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Motilal – My Memorable Roles (1963)

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I rather think I come up with a memorable role when I don’t shave. I have hit it off with a hirsute chin from “Pardesi” to “Parakh.”

Today, I suppose, I dare not show up on the sets unshaven. “Hell, Moti,” people are apt to say, “you are growing old!”

But to talk seriously of my “memorable” roles….

I have survived three heart attacks, three thromboses of the heart, one of the brain, an air crash, a near drowning—and several rotten films. There have been films and films. The bad ones failed but I never failed as an actor. That’s why I have survived. To each role I have given of my best.

Take my very first film, “The Lure of the City.” I was a greenhorn playing the hero opposite Sabita Devi. Was I dumb on the sets? I was—I really couldn’t talk. I kept “seeing” the camera. They packed up for the day in desperation. Sabita’s mother sensed my discomfiture, sent her daughter to talk to me, to put me at ease. I made it a point to go round the studio, meet and know everyone—I shook a lot of hands—thus putting myself entirely at ease. Then I was all right. Never again did I “see” the camera on any set.

Next. I did a stunt film—”Silver King.” I had to fence. “Can you fence?” asked the director. “No,” I said. “Not with a sword anyway. But with a pen, yes.”

Isn’t the pen mightier than the sword?

Then we fenced some, the director and I— using pens!

“Now for the real thing,” the director said. “You can learn fencing. You can do it in a day. It has been done before. We can do it again.”

I hired a Frenchman to teach me fencing. Back on the sets, what did I get to fence with? A hell of a sword weighing over six pounds! I balked. I could hardly lift the thing. “Go on, go on.” urged the director. “Of course, you can lift it. We have done it before. ”

All I had to do for the scene, I discovered, was to come down a staircase. Yakub, playing the villain. and a number of his “henchmen” were to be in the hall. I had only to flash the sword once and the villains, by cinematic magic, would drop!

For this, all the bother of learning fencing!

For the same film, I was supposed to jump into a river that used to flow somewhere near Andheri and “rescue” a drowning woman. “Is the water deep enough?” I asked. “Yes, yes,” assured the director. “Go on, jump, we’ve done it before, we can…,” he hurried me.

I jumped. Almost near the water, I saw it was a very shallow river. What I was heading for was not the “rescue” of the woman but the breaking of my own neck. I did a quick somersault before I hit water and saved myself.

Then I had to grab a chandelier in a palace hall scene—grab it and swing on it to land on a balcony. We landed on the floor —I and the chandelier which, of course, had been insecurely fixed.

“Don’t worry,” the director had said. “We have done the chandelier scene before, we can do it again.”

That’s how they did things …

How I do things, how I act, is by not acting at all. I just live a role. In “Pardesi” I play a youth who is a victim of amnesia. I got into the role so much, I hadn’t recovered my memory for some weeks after the shooting was done. Similarly for some time after “Arman,” in which I played a blind youth, was completed, I could not see aright.

Study Of Human Nature

“Jagirdar,” “Such Hai,” “Pardesi,” “We Three” and “Mastana”—the last based on Chaplin’s “The Kid,” in which I play a man (of unkempt chin!) who adopts a child and has to go to court when the child’s parents rediscover him—are among the films I remember as memorable.

Photo CaptionIn “Mastana,”, one of his earlier films, Motilal played a man who adopts a child and has later to fight its parents in court. The actor lists this as one of his memorable roles.

I was not greedy. I did two or three films a year and was happy. It helped that only good stories from writers like K. M. Munshi were chosen for filming, by companies like Sagar Movietone and New Theatres. But I never fussed about roles. Even if what I got was a brittle role I was confident of breathing life into it. This I do by my own power of improvisation. The power I draw from my study of life around me, of human nature.

Photo CaptionAs the suave Mr. Sampath in Gemini’s film of the same name, Motilal scored another apparently effortless, polished triumph.

Let me illustrate this improvisation. In Gemini’s “Mr. Sampath,” based on R. K. Narayan’s novel, I decided to play Mr. Sampath, with his lack of attachment, his desire merely to live his life as he wanted to, not as an extraordinary person, but precisely as an ordinary person.

Earlier Mr. Vasan, the producer-director, had insisted on showing me two reels of a Tamil film made on the same theme. I thought it was slow—it rather gave me a headache.

Then I gave Mr. Vasan a “taste” of how I would prefer to play my role. When the Hindi film was finished and well received, I suggested to Mr. Vasan that we do a sequel, “Mr. Sampath Goes to the U.N.O.” depicting the impact of Mr. Sampath on bungling politicians and vice versa.

In Bimal Roy’s “Devdas,” I played Chunilal who assists Devdas in his downward path to self-imposed degradation. Now Chunilal in popular fancy is a cheap boon-companion, a procurer. But I thought Chunilal was a human being too. That if he was not all white, he was not all black too. That if he walked the dark alleys instead of the sunlit avenues, it was because he had lived, suffered, and found direction lacking. There is an illuminating bit of dialogue in the film in which Chunilal first recoils from taking Devdas, even despite his request, to Chunilal’s “haunts.” On this note I played the character—I hope, successfully, memorably.

Living For Today

Now to come to a role that has more personal implications than the others. Visualize a man with a semi-bald pate, wire frame spectacles perched precariously on his nose, a tooth-brush mustache. He has an air of ineffable sadness and, inside of him, he is full of goodness to the world—a world which hasn’t been all good to him, in which he finds ultimate dignity only in death.

Photo CaptionThere was a “doctor” in the house, paying a call on (from left) Majnu, Motilal and Meena Shorey (on the couch) in “Ek Do Teen”, one of Moti’s many successful films.

His name is Motilal, too. I play him in “Chhoti Chhoti Baten,” the film I have labored much to put together bit by bit.

This is my most recent role but the one I have wanted to do longest. In visualizing the Motilal of my film, a suburban philosopher, a man who is silently asking himself, “Where is peace?” and is led on from corner to corner, I have borrowed of myself, of many echoes from all my yesterdays.

It is a temptation to call this my most memorable role but I won’t. For one thing, you—the movie fan—have not had a chance to see it on the screen. When I recall something as my “best” I want you, too, to be able to remember, to see a little glow light up inside you, to say “It’s so.” And then perhaps I don’t really care to cite one single element in a mosaic of experience as memorable.

When people ask me how old I am, I say, “153”—adding my real age to the 100 odd films I have done. For long I was a romantic hero (even singing my own songs) and it was when I stopped being such a hero that I became an actor.

But I really don’t know if I care to call some of my roles “memorable” … On the screen and off it i like to live for today, this moment. To each occasion I want to give of my best, forget and pass on to the next. Something becomes memorable when one’s mind keeps returning to it lingeringly but I like to keep mine looking ahead—impatient of past achievements, eager for tomorrow. It has been a long road I have taken, bittersweet, with many milestones. But milestones are good on a road—who wants to carry them permanently on one’s neck ? (This interview was conducted in 1963).

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