In Govinda we trust, I think, as I take sips from a glass bottle of Thums Up inside Chandan cinema, a single-screen theatre near the actor’s home in Juhu, Mumbai. Along with 70 other people in the hall, I hope to rewind to a time when not everybody was a critic and Chi Chi was Hero No1. Aa Gaya Hero, Govinda’s comeback film, is supposed to be a throwback to his golden years in the Nineties, so who are we to argue?
After all, this is the man who has given us some of the most entertaining comedy-romance-action films of the last 25 years. In a world overrun by Prem, Raj and Rahul, Govinda kept it real by being Raju, Bhola, Suraj, Shyamsunder, Bunnu, Gopi and even Kanaklakshmi in drag. He made it okay to be illiterate as long as your heart was in the right place (Raja Babu, 1994); to be a practical joker because what is life without ha-ha-hee-hee (almost every Govinda movie ever); a panophobe who falls in love with his shrink (Deewana Mastana, 1997); a lovable dhaba owner who didn’t have to build a body to outwit the bad guys and get the girl (Dulhe Raja, 1998). In Govinda’s universe, mistaken identities were simply a way to discover one’s true self (Coolie No 1, Hero No 1, and Bade Miyan Chote Miyan, to name a few).
Who else could have converted Sridevi’s Nagin hands to mimic a flapping bird above the head and have all of us dance along? De-sexualise the pelvic thrust into something funny, and not predatory? Heck, he even elevated sideways air-kissing on the cheeks into an art form! Govinda taught me that we don’t need to torture our bodies to wear what we want; that interpretive dance at social gatherings is the best way to break the ice; and that self-awareness could be achieved by laughing at ourselves. A friend recently described Govinda as “a noun, a verb, a state of mind.” I nodded sagely. So, what’s the point of being a fan if I’m not there when he needs me the most?
Inside Chandan, his name elicits a cheer the first time it appears on screen. Aa Gaya Hero stars Govinda as Ravinder Verma, a “police-wala don”, who tackles crime and corruption by taking a leaf out of his adversary’s book. But after the first 10 minutes, a deathly silence descends on the hall. Govinda has not just sold us old wine in an old bottle, this one is well past its sell-by date. The women’s roles and costumes are flimsy. The comedy is hackneyed. There is unnecessary VFX that harks back to Chandrakanta and Shaktimaan. Even the tiny romp on a khatiya for old times’ sake does not save it. Govinda might have spent his blood and sweat on Aa Gaya Hero, but for his fans, only tears remain.
For one of the most commercially successful actors in Bollywood, how did things go so horribly wrong?
Sitting in his parlour at his Juhu home a few days before the release of the film, Govinda, 53, looks tired. The past few weeks have flown by in a frenzy of promotion. There’s been no time to organise make-up and a photo shoot for our interview. With bags under his eyes, his hair askew, Govinda has never looked so real and vulnerable before. “I’m the sole financier of this film and it has been made three times over. I had to change the story, add five songs. I initially didn’t have the money to shoot it. When you’re making a comeback, the industry doesn’t accept you readily,” he says.
Did he need a comeback in the first place? “The film industry calls me a ‘legend’. But they will sideline me in such a way that I won’t even know about it. Chhaap par jayegi that I only do this kind of work,” he says. In the past five years, Govinda has mainly played supporting roles, and with every “special” or “friendly” or “guest” appearance, he worried that his “hero” days would soon be behind him for good. “I struggled when I began my career. I have to struggle now too. But I don’t care to look back. I only look ahead,” he says.
Govinda’s back story is the stuff of Bollywood lore. “I was a sickly child. I would suddenly faint at home or when I went out. I couldn’t do anything, not play nor swim. My mother, who was religious, told me to do Gayatri prarthna and yoga to cure me. Jab bimari nikli, toh roop saath saath aa gaya, sundarta aa gayi (When the illness waned in my teens, I began to look good). People around me said, ‘Tu hero lagta hai (You look like a hero),” he says, flashing a shy smile and turning on the charm.
