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Long before we had Bachchan, we had Motilal


Famous actor of the 1930s and 1940s, Motilal once said of the profession he had chosen as a career, 'I don't act, I just live a role'. Here's a reminder of what he accomplished on his 106th birth anniversary today (4 December).

Sonal Pandya

Known for his performances in Mr Sampat (1952), Devdas (1995) and Parakh (1960), the naturally talented actor was born as Motilal Rajvansh on 4 December 1910 in Shimla. He did his schooling from Shimla and Delhi. After his plans to sign up for the Navy fell through in Mumbai, he stuck around to catch a film shooting at Sagar Studios.

Director KP Ghosh noticed Motilal and he was given the lead in Shaher Ka Jadoo (1934) by the same studio. The young actor went on to get more versatile roles in Mehboob Khan's Jagirdar (1938), Achhut (1940) and Armaan (1942). In contrast to the top heroes of the time like KL Saigal and Prithviraj Kapoor, Motilal delivered more nuanced performances and seamlessly fell into character each time.

With Dilip Kumar and Vyjayanthimala in Devdas

His most well-known roles are of the conman Mr Sampat in SS Vasan's film adaptation of RK Narayan's novel of the same name and Chunni Babu in Bimal Roy's Devdas (1955). With both characters, he had the gift of the gab, making sure your eyes never left his once he was onscreen. The Times of India's review of Mr Sampat (1952) described Motilal as a 'grand actor with a slick art which nobody on the screen today can rival.' Actors Dilip Kumar and Amitabh Bachchan count him as an extremely instinctive actor, one who others looked up to later in Hindi cinema.

Motilal made quite the star pair with the actress Shobana Samarth starting with the Do Diwane (1936).  They worked together on five films including Vijay Laxmi (1943) and her directorial debut Hamari Beti (1950). After Samarth's separation from her husband, the two of them were involved in a tempestuous relationship for many years. Over the years, he had acquired the reputation of being a fast-roller and heavy drinker with interests in gambling, horse-racing and flying.  

He passed away penniless on 17 June before his directorial debut and maiden production Chhoti Chhoti Baten (1965) starring himself, Nadira and Moti Sagar could release. The family drama wasn't successful but is remembered as Anil Biswas's last film as music composer and won two National Awards, for Third Best Feature Film and Best Story Writer, which were posthumously awarded to Motilal.