Mere desh ki dharti sona ugle, ugle heere moti, mere desh ki dharti…’ This is a song that we have grown up hearing, and even though more than half-a-century has passed since Upkar was unveiled in 1967, Kalyanji-Anandji’s evergreen chartbuster still bathes us in a glow of robust patriotism. The image of Manoj Kumar striding through the field in a dhoti-kurta, shouldering a plough, will always be ingrained in our minds making him the incorruptible, indestructible, infinite Mr Bharat.
Today, the actor turns 84, and Asha Parekh, his leading lady in Upkar, wishes him a heartfelt happy birthday. Then, in a no-nonsense voice that reflects deep familial bonds and a respect for the actor, writer and filmmaker, Ashaji adds, “And I wish he gets up, starts walking around and gets cracking on a script. He is a fabulous writer and he is just wasting his time.” She goes on to share that she had asked him to pen a serial for her. “He kept saying, ‘yes, yes, I will do it’, but he never gave it to me,” she grouses.
The duo first worked together in Apna Bana Ke Dekho in 1962. And even back then, she had noticed that he was always writing on the sets. “He would pen dialogues and even conceived scenes sitting right there,” she reminisces. This continued through their next film, Do Badan, during the course of which she realised that Manoj sahab was not just a perceptive writer, he also understood the art of filmmaking and had his finger on the pulse of the audience.
Do Badan was a ‘poor boy meets a rich girl love’ story where the two are kept apart by a conniving suitor, loss of sight and misunderstandings galore. What set it apart was that the lovers are united only after death. Ashaji confides that she had convinced director Raj Khosla that her character, Asha, should die in the end while Manoj sahab’s Vikas should live on after a successful eye operation. They went ahead and shot it this way. When Manoj sahab learnt what had happened, he was very upset.
“He had a bet with me that he would get Raj Khosla to reshoot the end with him dying as well, insisting that people would not like the film if after all her sacrifices and sorrow Asha passes away and Vikas survives her. We later realised how right he was. People loved the end he had visualised and I was happy to lose my bet even though Rs 100 was a lot of money at the time,” admits Ashaji.
A year after Do Badan, came Upkar, Manoj Kumar’s first official film as a director. The film, which he also wrote, was made on the behest of the then Prime Minister, Lal Bahadur Shastri, who after watching Shaheed had entreated Manoj sahab to make a film that would take his nationalist slogan, ‘Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan’ to all parts of the country. Manoj sahab played Bharat, a farmer who when a war breaks out, enlists himself in the army, and goes to the border to fight. Ashaji’s too didn’t have a usual singing-dancing role, her Dr. Kavita was also all steel and admirable.
“The film was a huge hit and with Upkar, he proved his mettle as a director and went on to give a series of hits. He did a fabulous job in Kranti too, and Shor as well. All his films had such brilliant camerawork and dialogue. He should be writing more scripts. He is a man of many talents, including being a really good homoeopath whose medicines are very effective. My birthday wish to him is that he should start moving… Start working again,” Ashaji signs off, sounding affectionately stern and leaving me with a smile as I remember those good old days of warm camaraderie.
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