He was nine when he decided to be actor. The moment of epiphany came when he walked out of a theatre after watching his first ever film. He wanted to be like Suraj in Jugnu even though he was heartbroken because the young freedom fighter had died a martyr.
Two days later, to his delight, he saw Suraj again, on the life-size hoarding of another film. Of course, he had to see Shaheed too, to ensure that Suraj had really been resurrected and there were no doubts in his mind that it was indeed Suraj, though he now went by the name of Ram. And what was even more incredible was that Ram too died a hero’s death at the end of this patriotic drama. “How can a man die twice,” the little boy asked his uncle with a puzzled frown, as they walked home. It would be another 10 years before he realised that such miracles were possible… In the movies!
Cut to 1962, Hariyali Aur Raasta was a superhit and Manoj Kumar was a star. Producers were chasing him to sign on the dotted line. One of them was his publicist-friend Kewal P Kashyap, and he wasn’t interested in another money-making masala movie. He wanted to recreate Bhagat Singh’s life on screen. Manoj loved the idea… He was going to die a martyr too, like his childhood idol!
The film was made on a shoe-string budget. It was shot in Ludhiana with only street lamps to light up the shot. It romanticised the revolutionary and made his struggles real. Bhagat Singh’s mother showered him with her blessings. And when she took ill and refused to take medicines, her sons called Manoj and pleaded with him to make her see reason. He rushed to the hospital where she was admitted and entreated her to take her pills. “Tu keh raha hai to achcha (Since you are saying this, fine),” she smiled, and swallowed them.
One night, after the film release, at around 2 am, his phone rang. It was the Prime Minister’s residence. Lal Bahadhur Shastri had just seen Shaheed and confided that the film had taken him back to the “old days”. Manoj and his team were invited for a cup of tea with Babuji. The next day, when Manoj Kumar met the PM dressed in a dhoti and banyan (vest), Shastriji had a proposition for him. The Indo-Pak War of 1965 had just ended and the PM wanted the star to make a film based on his slogan, ‘Jai jawan, jai kisan’.
In the train, while returning to Mumbai for Delhi, the story of Upkar was written. The film marked Manoj Kumar’s debut as a director and it made Manoj Kumar, Bharat. Interestingly, he had earlier thought of calling the character Ram but then reasoned that since he was a farmer in a village, Bharat would be better suited than the godly Ram. Three days after Upkar opened to a rousing reception, Filmistan Studio’s movie moghul, S Mukherji, bumped into Manoj.
He slapped him on the back and boomed, “Hey Bharat, how are you?” The name stuck. Manoj Kumar was Bharat… Mr India… for life! The film bagged him the several popular awards—for Best Actor, Best Director, Best Movie, Best Story, Best Dialogue — but the one he undoubtedly cherishes the most is the National Award for Second Best Feature Film. Bhagat Singh’s mother was there when he accepted it.
After Upkar, Manoj Kumar returned to the ‘desh bhakti’ theme with Purab Aur Paschim, Roti Kapda Aur Makaan, and finally the most ambitious film he had ever attempted, Kranti. It was an unforgettable film for him because he was getting to direct the man who had shaped his decision to become an actor… Suraj of Jugnu, Ram of Shaheed and now, the Sanga of Kranti!
As news of the casting coup spread, film industry veterans got ready for fireworks as the Pathan and the Pandit clashed. But the expected showdown didn’t happen even when Dilip Kumar spent four days at RK Studios trying to get into “character”. Manoj Kumar waited patiently for him to be ‘ready’. On the fifth day, Sanga stepped out in front of the camera and in an hour-and-a-half had wrapped up all his scenes!
It’s been 22 years since we last saw Bharat on screen in Clerk. But for me and for many Indians, he still remains our Mr India. Today, on his 74th birthday, I wish him with a Jai Hind!