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Bhagwan Dada: How biopic makers discovered and recreated events of his life

On the yesteryear comic actor's birth anniversary, we take a tour of the making of his biopic, Ekk Albela.

Keyur Seta

Today marks Master Bhagwan aka Bhagwan Abaji Palav's 103rd birth anniversary. The saga of India’s first dancing hero, who played lead roles in action films in the 1930s and 1940s and comic roles from the 1950s onwards, was recently celebrated on screen in the Marathi film, Ekk Albela, where Mangesh Desai played the title role.

Since most of the films with Bhagwan in the lead were made in the pre-Independence era, there is hardly any research material available on him today. So how did the makers find out about important incidents in the life of the actor? In an exclusive chat with Cinestaan.com, Ekk Albela director Shekhar Sartandel spoke about his adventures while researching the early life and career of the man who was affectionately called Bhagwan Dada by the film industry.

“What helped us immensely was Bhagwan Dada’s interviews which he gave in the 1950s and 1960s," said Sartandel. "His career was going downhill then. His interviews were transparent. Normally, people pretend to put up their best while giving interviews, but that wasn’t the case with him. He wasn’t concerned about marketing himself. He honestly revealed everything. His interviews were like his proper life story. I started collecting them all.”

As Sartandel put it, “when you realise a person is speaking about himself honestly, you start believing him. If your friend writes about you, he will try to cover up your negative points. In one interview, he said he had just Rs2 so he slept hungry and after earning 2 annas the next day he also revealed what he ate. He showed no qualms in speaking about the low phase of his life. Plus, he had given a lot of references with the exact dates. His manner of giving references shows the incidents’ authenticity.”

Vidya Balan and Mangesh Desai in Ekk Albela
Vidya Balan and Mangesh Desai in Ekk Albela

But for a period film like Ekk Albela, doing research on the late actor wasn’t enough. A bigger challenge was recreating the bygone era. “I had to show the offices of producers and distributors of the pre-1950s era. I have seen such offices in the 1980s. I also knew that in the 1970s, people had wallpapers with heavy colours. But I had no idea how the offices of producers and distributors looked before that period.”

Sartandel’s problem was solved in an unexpected manner. “I stumbled upon a picture of producer AR Kardar taking an audition in his office in Life magazine. So I got an idea of an office of those times. I asked my art director to take ideas from this picture instead of using his imagination. Likewise, I showed a poster of a hit film of a distributor in his office. Similarly, for the scene where Bhagwan has a fight with a distributor in 1951 in the latter’s office, I showed the poster of his 1950 blockbuster Tarana.”

But Sartandel couldn’t find anyone who had seen Bhagwan’s office. “For this, I had to use my imagination. Hollywood’s Douglas Fairbanks was his idol. Raj Kapoor had also called him India’s Fairbanks. So I found Fairbanks's most famous film and included its poster in Bhagwan’s office and study area. Since Fairbanks's [second] wife [Mary Pickford] was a well-known actress of that era, I assumed he was a fan of hers too and included her poster. This is how I started playing the game of art direction. Even today, the interiors of a person’s office reflect his or her personality.”

Likewise, the filmmaker found the designs of fans of that era. “These little things play a big role. Normally, people only use clothes to recreate an era, but that is not enough. Even items like pens, paperweights and tables should be taken care of. I had to show a microphone in a scene taking place in the 1940s. So we recreated the one used in Hollywood in 1927 since it used to take around 10 years for that technology to come to India. I wanted to make sure that pro sound designers don’t find a mistake in it.”

Mangesh Desai as Bhagwan in Ekk Albela
Mangesh Desai as Bhagwan in Ekk Albela

As Ekk Albela is also about Bhagwan’s journey as a filmmaker, the use of cameras was also an important aspect. “Mitchell cameras were famous then, but they weren’t used in the 1930s. So I showed a camera used before Mitchell. Ninety-nine people out of 100 might not know this, but one person might come up and point this out. Although he might forgive this small error, I didn’t want that mercy. Just recently, my art director said someone from Hollywood was impressed with the way we imagined this camera. This might look fictitious, but this is contemporary study.”

There is also a story behind the Hollywood posters seen inside a theatre during the climax of the film that takes place in 1950. “It is a poster of a two-year old superhit Hollywood film because it used to take around two years for a Hollywood film to be released in India,” Sartandel recounted.

Those who have carried out even basic research about Bhagwan would know that he faced a lot of hardships in the latter part of his life. But Sartandel deliberately did not include that period. “A lot of people face poverty. Why would the audience wish to see it?" he said. "That is why the film stops with the success of Albela.”