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Copyright 2004




Mehmood: Laughing no more

There was something quite different about Mehmood. Though, he, along with Johnny Walker and Thangavelu, heralded a delightfully refreshing phase in celluloid comedy, it was Mehmood who took buffoonery beyond, well, buffoonery.

Mehmood was no mere comedian. He was not just a jester. He was an actor, who, I would say, played outrageously comic parts with innovative idealism. This is where he was miles ahead of his self-proclaimed guru, Johnny Walker.

While Thangavelu's deadpan expression and immensely cerebral satire appealed to a largely Tamil audience, which saw film as an extension of theatre, and Johnny Walker's no-nonsense song and absurd performances drew applause, Mehmood's creative style that blended the comic and the tragic was often unforgettable.

Today, few would remember Thangavelu or Johnny Walker. But many would, Mehmood, especially for his superb portrayal of a Tamil dance master in "Padosan", a bus conductor in "Bombay to Goa" and grandfather/father/son in "Humjoli". These are but only three of the innumerable movies of Mehmood that cannot be easily erased from memory.

What is more, many of Mehmood's starrers nearly always eclipsed the so-called lead characters. Does anybody remember Amitabh Bachchan/Aruna Irani in "Bombay to Goa" or Sunil Dutt/Kishore Kumar/Saira Banu in "Padosan" or Jeetendra/Leena Chandavarkar in "Humjoli" ? I doubt it.

Obviously, a time came when main stars hesitated to act in a film that had Mehmood, a fact that is now cited as one reason for his premature decline.

Mehmood in his younger days
Also, Mehmood tended to overreach himself by overdoing the glycerine act. Though movies such as "Main Sundar Hoon" and "Kunwara Baap" were examples of sheer versatility -- where Mehmood was at his emotional best adding a dash of the classic Shakespearean tragic comedy -- I feel that these roles ultimately pulled him down. His fans did not quite cherish the idea of a comedian coming down in tears !

Mehmood, who died on July 23 in the U.S., spent his last years in a Bangalore farmhouse, and he was quite ill. But even during those dark times, one is told that he never lost his sense of humour. And, his comedy continued to be sold as the panacea for the depressed and the disturbed.

Naturally so. For, Mehmood was, all said and done, a comic, and people loved him best for that. He was wonderfully physical, and had an impeccable sense of timing.

His early life indicated this all right. Son of Mumtaz Ali, a film and stage actor-cum-dancer, and brother of character-actress Minoo Mumtaz, Mehmood was born with a funny streak. The story goes that his mother once caught child Mehmood at a railway station trying to escape from home. When she chided him by saying that even his clothes had been bought by his father, Mehmood began to strip !

Mehmood was not just witty, but enterprising as well. As a young man, he sold poultry products, drove lorries and taught table tennis to Meena Kumari. The ball turned Cupid, and Mehmood married Meena Kumari's sister. But this marriage did not last. What did was the one with an American girl, Tracy. They had eight children and lived together till the end.

Away from home, his professional career had a slow start. One remembers seeing him in "bit" roles in such great films as "Pyaasa" and "Do Bigha Zameen". Nobody really noticed him then.

It was the 1961 "Sasural", a melodramatic box-office bonanza, that catapulted Mehmood into a different league. He became a comedian with that movie, which also created one of the most enduring comic pairs. Mehmood and Shubha Khote gave fans endless hours of laugh riot, till about the mid-1960s. Some of the films I still remember are "Grihasti", "Bharosa", "Ziddi" and "Love in Tokyo".

So popular were the two that Mehmood and Shubha could even demand songs. A number picturised on Mehmood became a must. One fondly remembers: "Apni ulfat pe zamane ka na pehra hota" ("Sasural"),"Woh din yaad karo "("Hamrahi") and "Pyar ki aag mein tan badan jal gaya" ("Ziddi").

Mehmood went beyond laughter and melody. He turned producer and director, and gave Bachchan his first break as a hero in "Bombay to Goa". Bachchan remembers his days of struggle when Mehmood offered him even shelter. It is also well known that Mehmood gave R.D. Burman his first break.

There was a strong touch of humanness in him that saw him encourage newcomers (Aruna Irani is an example) and look after his very large family.

However, in the midst of all this guffawing, Mehmood could not help feeling a deep sense of anguish. He was disappointed, even shattered, by the turn that comedy took in Indian cinema. It became largely slapstick, frivolous and also vulgar. One remembers Johnny Walker and Mehmood feeling sorry for present-day comedians, who were reduced to circus clowns, performing mundane tricks.

Mehmood tried to enrich Indian celluloid humour with a certain finesse, which is now lost with cinema using coarse language and bawdy mannerism to try and tickle people. But do they really laugh anymore, I wonder.

(This story appeared in The Hindu dated August 1 2004)

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