rise from the ashes to direct, produce and act in movies again. In fact, a ‘mundan’ ceremony had been organised at the Holiday Inn lawns to inform the press that he would be bald as an egg in his upcoming comedy. Unfortunately, the project was scrapped.

 

His close friend and frequent co-star Aruna Irani was at the apartment, and assuaged him, “That’s not important. You’ll be back at the studios, get well first.”

 

“Now don’t say that jaan hai to jahaan hai,” he had remonstrated. “I’m tired of hearing that.”

 

Clearly, Mehmood Ali (29 September 1932 – 23 July 2004) was trying to be upbeat, and asked me, “Are you here to interview me? If you are, there’s nothing for me to say, I’ve always been an open book.”

 

 I dispensed with the agenda of a q and a, and left after a cup of coffee, at the end of which he smiled, “Do come again. I suspect the film industry has forgotten me, do drop by for lunch the next time, my khansama makes wonderful yakhni pulao.” Alas, his health took a turn for the worse. That lunch remained an uncashed rain cheque.

 

 The second of eight children and the eldest son of Latifunissa and the popular film and stage dancer-actor, Mumtaz Ali, his sister Minoo Mumtaz went on to establish herself as a character actor, while his youngest brother Anwar Ali in partnership with Farouq Rattonsey, became a producer of such films as the Amitabh Bachchan hit Khuddar directed by Ravi Tandon, and the relatively modestly-budgeted Kaash with Jackie Shroff and Dimple Kapadia, directed by Mahesh Bhatt.

 

The career of Mehmood had kicked off as a child actor in the iconic crime thriller Kismet (1943), headlining Ashok Kumar in a role with dark grey shades. Mehmood had enacted the younger version of Ashok Kumar. And believe it or not, on growing up, for want of employment, the Kismet boy sold poultry products and was hired as a chauffeur by director P.L. Santoshi.

 

Mehmood married Meena Kumari’s younger sister Madhu in the early ‘50s. To keep the kitchen fires burning, he began to accept such sidebar roles as the killer in  the Guru Dutt-produced whodunit C.I. D. and bit parts. Examples: the peanut-vendor in Bimal Roy’s Do Bigha Zameen and brief appearances in Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa and Kaagaz ke Phool.

 

Came the 1960s: filmmakers, especially of the southern studios which had entered Hindi cinema, introduced what came to be known as the 'comedy track'. The movies, whether sunny or grim, would work in a chunky sub-plot to keep the audience chortling in the aisles. This track was mandatory to stretch the screenplay since Hindi films were calculated to keep the viewers engaged for a running time of close to three hours-plus.

 

This accounted for a wonderful ensemble of comic actors, whose antics tickled the viewer's funny bones, often dressed up in drag in the mode of Jack Lemmon-Tony Curtis in Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot. During the 1950s, Johnny Walker was the Laugh Raiser No 1.

 

Next the child actor-turned-mirth maker Mehmood was anointed the King of Comedy, outpacing Johnny Walker but also sprinting way ahead  of the acerbically humorous I.S.Johar (whom he paired up with in a franchise starting with Johar Mehmood in Goa).

Came a point when he featured prominently as the funny guy in as many as 10 films in a stretch of 12 months. Of these, five films ranked among the top hits of 1968: Ankhen, Do Kaliyan, Neel Kamal, Padosan and Suhaag Raat.

 

The funster had affirmed his credentials and how as the proverbial scene stealer, snatching the spotlight away from leading men of the box-office toppers: Dharmendra, Biswajeet, Raaj Kumar, Sunil Dutt and Jeetendra.


So, why am I backtracking down comedy lanes today? For two reasons primarily. One, because that circle of charismatic actors who specialised in comedy after a protracted spell went extinct, unmourned.

 

And two, because knockabout farce, double entendres and rank chauvinism,  were performed by the  heroes and the supporting ensemble, including Kader Khan and Shakti Kapoor. It was virtually raining risible comedies, then, like Coolie No. 1, Biwi No. 1 and Housefull. Gratifyingly because of the estimable output of Mehmood, nostalgiaphiles of the pre-new-millennium generation has continued to hold Mehmood in tremendous regard, but that's it.

 

And there has been a lasting fondness for other yesteryear funsters in comparatively briefer parts – Dhumal often the sparring point for Mehmood, Agha, Rajendranath, Asit Sen, Jagdeep, Asrani, Keshto Mukherjee, Mohan Choti, and Mukri among others.

