Nearly every Hindi cinema-goer has a “favourite Mehmood moment.” Mine is from the 1966 comedy Pyar Kiye Jaa. The fact that in a film that also stars the mad genius Kishore Kumar, Mehmood’s show-stopping turn is a testament to both his classic talent for physical comedy and stardom. Those days, many of Mehmood’s films were South remakes and Pyar Kiye Jaa is no different. He was roped in it to play the role originally enacted by the great Tamil comedian Nagesh. Big shoes but who better than Mehmood to fill it?
Mehmood plays Atma, an aspiring filmmaker who has named his company, Wah Wah Productions because, as he deadpans, “People will go ‘wah wah’ at every film of mine.” Is it a meta-joke? He’s making a horror film without a title. The logic being, the audience will watch the film breathlessly right till the end in their curiosity to know what the film is called. The poster will have a big question mark in place of the title.
Who would want to bankroll such a lunatic concept? His dad played by the indomitable Om Prakash, a moneybag who’s sure his son is good for nothing and deserves none of his wealth, walks right into the trap. Om Prakash is both frustrated at Atma’s wasted life and also unusually curious about what’s cooking in his “khopdi.” On a dark night, they settle in for a story narration and what follows is a rib-tickling scene with Om Prakash getting all sweaty and spooky after hearing about, among other absurdities, a forest where “fishes are grazing grass and snakes are flying.” To strike fear into his father’s heart, Atma makes all kinds of animal noises complete with a haunting background score befitting a Ramsay movie. And then, it dawns on you – he’s called Atma! Is there a ghostly connection? You will never know.
What you do know is that the scene required either a leap of imagination and logic or a serious confidence in the art of nonsense. Whatever it was, Mehmood had that. He put his voice artistry and mimicry skills to tremendous use and made the scene more than memorable. Om Prakash’s petrified look and gestures are in total harmony with Mehmood, a Ramsay reincarnate.
It’s difficult to imagine Hindi film comedy without Bollywood’s original Bhaijaan. Mehmood may have long passed away but his influence is evident in the comic styles of David Dhawan, Govinda, Sajid Khan, Johnny Lever, Ritesh Deshmukh – the list is endless.
A Mehmood movie comes with an assurance of fun, frolic, drama, dance and great music. Well, dancing came naturally to him and so did acting and performance. His father, Mumtaz Ali, was a great dancer-actor in the 1940s. Give anything to Mehmood and he could turn it into something only he could do. For example, the song ‘Hum Kaale Hai’ from 1965’s ‘Gumnaam’ has a Mehmood touch to it.
In some ways, Mehmood was destined to be in cinema. He began as a child actor in Ashok Kumar’s ‘Kismet’ (1943). But it was Guru Dutt who spotted the young lad and gave him his first break. According to a blog by Amitabh Bachchan, who calls Mehmood his godfather, “He never forgot that gesture – a large photograph of Guru Dutt adorned his bedroom.”
Mehmood went on to develop his own style of comedy. At his peak, he was paid more than the film’s hero and it’s easy to see why. With top dollars rolling in, he was living a flamboyant life. A big spendthrift, he bought a farm just to keep his horses. This flashiness may have something to do with his royal blood.
“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,” his brother Anwar Ali recollected in a 2015 Filmfare interview. Reportedly, his then-protégé Amitabh Bachchan would steal from Mehmood’s car collection to “impress his girlfriends.”
Mehmood had great faith in the young Amitabh. 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.”
In some ways, he foresaw Amitabh Bachchan’s success.
Towards the end, however, an ageing Mehmood who cared for Bachchan as a younger brother became bitter and lashed out at him in interviews. It was one of the ugliest fallouts in Bollywood but Bachchan kept a dignified silence.
Multi-faceted as he was, Mehmood also dabbled in filmmaking. Surprisingly, as a director, he stayed away from comedies and focussed instead on serious films with social messages, including ‘Kunwara Baap’ based on his son’s disability.
He had a rough personal life starting from his father’s alcoholism to his son’s disability and the financial responsibility of tending to the large family. In fact, he often dwelt on the irony of his life. He used to say that he made people laugh for a living but wondered why his own life was so sad and tragic.
As Chaplin said, “Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long-shot.”
(Shaikh Ayaz is a writer and journalist based in Mumbai. He also paints.)