Mehmood

Versatile Bollywood comedian

With his unique brand of buffoonery, enacted with a perfect sense of timing, Mehmood had generations of Indian cinema-goers guffawing uproariously in their seats with his outlandish antics for decades. From the late 1950s till the early 1980s, Mehmood single-handedly ensured the box-office success of many of the 300-odd films in which he featured. Several of them are still aired at prime time on cable television across India with the same rib-tickling effect they initially stimulated.



Mehmood Ali, actor and comedian: born Bombay, India 1932; married (five sons, one daughter); died 23 July 2004.



With his unique brand of buffoonery, enacted with a perfect sense of timing, Mehmood had generations of Indian cinema-goers guffawing uproariously in their seats with his outlandish antics for decades. From the late 1950s till the early 1980s, Mehmood single-handedly ensured the box-office success of many of the 300-odd films in which he featured. Several of them are still aired at prime time on cable television across India with the same rib-tickling effect they initially stimulated.

Mehmood commanded a higher fee than established Bollywood heroes and heroines from India's film capital of Bombay, with many films being specially scripted for him. Many established actors were tentative about being cast opposite Mehmood, fearful of being eclipsed, which they often were.

At times, comedy tracks were included especially for Mehmood by directors with an eye on the box office, while Bollywood's colourfully dramatic film posters would often be designed to feature the comedian-hero. "Directors would bank on him totally," writes Hanif Zaveri in his forthcoming biography of Mehmood, Man of Many Moods.

One of Mehmood's most celebrated roles was in the rollicking 1968 comedy Padosan ("Female Neighbour"), in which he plays a south Indian classical music teacher, trying desperately to woo the haughty heroine by appealing to her fledgling sense of melody, refinement and high culture. He mimics the southern accent and, with his highly mobile face, the overbearing demeanour of the traditional music guru to perfection. And, though unsuccessful in enticing the femme fatale with his hilarious and irreverent frolicking, he won millions of additional fans across India. This laugh-a-minute film continues to draw huge crowds even today.

Mehmood is possibly the only Bollywood star ever to have played a triple role. In Humjoli ("Young Friends", 1970) he portrayed three generations - grandfather, his son and grandson - with casual aplomb and with humorous success. As always, he outshone the established hero who admitted that he paled into insignificance in front of "Mehmood Sahib".

Mehmood Ali was born in Bombay in 1932, the son of a small-time actor-dancer, Mumtaj Ali. After basic schooling locally, Mehmood found it difficult to break into films and became a driver and general errand boy in the port city, an experience that stood him in good stead, as many of the characters he later portrayed with humorous sensitivity were those he encountered during this time.

His early bit part in Pyasa ( The Thirsty One, 1957) went largely unnoticed. But Mehmood gained a toehold in cut-throat Bollywood the following year in the tearjerker Parvarish ("Upbringing", 1958) in which he played the hero's comic-tragic brother.

But Sasural ("In-laws"), a sentimental melodramatic film three years later, established Mehmood as an accomplished comedian who seamlessly blended humour with humanity. Producers realised that he could play effortlessly with his audiences, making them cry and laugh alternately in films such as Kunwara Baap ("Orphan Father", 1974), in which he portrays a widower left to fend for a polio-stricken child. This performance was a tribute to his own polio-afflicted son.

Mehmood's innate versatility emerged in comedies like Bombay to Goa (1972) in which he starred opposite Amitabh Bachchan, who went on to become one of Bollywood's greatest icons. Mehmood played the good-hearted bus conductor interacting with his passengers from varied social backgrounds amidst a racy, hilarious chase by villains determined to kidnap the rich girl heroine aboard.

This was one of Bachchan's earlier films and Mehmood, by then an established Bollywood actor, went out of his way to help the future superstar. He offered Bachchan lodgings in his home for nearly two years till he achieved stardom and could afford to live on his own. " He would unabashedly promote me to his producers. . . I was like a family member to him," Bachchan said.

Unusually unselfish in a cut-throat milieu, Mehmood also helped several other struggling actors and musicians, many of whom went on to become household names across India. He also tried his hand at directing, albeit unsuccessfully, producing sentimental films with a social message. In the early 1980s the magnanimous comedian, who looked after his many brothers and sisters and their families, retired to Bangalore in southern India to breed horses.

Kuldip Singh

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