In memoriam: How Charlie Doctor kept Kutch citizens in good humour | Mumbai news - Hindustan Times
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In memoriam: How Charlie Doctor kept Kutch citizens in good humour

ByHemant Chaturvedi
Apr 14, 2024 08:22 AM IST

Forty years later, I find myself on a flight from Mumbai to Bhuj. I had discovered this nugget of information about a Chaplin impersonator in Adipur, where Chaplin’s birthday on April 16 was celebrated with great pomp and circumstance

MUMBAI: A white bed sheet pirouettes across the lawn of a small bungalow, caught in a gentle gust of wind. A 4-year-old child runs after it with her two friends. The leaves on the trees catch a strange flickering light, as the branches sway in the breeze. The children catch the bedsheet and bring it back to the verandah, and tie it to the two pillars it escaped from. As it rises and stretches tight, the flickering light leaves the trees, finds focus, and a black and white moving image forms on it.

In memoriam: How Charlie Doctor kept Kutch citizens in good humour
In memoriam: How Charlie Doctor kept Kutch citizens in good humour

It’s showtime again on Monica’s fourth birthday where screening a Charlie Chaplin film is a key draw.

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Now, let’s go back in time. It is 1966. Charles Spencer Chaplin was on his way to Pinewood Studios in England, working on what would be his last film, ‘A Countess From Hong Kong’. In the same year, all the way in Adipur, Kutch, an 18-year-old was cycling to his office, where he worked as a typist. It was a Friday, and he saw a poster of Charlie Chaplin’s ‘The Gold Rush’ displayed at the local Oslo Theatre. Intrigued by the appearance of The Tramp, he alighted from his cycle, bought a ticket and watched his first Chaplin film. He was enchanted to a degree that prompted him to watch all four shows on that day. A day that sowed the seed of his lifelong relationship with Chaplin. Of course, he was fired from his job the next morning.

Forty years later, I find myself on a flight from Mumbai to Bhuj. I had discovered this nugget of information about a Chaplin impersonator in Adipur, where Chaplin’s birthday on April 16 was celebrated with great pomp and circumstance. While there was no way of getting in touch with him, I simply took a chance and decided to show up on April 14, hoping to photograph the event. I asked my Adipur hotel receptionist if he knew of this person, and he said: “Who in Adipur doesn’t know Charlie Doctor?” A pre-teen lad took me to a small row house on his scooter. I rang the bell and this stout, very fair man, with sparkling blue eyes, opened the door.

Faith is a precursor of all our ideas.

Ashok Aswani was born in 1948, into a family of Sindhi partition refugees. In the middle of these troubled times, and after losing his job as a typist, Aswani managed to fulfil his dream of being an actor and was selected for the acting course at FTII Pune in 1969. Sadly, a misunderstanding with his faculty led to him being asked to leave the course in 1971. Dejected, he returned to Adipur and began training as an Ayurvedic doctor. His father had been in the medical profession as well. It seemed like a chosen future. In a moment of kindness, as he was leaving Pune, an FTII batchmate had told him to “never forget the Charlie inside you”. It was probably the most significant piece of advice he ever received.

Making fun is serious business.

In 1973, Aswani decided to celebrate Chaplin’s birthday at home. His daughter, Monica, tells me that it used to be just like the birthday of any family member. There would be a party with a cake, and an 8mm projector would screen Chaplin films; the invitees were local friends and family. It was christened The Charlie Circle and became an annual event.

On that day, he made his presence felt, by dressing up in a black suit, bowler hat, with a cane, oversized shoes, shuffling around Adipur wearing a little black moustache, a handful of friends in tow, piquing the curiosity of one and all. Eventually, more people began attending the April 16 activities.

Subsequent years saw parades with over 150 people, all dressed up as Chaplin, taking a particular route around the small town, ending at the main circle. A cake with a Chaplin motif would be cut, and Chaplin films shown to everyone, As the years went by, it became quite the annual event, with photographers, reporters and film makers from across the country, and the world, showing up for this utterly charming spectacle.

A day without laughter is a day wasted.

The blue-eyed Aswani invited me into his home. We sat down and I introduced myself and the purpose of my visit. After hearing me out, he told me he had some very bad news for me -- for the first time in 33 years, they had actually cancelled the celebration and the parade. He suggested we meet for dinner later that evening. With my return flight five days away, and absolutely nothing to do in Adipur, I sat in my hotel room pondering over this unexpected development. I needed to think of Plan B!

All I need to make a comedy is a park, a policeman, and a pretty girl.

When we met in the evening, I shared my new idea right away. I said, Doctor Sahib, if you have the time and are willing, can you give me four sessions of two hours each? I want to take you to some specifically Kutch related spaces and photograph a man preparing himself and emerging as Charlie Chaplin. I chose the salt pans, a wooden ship building yard, a patch of land with the classic Kutch cracked earth, and a temple. As sporting a gentleman as ever, he readily agreed. We spent the next two days wandering about in his Maruti 800 and had four photo sessions. It was interesting to watch the reactions of the townsfolk as we stopped at all these places. Clearly, Aswani was a popular person, not just because of his healing touch as a doctor, but also because of his incredible warmth and charm, and his irrepressible sense of humour.

Cries of “Charlie Doctor Charlie Doctor” could be heard as we drove through Adipur. One of my favourite stories is the one of how he would treat patients feeling low or depressed. In all seriousness, he would pull out his prescription pad, write RX and the patient’s name, and then prescribe ‘The Gold Rush’, ‘Modern Times’ and ‘The Tramp’ to be seen twice a week for one week. I believe he had a 100% success rate with his unusual quasi medical advice!

Life can be wonderful if you’re not afraid of it.

Monica tells me that Chaplinesque behaviour was a permanent affair. Aswani would wake her up daily for school, and stick his tongue out and roll his eyes a la Chaplin. Monica cannot remember a moment where Charlie Doctor was out of character. From the time she could walk, the annual birthday cake was her responsibility. A special oven was purchased for her, and she baked one every year for almost 45 years.

Time is the great author. Always writes the perfect ending.

Asha and Ashok Aswani were die-hard romantics and their marriage grew stronger by the hour. Monica tells me how the 22-year-old-Aswani, sitting in his dispensary, saw a young lady in a black skirt alight from a bus, and it was love at first sight. She tells me that Aswani was the greatest blessing for Asha and the finest man she could ever have spent her life with. They celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary last year. The Charlie Circle had also celebrated a 50th anniversary in 2023. Aswani died at 75 in November 2023.

Nothing is permanent in this wicked world, not even our troubles.

I only met Aswani five times. I would wish him for his birthday twice every year, once on October 4, his actual date of birth, and once on April 16, for Chaplin’s. The last time we met, I gifted him a framed Charlie Chaplin India Post commemorative stamp from 1977. And I will never forget the childlike joy on his face when he had unwrapped the present.

Aswani was dressed as Chaplin for his funeral. A procession was taken around the town, following the exact route he had taken for 50 years. It was attended by over 500 people. Monica tells me the irony of the scene, how the expressions of 500+ people looked dead, while the one person who was dead, looked as alive as ever.

Aswani’s grandson, Talin, has sworn to keep the annual event going, as he said, “my grandfather was my life, my soul. I will do everything to keep his memory alive”.

Simplicity is a difficult thing to achieve, said Chaplin. And who achieved it better than Dr Ashok Aswani.

(Hemant Chaturvedi is a photographer whose exhibition titled ‘Charlie doctor – citizen of the world’ is on at Kala Ghoda Café till early June.)

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