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Uncle David: The man who held the strings 


Always in the background as the friendly uncle, the comic thief, or the kind old man, David Abraham Cheulkar belonged to the class of actors respected by his peers, remembered by the audience, but forgotten by the industry. On his 35th death anniversary today (28 December), we take a look at some memorable roles which immortalised 'Uncle David' for us.

Shriram Iyengar

A lawyer who accidentally became an actor, David Abraham Cheulkar was Hindi cinema's version of the kind uncle in every James Stewart film. His kind face, gentle nature, dignified behaviour and acting repertoire made him the first choice for filmmakers like Raj Kapoor and Hrishikesh Mukherjee.
Making his debut in the fantasy action picture, Zambo (1937), Cheulkar worked in various positions through the film industry. Twenty years later, he was one of the most recognised faces on the screen, with films like Abhimaan, Satyakam, Boot Polish and Chupke Chupke to his name. 

In an interview, Uncle David, as he was lovingly called, says, "One of the best universities in the world is a film studio. It provides one with such an infinite variety of experience, so much food for thought, and such opportunity to study human character and behaviour that as long as one is there one feels that every man one meets is one’s mentor and every woman a preceptor." 

Boot Polish (1954) 

Boot Polish was the first film to win a Filmfare award at the 1954 inaugural Filmfare award ceremony. Directed by Prakash Arora and produced by Raj Kapoor, the film had Cheulkar play one of his most recognised and impactful roles as John Uncle. He won the Best Supporting Actor award at the ceremony, the one and only award of his career, along with being immortalised on screen with the song 'Nanhe Munne Bachche Teri Muththi Me Kya Hai'


Anupama (1966) 

This was the first time Mukherjee and Cheulkar came together for a film. Playing Moses, the friendly, jocular uncle (a role he would often be defined by), Cheulkar delivered the perfect balance for one of Mukherjee's finest films. The film also saw Cheulkar take on the role of the 'sutradhar' for the first time. 

Satyakam (1969) 

A film that saw Dharmendra truly emerge as an actor, Satyakam was an idealist's dream. Little surprise then, that Mukherjee chose Cheulkar to play the corrupt, cynical old man who awakens the conscience of his hero. In a role that was unlike himself, the veteran played a drunk, debauched old man to perfection giving proof of his versatility. 

 

Abhimaan (1973) 

Abhimaan was a brilliant, sensitive film that had all the right Mukherjee plot points. In a film upstaged by the talents of Amitabh Bachchan, and then Jaya Bhaduri, Cheulkar managed to deliver a sedate, sober performance. His moments were far and few between, but his uncomplaining work ethic was the reason Mukherjee and others doted on him. 

Chupke Chupke (1975) 

This is one of Mukherjee's finest works, and Cheulkar was a major influence in it. In a rollicking comedy that unfolds on the screen like a Shakespearean play, Cheulkar played the 'sutradhar' (a narrator who holds the strings of the puppet). When it came to one of his greatest ensemble casts, Mukherjee decided to cast Cheulkar as a representation of himself. No wonder, it is through him the director gives an explanation to the satirising of 'shuddh Hindi'. In one scene, Cheulkar tells the confused Dharmendra, 'Koi bhi bhaasha ka mazaak nahi uda sakta. Bhasha to apne aap me mahaan hoti hai.' (No one can make fun of a language. Language is beyond such comedy.) 

Gol Maal (1979) 

This was undoubtedly his finest moment as a comic actor. While Chupke Chupke had him playing in the background, Gol Maal had Cheulkar as the actively participating uncle through whom Ram Prasad/Lakshman Prasad Sharma (Amol Palekar) get into trouble. It is his job referral that actually begins the whole comic sequence. 

Baaton Baaton Mein (1979) 
Despite his friendly, neighbourhood uncle image, David Cheulkar had too much of the imp in him to be quiet in his performances. This one in Basu Chatterjee's Baaton Baaton Mein is one that has been adored by generations. His role as the matchmaking uncle Tom (the inferences forgiven) passing love notes in a crowded local train from Bandra hit home with every resident of the city.