There’s a bittersweet quality to being the lookalike of a famous person. People rush up to you, want to hug or photograph you, but as Salman Khan lookalike Najeem says, you know it’s got very little to do with you. “Someday, I hope people will want a picture with me, Najeem,” says the aspiring actor.
Still, in a star-obsessed nation, it’s a good living. You get to travel the world, imitating your doppelganger. You star in ads and feature in movies. You can even march down the street waving to crowds and almost be mistaken for one of the most powerful men in the country -- as Modi lookalike Abhinandan Pathak is doing in the photo you see on the right.
But you are also, essentially, living someone else’s life, and that presents its own pitfalls. When Sachin Tendulkar announced his retirement, for instance, it came as a jolt to Balvir Darshan Chand, who has had to switch his lucrative career as a Sachin lookalike for a full-time job helping market a vada pav brand.
And if your idol is, well, not universally love, you might even have to cover that faux-famous face when you leave the house -- as Baba Ramdev lookalike Sanjay Talwar finds himself doing lately.
Greeted everywhere with ‘Arey, Narendra Modi’
The first time Abhinandan Pathak was mistaken for Narendra Modi was at a temple in Haridwar, Uttarakhand. It was January 2014, the Congress was still in power, and Modi was campaigning with a vengeance ahead of the general election.
Pathak, 50, a PE teacher from Saharanpur, Uttar Pradesh, was steeling himself for a quick dip in the icy waters of the Ganges when a priest started shouting, “Arey, Narendra Modi!”
Pathak had a hard time convincing the priest that he was not the aspiring PM. It was a sequence of events that would unfold again and again, amid the ‘Modi wave’ of 2014.
At a police station in Saharanpur, a duty officer saw him approaching and hurried to seniors to tell them Modi had come on a surprise visit. Neighbours and relatives started teasing Pathak about the similarity.
He began to play along and dress like the prospective PM. He even changed his spectacle frames to match those Modi uses. Then he took it upon himself to ‘campaign’ for the BJP – cycling solo 550 km from Saharanpur to Lucknow. “Everywhere I went, people thought Modi had arrived,” he says.
In a twist of irony, a month after Modi became PM, Pathak lost his job. “The school management didn’t like it that I was working for the BJP,” he says. Pathak responded by heading to Haryana to campaign for the BJP ahead of the state election.
“I may have lost my job, but I’ve never been so busy,” he says.
Meanwhile, he has never actually met the man he calls his elder brother. Last Tuesday marked his 20th visit to the PMO. Each time, he hands over a letter requesting an appointment. “Maybe my devotion is lacking something, and that’s why I don’t get to meet him,” he says.
What would he say if he did? “I don’t know,” Pathak says. “Maybe I would touch his feet.”
‘Some day I hope people will want a photo with me, Najeem’
Since he was seven years old, people have been telling Najeem Khan that he looks like Bollywood superstar Salman Khan. “One day I looked at myself carefully in the mirror, and realised that I really do,” he says.
This was in 2007; Najeem was a scrawny 16-year-old kid from Afghanistan, studying in a Pakistan school, waiting for a visa to migrate to India with his family. When he moved to Delhi later that year, Khan weighed just 45 kg, and had never considered a life in show business.
Watch | Being Salman Khan
Still, the similarity to the superstar inspired him and he began working out. “To be like him, I need to work out a lot. The gym is my life — and I have managed to bulk up to more than 85 kg,” says Najeem, now 24.
In 2012, while still a student, he entered an online photo contest organised by a brand that Salman endorsed. The first prize was a meeting with the star in Mumbai. He won — and his life began to take a strange turn.
“The real Salman was not in a great mood that day,” Najeem remembers. “But when I handed him a poster with our photos side by side, he smiled. And he asked, ‘Which one is me?’”.
This encouraged Najeem to register with modelling agencies across India, but he still wasn’t thinking of being a lookalike. His big break came in 2014. He had heard that a film director was looking to cast a Salman lookalike to play the star’s younger self. Najeem auditioned, was selected, and found himself on the sets of the blockbuster Bajrangi Bhaijaan.
The film’s runaway success got Najeem some serious attention and he was asked to play host on the red carpet of an awards show — dressed as the young Bhaijaan. “Ever since, I have been getting regular offers to appear as Salman’s lookalike at corporate events and in advertisements.”
Najeem has begun to polish his act, rehearsing Salman dialogue with the help of Salman Khan tapes to get the voice, tone and inflection right. “People stop me on the streets for autographs, photographs. Kids run up to me and hug me tight,” he says. “This is my biggest achievement.”
Then a bizarre offer came his way — a news channel offered Najeem Rs 1.5 lakh to re-enact the infamous hit-and-run accident involving the star, which left one person dead and four injured in 2002.
“I flat out refused,” says Najeem. “And that’s when I decided I would stop being just a lookalike. Salman has achieved so much. What have I done to my own credit? I love to play him, and I will continue to — but I want to be famous in my own right. I want to work hard and get to the point where people want a photo with Najeem Khan.”
