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Mukri: The Little Big Man

His smile brought him a chance. His talent won him the part. But it was his humility and a genuine innocence that made some of the biggest stars bow to him. Remembering Mukri, the little big man of Hindi cinema. 

Shriram Iyengar

In August 1991, Dilip Kumar and Saira Banu joined the ranks of big stars making their trips to the Leelavati Hospital in Mumbai. Amitabh Bachchan would follow. Prakash Mehra would spend hours at the hospital. The man they were visiting was no giant of Indian cinema. Just a quiet, humble man who was good at his job. Muhammad Umar Mukri was among those gentle faces whose familiarity makes them all the more invaluable. From being an unknown preacher and assistant director, Mukri shared the peak of his career with one of Bollywood's biggest stars - Amitabh Bachchan

The rise of Mukri, as he was fondly known, was not rapid. He made his debut in Jairaj's 'Pratima'(1945), a Bombay Talkies film. A qazi (preacher) by profession, he joined Bombay Talkies to find a steady pay. Soon, he was listed as an assistant director at one of the biggest studios of India. Occasionally, he would fill in for walking parts.  Soon a former classmate from Anjuman Islam School, Yusuf Khan joined the studios under the pseudonym 'Dilip Kumar'. The biggest star to be would sit down with an ordinary assistant director during lunch time and joke about pranks. As Dilip Kumar would say in his biography ' Mukri was my schoolmate at Anjuman Islam and he had become an actor before I joined Bombay Talkies. So that gave him the leverage to tell me at times when I ticked him off about something that he was senior to me...we became friends despite there being little in common between us. ' With his short height and toothless smile, Mukri was often the butt of all jokes. Dilip Kumar was not the only one who liked Mukri's smile. Devika Rani, one of the founding members of the studio, liked the gentle face and personality of the former preacher. She decided to cast him in a comic role in the next Dilip Kumar film. Thus, Mukri found his name on the credit list for 'Pratima' in 1945.

Finding his feet in comedy, Mukri went on to establish himself as one of the finest comedians on screen. But Mukri was not one to munch scenery. He wasthe perfect foil to any actor. From Dilip Kumar to Dev Anand and Raj Kapoor, Mukri became a trusted face to lighten up the scene in films. With Sheikh Mukhtar, he found  the perfect partner. One tall and stout, the other short and charming. They would soon be known as the 'Laurel and Hardy' of India. This would become a pattern with Mukri through the years. He would later combine with Johnny Walker and Mehmood to form more successful partnerships. In Padosan, he played the tiny member of the gang following 'guru' Kishore Kumar around the theatre. Later, he would find the perfect foil in a tall, lanky young man called Amitabh Bachchan. The angry young man shared some of his best years with the indulgent comedian. Bombay to Goa, Amar Akbar Anthony, Naseeb, Sharaabi and Lawaaris were some of the pair's finest work. It was Mukri to whom moustache's finest moment in Hindi cinema is dedicated to, with Amitabh Bachchan saying 'Moochein ho to Nathulal jaisi. Warna na ho'.

Mukri's turn as the bumbling old fool was often a conscious reflection of his real life. A simple man, he would find himself out of place in the glamorous, showy parties of Bollywood. His humour was as accidental. At one celebrated occasion, actress Shammi recalls him raising a toast to the ambassador of Saudi Arabia saying 'I hope you have enjoyed it all as we have enjoyed you.' No wonder, the ambassador could not stop laughing at what he thought was a joke. In his biography, Dilip Kumar recalls getting into bed at a hotel, only to realise Mukri was already hiding beneath the sheets. It was not a prank, the comedian was just scared to sleep alone in his room. But the great actor could only laugh at this act. They remained great friends till the end of his days. Dilip Kumar also held long vigils during the period his school  mate was hospitalised.

Few actors enjoyed the popularity and friendships as Mukri did. His brightest moments were also a precursor to a darkening dawn. Once the 70s passed, the comedian found himself out of touch with the changing humour of the times. His waning health also made it difficult for him to continue in an industry that demanded more for less. But in that duration, he had already made a mark for himself. Equipped with about zero personality and just a kind heart and a sense of humour, Mukri carved his place in cinema immortality with a genial smile and an open heart.