He would practise dance styles made popular by Mithun Chakraborty and Jeetendra, and got a friend to shoot a video of him. Armed with his mother’s blessings and a VHS tape, Govinda, then 21, took the local train from Virar, where the family lived in a chawl, to Bombay, every day. His family had been associated with the Hindi film industry for years — his father, Arun Kumar Ahuja, made his debut in Mehboob Khan’s Aurat (1940), his mother, Nirmala Devi, was an actress in the 1940s as well; his uncle, Anand, was a small-time director. “I had to go from office to office, and maybe somebody would meet me. They’d ask me to act in front of them and I’d have to come up with something on the spot. But it would be hours before anybody would agree to meet me. So I decided to befriend their staff, secretaries and chai boys,” he says.
One day, Govinda reached the office of director Esmayeel Shroff. “The tape was shot at the beach, where I danced, performed a scene from either a Mithun or Jeetendra film, but I rewrote the dialogues. I was asked who had written them, and I said I had, along with choreographing the dance and the fight sequence. When Shroff saab called me, the helper in his office vouched for me,” says Govinda.
That led to a lead role in Love 86. Playing an orphan who wins Neelam’s heart, Govinda’s debut was a hit. He was 23 years old. His pairing with Neelam continued for 13 more films, and fuelled tabloid gossip. “Right after Love 86, I signed 39 films and more than half became hits,” says Govinda.
“In many ways, Govinda filled a certain space in the 1980s that often needed an actor who could be popular, but not be number one; successful, but not a star; and good enough to shoulder an entire film, but not seen as a ‘solo’ hero,” says Gautam Chintamani, author and film historian, who, in a 2012 article, described Govinda as “nothing less than God’s own creation”. “He was a nice mix of a guy who could feature as the solo lead and be as natural when it came to two-hero projects or multi-starrers,” he says.
Chintamani is right. Almost every Govinda film has him play a version of Everyman with a sidekick like Chunky Pandey or, better still, Shakti Kapoor, with whom he could engage in mindless but witty banter.
Govinda’s characters were believable because they were close to his off-screen persona. During the interview, he constantly brings up his lack of English-medium schooling (even though he is a BCom graduate) and his salt-of-the-earth background. “When I was younger, I used to complain to my mother that other actors were far more educated than I was, and that they understood the ways of the world better than I did. Their manners, clothes, the way they spoke English, it was all very correct,” he says. His openness about his limitations endeared him to the masses.
“He’s one of the world’s greatest actors. He develops such excellent chemistry with his co-stars because he has no ego, he doesn’t care who gets more lines. In 1995, I won the Filmfare Best Comedian Award for Raja Babu, and I’d attribute 75 per cent of that win to Govinda. My hit dialogues — ‘Nandu, sabka bandhu’ and ‘Samajhta nahin hai, yaar’— were written by him. His comic timing is an institution,” says Shakti Kapoor, who starred in 42 films with Govinda.
Even though we perceive him largely as a comic actor, Govinda had the ability to adapt to genres. “He began as a dancing sensation (Ilzaam) and could do standard Hindi romance-dramas (Tofha Mohabbat Ka, Dariya Dil) as well as action (Jeete Hain Shaan Se, Shiv Shakti), and even switch to something like Hatya,” says Chintamani.
Hatya (1988) was a turning point for Govinda. “I’d seen the original Malayalam film, Poovinu Puthiya Poonthennal, and liked it very much. I paid a lot of money to buy the rights to the film,” he says. Directed by his brother Kirti Kumar, Hatya was a thriller about a deaf boy who witnesses his mother’s murder. As Sagar, Govinda’s character rescues him and tries to solve the mystery behind the crime. “I felt that it would prove me as an actor. But when I went to producers, they told me to sell the rights to them. They said ‘Tum khud bacche ho, bacche ka baap kaise banoge? (You are a child yourself, how can you play dad?)’” he says.
The next year, Govinda and David Dhawan would happen to each other — and the rest of us. Taaqatwar (1989), Swarg (1990), Shola Aur Shabnam (1992) were all hits but nothing would compare to Aankhen (1993), which, Govinda says, really set the ball rolling for the comedy jodi. His face has lit up now. The years, the exhaustion is shrugged off in an instant, and a glint of mischief sparkles in his eyes. He does a little headflip like the one in “Pakachikapak Raja Babu” — finally, this is the Govinda we know and love. “See, I’ve still got it,” he says and laughs.
