Who was the real hero in Bombay to Goa?

Comedy was in his blood, but Mehmood Ali was much more than a comedian. His spontaneous wit, charming personality and physical ability would have marked him as a hero in another era. Yet, in a film known for its comedy, Mehmood displayed heroism of a different kind. 

Shriram Iyengar

When Bombay to Goa was re-released in 2014, Amitabh Bachchan made it a point to attend the event personally. Soon, the press was agog with tributes to the humility of the greatest star in Bollywood and his friendship with the legendary Mehmood. But there was something more to it. In 1972, Bombay to Goa was Amitabh's first film as a lead hero. It was a difficult time for a young man who was often rejected for his inability to dance. The only one who could spot the hero within this lanky young man from Allahabad was Mehmood. 

To categorise Mehmood Ali as a comedian would be gross injustice. An actor of versatile talent, Mehmood was could express Shakespearean tragedy with the same élan as a Groucho Marx script. His comedy combined wit, physicality, and satire in equal measures to deliver an irresistible cocktail of humour for repressed audiences. Such was Mehmood's irrepressible presence on screen that heroes would shy away from signing a film with Mehmood, for the fear that he would overshadow them. Not many remember the plotline for Gumnaam(1965), but few will forget that clarion call for the dark skinned 'Hum kaale hain to kya huwa dilwaale hain'.

 Padosan(1968), Love in Tokyo(1966), Pyaar Kiye Jaa(1966) are examples of his blinding screen presence. In Andaz Apna Apna(1994), replete with instances of comedic genius, Mehmood's 5 minute cameo brought down the roof in the first half.

S Ramanathan's Bombay To Goa was another feather in Mehmood's hat. Shatrughan Sinha was still a talented graduate from FTII when he signed for the film. The lead hero was a young man that Mehmood insisted on signing. He was called Amitabh Bachchan. This was his first film as a lead hero. It was also the first time audiences saw Amitabh singing, dancing, and fighting villains. In an anecdote mentioned in Hanif Zaveri's 'Mehmood, A Man Of Many Moods', the writer recalls Amitabh almost giving up on his career due to his inability to dance for the song 'Dekha na hai re socha na'. Typically, Mehmood walked up to the young man and asked him how he got to the film sets. 'I took a car', Amitabh said. After that? Mehmood continued. The Big B replied he walked to the sets. Mehmood looked up and said 'Well. Anybody who can walk on his two feet can dance. You too will dance and the whole world will love it.' Mehmood's brother,Anwar Ali, had introduced him to Amitabh. Anwar had made his debut alongside Amitabh in KA Abbas' Saat Hindustani(1969). Amitabh's stoic mannerism and deep baritone impressed the senior comedian, who immediately arranged for a screen test. The legendary radio presenter, Amin Sayani, recalls an interview where Mehmood remarked that Amitabh was the fastest horse he knew. In Sayani's words, Mehmood said 'The day this horse begins to run, he will leave behind all the film stars we know of.' Few actors have the largesse to praise a young unknown, and to promote him in a ruthless industry the way Mehmood did.

Bombay to Goa is a remarkable film by itself. A comedy caper, remade from the Tamil film Madras to Pondicherry(1966), it revolved around Aruna Irani's budding starlet who boards a bus to escape the villainous Shatrughan Sinha. The passengers on the bus are an eccentric and unruly lot, managed by the witty conductor played by Mehmood. The comedian single handedly dominates every frame of the film with his witty comebacks and one-liners. At times, Amitabh's dancing and romantic interludes seem like a break from the routine of Mehmood's antics. The most apparent victim of this brilliance is Aruna Irani, the heroine, and who was signed for the film simply because Mehmood had an infatuation with her. Even Amitabh, the hero of the film, turns to his assistance when trying to woo his girl. Alongside veterans like Mukri, Keshto Mukherjee, Asit Sen, Lalita Pawar, and Bindu, Mehmood's comic timing shines. Sample this scene in which Mehmood displays an almost Buster Keaton-esque style of physical comedy. 

The film was the beginning of Amitabh's stellar career, and a long friendship with the comedian. It was Mehmood's support that convinced BR Chopra to sign Amitabh for Parwana(1971). Two young writers watched the film and were convinced to sign the hero for their next film, Zanjeer, with Prakash Mehra. They were Salim Khan and Javed Akhtar. By doing so, Mehmood earned himself a place in the annals of Indian cinema, one that cannot be denied to him even otherwise. But more importantly, he proved to be a hero above and beyond his call of duty as a comedian in the film.