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Home / Brunch / Making India Laugh

Making India Laugh

In his entire career that spanned across four decades Manoj Kumar has never really laughed on screen. He has bled, killed, died, cried, and perhaps sighed more than any other actor in the history of cinema, writes Gautam Chintamani.

brunch Updated: Apr 12, 2013 19:30 IST
Gautam Chintamani
Gautam Chintamani
Hindustan Times

To understand why we Indians don't really have a sense of humor that's slightly flexible one must look at Manoj Kumar. Even though on some occasions he may have played a morally ambiguous lout there was never a doubt about him being Bharat, the personification of all things India. The amalgamation of the virtues that the Bharat of yore and the post-independent India imagined jointly, in Manoj Kumar we found a righteous son, the loving sibling, a law-abiding citizen and a morally conscious human who understood the pain of his fellow passenger. In fact, he's the only instance in the world where a country would have been proud to be referred to as Manoj Kumar. In the bid to inspire millions of Indian to do the right thing Kumar somewhere forgot to laugh and that in turn has shaped the collective conscious of a billion people.

In his entire career that spanned across four decades Manoj Kumar has never really laughed on screen. He has bled, he has killed, he has died, he has cried, and perhaps sighed more than any other actor in the history of cinema. As far as smiling went he was gracious enough to be cheery every now and then and on a few occasions he has smiled albeit mostly with his eyes. In films like Hariyali Aur Rasta, Woh Kaun Thi and Himalay Ki Godmein he was at his bemused best and even displayed coyness but a full-bodied whole-hearted laugh was beyond him. And once he played Shaheed-e-Azam Bhagat Singh in Shaheed his fate as the serious nation-loving bloke was sealed forever. A few years later a meeting with the then Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri inspired him to translate Shastriji's rousing slogan of Jai Jawaan, Jai Kissan into a film. In Upkaar Kumar went from playing a simple farmer who answers the nation's call to arms and becomes the soldier who protects his country's sovereignty while in Purab Aur Paschim he played, well, Bharat, an Indian student in London who is human incarnation of a country's embassy in some foreign land. The enduring memory of Kumar's Mr. Bharat persona has rendered it impossible for us to look at him in any other light or even for him to consider some other personality. Post such rousing portrayals Kumar played a don (Dus Numbari), a helpless father who watches his son lose his ability to speak after witnessing his mother's death (Shor) and even a modern day Hanuman (Kalyug Aur Ramayan) but nothing could make us forget that real character beneath the make-up.

Like most successful stars Kumar's mannerisms have attained a cult following and while he might feign ignorance, he too, like most successful stars has parodied himself in films like Clerk and Deshwasi. While the world decided to move on Kumar is still stuck somewhere between 1967 and 1970 or a period better known as his penultimate Bharat phase. A few years ago when Shah Rukh Khan's Om Shanti Om caricatured Kumar's symbolic palm-covering-the-entire-face gesture in a gag the veteran actor saw red as if the Chinese had reimagined 1965. In a world that had forgotten the values he stood for, or so he thought, Kumar chastised Shah Rukh Khan as a joke on him meant a joke on the motherland. One of the funniest gags in Hindi cinema ever, Om Shanti Om's scene where Om Makhija (Shah Rukh Khan) gate crashes a party posing as Manoj Kumar simply by covering his face with his palm is in some weird karmic fashion Hindi cinema's vengeance on the man who refused to laugh. Six years after the release of the film Kumar is now suing Shah Rukh for R100 crores as the star plans to release OSO in Japan. According to the truce between Mr. Bharat and the Baadshah the star was to follow his in-person apology with editing the said scene from the film along with the one that followed which showed the "real" Manoj Kumar turning up in a similar pose and showing a photo ID in a the same pose.

Manoj Kumar might be hopping mad at Shah Rukh Khan and even frustrated that millions found the joke at his expense funny enough to laugh. Instead of being magnanimous about the whole thing Kumar's constant bickering reeks of limitless self-indulgence. It also reveals how actors often end up taking their on-screen persona a little too seriously. Kumar believes that he is national property and mustn't be seen in a light that doesn't befit his persona. This is very attitude that fuels perverse logic of ideas such as pardoning Sanjay Dutt basis his lineage. As one shouldn't entertain the thought of exonerating Sanjay Dutt for playing Munnabhai engaging Manoj Kumar isn't the same as interacting with India. There hasn't been a single leading man in the history of commercial Hindi cinema barring Manoj Kumar who has actually enjoyed immense popularity and success without attempting comedy. I feel the real reason for Manoj Kumar being mad at SRK is because like his fellow countrymen Manoj Bharat Kumar too actually laughed at himself. Now, if only Bharat had sermonized Indians to enjoy a harmless dig at self every now and then, who knows what this nation could have become.