When a character outlives a film, or outstrips the actor, it can be both boon and bane. Syed Ishtiaq Ahmed Jafri, better known as Jagdeep, began his long stint in Hindi cinema as a perky child actor in such notable early ’50s films as Hum Panchhi Ek Daal Ke and Ab Dilli Door Nahin. He shone in Guru Dutt’s Aar Paar, and Bimal Roy’s Do Bigha Zameen. He even played the traditional singing-dancing hero, but his real calling, the film industry decided, was to make people laugh. In 1960 came Brahmachari, and with it Jagdeep’s career as a comic artist took off in earnest. It took him 15 years to reach Soorma Bhopali, in Ramesh Sippy’s Sholay ( 1975), and that was it.
It was a walk-on part, and according to folk-lore, not even part of the film as it was first conceived: Producer G P Sippy, it was said, added the character later. What we do know for sure is that post Sholay, Jagdeep was once and forever Soorma from Bhopal, who boasts of taking the measure of the infamous Jai and Veeru, in a scene topped with this unforgettable line: “Hamaara naam bhi Soorma Bhopali aise hi nahin hai, haan”. It wasn’t as if Hindi movies were writing distinctive parts for comedians in the ’50s and the ’60s. His contemporaries like Johnny Walker, Mehmood, Mukri, and so on, were all bound by a loud, broad tradition where laughs came out of physical comedy, and dialogues bordering on the crass. Heroes were meant to be straight-laced and honourable; heroines were demure and innocent. Mainstream cinema got around these genteel restrictions by adding energetic comedy tracks: Just like Shakespeare’s jokesters, it was left to the comics to bring in rude, bracing humour.
Jagdeep could never get past the Sholay overhang. In one of his last significant parts, in which he plays Salman Khan’s father (Andaz Apna Apna, 1994), his name was Bankelal Bhopali. A nod, and a tribute, to a character who lives on.