‘A software engineer who is also the original SRK ‘fan’
“Hi, you have reached Junior Shah Rukh Khan,” is what you hear when you dial Durgesh Goyal’s cell number.
“I have been Junior Shah Rukh Khan long before Fan came out,” he says, referring to SRK’s mid-April release about a a crazy fan who stalks a superstar.
Goyal, a 33-year-old from Rajasthan, recalls being drawn to SRK since his days on the Doordarshan TV show Fauji. “I would watch him and imagine I was him,” he says. “If Shah Rukh cried on screen, I would cry. If he tasted victory, I felt like I had. When I watched Fan, I thought I was watching myself in the first half. The second half scared me. I went blank for an hour after watching the film.”
When he was in Class 10, Goyal was working part-time at a cosmetics store near his home in Jodhpur when a customer came in, took one look at him, and nicknamed him SRK. “I was taken by surprise. I had always felt I looked like him, but I never thought other people would think so too,” Goyal says.
The encounter only intensified the young man’s sense of identifying with the star. “When Shah Rukh Khan cut his hair, I would too. If he grew a ponytail, so would I,” he says.
Goyal learnt his most famous lines, and learnt to say them like he did. But it was still just a ‘hobby’. His family was determined that he make a career in computer engineering, and in his free time Goyal pursued his passion for choreography.
Then, two years ago, Goyal performed at a Navratri show in Jodhpur, as an SRK lookalike. “It was life-changing,” he says. “I danced to songs from Happy New Year and Don, and the audience went wild. I was on a high.”
Goyal quit his job as a computer engineer and began to do stage shows across Jodhpur, Surat and Mumbai.
“My family is not happy,” he says. “This has brought me a lot of fame — people come to me for autographs and photographs; I have made it to news channels — but not much money. My hope is that I will be cast to play SRK’s younger self in a movie or an advertisement and that will be my big break.”
Meanwhile, it was only last year that Goyal actually saw the man who has reshaped his life. “He was making his way to his vanity van at RK Studios. A Bollywood choreographer friend took me to see him there,” Goyal says, his voice taking on a dreamy quality. “His bodyguards wouldn’t let me approach, so we called out to Shah-bhai. He looked at me and asked me to come over.”
Goyal handed him a set of six photographs — four of himself, and two of the real star. “He stared at them,” Goyal says. “He couldn’t tell if they were of me or of him.”
The man who could be CM
In the AAP, he’s an aam aadmi with a difference. Party worker Amar Nath Verma, 52, is a near-replica of Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal.
The father of two and retired textile ministry worker even campaigned as the leader ahead of the 2014 Assembly election.
Watch | Are there two Arvind Kejriwals in Delhi?
In fact, when Verma was still working at Udyog Bhawan -- back when Kejriwal was an IRS officer -- senior government officials would run into Verma and ask if they had seen him somewhere before. “Only later did I realise why they had been confused,” he says.
The similarity was first pointed out to him in 2011, when he arrived at the Ramlila Maidan to participate in Anna Hazare’s India Against Corruption movement. “At the venue, people started teasing me. They said I was a lookalike of [then activist] Arvind Kejriwal. I went home and told my wife. We turned on the TV realised I did indeed look like him,” he says. “As he became famous, more people began noticing the similarity.”
An activist at heart himself, Verma says he signed up with the AAP the day Kejriwal announced its formation.
He eventually met Kejriwal in October 2012, during a protest. “Somebody introduced us. Everyone laughed. Kejriwalji smiled and encouraged me to focus on party work,” Verma says.
Ward boy to ‘master blaster’
“I’ve been Sachin for 20 years,” says Balvir Darshan Chand, 46. Kitted out in replicas of India’s blue cricket uniform and Tendulkar-style mirrored sunglasses, he really does look the part.
It wasn’t always so. Growing up in a village in Punjab, Chand had no interest in cricket — he was more of a kabaddi fan. When he moved to Ludhiana to work as a ward boy in 1992, Sachin had already scored that famous century against Pakistan. “People at the hospital would approach me to say I look like Sachin, and I would say, who is that?” Chand says. “Someone finally led me to the hospital TV during a match and I was shocked. This guy looked exactly like me.”
The turning point came six years later, when a local newspaper did a story on the Sachin lookalike at the government hospital. “All kinds of people came looking for me. A shoe brand offered me my first advertisement. It was very exciting,” he says.
A year later, ESPN invited Chand into their Play Zone at stadiums, to entertain the audience. “People started asking to click photos with me,” he says. That was the most memorable year of his life, he adds. Sunil Gavaskar called him into the commentary box; he got to meet Sachin in the flesh at a Delhi hotel; and a brand sponsored a four-month trip to England, where the World Cup was being held.
“A Gujarati family saw me at a stadium there and invited me to stay at their Crawley home,” he says. “I lived with them for a few months and they fed me so much I put on some weight. The family would joke that, plump, I looked more like Maradona!”