In fact, Mehmood's sense of comic timing, deadpan humour, expertise in varying his dialogue delivery (remember his zany Hyderabadi dialect in the suspense thriller Gumnaam?), not to forget his gift for breaking into rambunctious dance numbers, have remained one of a kind. And he could be a spot-on mimic, too. At the risk of annoying the Kapoor family, he rendered a daringly audacious take-off on Prithviraj and Raj Kapoor in the Jeetendra flick Humjoli Quite tellingly. In 1968, that big year of his superhits, a pocket-sized avatar of his, Mehmood Jr was introduced in the Shammi Kapoor-Rajshree-Mumtaz film Brahmachari considered a forerunner to Mr India) directed by writer-director Bhappi Sonie. What Mehmood excelled at, the junior clone imitated to the last roll of the eye and twist of the hip.


Incidentally,  Mehmood was the first one to do the 'lungi' dance in Gumnaam, which, presumably, inspired Shah Rukh Khan yeas later to break into a similar act in Chennai Express. Coincidence unintended?


Helen & Mehmood in Gumnaam (1965)


In his lighter roles, Amitabh Bachchan, whom the comic actor had promoted by casting him in the road flick Bombay to Goa and the swashbuckling fantasy Garam Masala,  frequently aped his mentor right down to pasting on a fake Hitler-style moustache. For evidence, check out the Bachchan song-and-dance set piece Khatoon ki Khidmat Mein in Manmohan Desai’s Desh Premee.


Moreover, Akshay Kumar has admitted in an interview that whenever he has to get into a funny groove, he has been inspired to replicate the styles of Mehmood, Amitabh Bachchan and Kishore Kumar.


Many would agree that Kishore Kumar, Johnny Walker and Mehmood have been Hindi cinema's stand-out comic actors. Sparks flew when Kishore Kumar gamely teamed up with Mehmood to raise mayhem in Pyar Kiye Jaa, Padosan , Sadhu Aur Shaitaan (1968) and Bombay to Goa.

 

 The 'howlarious' narration of a faux ghost story by our King of Comedy to Om Prakash in Pyar Kiye Jaa has survived the test of time. Ditto, the goofball vibes between Kishore Kumar and Mehmood in Padosan, an undervalued entertainer of its time.

 


Om Prakash & Mehmood in Pyar Kiye Jaa (1966)


Kishore Kumar often meandered towards the serious melancholic mode (as in Door Gagan ki Chhaon Mein Kahin), Mehmood had his stray moments of gravitas, too, as in the Salil Choudhury-directed Pinjre ke Panchhi.


Mehmood's personal life wasn't as smooth going as his screen chutzpah though. Married twice, he was linked, during his latter years, with co-star Aruna Irani. With his other regular co-star Shubha Khote, it was assumed to be a strictly professional relationship.

 

By the way, it’s no secret that most of the frontline heroes hadn’t been amused by Mehmood’s knack for knocking them out in the shade. At their insistence, the scene-stealer was dropped out of several plum projects. Lore goes that Shammi Kapoor (they were terrific duo in Dil Tera Deewana) and Dharmendra (think of Ankhen) were among the very few heroes who didn't feel insecure about Mehmood's rapidly rising popularity.




To cock a snook at the movie moghuls who had begun to shun him, Mehmood had initiated his own film production company, besides double-tasking as an actor and director. Only two of the seven films he directed clicked. Bhoot Bungla (1965) was memorable especially for a cameo acting role and the terrific music score by R.D. Burman, who had been introduced by Mehmood way earlier with Chhote Nawab.

 


R D Burman & Mehmood in Bhoot Bangla (1965)


And there was Kunwara Baap (1974), an emotionally wrenching account of a rickshaw driver who adopts a polio-stricken, abandoned child. His son, Lucky Ali was introduced as a child actor, while Rajesh Roshan made his debut as a music composer.  With his daughter Ginny, Mehmood directed the fairly moving Ginny aur Johnny, a take on Peter Bogdanovich’s Paper Moon.



Amitabh Bachchan & Mehmood in Bombay to Goa (1972)


Advancing age, serious ailments, a rocky family life and the subtraction of fame compelled Mehmood to spend his time in a Bangalore farmhouse. In 2004, he passed away in Pennsylvania, US. A memorial service was held at the Mehboob studio.

 

 At the age of 71, Mehmood was gone then, robbing us of the golden age of laugh-out-loud at the movies.
















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

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