Govinda sits in a large, sparsely furnished room, facing two standees with images from his upcoming home production and solo starrer, Abhinay Chakra. A dripping air-conditioner has been switched off and a noisy fan cannot be switched on. “I have heard a noisy fan is inauspicious,” says Govinda, twirling his blue bracelet and beaming that famous grin as he awaits his first question.
In his heyday of superstardom, Govinda was infamous for his tardiness. So imagine my surprise when our interview began five minutes after the scheduled time. The five minutes I had to wait were simply because Govinda was just finishing his prayers and bidding farewell to his priest.
"You have done more than 150 films," I say, and he interrupts. "164," he says gently. Govinda began acting in the second half of the ’80s, peaking in the ’90s with films like Shola Aur Shabnam (1992), Aankhen (1993), Raja Babu (1994), Coolie No. 1 (1995) and Hero No. 1 (1997). "I have had to work hard," he says, "but it was interesting."
His popularity was as much for his outlandish costumes as his comic roles and energetic dance moves. He was a star despite being portly and over the top. He was loved because he made us laugh.
You may not know this, but Govinda – or Govind Arun Ahuja – is in fact a child of the Hindi film fraternity. His father, Arun Kumar Ahuja, had been an actor. According to a newspaper report, the veteran film producer-director Mehboob Khan had brought him from pre-Partition Punjab to Mumbai in 1937 and cast him as a lead in one of his films. Other films followed.
He met Nirmala Devi, a classical singer, at a film set, and the two married. After the only film Ahuja ever produced flopped, the family had to move from posh Carter Road to suburban Virar. Of their six children, Govinda is the youngest. "After I became a hero, I had to look after my home and extended family," he says.
And although he saw incredible success, the actor’s career has taken hard knocks. By the mid 2000s, he seemed to have faded away. In 2007, we saw him in Salaam-e-Ishq and he was hilarious in Partner. But "you could say that after 2009, my career faltered," he says. "And even when I did films, they did not release. Or if they did release, they were not very successful."
This time around
Today, the 50-year-old has re-invented himself. He is slimmer, fitter and calmer. And he is excited about the unexpected response to the trailer of Kill Dil, slated to release on November 14. “People are praising it as if it is already a hit,” he says. “They have not seen me in such a role. I myself am shocked that I could do it.”
The new Govinda: The original funny man will be doing his thing in Kill Dil
When director Shaad Ali offered him the role of Bhaiyaji, a character with negative shades, Govinda was taken aback. "I was not sure I could pull it off, so I said I’d try it for a few days, see if I can manage, or make some nice excuse and exit. I was not very confident about myself. But I found I enjoyed playing the villain."
Meanwhile in 2004, Govinda, who had joined the Congress party, won a Lok Sabha seat, defeating the BJP’s Ram Naik. After a failed attempt at politics, he quit and returned to films. Govinda has now been on the comeback trail for the last few years, but has had limited success in supporting roles in films such as Raavan (2010) and Holiday earlier this year.
But 2014 could just be the turning point. "More than films, I am selecting work," says Govinda. "I take the kind of projects where I like the feel and am working with good filmmakers, like Shaad [Ali] and Anurag [Basu, who is directing Jagga Jasoos, which also stars Ranbir Kapoor and Katrina Kaif and is slated for release next year]. There are two ways to think about it: are you getting the kind of roles you want, or can you mould the roles that you are getting into what you want?"
Change of plot
The actor’s return, whether based on financial need, or a need to survive in the industry, comes with the realisation that in order to drive films on his own, he needs to rebuild his brand. Also releasing later this month, is Happy Ending (where he is a shining part of the star-studded cast including Saif Ali Khan and Kalki Koechlin).
“I am not competing with [them], but complementing youngsters like Saif Ali Khan,” he says. Actually Khan is not much younger than Govinda, but it’s the sentiment that matters.
Govinda in Happy Ending
"I hope my next few films are so successful that I can launch Narmadaa [his daughter]. I was telling my wife Sunita the other day that if these films are hits, spectacular days lie ahead," he says. There have been rumours about Narmadaa’s launch all over the media previously, which have angered him. It’s a subject that comes up in every interview.
To Govinda’s great credit, while the first phase of his career was driven by his dancing and David Dhawan films, he has always managed to hold his own. Whether it was opposite Amitabh Bachchan in Hum (1991) or Salman Khan in Partner (2007), you couldn’t ignore him. Even as Kill Dil spotlights a more saleable star like Ranveer Singh, Govinda grabs your attention in under a minute, with a small dance step or a joyously wicked laugh.
"Whatever God has written for you can be good only," the actor says. "My desire now is to work and work hard – like I did in the early days. Of course, it’s not the same as the old days. You cannot make people wait now. Every hour costs lakhs. Instead of wasting that money, you could give it to the poor. I have become very particular. As a producer too, only if I come on time can I expect others to do the same. Now shoots are much better planned."
He is irked, perhaps in jest, when asked about his issues with punctuality. "When I used to reach Mani Ratnam’s set at 4am, even though my shot was not till 11am, no one wrote about that! I think maybe it didn’t suit my enemies to talk about that."
Another reason he may have been able to make the switch to a more disciplined lifestyle, is because of the influence of his now-deceased mother. “While mummy was alive, I didn’t do anything without her permission. I was 34 when I first told her I wanted to drink beer. When she heard that, she gave me a long sermon,” he says, flashing a disarming smile.
Govinda has two releases this year, and two more next year, a far cry from the many he used to have at his peak. But the actor has a simple explanation for where he stands in his career now: “Dil laga ke kaam karta hoon, lekin kaam se kabhi dil nahin lagata.” Maybe it’s not a coincidence that his next film is called Kill Dil.
Govinda’s greatest hits
The only actor with six “No. 1” movies: Beti No.1, Aunty No. 1, Hero No. 1, Coolie No. 1, Jodi No.1 and Anari No.1
Govinda did steps anyone could follow, including the pelvic thrusts. We’ve all copied his walk-back-and-forth-standing-in-one-place-move at parties. Your playlist this Sunday must include: Sarkai Lo Khatiya, Main Toh Raste Se Jaa Raha Tha, Main Laila Laila Chilaunga Kurta Phad Ke and Akhiyon Se Goli Maare
Garish became Govinda’s signature style in the 1990s. Velvet tux, gold zippers on shoes, orange pants and yellow overalls. He’s been there, worn that
Easy roles, slapstick humour and that endearing grin. What’s not to love?
From HT Brunch, November 9
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