Asrani – Memories
I was studying in Jaipur when All India Radio was inaugurated. As a child artiste, I participated and was selected for a children’s programme. Later while in college, I read about an institute in Pune which trained technicians and actors. My friend Mani Kaul and I applied for the course. I applied both for acting, as well as for direction and was luckily selected for both faculties. Later however, the principal asked me to chose one field as another student could be accommodated. I chose acting and Mani Kaul chose direction. That’s how my journey began.
My institute days were the most enriching days of my life. People all over the country had a notion which still persists: how can you ever train an actor? Ashok Kumar, Raj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar, Dev Anand had never been to an acting school, they argued. We ourselves believed this, till we joined the institute. Here we realized that we didn’t even know the basics of acting, forget the technicalities. For us acting was simply copying Dev Anand and Dilip Kumar.
One day, Motilal visited our acting class as a guest lecturer and wanted to look at budding actors. After seeing our performances, Motilal shocked us by saying that none of us would get a foothold in the industry, because there was already an original Dilip Kumar, Dev Anand and Raj Kapoor. We were all simply trying to copy them. He taught us a very great lesson and that was, to discover ourselves.
In those days, the Film Institute included courses like meditation, swimming and driving. Kathak was compulsory for two years. Sadly these days, they are no longer a part of the syllabus. We learnt acting as well as the technicalities of film making. We saw the best films in the world.
It was nevertheless, very difficult to gain an entry into the studios of Mumbai. Nobody was really aware of the Pune Institute. I passed out in 1965 and I didn’t get any work till 1970. Meanwhile, I joined the institute as a instructor. With the money I earned, I would travel to Mumbai every week with the hope that I would get a break someday.
n 1971, Hrishikesh Mukherjee who was our editing lecturer, came to the institute to meet Jaya Badhuri. Gulzar, who was writing and assisting Hrishida, had recommended her for Guddi. When he asked me where she was, I immediately directed him to the canteen where she was having tea. Anil Dhawan and Danny were also present. Jaya dropped her cup of tea when I told her that Hrishida had come to meet her! While he spoke to Jaya, I pestered Gulzar for a role. He quietly told me that there was one, but not to let Hrishida know that he had told me about it.
When I approached Hrishida and told him that I knew there was one role I could play, he blasted everyone in Bengali! Finally, I got the role. Guddi was a big hit! The film industry sat up and noticed the new girl, Jaya. Top directors including Manoj Kumar and Dev Anand had special screenings of the film and along with Jaya, they also noticed me. Consequently, I signed eight films and there was no looking back.
Strangely at the trial of Guddi, detractors dismissed it as an ‘educational film’. After it clicked, Jaya signed three films for Rs. 5000, Rs. 10,000 and Rs. 15,000 respectively and her price later shot up to 1 lakh! I formed an association with Hrishida and Gulzar. I did around eight to nine films with them including Bawarchi, Chupke Chupke and Abhimaan. Mere Apne was Gulzar’s first film as a director. At that point of time, Vinod Khanna’s position was very shaky. He had already established himself as a villain and was making an entry as a hero in the film. The premiere was held in Delhi and Gulzar was seated next to me. He was so nervous that the moment the film started, he held my hand tightly. I reassured him that everything would be fine. Later when the film ended and every one clapped and appreciated the film, Gulzar was touched and was moved to tears. I remember telling Shatrughan Sinha that it was the first time in my life that I noticed the audience clapping when the villain bashed up the hero! Shatru who was playing the villain, was ecstatic!
Those were the days when people craved appreciation. Today, everything has become so commercialized. Nobody is interested in how many claps and whistles he received for his performance. All they are bothered about is how much money they are getting. Anyway, you can’t really blame anyone. It’s a global phenomenon, everybody is becoming money minded!
Directly or indirectly, Jaya put the Pune Film Institute on the map. Navin Nischol was the second person from the institute to achieve instant success, His first film, Saawan Bandhon with Rekha was a big hit. The scenario changed completely and people from the film institute were welcomed with open arms.
My second milestone was Sholay. My role though small, required detailed study. I was given the specially made costume and wig and also books of World War II which explained Hitler’s various gestures. I was even made to go through a trial attended by the writers as well, to ascertain whether I fitted into the role or not. The film was a super success and till date, people remember my dialogue, ‘Hum Angrezo ke zamane ke jailor hain’.
I am doing a film called Shera with T. L. V Prasad in which I am playing the same jailor who has gone mad. To add to it, I am playing the double role, i.e., his son who has taken charge of the police station. It just goes to show that people still remember it. Even today, when I’m out on my early morning walks, someone or the other never fails to comment, ‘Attention! Hum Angrezo ke zamane ke jailor hain’!
I was nominated for best supporting actor for my performance in Abhimaan. The nominees included names like Ashok Kumar, Premnathji and Pransaab. I sincerely prayed and hoped that I would not get the award. I was happy just being nominated along with people I admire and respect.
In those days, awards meant a lot because they helped you increase your price. I received my share of them. I was awarded the best comedian for Aaj Ki Taaza Khabar. I. S. Johar who was my chief competitor and contender, was called on stage to hand over the trophy to me. He had a good sense of humor and quipped, `I deserve the trophy and Asrani needs it.’!
Later I was also awarded for my performance in Balika Badhu and Ravi Tandon’s Anhonee. My father wrote to me from Jaipur expressing how proud he felt. More than the awards, I cherish the opportunity of working with the best people. I have worked with the legends of Hindi cinema with the result that even today people like my performances and ask me about my next release.
