Bhagwan Dada's little secret

A political agreement divided the kingdom of two queens. In 1951, the heir and the empress met each other in the middle of the road, no man's land. C Ramchandra documented this momentous occassion in his biography. 

Shriram Iyengar

In the late 1940s, Bhagwan Dada was a star without parallels. His position as Bombay's premier comedian was without question. As a director, he had delivered hits like 'Bahadur Kisan', Bhedi Bangla, Criminal that were action comedy entertainers. For all his spontaneity, Bhagwan Dada was intrepid as a director. Visual technicians and cameramen, including the great V Shantaram, had queued up to watch the effects in his 'Bhedi Bangla'. The success of these films led to the founding of Jagriti Productions in 1947. What followed was one of the greatest hits of Bhagwan Dada's career.

The story goes that Raj Kapoor suggested Bhagwan Dada try a social drama for a change. The idea caught root in the comedian's head.  He turned to his closest friend and companion from his theatre days, Chitalkar Ramchandra for help. The music director reputedly told him 'I will help you. No one will forget the music of this film'. By the time Albela released in 1951, C Ramchandra, Lata Mangeshkar and Bhagwan Dada had hit upon a mesmerising mix of music, dance and social drama that would capture the imaginations of Indian cinema fans. The comedian's casual movements that combined calypso with rumba steps in the song 'Bholi surat dil ke khote' inspired an unnaturally tall, lanky young man named Amitabh Bachchan who would make them his own. The song 'Shola jo bhadke' would go on to be one of the biggest hits of C Ramchandra's, and Lata Mangeshkar's, career. A measure of a film is often its competition. Albela had films like Aan, Awara, and Anarkali running against it. Yet, this little film with only one star (Geeta Bali) on its credit, outscored them all.

Bhagwan Abaji Pallav was born in the lower middle-class suburbs of Dadar and Parel. A huge fan of Master Vitthal, he would sneak into theatres to watch films with the little money he earned. Even when there was nothing left to eat, he would find a way to watch a film. Stocky, well built, and with a sense of humour that was unique, he quickly found a place in the industry. However, unlike a Raj Kapoor, Ashok Kumar or Dilip Kumar, Bhagwan was not blessed with natural handsomeness. This deterred his chances of success at the top level. True to his style, he transformed this limitation into his forte. Films like Bhedi Bangla, and Criminal, Bahadur Kisan, and Bade Saheb were typical of the physical comedy and casual stories expected from Bhagwan Dada. Albela was a one-off, quite literally. Almost biographical, it told the story of a loser who finds fame as a singer in films. The film ran for 50 weeks across town centres, making its director one of the richest men in the industry. Most directors would have played it safe after such glorious success, but this was a different man.

His next project included a sequel to Albela. It would come out in 1966, titled Labela. The film was a disaster. It did not even meet production costs. The story of the film was unique in that its central character was the hero of its previous film. This could be considered one of the earliest experiment with the sequel style of filmmaking. Not that saved the film from bombing. A man with a penchant for fancy cars and fast horses, Bhagwan risked it all again to make another sequel to the same film. Coincidentally, the film was titled 'Jhamela' (Problem). The trouble was that these films lacked the element of drama that Albela possessed. It began a downward spiral out of which Bhagwan Dada never recovered. A list of flops like Passing Show, Halla Gulla, Sacche Ka Bol Bala followed. The compounding losses and the lavish lifestyle of his coterie led to his financial downfall. Bhagwan had to sell off his palatial bungalow with 25 rooms in Juhu and move into a chawl in his old neighbourhood of Parel. The actor/director was reduced to doing bit roles and walk on parts in films.

Albela was the peak of Bhagwan Dada's career. His fame, reputation and memory hinges on a singular film where music, dance, story and plot synced in perfection. His life post-Albela reads like a tragic Bollywood story and is a reminder of the transitory nature of fame in this industry. Yet, in trying to make sequels to his famous film, the director ensured that his name in the annals of Indian cinema history remains unchallenged.