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Joy Mukherjee — The shirtless hero before Salman Khan

One of the stars of the 1960s, Joy Mukherjee was known for his stylish coiffure, lazy gait and physical fitness. On his 5th death anniversary (9 March), it is apt to remember the man who was among the early heroes in Hindi cinema to go shirtless, setting a trend for Salman Khan to follow.

Shriram Iyengar

In an interview after Joy Mukherjee's death in 2012, Dilip Kumar remembered the chocolate hero as someone who spent a lot of time on his appearance. The legendary actor said, "A wrestling ring was created, a regular sand akhada [arena], and it was the wrestler’s duty to see that Joy and his brothers take regular lessons...." Son of Filmistan studio mogul Sashadhar Mukherjee, Joy was born in a family of cinematic pedigree. His uncles, Ashok Kumar and Kishore Kumar were bona fide stars. 

It is difficult to classify Joy Mukherjee in the pantheon of iconic Hindi cinema stars. He had the panache of Shammi Kapoor, the coiffure of Dev Anand, and the physique of Dharmendra. He was the closest Hindi cinema had to the machismo and charisma of Hollywood star Rock Hudson. Like Hudson, Mukherjee was a prankster as well. Educated at St Xavier's College, Mumbai, he earned a reputation as a prankster from an early age. It was to discipline this rakish behaviour that dad Sashadhar Mukherjee put him under the care of a wrestler. 

It did work. When he made his debut in Love In Simla (1960), it heralded the arrival of a new phenomenon. With his boyish good looks and strapping physique, Joy soon became a poster boy for Hindi cinema. In the next decade, he acted in films like Ek Musafir Ek Hasina (1962), Phir Wohi Dil Laaya Hun (1963), Love In Tokyo (1966) and Shagird (1967), Each of these films had great songs, scenic locations and one shot of a shirtless Joy to go with.

Apart from training in wrestling, the actor was a keen boxer and also played football. His interest in sports continued even after he joined films. He could often be spotted at the Breach Candy Gymkhana playing tennis. Sample this song from his second film, Hum Hindustani (1960). Unlike in the usual Hindi films of that era, it is Joy who exudes sensuality and mischief, trying to entice his heroine. To be fair to the actor, he did have a better physique than the rotund one of the musical star then, Shammi Kapoor. 

With Mohammed Rafi, Kishore Kumar and Mukesh backing him up with their voices, Joy Mukherjee was transformed into one of the popular stars of the 1960s. He was cast alongside top heroines of the time — Sadhana, Asha Parekh, Saira Banu and Sharmila Tagore, among others. Take this wonderful song from Ek Musafir Ek Hasina, where he woos a shy Sadhana. 

It was Joy Mukherjee who did his best to introduce the red jumper, which grew into a fashion fad. 

While he never managed to find the consistency in his acting a la Shashi Kapoor or Shammi Kapoor, Joy Mukherjee brought to the screen a balance of comic timing and charm. In some ways, he was a man ahead of his time. He was more similar in his style to Salman Khan and Govinda than the acting giants of his era. Like the future stars, he could breeze through a light film on his charm alone.

But unlike Salman Khan or Govinda, Joy embraced subtlety as a necessary part of comedy. He said once in an interview, "Subtlety and restraint are as essential to comedy as they are to tragedy; over-acting could destroy both." 

He would often go out of his way for directors and co-stars. As Asha Parekh narrated in an interview after his death, "When we did Phir Wohi Di Laya Hoon it was a different story. We had a ball shooting the film in the lovely outdoors. I suppose it was the picnic mood of the film and all those 10-11 terrific OP Nayyar songs. I remember when we were shooting for my solo song 'Aankhon Se Jo Utri Hai Dil Mein', we were running out of raw stock [film]. Joy went out of the way to complete the song before the day was over. We shot Love In Tokyo in Japan. I think ours was the first Hindi film to be shot there. Again, shooting was like a picnic. Joy and I did a lot of sightseeing. I remember he threw a party on the last day of shoot in Japan."

However, sudden as Joy's success was, it did not last. The actor found it difficult to displace stars like Shammi Kapoor, Shashi Kapoor or Rajendra Kumar. The rise of Rajesh Khanna in the early 1970s spelt the end of his career.

Joy Mukherjee passed away on 9 March 2012 after a prolonged illness. By the end of his days, he was no longer the fit boxer who made his way into films. Saira Banu, his co-star in the hit Shagird (1967), said, "I think after Sashadhar saheb's death, Joy just gave up. He let himself go to such an extent that his wife Neelam had no control over his diet. She tells me, she would give him healthy food at home. He would then leave home with his driver to go and have all the unhealthy junk food like samosas...".

In 2013, a year after his death, the last film of his 'Love' trilogy, Love In Bombay, was released. Sadly, like Joy, his audience had moved on. Yet, for a week, old-timers relived their youth at the sight of a strapping, charming young man on screen.