If you grew up in the Eighties and weren’t particularly God-fearing, you might have been forgiven for believing Sunday mornings were meant for staying late in bed.
But if, like me, you had a devout granddad who thought the best way to reform his football-obsessed grandson was a weekly dose of mythology, Ramanand Sagar-style, Arun Govil shouldn’t need an introduction.
For thousands of pre-Internet television watchers, Govil’s signature half-smile, which screamed "I know what you’ll watch on Sunday morning" might have been mildly jarring, but for millions of others, Govil and Deepika Chikhalia, who played Ram and Sita in Ramayan, were divinity personified.
In its heyday, the show, launched on Doordarshan in January 1986, generated massive viewership. Today, Govil, the 56-year-old television actor-turned-producer looks back at that phase with nostalgia. "Those were the days. In the beginning, it was very embarrassing when people who were much older than I was began to touch my feet. But gradually, I understood they were not doing it to me. They were doing it to display their feelings towards the name that had got attached to mine," says Govil.
The boy from UP
Brought up in the cantonment town of Meerut, Govil, the son of a waterworks engineer, studied in a number of schools across moffusil towns such as Saharanpur and Shahjahanpur. After school, he enrolled for a BSc at Meerut and completed it from Mathura.
Also read: Brush up on your Ramayan, the entertaining way
Although he had worked in school plays, Govil didn’t really set out to be an actor. Initially, he landed in Mumbai to assist his businessman elder brother. “But within a few months, I realised I didn’t have a head for business.”
Before he essayed the role of Ram, Govil had tasted success on the big screen. So impressed were the Barjatyas of Rajshri Productions with his screen presence in his debut film Paheli (1977) that they signed him for a three-film deal. “Of these, Savan Ko Aane Do (1979), where I played a singer in love with Zarina Wahab, did well.”
Of course, playing Ram was the real McCoy, but it wasn’t easy landing the role. In the first instance, Govil failed the audition.
“I was already playing king Vikramaditya in
Vikram Aur Betaal
and approached the Sagars when I heard they were planning
. But they didn’t like what they saw, I encountered outright rejection!
A few weeks later, after they had announced the lead actor, Ramanand Sagar called me up to say that the selection panel had a change of mind. The consensus was, said Ramanandji, that we wouldn’t find a better actor to play Ram. I guess it was my destiny.”
Getting under the skin of a character revered by millions was a physical and psychological challenge. “The character had to be restricted in postures as well as gestures. Playing God, you cannot be too loud or too subdued. And then there was the all-knowing half-smile of Vishnu’s avatar.”
But playing the Almighty had its pitfalls. Most of the audience could not let young Govil step out of character even off the TV screen. He felt like he was being dissected 24x7.
“The three years that I was playing Ram [1986-1988], I felt I was under a magnifying lens. I had to make little sacrifices. To begin with, I had to give up smoking in public. And for a once-heavy smoker like me, it wasn’t easy.”
After playing character roles in movies featuring top stars such as Jeetendra (Justice Chaudhury, Himmatwala) and Govinda (Do Ankhen Barah Hath, Hathkadi) and reprising Ram in the 1989 TV series Luv Kush, Govil ventured into television production.
Also read: The six-pack Ram: Gurmeet Choudhary
What keeps him busy these days? “I have produced the serial Happy Homes for Doordarshan. The story centres on the lives of a group of senior citizens,” he elaborates.
Govil says playing Ram was an immensely satisfying experience. But, on the flip side, he was caught in an image trap and ended up playing similar characters in Buddha and Raja Harishchandra.
Today, apart from creating content, Indian television’s original Ram is content dabbling in spirituality as an office bearer of the Lakshmi Narayan Dham, a religious organisation.
And he has a philosophical, more Gita than Ramayan take on why he didn’t break out of the image trap.
“I tried too hard to diversify. Then I realised what was happening. I was running after things I didn’t have, and not developing my own strengths. But overall, after playing arguably the most important role in television over the last few decades, I have no regrets. That’s what being a practitioner of spirituality has taught me.”
After the break
* He used to be a chain smoker but hasn’t indulged in his habit in public, ever since he played Ram.
* He met his wife, a textile designer, early in his acting career. Before that, Govil had already scored a hit in Bollywood with Sawan Ko Aaane Do in 1979.
* Govil had to tone down his body language to get under the skin of the character, since God cannot have extravagant gestures.
* He has done a sensuous rain song with Moon Moon Sen in Maashuka (1987) and played a negative role in the TV series Karavas.
From HT Brunch, October 19
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