Sometime in the Nineties, Bollywood began embracing a more cosmopolitan identity. Govinda’s films were still popular, but the masses wanted a taste of a glitzier, more glamorous world. Songs transported us to Switzerland or a similar lush/hilly/foreign locale at the drop of a hat; the cars got fancier and the houses got bigger. Dil To Pagal Hai (997) and Taal (1999) boasted of modern and Westernised choreography by Shiamak Davar. At the end of the decade, we swooned when that tall drink of water that used to be Hrithik Roshan moved like butter on hot toast in Kaho Naa… Pyaar Hai (2000).
But one does not simply talk about the history of dance in Bollywood without doffing a fairly large hat to Govinda — and he knows it. “It all began when I was rehearsing with choreographer Kamal Masterji for Dariya Dil (1988),” he says. Was it Tu mera Superman, where he and Kimi Katkar dress up as Superman and Spider-Girl, dance in a park and prevent a sexual assault? “No, it was Woh kehte hain humse. Songs in those days took three-four days to shoot. Masterji and I were friends. He’d ask you how much time you had and figure out the choreography accordingly. I’d just lip sync, do the moves that came naturally to me, and it became a style,” says Govinda.
Some of the choreography came with moves that would make many uncomfortable today, such as debutant Ritu Shivpuri’s hand being caught between Govinda’s knees in O lal dupatte wali from Aankhen. “The songs with my heroines were full of prem. Of course, there is body impact, but there is no chiptam-chipti. I don’t care if people don’t get it. It worked for me and my personality,” he says. The costumes, on the other hand, he says, were not his doing. “You think I haven’t laughed at those clothes? But they were unique and that was fine with me,” says Govinda, dressed in a maroon shirt and matching trousers.
After delivering a decade of hits, in 2003, Govinda entered politics, for reasons that are still not very clear to him. “My parents, their friends and other elderly people told me to join politics. I said I had no experience. But they said, ‘Karo, dekha jayega (Do it, we will see)’,” he says. Stardom had seemed like a dream, but becoming a Congress MP in 2004 was unimaginable. “I was like a batsman who wasn’t expected to score, but I made a few runs! But it was not a world I understood well,” says Govinda, who yearned to return to films.
In 2006, he would co-star with Akshay Kumar and Paresh Rawal in Bhagam Bhag and the next year, with Salman Khan in Partner, which won Govinda several awards. Both films were blockbusters, but it would still be another two years before Govinda would retire from politics. By the time he did, it was too late — the game in Bollywood had changed and he hadn’t been around to learn the new rules.
Govinda is recording our interview on his smartphone — he is tired of being misquoted. “In an interview with Stardust, I had praised Neelam; I said we had good chemistry, we did well together. Twenty-nine years later, they have presented it in such a way that readers will find new meaning in what I said,” he says.
There is a weariness, a slight bitterness in his voice. In the past few months, Govinda has been calling out slights and injustices meted out to him by old friends like Dhawan, and the new order led by filmmakers such as Karan Johar. He has earlier expressed his displeasure with Johar for never inviting him on Koffee With Karan. “I know that people from his team have had a lot of laughs at my expense. I have friends in all sections of the industry, especially the aam aadmi, who they don’t think of speaking to, who tell me the truth. His camp called my doctor to find out about me. If Karan was concerned about me and my habits, he should have asked his friend Aditya Chopra, whose banner I have worked with,” he says. He hits out at allegations of him being habitually late for work — “Many people know that I reached Mani Ratnam’s set for Raavan (2010) on time, that Aditya has not complained of my tardiness” — but they persist, another proof that Bollywood has moved on.
It is now time for him to head into another meeting. Before we part, I request a selfie with the star who is the greatest entertainer I have ever known. Govinda complies and puts on a pair of sunglasses even though we are indoors. If you’re a fan, you know it makes perfect sense to do so. Why? Because all said and done, even today, Govinda ankhiyon se goli maare, ladka kamal re.