I always fought against vulgarity, double meaning dialogues and wearing ladies’ clothes. It so happened that I was shooting for Uljhan at Hotel Sun ‘N’ Sand. It was a huge set with a lot of dancers. Dadamoni, Sanjeev Kumar and Sulakshana Pandit were also present. I was playing a sub-inspector in the film. When I asked for my costume, much to my amusement, they handed over a ladies’ outfit on the pretext that it was for a funny song sequence with Aruna Irani. I refused to wear it, saying that I wasn’t informed about it. I had never done anything of the sort.
The producer and the director blamed each other for the fiasco. Later Kamaal who was the dance director, emotionally black mailed me, saying that the producer would have to incur heavy losses if the shooting was cancelled. After a couple of hours of persuasion, I finally gave in. They promised me that it would not look vulgar. But that was first and the last time I dressed in drag.
I met my wife Manju at the film institute. She was my student. Later, when I was successful in films, I met her parents and married her. Seeing how things functioned in the industry, she would teasingly tell me to have an affair with another actress at least for publicity sake! She would also tell me to make an announcement that I was unhappy, and then see the reactions. I did exactly that and two actresses were ready to have an affair but I withdrew!
I was very close to Amitabh and Jaya till a misunderstanding marred the equation. I had met Rajesh Khanna during Bawarchi. When B. Rama Naidu approached Rajesh Khanna for Prem Nagar he asked him to sign me as well. We did quite a few films together. Suddenly somebody said that I had become Rajesh Khanna’s chamcha and it even came out in print. This affected the relationship I shared with Amitabh. A kind of a formality seeped in. It was then that I decided to just stick to my work. Later, everyone went their own way and I went mine. But Jaya is still the same with me. I was her instructor for two years.
Friendships in the film industry last as long as you are working together. Once your film is complete, you have to start forming new associations. Today the situation is even worse. Subhash Ghai and I, along with our other batch mates did a film called Umang which flopped.
Later he turned to writing and direction. But somehow we couldn’t work together. I remember how during our struggling days, we would pool in our money and hire a cab just to make an entry into the studios. Those days cabs were considered a luxury and the same watchman who otherwise wouldn’t let us in, would salute us and let us enter! Nevertheless, Subhash Ghai, never made it as an actor. When he took up direction, initially he would treat his stars very shabbily. It was probably due to his frustration of not having made it as a hero. Later however, this stopped.
Tired of doing stereotyped roles, I switched to direction and made films like Chala Murari Hero Banne, Salaam Memsaab, Hum Nahin Sudharenge, Dil Hi To Hai and Udaan. Unfortunately, none of them did well. That was a bad phase of my life. I missed out on a lot of good projects as well as there was a lot of psychological pressure. Luckily I returned to acting and started approaching my producers for work since they were under the impression that I had quit acting. I received a warm welcome.
A few of my favorite films include Gulzaar saab’s Koshish, Parichay and Khusboo. I can never forget Hrishida’s Guddi, Chupke Chuupke and Abhimaan. LV.Prasad gave me a beautiful role in Bidaai and Udhar Ka Sindoor. I have worked with the stalwarts of the South film industry like K.Vishwanath and Nagga Reddy. I did a film called Takkar whereI play a villager who strews nails on the road and later repairs the resultant punctured tires and thus earns a living. One day it so happens that he punctures a car which is on its way to the hospital and the patient is none other than his own mother. It was very beautifully handled. I played a variety of roles and the credit goes to my directors who thought that I could go beyond comedy.
Later Kader Khan, Aruna Irani and I formed a teamwhich clicked. We did a lot of Madras banner films. Earlier it was the Mehmood, Dhumal and Shobha Khote trio which was considered a hit team but later they lost it as they over did it.
When I entered films, Mehmood was the comedy king. Rajendranath and I.S.Johar were also there, but Mehmood was a superstar! He would drive in his sports car. Pramod Chakraborty had a special make up room made for him with a special mirror. Even Dharmendra’s make-up room was ordinary in comparison to his. That was because Mehmood’s price was three and a half lakhs whereas Dharam’s was two. Eventually Mehmood tilted towards vulgarity and double entendre and lost the family audience. I liked Joharsaab’s humour which was dry and sarcastic.
I worked with Dharam and Hema in many films. Hema was always very dignified and till date remains so. Once Indira Gandhi asked Hema to visit her as she wanted to know what impact the Emergency had on the state. The other reason was that she also wanted to meet the Dreamgirl who was a sensation. People would just flock to see Hema. She was very beautiful.
I am against the notion that comedians are loners. However the fact remains that we comedians and character artistes are far more sensitive than heroes. We feel more, observe more, convey more and are easily hurt. With heroes it is not the case. They would rather hurt than be hurt. They rarely express what is inside them. Incidentally, it is always the comedians and the character artistes like Dhumal, Yakub, Motilal, Agha, Keshto who have passed away soon.
What I find funny sometimes is the directors’ approach towards character artistes. Once a director made me wear a horrible wig. When I asked him about it, he retorted, `How can you look better than the hero?’ Can you imagine this?
People can’t digest the fact that a comedian can behave normally in his day to day life. The worst was the time when my father died and I was performing the last rites and somebody asked me questions like ‘How much do you earn?’ and `Which is your next release’?
Somebody put it very beautifully when he said, ‘Every comedian wants to play a Hamlet and every Hamlet wants to play a comedian.’ With heroes wanting to do comedy, haven’t they proved this right? (Asrani interviewed by Ranjeeta in 1999).