He was engrossed watching Shah Rukh Khan play India’s most tragic hero, when his wife leant over and nudged him: “You could have been Devdas.” Waitaminute. Our favourite joke and jhatka machine with the loud shirts and blinding trousers as a weak-wristed drunk (in all white) destroyed by love? If the actor who just delivered another predictable comedy Ek Aur Ek Gyarah is to be believed, then it’s finally time for silly Govinda to straighten up. Even if he still loves watching himself play buffoon and cracks up over his hits beamed regularly on cable. “You get a lot of love from these comedies,” explains Govinda, “But you’re always in the category of best actor in comic role, not the hero. Where’s the respect?”
This introspection from a 40-year-old who’s played the fast-talking rogue in seven flops and eight big-time disasters in the last four years and only delivered hits when paired with Sanjay Dutt (Haseena Maan Jayegi and Jodi No 1) during this period. His latest endeavour with Dutt, David Dhawan and Subhash Ghai is working its magic in the opening weeks and trade analysts predict a successful running. Mumbai-based analyst Amod Mehra has already declared it a hit in Mumbai and the South. Critics say Govinda’s found his old timing in Ek Aur Ek, despite those overpowering close-ups.
Yet among the star’s completed films in the same genre, Mastana and Raja Bhaiyya have no distributors, while Khullam Khulla Pyar Karenge has found one only for a couple of circuits. Projects in the pipeline are Hum Do Humara Ek and Ek Haseena Ek Deewana— obvious comedies. So what big switch is Govinda talking about? Says film critic and author Anupama Chopra, who got curious looks over the way she laughed uproariously during Ek Aur Ek, “First, it’s high time he lost weight. Govinda isn’t seen as a sex symbol, but there’s no excuse for being plump on screen.” The actor has already taken note of that detail.
Rogan Josh and alu parathas are out, brown bread with boiled corn and palak are in, answers wife Sunita, draped in off-white organza and diamonds. After 17 years of marriage, Sunita’s answers roll off. Where he once revelled in rotundity, Govinda now downs bottles of chaas, orange juice and fat-free cow’s milk. Sunita says Chi Chi has already lost 3-4 kilos, another seven gone and he’ll be “perfect”. After meditation and yoga at the mandir made by his mother, he goes for a brisk, sixty minute morning walk around his Jal Darshan apartment block in swank Juhu.
In an interview before Ek Aur Ek’s release, the director laughingly admitted that the magic pair had now become a trio with Sanjay Dutt. Dhawan realised he had to present Govinda as a “lovable” character; audiences couldn’t bear to be against him. Chopra agrees that it is fun to watch the two, but “Govinda did do stuff on his own, pre-Sanjay. He doesn’t need support, but he has to care because there is so much competition.” Govinda is said to have started caring about six months ago. He began sending feelers to the industry that he was interested in doing something different.
Govinda let slip
Vikrant in Taal
Kartara Singh in Gadar (played by Sunny Deol)
Shyam Benegal project (not yet decided) He doesn’t want to play a
But when offbeat roles did come his way in the past, the star declined them for bizarre reasons. “I conceived Anil Kapoor’s role in Taal with Govinda in mind. I pointed out that the light character had its own complexities. But the boy (Govinda) couldn’t understand that — all he caught on was that the girl leaves him in the end,” remarks Ghai. Kapoor, who finally bagged the role, laughs while saying he knew that he was Ghai’s “fourth” choice. “It would not have been the same role if Govinda had done it. Subhashji knows my pluses. But there’s no discussion over whether Govinda can do different kinds of roles.”
Co-star Urmila Matondkar also gives her vote of confidence. “He’s a great observer and one of the finest actors. There’s no reason for him to stay within the boundaries of comedy,” she says, even as she talks of how there’s always laughter on the sets when Govinda is around. Praise for Govinda is not just restricted to the mainstream. Film-maker Shyam Benegal says the actor has a superb sense of timing, which recently prompted him to offer Govinda a role, a comic part. “Not ha-ha funny, more social satire,” he says, “But why should he do serious roles? Govinda has a natural sense of comedy, though I’ve only seen his earlier work.” The actor says he turned down that role because it was based on a living person. In fact, Govinda seems determined to avoid getting embroiled in controversies. This despite knowing that working only within one genre is exactly what’s resulted in this rut.
“Kala is God-given, so that you can make people happy. I don’t like to hurt even two per cent of my fan following,” he answers on why he turned down Gadar. That faithful fan following (Sunita says letters come in from Toronto, Australia, New Zealand — where he hasn’t had shows — Mumbai, Bihar, UP and Punjab) could well be the speed bumps on Govinda’s detour.
“No producer or distributor is going to take a risk casting him in a serious role. Art films are out,” says Nahata. Even Sunita feels that Govinda’s fans think it normal to go for one of his movies and “forget their tensions for three hours”. Ghai says it’s not just in Govinda’s hands, writers and producers have to rally around the idea of the actor sans a gag a minute.
It doesn’t help that Govinda can’t shake off other labels with those stuck from celluloid. The star dismisses the latecomer tag as an old wives’ tale, but Ghai says from experience on his production that it’s like putting up with a child’s tantrums. There’s also the rather ugly accusation that Govinda pocketed money from producer Sibte Hassan Rizvi for the distribution of Wah Tera Kya Kehna — one he wearily denies. And director Harmesh Malhotra (Dulhe Raja, Ankhiyon Se Goli Mare, Khullam Khulla Pyar Karenge amongst others) avers that there’s no actor like Govinda—only if he cleans up his act.
But the actor’s strong point lies in the fact that even the naysayers don’t question whether he can pull it off. While Chopra says comparing Govinda to other actors is likening apples to oranges, she thinks he should take the plunge. Kapoor won’t comment on Govinda’s career, but remarks, “I’ve been ready to fail for the vision I have of my career, though people may want me constantly doing something else.”
Govinda himself envisions doing characters like he did in Hathyar and Khuddar. He doesn’t know yet whether he will play second fiddle to a hero or give up the girl. But thinks it’s a good suggestion that he try his hand at family dramas — some fun, dancing and heightened emotions. For the moment though, Govinda’s focussing on his Rendezvous With Simi Garewal, the recording is scheduled for when he gets back. He has already mock-ordered his household to converse in English for ten days before the shoot, so he can brush up.
Even when he tries, Govinda can’t seem to suppress his goofy side.