This actor from a small village in Uttar Pradesh stormed the Bombay film industry, despite the fact that he was stereotyped as a loan shark, reminices Ashim Chakraborty
It is not often that some thespians render characters in films that stay evergreen. But there are also a select few characters that go beyond that and become part of our daily lives. Sukhilala from the all-time great film “Mother India”, directed by the late Mehboob Khan and released in 1957 is one such film. It has been more than half a century now, and yet the mean loan shark Sukhilala remains an integral part of our lives and conversations. Even today, villagers tease money lenders by addressing them as Sukhilala. It is ironic that many of those who use the name today are not even aware of its origin. Perhaps even Mehboob Khan did not estimate that he was creating a never-to-die character when he first brought in the character of a loan shark for his 1940 film “Aurat”, though his character’s name was still not Sukhilala.
And did Pandit Kanhiyalal Chaturvedi, the then little known thespian from a village in Uttar Pradesh, who gave life to the character with his felicitous acting, even imagine that his character would become part of the reality of Indian villages?
Sukhilala Takes Birth
Those were the days of black-and-white cinema. And despite the unprecedented success of “Aurat”, Mehboob Khan was not satisfied. He constantly felt that what he truly wanted to reflect as the actual conditions of Indian villages had not come out. This dissatisfaction kept nagging him over the years, and so after 17 long years, he remade the film and named it “Mother India”.
Amazingly, for the role of Sukhilala, Khan had no alternative in mind but Pandit Kanhiyalal. Apart from him, Khan had not taken any other actor or actress who had acted in “Aurat”.
In an interview in 1960, Mehboob Khan narrated an interesting anecdote. “When I told him that he was about to play the role of a money lender again, a bright smile lit up his face, as if he knew that he alone would bag that role. And in fact this is somewhat true. Because though I had faced some hurdles while selecting the other actors for “Mother India”, yet, for Sukhilala’s role, no other actor came to my mind but Pandit Kanhiyalal. In fact, no one had even suggested any other actor’s name.”
The heroine of the film, Nargis, was showered with uncounted awards and unceasing praise, but she herself was always in fulsome praise of Kanhaiyalal’s acting. And just before his death, during a chat with Sunil Dutt, the name of Kanhiyalal cropped up. He somberly said: “Such actors come after ages. Whenever he was acting, I would go behind the camera and watch him spellbound. It never seemed as if he was acting. He was such a courteous and simple person that he had no idea what magic he was creating in front of the lens.”
Kanhiyalal did not finish his schooling. Scion of a wealthy family, his interests included, apart from acting, writing poetry as well as drama. He was good at poetry.
He quit studies when in Class Four and never went back to it. Subsequently, he started helping run the general merchant store
that was owned by the family. Unhappy working at this, he half-heartedly started running the wheat crushing machine.
In fact, he was so keenly drawn towards theatre that nothing else seemed to satisfy him. Those were times when acting was frowned upon as a career option. But his family had to bow to his determination. And he quickly bagged the role of a drunken table player in Agadhash Kashmiri’s drama “Aankh”. It was a remarkable role and he felt as if he had hit the jackpot. And then there was no looking back and he got into the busy schedule of an actor.
It is on some work regarding staging of a play that first brought him to Bombay, and he stayed put there. He staged a drama he had written himself after August 15.
The applause that drama received gave him his entrée into films. It started with bit roles, but his remarkable role as the loan shark in “Aurat” brought a battery of admirers to his doors.
A series of films followed. His greatest happiness was that he was receiving accolades for the roles he played. But “Mother India” changed his life drastically. The sheer brilliance of his acting created a deep impression all across. But there was a flipside: he got stuck with the image and was stereotyped.
But instead of getting cheesed off, he took that as a challenge. The filmmakers were like the leopard that would not change its spots. So instead of trying to convince them otherwise, he started playing the same kind of role each time in a different manner. He embraced the same role in “Ganga-Jamuna”, (with Dileep Kumar“Upkar”, “Apna Desh” “Dushman” and “Gopi”.
The uncrowned king of acting, Dilip Kumar found himself astounded while acting with Pandit Kanhiyalal in “Ganga-Jamuna”. Once asked about Kanhiyalal, Dilip Saheb laughed and said: “I would get nervous during his meticulous rehearsals. During exchange of dialogues, he would react in such a unique way that it became difficult to act against him.”
Coming from someone like Dileep Kumar, that really is not a compliment everyone would expect, but no doubt it was the way kanhaiyalal was. Superstar Rajesh Khanna got a chance to act with him in “Ganga-Jamuna” and “Dushman”. Once asked about Kanhiyalal, Kaka said: “He was the perfect natural actor. And despite being such a mature actor, he would listen to his roles seriously and then rehearse thoroughly. In the film “Dushman”, one of his catchphrases was “Kar bhala to ho bhala”. While shooting, I jocularly told the director, Dulal Guha, “Dulalda, with these four words, he steals the show in every scene that he acts in.”
In the film “Dharti Kahe Pukar Ke”, he played the role of the elder brother of Sanjeev Kumar and Jitendra. Gliding down memory lane, Jitendra says: “To my mind, the central aspect of that film was his acting. I was new to the industry then, and even after shooting would be over, I constantly felt that I am with my elder brother. We hardly have any actor of such exalted principles and moral values. And his role in “Mother India” has to be a full chapter in the schooling of future actors.”
And that chapter is enough to ensure that Pandit Kanhaiyalal Chaturvedi will be remembered forever.
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