Mehmood Ali, popularly known as Mehmood, remains one of India’s most iconic comic actors. The man, who made the audience laugh with his work, had a tragic life himself. With overwhelming financial responsibilities, he began working at the age of eight. His first role was as a child actor in Kismet (1943), where he played a young Ashok Kumar. It was Guru Dutt who noticed him and gave him his first break, an act he never forgot. According to Amitabh Bachchan, who called Mehmood his godfather, “He never forgot that gesture – a large photograph of Guru Dutt adorned his bedroom.”
He struck comedy gold with Rajendra Kumar’s film, Sasural, in 1961. After that, there was no looking back, as he left people in splits with his films, some of which he produced and directed. He crafted his own style of comedy and at his peak, he was often paid more than the film’s hero. As opulence became the way of life, it didn’t change him as a person, according to his brother, Anwar Ali. “He lived like a king both in terms of his lifestyle but also his large-heartedness. He looked after our extended kutumb of 150 people. He loved cars and at one point, he owned a fleet of 24 cars including a Stingray, Dodge, Impala, MG, Jaguar and others,” Ali recollected in a 2015 Filmfare interview. Reportedly, a young Amitabh Bachchan would often borrow from Mehmood’s car collection to “impress his girlfriends.”
Mehmood was also instrumental in helping other actors pave their way to glory, the most prominent being, his then-protege, Amitabh Bachchan.
He foresaw a shining future for Amitabh Bachchan, perhaps before anyone else did. Calling himself Bachchan’s ‘second father, as the one who taught him how to make money’, he often said that he helped Bachchan on his path to success, and even let him stay at his place during his struggling days. He got him the leading role in Bombay To Goa, a film which got him noticed by the iconic duo Salim-Javed, and that landed Bachchan with Zanjeer (1973), a turning point in his career.
Ameen Sayani, the radio broadcaster, once asked him about his horses. “The fastest horse is Amitabh,” Mehmood replied. “The day he picks up speed he will leave everyone behind.”
Yet, the affection soured in years to come and he would express his bitterness with Bachchan in interviews. Bachchan, on the other hand, kept a dignified silence. Yet, Mehmood always wished him well and hoped that he scaled greater heights. In July 2004, after Mehmood’s demise, Bachchan remembered his kindness and large-heartedness in his blog. “He always helped in establishing myself as an actor. Mehmood Bhai was one of the helpers in the graph early in my career. He was the first producer who gave me the lead role – in ‘Bombay to Goa’. After several consecutive flops, I made a plan to go back home, then Mehmood Sahab’s brother Anwar stopped me,” he wrote.
While acknowledging that Amitabh Bachchan had great respect for him, Mehmood was perturbed by Bachchan’s actions. “A man who has success, has two fathers—the biological father, and the one who taught him to make money. The biological one is Bachchan saab of course, and the one who taught him, is me, who gave him a place to stay, and got him films. He respects me a lot, if he is sitting and he would hear my voice, he would instantly get up.”
He continued, “Although Amit respects me a lot, one of his actions shocked me a bit. When his father Harivansh Rai Bachchan fell, I went to Amitabh Bachchan’s house to see him, but when I had bypass surgery, Amitabh came to Breach Candy Hospital with his father but he did not come to see me. Amitabh proved there that the real father is real while the fake father is fake. He didn’t even meet me, wish me, or send me a get-well soon card, a small flower, even though he knew I was in this hospital. I forgave him and didn’t wish him ill. I hope he doesn’t do this with anyone else.”
Mehmood passed away in 2004, in Pennsylvania, leaving behind an unmatched legacy of comedy.