Kanhaiyalal – The ubiquitous ‘lala/munim’.
In the narrative of Bollywood’s history, Kanhaiyalal’s portrayal of the evil incarnate Sukhilala in ‘Mother India’ (1957) ranks amongst the most contemptible yet memorable characters of villainy. A feudal era oppressor exploiting the mass of peasants, he dazzled by making the role a yardstick with which all similar characters, prior or since, are still measured. The on-screen mutation this mild-mannered god fearing man underwent for a role was nothing short of miraculous. So powerful was his portrayal of the lecherous moneylender, desirous of seducing the widowed Radha in lieu of food and medicine for her sick, starving children that it has an instant recall value at the mere mention of Mother India. When this perennially dhoti clad actor was not playing the alpha malefactor, he was often found arse kissing his boss, much like contemporary management trainees.
Born in 1910 in Varanasi, his father Pandit Bhairodutt Choube, popularly known as Choubheji, was the proprietor of the Sanatan Dharm Natak Samaj in Varanasi. Not in agreement with him taking up any form of stage work, he eventually wore out the father’s opposition and did odd jobs in the troupe. At 16, he started writing and then moved on to small roles. When the father died, the brothers tried for some time to run the dramatic company. Proving to be a pain, they downed the shutters and he decided to seek a film a career in Bombay.
His elder brother Sankata Prasad Chaturvedi, had already set a precedent and established himself as an actor in silent films but Kanhaiyalal came to films without the slightest intention of acting, wanting to write and direct instead. Eventually capitulating, he began by working as an extra in Sagar Movietone’s ‘Sagar Ka Sher.’ He would have remained a background extra but for a fated twist.
As he recalled in an interview, “An actor playing Motilal‘s father had not reported on the sets, so there was an opportunity to step into the breach. The dialogue I had to speak ran to a full sheet of foolscap paper. Almost everyone on the sets was ready to laugh at my trying to set up as an actor, but God helped me and I did my job.” The film was ‘Jhul Badn’, written by K. M. Munshi (the founder of Bhartiya Vidya Bhawan), directed by Sarvottam Badami and starring Motilal and Sabita Devi.
To his elation, his speaking role début fetched a ten rupee increment as his salary rose to Rs.45 a month. “Another promotion I earned was to play grandfather instead of father. This was in ‘Sadhana’, also of Sagar. My grandson was the hero of the film, Prem Adib. That was my first big role after which I became ‘acceptable’. I was quite young but I thus started playing old roles. And, down the years, I got older and older but my roles didn’t grow younger and younger!”
For ‘Sadhana,’ he also functioned also as dialogue and lyric writer. In fact, it was while he was reading out the dialogue he had written that Mr. Chimanlal Desai, proprietor of Sagar, offered him to enact the role. “I must also record that when the film was being made, quite a number of people thought I was bogus and withheld coöperation. However, the film was a big hit and ran to a silver jubilee at the Imperial Cinema.”
Getting frustrated at drawing a blank for directing a film, after Sadhana he returned home to Varanasi. When he returned to Bombay, it was with the understanding that he would help Virendra Desai (son of Sagar Movietone boss, Chimanlal Desai). He rewrote the dialogue of ‘Sanskar’ as also its lyrics but it came to naught.
However, the ascension of his career graph was kick-started by Mehboob Khan with writer Wajahat Mirza playing catalyst at whose insistence he was selected for the role of Sukhilala in ‘Aurat (1940), the wicked moneylender who has designs on the young widow. As he reminisced in an interview, “On this production, too, I had the feeling that the ice had yet to be broken. There was no make-up man free or willing to attend to me. When I explained this difficulty to Faredoon Irani, the cinematographer, he calmly said, ‘Don’t worry. Just appear as you are and I will photograph you without makeup.’ He did just that. My make-up consisted only of a moustache. There are not very many cinematographers who will stake their reputation by agreeing to photograph artistes without make-up. I admired Mr. Irani’s courage and self-confidence. I regard my Aurat role as a really good one. I was helped tremendously by the lines Wajahat Mirza wrote for me. In fact, I firmly believe that what an actor needs most of all are good dialogue to enable him to do well.”
During the shooting of the scene in which the house collapses on the salacious Sukhilala, Kanhaiyalal got hurt. In honour of the dictum, the show must go on, he right away told Mehboob Khan not to call a doctor immediately but to finish the remaining shots. When he came out of the set eventually, the doctor was waiting for him. Aurat had a golden jubilee run with Sardar Akhtar (Mrs. Mehboob Khan) playing the lead. When Mehboob remade ‘Aurat’ as ‘Mother India’ (1957), only Kanhaiyalal reprised his role, a first in Hindi cinema with the same actor replaying the same character 17 years later.
Telescoped into the stereotype that bears his signature, early in his career he experimented much more than in his later years. “In Mehboob’s film ‘Bahen,’ (1941) I had the role of a good-natured pickpocket. Here, four scenes originally conceived for me were spun out into about fourteen by Wajahat Mirza.
In National Studios’ ‘Radhika,’ (1941) directed by K. B. Lall I played a temple priest and in ‘Lal Haveli,’ (1944, again by Lall) I played the comic role of a Pandit. Yakub starred in the film and his frequent punch line telling me ‘Chacha, pasina aa raha hai’ became quite famous.”
In Gunga Jumna (1961) he again excelled as a ‘munim’. He also shone in Mahesh Kaul’s ‘Sautela Bhai’ (1962) but the film tanked. Gemini’s ‘Grahasti,’ (1962) in which he played a station master gave him immense satisfaction and he said, “In my opinion, it’s the first picture from the South to achieve that much versatility.”
The trouble monger continued his winning streak with Upkar, Ram aur Shyam (both 1967), Jeevan Mrityu (1970), Apna Desh (1972), Karmayogi (1978) and Hum Paanch (1980).
After completing a century of roles in Bollywood, Hathkadi (1982) became his swan song as his histrionics breathed their last on 14 Aug 1982. He was 72.
Here’s to remembering and raising a toast for this screen talent on his death anniversary.