Let’s flashback to the ’80s, when Umesh Mehra ferried a big cast and crew from India to Russia to shoot his ambitious tragic-romance, Sohni Mahiwal. The Indo-Russian co-production, which he co-directed with Latif Faiziyev, was inspired by a favourite folktale of Sindh and Punjab.
The film features Sunny Deol as Mirza Izzat Beg, who comes to India with his caravan, looking for his dream girl. He finds her in the daughter of a village potter, Sohni, played by Poonam Dhillon, who turns his life completely. However, the lovers are separated by community, marriage and eventually, death.
Gulshan Grover was thrilled when he landed the role of Sohni’s husband, Noora, the film’s ‘Bad Man’. It landed him behind the Iron Curtain that he had only heard of till then.
On the day the team from India landed, there was a meeting scheduled with their Russian counterparts, at the restaurant of the five-star hotel in Tashkent where they were staying. Gulshan, who joined the others at the table, was looking exotic, with his long, flowing locks and his flourishing beard, which he had grown. His eyes were lined with soorma and he was sporting a tan he had spent hours in the sun to acquire. “I looked like a cross between an Italian hero and an Indian baddie,” the actor reminisces with a laugh.
Gulshan is known for his get-ups and his catchphrases, which have made his khalnayaks unforgettable. However, he had no idea what a dashing figure he cut among the Russians till a waiter approached with a bottle of vodka. It was complimentary, sent by a woman sitting on another table. Blushing, the actor accepted this ‘gift of love’, refusing to lock eyes with his ardent admirer who was waiting expectantly across the room.
Undeterred, after a quarter of an hour, she sent across a local dish. This time there was no avoiding her because Zeenat Aman, Gulshan’s co-actor who played the dacoit Zarina, insisted he walk up to her and thank her personally. When he demurred, she pulled him to his feet and literally walked him to the lady’s table.
“I stood bashfully before her, eyes still averted, very conscious of the titters coming from my table. Somehow, I managed to mumble a ‘thank you’ while my Russian fan was going crazy, trying to tell me through gestures how good-looking I was. And in that instant, Noora became the film’s noor (gem),” Gulshan guffaws.
Back home, the team travelled to Chandigarh for another schedule. By then, thanks to the Russian ladies, Gulshan had learnt to revel in all the attention. He was happy to see the crowd of girls hanging around the set. He swaggered past the Indian beauties, but to his surprise and disappointment, none of them even spared him a glance. “But the minute Sunny made his entry, they flocked to him, giggling, with their autograph books,” he recounts.
Slightly peeved, Gulshan reasoned that perhaps they had failed to recognise him because of the beard, turban and tan. So, then, he coached Umesh Mehra’s wife, Ritu, and Poonam Dhillon, to point at him and say loudly, “Look, Gulshan, Gulshan Grover” as he walked past.
Scene set, he went back and staged an entry again. His nonchalance was cultivated, but the soorma-streaked eyes were alert as he strolled past the girls again. To his shock and horror, as soon as they learnt his identity, the beauties dashed out of the set, once again leaving the team laughing. “Ah, the woes of a Bad Man,” Gulshan sighs.
However, Noora escalated him into the league of Bollywood biggies and baddies. And found him a huge fan following in Russia too. This despite the fact that on Umesh Mehra’s insistence, Gulshan had given the character a humorous touch, his catchline “Gunna choos ke” bringing on more titters than shivers. But to this day, he would prefer that women run away from him than laugh at him. “A bad man should always instil fear in the audience,” he signs off.
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