Three decades after invisibly worming their way into our hearts, Arun Verma, Seema Sahni, Calendar and, of course, Mogambo, refuse to be dislodged, writes Preeja Aravind
Long before there was Krissh or Ra-One or Flying Jatt, there was Mr India. And he was an average Indian (‘ek aam Hindustani’, he called himself) who cared for the poor, and orphan children. He was a simple man who wanted to do something about the rampant corruption he witnessed around him. He was our very own superhero.
Thirty years later, the patriotic idea behind the cult film Mr India is still strong, though it has now transuded into online social activism. If I might overstate and talk of ideology, Sidharth Kak’s ‘pristine leader’ image could have even given birth to a few political parties. Ideology and cheesiness aside, Mr India was a sci-fi adventure far ahead of its time, yet it was in the same league as the other Bollywood masala potboilers of that decade.
The Write Way
The films of the 1980s were corny and mired with violence; most of the blockbusters of this period were of angry young men out for revenge. This directorial venture by Shekhar Kapur, on the other hand, was a fresh change from the unimaginative tales of heroism by a single man. As a Bangalore-based entrepreneur said, “Even for a kid who knew little to no Hindi, Mr India was memorable because it broke the language barrier, and was innocent and optimistic in its entire outlook.”
Taking only the minutest of inspiration from HG Wells’ The Invisible Man, the legendary writer team of Salim Khan and Javed Akhtar created an iconic superhero for India. Ironic that a film on togetherness was the last film they came together for.
Mr India, like his reel avatar, remains elusive in this age of streaming apps and devices; it is near impossible to watch Mr India online on third-party streaming services. The only one that I could find was on oZee.com, Zee Network’s online portal.
So that means, I have had to stare at my laptop, or phone to relive the moments when the children would chant in rhythm with beating the table, “Calendar, khana do. Calendar, khana do.”
For Satish Kaushik, who played Calendar, the name became a “brand”. He was also an associate director in the film. “Though I was an actor first, I enjoyed the dual role responsibility as Shekhar Kapur was an institution for me,” Kaushik reminisces.
The First of Many
All this aside, the film itself had so many firsts. It was the first film to be shot at a budget of Rs 3.5 crores. It was a movie where not only was the female lead given as much importance as her male counterpart, it also debuted the “chiffon-sari item song” which would become a mainstay in Bollywood through the 1990s. It also initiated the Anil Kapoor-Sridevi onscreen pairing — and turned them into a “bankable” romantic pair.
Explained Sridevi about it: “Boneyji (Kapoor) cast me with his brother because he wanted the most popular and in-demand actress of that time. Also, I had worked with Anil in Jaanbaaz and Karma, but not opposite him. So, I was glad for this opportunity. And the script appealed to me. It was a modern, trendy and high-tech film, and you needed guts to do it in those days.”
Character Mein Rehne Ka…
Then there were the villains: Ajit Vachani as Teja, Bob Christo as Mr Walcott and, of course, Amrish Puri as Mogambo—whose characters have outlived the artists who portrayed them. Amrish Puri’s Mogambo is at par with Amjad Khan’s Gabbar Singh. I cannot imagine anyone else even trying to muster that sort of diabolical cheer that accompanies his “Mogambo khush hua”. How fortunate for me the fan that Puri was cast as Mogambo, even though about 65 per cent of the film was already shot.
Another plus for Mr India was its ensemble cast of child actors whom Kaushik calls “brats”— the boys, for instance, who were the mischief-makers in the seaside bungalow but could not stop crying at the funeral of their foster sister, Tina. Some of these, such as Aftab Shivdasani, Ahmed Khan and Karan Nath—are still active in the industry. “When I see Ahmed, Aftab, Kunal … I can’t believe these talented people were the same brats. It used to be so difficult to even get them together to work a scene,” says Kaushik.
And who can forget the little Tina, whose onscreen death marked the pivotal moment where Mr India turned solemn. In a January 2012 blog on his website, director Shekhar Kapur explains why he killed off Tina: “There is always a thin line between farce and fantasy… I was having so much fun shooting the characters of Mr India with such fine actors that I thought the film would be turning into a farce. And films like Mr India cannot turn into a farce, they must be like a fantasy that makes you believe in what is happening … Earth it, in a way, so people stay connected to the film in their hearts, and not just in their minds.”
Heart of the Matter
And people stayed connected to Mr India in their hearts. Says 38-year-old aspiring ad-film maker: “Mr India dressed like a simpleton and had all the problems of an average youth. Yet he got his girl in the end. That gave regular boys like me hope.”
Hope remained despite the farcical elements: the phone at a newspaper office never seem to work; table laden with sumptuous food literally fly out of a restaurant; a woman dressed as Charlie Chaplin and a child side-kick manages to tear apart a gambling den while fighting local goons.
According to Sridevi, the Charlie Chaplin scene was shot over 32 days. “I would thank Shekhar (Kapur) for that scene. It was a small bit but because of his idea, it became an important episode in the movie. And I have always been a fan of Charlie Chaplin, so it was a bonus honour for me.”
Boney Kapoor recollects that the first cut of the Charlie Chaplin scene was 18 minutes, which had to be cut down to the five-seven minutes in the film. Considering the final cut was 2 hours and 50 minutes long, and the sequence itself was close to the director and producer, it might have been a heavy heart that did all the editing.
“Watching Sridevi perform was great—she is a bundle of talent and professionalism,” says Kaushik about the actress, who was at the top of her game in that era.
It is sad that the year Mr India was released, Filmfare didn’t hold any awards event. For a blockbuster film, Mr India missed out on all the ceremonial recognition that are so in vogue nowadays bereaving its makers of the much-deserved pat on the back. Thankfully, another glossy magazine, Star & Style, awarded Mr India with several of them, although without a ceremony.
When it comes to accolades, the best one would be that Mr India was remade in Tamil and Kannada. However, neither version achieved anything near the cult status of the original. Kapoor explains: “We were never dependent on the stardom of the actors, just on the magic of the film. We wanted to make it an epic saga that we cared for. All our stunts ans special effects … it was real-time direction, not something done in post-production.”
The care that went into production is probably why we have not seen another reboot of Mr India, yet, which remains a “keen ambition” for Boney Kapoor — who was called ‘the real star of the film’ by Shekhar Kapur in a 2012 interview. The producer had completely backed the film despite its ‘fantasies’ at a time when no one would, and perhaps, without the right amount of courage, might not do today either.
I just hope that I get to see the same courage in the reboot or the sequel, whenever it is made, so that the legacy can pass on to the next generation.