The hospital couldn’t do with the long absences, though, and asked him to choose. “I chose Sachin,” he says.
Since then, Chand has done a TV show and appeared in a number of ads. “I learnt to speak like Sachin, act like Sachin. I also learned to dance and did a few stage shows,” he says.
Then Sachin announced his retirement. “Everyone told me my career was over,” Chand says. “Luckily, street food brand Goli Vada Pav got in touch and I work with them full-time now, helping with publicity and new store launches.”
Retired Delhi bus driver finds a new career as Baba Ramdev
Residents of north Delhi’s Timarpur area like to joke that they don’t need to travel to Haridwar to meet Baba Ramdev. They have their own.
That would be Sanjay Talwar, 54, husband, father, retired Blueline bus driver and the spitting image of the yoga guru.
“In a way, I have Shah Rukh Khan to thank for helping uncover the Ramdev in me,” Talwar says.
Watch | There’s a Baba Ramdev who lives in North Delhi too!
In 2005, a TV reporter was interviewing a family in the area whose medical care was being funded by the Bollywood star. “I was standing and watching when the reporter spotted me and his jaw dropped. He said I looked just like a Baba on TV. They did an interview with me on the spot.”
Talwar’s life changed in an instant. Other news channels began lining up outside his home, seeking interviews. He has since featured in a documentary on the yoga guru, and in numerous advertisements.
“I am a Sikh but I didn’t have a long beard. I grew one to look more like Ramdev Baba,” Talwar says.
He’s learnt to talk, prance and stretch like him too. As a result, he gets invited to parties and events, and now charges a minimum of Rs 5,000 per appearance.
He gets mistaken for Ramdev all the time. “An 80-year-old man touched my feet in a Metro train and refused to believe I was a lookalike,” he says. “I now cover my face before stepping out.” (Something Ramdev himself once infamously did).
Two senior women politicians once mistook him for the yoga guru and nearly touched his feet. When he first met Ramdev at a television studio, the Baba was stunned at the likeness as well, Talwar says.
“This is why I’ve never gone to his ashram in Haridwar,” he adds. “Imagine the chaos that would cause.”
Yenna rascala, mind it, says Kannan Pillai
If he’d been just three inches taller, Kannan Pillai could have played Rajinikanth’s double in the film Lingaa. That’s one of the first things the 43-year-old lookalike tells you.
It isn’t hard to believe. Even without makeup, the resemblance between Pillai and the Tamil superstar is uncanny. And this similarity has been his livelihood for 20 years.
It all started in Bombay, in 1993. The Class 7 dropout from Palani town near Madurai was on holiday with his film-crazy friends and, for a lark, began impersonating Rajinikanth at Gateway of India as he used to do back home for friends.
“I would pass a hat around after each performance,” Pillai says, laughing. “Six weeks in, a car stopped and a talent scout came up to us and said ‘the boss’ wanted to see me.” The boss was Raj Kamble, who ran a stage show company and offered Pillai a spot in his shows.
Pillai quit his job as a supervisor at his uncle’s Chennai hotel and headed to Pune, where Kamble trained him, polished his act and helped him learn Hindi.
“Mostly, my job was to impersonate the style, mannerisms and dancing of Rajini Sir,” says Pillai.
In 1997, Pillai went solo and began touring India, the Middle-East and even Japan as Rajini Junior. Chunky Pandey has taken him along with a troupe that included actors Mamata Kulkarni and Gulshan Grover.
Pillai has also featured in a host of ads, alongside the likes of MS Dhoni and Amir Khan. He appeared in Bollywood films like Pyaar Kiya To Darna Kya with Salman Khan in 1998, Aao Pyaar Karen with Saif Ali Khan in 1994, a had a bit role in Kamal Haasan’s Chachi 420 in 1997.
“Because I speak Hindi, I have been accepted nationally. Most Rajinikanth lookalikes are confined to Tamil Nadu and countries like Singapore and Malaysia, where there are Tamil-speaking populations,” he says.
A typical Pillai show runs into nearly an hour, sprinkled with beloved Rajini catchphrases like ‘Yenna Rascala’ and ‘Mind it’. The lookalike has perfected Rajinikanth’s walk, his stance, his way of rolling a cigarette and playing with his scarf.
His unusual career has earned him enough for a house and two shops in Palani, but he is all humility about his celebrity status. “Jahan woh Rajiniji ek samundar hain, mein usme ek boond pani hoon (Where Rajini is an ocean, I am just a drop of water in that ocean),” he says.
Off stage, he adds, his life is deceptively normal. He’s been married for 12 years and has two schoolgoing children.
His one remaining wish is to meet Rajinikanth a second time. “I met him once, when I was working at the hotel in Chennai. I shook hands with him and took a photograph too,” he says. “But that was before I became Junior Rajini. If I met him today, I would tell him I am ready to give my life for him, because he has been my guru and I owe him gurudakshina.”