Death came to him silently in his sleep! Alas, there was no sound of laughter! He must have missed that! Mehmood -- the Bollywood comic legend -- died in his sleep, in a hotel room at Pennsylvania (where he had gone for medical treatment) in July 2004.
The inimitable Mehmood was Bollywood’s best-known comedian. There were many other comedians in Bombay Talkies before he came to the screen, but they merely functioned as excuses to take the audience’s mind off the melodramatic plot for a few minutes of the film’s running time. Then, along came Mehmood – and he made the comedian’s role an integral part of the story line.Often the comedian’s plight proved more interesting than even the hero’s romance. And, for a brief period in the 60s, thanks to him, comedy was king. And Mehmood was the uncrowned King of Comedy.
Starting with Chuckles
Mehmood was born in Mumbai in 1932. He was the son of character-actor/dancer Mumtaz Ali and used to tag along with his father to the film studios. He began acting as a (reluctant) child actor in some Bombay Talkies’ films like Kismet. After he grew up, he pursued several odd jobs -- including that of a motor car driver. For a short while, he was a chauffeur for director P.L. Santoshi. (Years later, when P. L. Santoshi’s son director Rajkumar Santoshi made his own comedy Andaz Apna Apna, he wrote in a special part for Mehmood – he played a sleazy film producer of Wah Wah Productions!). In Mehmood’s first real role in films, he played a murder victim in Guru Dutt’s suspense thriller – CID. After that, Guru Dutt gave him a small part in Pyaasa.
While he was struggling in Bombay Talkies, he made friends with another up-and-coming comedian – the versatile Kishore Kumar. Soon, the brilliantly talented Kishore was blazing his way to stardom -- and Mehmood approached him for a role in any of his movies. Kishore Kumar, knowing Mehmood’s excellent sense of comedy, made a remark that became famous in Bollywood legend – “How can I give a chance to someone who will compete with me?” To this, Mehmood is supposed to have good humouredly replied – “One day I will become a big filmmaker and I will cast you in a role in my film!” (Mehmood kept his word and, years later; he cast Kishore Kumar in his home production Padosan – which many consider to be Bollywood’s most enduring comedy film!).
Luckily for Mehmood, he got his first noticeable “break” in Parvarish (1958), in which he landed a role as the brother of the hero, Raj Kapoor. Another Bollywood legend goes that Mehmood admired Raj Kapoor’s immense talent, but the lead actor gave him a real tough time, since he was a newcomer. Years later, when Mehmood was at the peak of his career – and the Kapoor clan was making their own three-generation family saga (Kal, Aaj aur Kal – with Prithvi, Raj and Randhir Kapoor), Mehmood single-handedly spoofed them all in a triple role in the film Humjoli, in which he played grandfather, father and son (down to all the patented Kapoor mannerisms). Humjoli was released in theatres along side with Kal, Aaj aur Kal – and so, Mehmood had a laugh at the expense of the First Family of Bombay Filmdom!
Roaring with Laughter
After Paravrish, Mehmood came to be recognized for his comic talent. He landed himself meatier roles in films like Gumnam, Pyar Kiye Jaa and Pyar Hi Pyar. In 1961, he played the lead comedian in Sasural. He was paired with a character actress named Shobha Khote. Their zany combination was so successful, that they went on to become a “comedy pair” in many hit films thereafter – hits like Love in Tokyo and Ziddi. Later, Aruna Irani replaced her in the comedy team. As the 60s progressed, Mehmood kept expanding the role of the comedian in Hindi movies. Soon, his fans just could not get enough of him as a “side-comedian” in the movies. And a time came, when he was so much “in demand” that producers approached him, offering him full-length comedy films.
Mehmood teamed up with another comedian, I. S. Johar, in what was then advertised as “India’s first feature-length comedy” – Namasteji. The comic duo went on to make several more capers – which immortalized them in Bollwood’s muster, by incorporating their names in the film’s titles – Johar Mehmood in Goa was followed by Johar Mehmood in Hong Kong. By the early 70s, Mehmood was at then at the peak of his comic career. He exhibited a rare ability to gauge the moods of the cinema-going audience – especially the frontbenchers! He realized that it was these frontbenchers that gave any film its “repeat-viewing” potential – and made (or unmade) the new films at the first-day-first-show.
Comedy under a Cloud
As the hits poured in, Mehmood began to command a price that was sometimes rumoured to be much higher than some of the lesser hero’s of Bombay Talkies. Naturally, this caused a lot of insecurity and anxiety in Bollywood acting circles. After two decades of success, Mehmood’s comedy began to come undone. He was accused by many of downgrading the quality of comedy in Hindi films. (In a way, this may even be true – but it must be remembered that he had all along played the roles that the audiences wanted him to – and they had adored him for it! But now, his caricatures – especially his spoofs on South Indians -- had begun to grate on nerves). He had fallen into a rut – and he could not re-invent himself as effortlessly as he had in the past.
As a result of the criticism, Mehmood decided to concentrate on his own production house. He had already started his company in the early 60s, with his first production called Chhote Nawab (1961). This had been followed by a suspense-comedy–thriller called Bhoot Bangla, in which Mehmood had taken the director’s chair for the first time. His company’s Padosan – in which Mehmood locked horns with Kishore Kumar in a South-Indian-versus-North-Indian war – became a massive hit in the 70s.
At that time, Mehmood’s star was at its zenith. He happened to meet an amiable young man who was trying to get a foothold in Bollywood films. This struggling newcomer had no place to stay in Mumbai, so Mehmood offered him a room in his house. At that time, Mehmood was producing a new comedy called Bombay to Goa. Mehmood was playing a bus conductor and he needed a young man to play the hero’s role. He gave the role to his young tenant. The new star’s name was Amitabh Bachchan. Bombay to Goa was his first movie as a leading hero. The rest is history!
One Last Laugh
By the time the 90s set in, Mehmood had played his entire hand -- as actor, director, storywriter and producer. But, he was now keeping indifferent health. He made one last attempt at a comeback, with a film called Dushman Duniya Ka (1996). By now, there was a new generation of filmgoers in the theatres -- and new stars in Bollywood’s firmaments. Mehmood managed to get the brightest new star into his movie. Shah Rukh Khan – a self-confessed Mehmood admirer – played the role of the “young” Mehmood in the film, complete with toothbrush moustache and manic eye-rolls. But, by then, Mehmood had lost his most precious gift – the ability to feel the pulse of the junta’s moods and laughter. The film was a dismal flop at the box-office!
Mehmood will forever be remembered as he appeared in his heydays – as the King of Comedy. He taught a nation how to laugh! Thank you for the laughter!