How Asrani went from teaching Jaya Bachchan to 'Angrezon ke zamane ke jailor'

An underrated actor and a brilliant comedian, Govardhan Asrani's tale is one that every struggling actor in the Hindi film industry would identify with. On his 76th birthday, we reminisce how a remarkable actor found himself rescued from anonymity to find fame in acting.

Shriram Iyengar

Every struggling actor who arrives in the city of Mumbai has idols to look up to. Strugglers often compare themselves to Shah Rukh Khan or Amitabh Bachchan who slept on the streets, wandering in and out of studio doors before becoming the kings of the city. The name that is often not recollected, but should be is Govardhan Asrani. The comedian, although comedian is too generic a term for his range, was one of the many strugglers who succeeded in the industry. In fact, it is his story that can make for an inspiring tale for any struggler.

Born to a merchant owning a carpet business, Govardhan Asrani never wanted to be a businessman. He somehow worked his way into the Film and Television Institute in Pune, and later into studios trying to get to the front of the camera. His first foray in acting came as an extra in a Shammi Kapoor film 'Ujala' in 1959. But it was a one off. He went back to the Film and Television Institute of India to complete his course. As he admits himself, the course did not suddenly open doors for him. "It was, nevertheless, very difficult to  gain an entry into the studios of Mumbai. Nobody was really aware of the Pune Institute. I passed out in 1965 and I didn’t get any work till 1970. Meanwhile, I joined the institute as a instructor. With the money I earned, I would travel to Mumbai every week with the hope that I would get a break someday," he said in an interview. It was his determination that eventually led to the final breakthrough. 

In 1971, Hrishikesh Mukherjee arrived at the FTII in search of a young girl who had delivered a brilliant performance in a student film. It was Jaya Bhaduri (later Bachchan). Gulzar, an integral part of Mukherjee's crew, had become friends with Asrani during his wandering days in the studios. It was the writer who approached Asrani about the whereabouts of Jaya Bhaduri at the institute. As Asrani says in the same interview,"In 1971, Hrishikesh Mukherjee who was our editing lecturer, came to the institute to meet Jaya Badhuri. Gulzar, who was writing and assisting Hrishida, had recommended her for Guddi. When he asked me where she was, I immedi­ately directed him to the canteen where she was having tea. Anil Dhawan and Danny were also present. Jaya dropped her cup of tea when I told her that Hrishida had come to meet her! While he spoke to Jaya, I pestered Gulzar for a role. He quietly told me that there was one, but not to let Hrishida know that he had told me about it."

Ever the struggler, Asrani walked straight up to Hrishi da questioning him why the director was unwilling to cast him in that 'perfect' role. Not one to take questioning lightly, Hrishi da burst out. "When I approached Hrishida and told him that I knew there was one role I could play, he blasted everyone in Bengali! Finally, I got the role. Guddi was a big hit! The film industry sat up and noticed the new girl, Jaya. Top directors including Manoj Kumar and Dev Anand had special screenings of the film and along with Jaya, they also noticed me. Consequently, I signed eight films and there was no looking back," says Asrani. 

It was the perfect role for the acting teacher. As the ambitious struggler who dreams big, but fails to become more than another face in the crowd, Asrani brought all his real life experience to the screen. It left an impact on Hrishikesh Mukherjee, and Gulzar, who cast him in every one of their films since. However, the days of his struggle left an impact on the actor as well. Despite his success and performances in films like Bawarchi(1972), Chupke Chupke (1975), and Abhimaan (1979), Asrani never grew out of the tag of a secondary comedian. It is not coincidence that his directorial debut, Chala Murari Hero Banne (1977), was the tale of struggler coming good in the industry. A good film for  a debutante, Asrani performs with elan as the serious, proud actor who finds stardom too difficult to bear. 

The hero in Indian cinema is a magnified presence. Every other actor exists to prop him up and enhance his appeal and presence onscreen. The truth remains that the audience failed to look past Asrani, the comedian, and could not accept the film. Even in his films like 'Abhimaan' and 'Namak Haraam', his work as a character actor was sidelined to the star power of Amitabh Bachchan and Rajesh Khanna. Even today, his fame rests on one of his most ridiculous roles, the jailor in Sholay. Asrani did achieve the objective of becoming a famous actor, but not in the way he expected to.