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Monday, January 17, 2022

Ranjit Chowdhry (1955-2020): The boy next door

Remembering Ranjit Chowdhry, once a fixture of simple Indian middle-class movies, who passed away on Wednesday.

Written by Ektaa Malik |
April 16, 2020 2:11:08 pm
Ranjit Chowdhry dead Ranjit Chowdhry passed away on April 15.

With his dishevelled, all over the place hair, and shirts with extra long collars, he made his presence felt in many Basu Chatterjee and Hrishikesh Mukherjee films. The youngest one in a family, the cute, irritating brother to the heroine, the dependable brother of the hero, or the friend of the lead actor, Ranjit Chowdhry lit the screen with his impish charm in films such as Khatta Meetha (1978), Baaton Baaton Main (1979) and Khubsoorat (1980). The actor, who was 64, passed away on April 15, 2020 at Breach Candy Hospital, Mumbai. The news of his passing was shared by Chowdhry’s sister Raell Padamsee on her Instagram account. She shared a black and white picture of Chowdhry, with the words ‘Actor, Writer and Maverick We Will Miss You ‘. The post also shared that a funeral will be held on Thursday, and a ‘gathering to celebrate his life n share his stories on May 5th.’

Chowdhry was born into the world of performing arts, after all his mother was Pearl Padamsee, the cornerstone of modern English theatre in Mumbai. In fact, his debut film Khatta Meetha, had him sharing screen space with Padamsee. The film which was a ‘tribute to the Parsi community’ had Chowdhry playing a Parsi boy in his late teens and Padamsee, his stepmother. The two played mother and son in another Basu Chatterjee offering Baaton Baaton Main where this time the focus was the Bandra Catholic community.

It was the beginning of Ranjit Chowdhry’s career as a character actor. His characters often sported some quirk. In Khatta Meetha, his character of Russi Mistry was obsessed with karate–he spends half the film in a white karate uniform; in Baaton Baaton Main, he was Sabhie, younger brother to Nancy (Tina Munim) and a violin player who also sang. The hit song of the film “Na Bole Tum Na Maine Kuch Kaha” is picturised on Chowdhry who is making the crowd jive to this hummable ditty. In Khoobsurat, where he played Jagan, the youngest of four brothers, Chowdhry’s go-to thing was ‘modern music’, in fact he even says ‘mere shaadi toh ho gayi …. sangeet se’. He matched Rekha step by step in the foot-tapping song “Kayda, Kayda.”

Khubsoorat was quite a landmark in Chowdhury’s filmography. For starters, he was sharing screen space with big names like Rekha, Rakesh Roshan, Dina Pathak, Ashok Kumar and David. But it also gave him more screen time and also the best lines, which he delivered in his characteristic matter-of-fact fashion. In a scene where Ashok Kumar and his entire family go to see a bride to be, the groom is absent. When asked about his absence, Jagan responds: “Woh itne besharam thode hi hain ki woh khud ladki dekhne aate. Maa ne kaha tha, ki yeh baat nikle toh yehi jawaab dena,” much to the embarrassment of his father Ashok Kumar.

In the 90s, Ranjit Chowdhry moved to Canada and became the preferred choice of directors of the Indian diaspora. In the 2002 film, Bollywood /Hollywood, Chowdhry played Rocky, a chauffeur, who also moonlighted as a drag queen. His performance earned him a nomination for the best performance by an actor in a supporting role at the 23rd Genie Awards. His other prominent works include Mississippi Masala, Kamasutra: A Tale of Love and Last Holiday. He also featured on the popular American mockumentary sitcom The Office, where he played Vikram, an overachieving Indian telemarketer, for a couple of episodes in season five.

While he stopped working in Bollywood long ago, Chowdhry is still remembered for his earnest characters. The sharp, almost nasal twang with which he delivered his lines and his relatable body language, ensured he got noticed even in small roles. Even as someone in his mid-twenties, he held his own against big celebrated names like Ashok Kumar, Rekha, Dina Pathak and David. Chowdhry was perhaps the last of the actors of that generation who believed in keeping it real. He and his films of the seventies, even today, remind one of simpler times and much simpler people. It’s not surprising he moved to Canada when he did. He would have probably no longer fitted in an industry that took a crass and loud turn in the eighties.

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