Yesterday morning on Sony Max I saw Parveen Babi dancing to Raat Baaqi Baat Baaqi, a groovy tune composed by Bappi da for 1982 multi-star blockbuster Namak Halaal. Draped in silky black, she looked ravishing. Her every sway oozed hotness and each step, she seduced Shashi Kapoor like no one else ever did.
I couldn’t have asked for a better start to my day!
However, it’s not just Big B’s splendid comic antics, Shashi Kapoor’s playboy looks, Parveen Babi’s excessive oomph or Smitha Patil’s subtle sultriness that made Namak Halaal a super hit Bollywood flick. There was more to it than just the lead actors. Waheeda Rehman, Om Prakash, Ram Sethi, Kappu, Ranjeet and many other character artists played significant roles in the success of Namak Halaal. It was produced during the golden age of Indian cinema when the likes of Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Manmohan Desai, Satyajit Ray, Basu Chatterjee, Shakti Samanta and Gulzar directed movies. It was a period when character artists played as key role as the hero. It was a period when sensible movies were made. And it was a period when such movies were watched and encouraged.
Here are my choice of favourite character artists from the grand era of Bollywood – early 1970s to late 1980s. It’s neither a numeral ranking, nor an alphabetical listing. Instead, it’s purely random. I know there were more fine actors in the same period, but these five are MY favourite.
In a career spanning 50 years, Om Prakash was the King of Hindi cinema character roles. A dedicated theatre artist, he graduated to movies in 1946 and until his death in 1998, he was active in the industry. With his unique mannerism and trademark dialogue delivery, he became the most successful character artist in Indian film industry. Be it an affectionate father, a drunken husband or a law protecting Police Officer, he has acted in variety of character roles in more than 300 movies. Some of my favourite Om Prakash movies are Chupke Chupke, Padosan, Pyaar Kiye Jaa, Chameli Ki Shaadi and Namak Halaal.
He was soft, he was caring and he was a man with the golden heart – both on and off the screen. Therefore, he was everyone’s favourite uncle. David Abraham Cheulkar was a Mumbai born Jewish actor who started experimenting in theatres and gradually, shifted to movies. In 1954 his depiction of John Chacha – a bootlegger with an honest soul in Boot Polish turned him into a national icon and until his death in 1981, he remained an essential figure in Bollywood industry. He acted in more than 100 movies, he was awarded Padma Shri and won a Filmfare award. Some of my favourite David chacha’s movies include Baton Baton Mein, Khatta Meetha, Chupke Chupke and Khubsoorat.
Utpal Dutt was a true genius. He is an ideal example of multi-talent – he was a playwright, producer, director and accomplished actor. He established contemporary theatre culture in Bengal and his plays were the epitome of Marxist beliefs and ideology. In Bengal movie industry, Utpal Dutt portrayed diverse characters, whereas in Bollywood, he was known for his comic roles. He was part of very few Hindi movies, but every role he enacted became famous among the audience. Some of my favourite Hindi movies in which he acted include Gol Maal, Naram Garam, Guddi and Shaukeen. In Bengali, I loved his portrayal of Manomohan in Agantuk, Satyajit Ray’s last movie.
Like Utpal Dutt, Dina Pathak was a multi-talent icon of Gujarati and Hindi theatre circuit. Between 1946 and 2002, she formed her own theatre group, performed as a lead actor in many plays and acted in more than 100 movies. Across her career, Dina Pathak acted in varied roles that required talent, fine understanding and absolute dedication to portray such characters. Be it a strict housewife in Khubsoorat, a helpful socialite in Gol Maal or a over protective mother in Chitchor, Dina Pathak always won our hearts. She is a recipient of famed Sangeet Natak Academy Award for enriching theatre culture in India.
Mukri was probably the shortest character artist I have seen on Bollywood screen. But his talent in performing any given role was much larger than most of his contemporary leading artists. He started acting in 1940s and was active till early 1990s, before old age and failing health forced him to retire. His small stature, trademark smirk and perfect comic timing won him many roles. In his 50 years of cinema experience, he acted in numerous movies. He was known to sketch variety of comedy roles to perfection. I loved him in Bombay to Goa (South Indian traveller), Amar Akbar Antony (Taiyyab Ali), Padosan (Banarsi) and Sharabi (the legendary Nathulaal).