Sholay Redux 03 – Kesto Mukherjee aka Hariram Nai

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Let’s get the record straight. Kesto Mukherjee, the archetype of the perpetual, beloved drunk of Hindi cinema as the mythicists would have us believe, was NOT a teetotaler. Quite the contrary, it was the tranquility more than intoxication that booze infused, which was welcome. “In those days when I was struggling and sleeping near the railway tracks at Santa Cruz, some days I didn’t have enough to eat at all but the cheap liquor I bought with whatever money I had was such a relief – it brought sleep. No one came to lecture to me on the evils of drink, no one wanted to save me. I still like my drink and now I can afford the best.”

In his chill attire, he could usually be found lounging in a colored lungi and a silk kurta, with a slim gold chain around the neck. Other than watching cricket, another passion of his while growing up was doing caricatures and this drew him later to stage work and films. The second comedian to get his ‘lift’ from booze, earlier there was Johnny Walker who took his screen name from the label of a scotch bottle and staggered around making people laugh in the guise of a drunk. Now Johnny, aka Badruddin Kazi looked the other way when Bacchus beckoned.

Born in 1933 and brought up in Calcutta, Kesto studied up to the intermediate and then gave it up. He worked with his father in the courts and one would assume a humorist to find enough material to enact there, but the illegalities on parade did not fascinate Kesto . Attracted to Indian Peoples’ Theater Association (IPTA), he drifted on to stage shows with an inherent gift of making friends.

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Finally discovered by the legendary Ritwik Ghatak, he debuted in Bengali film Nagarik (’52), which was actually released 25 years later, in 1977 after Ghatak’s death.

In Calcutta, Kesto stayed with Utpal Dutt (remember their classic scene at the police station in Gol Maal) and befriended director Satyen Bose and writer Govind Moonis who later won accolades in Hindi cinema and helped him during his early days in Bombay. Hrishikesh Mukherjee gave him a role in his portmanteau début film Musafir (’53), where Kesto appeared as a street dancer in the second story and it also became his real début. They further collaborated on 16 films.

Shacking up with composer Salil Chowdhury in Bombay, Kesto never dismissed the goodness he encountered during his struggle. Recalling an incident, “Gulshan Rai had the distribution rights for the film Tansen and I was still pretty hard up. Rai gave me the cans asking to deliver them at Kumkum cinema in Worli. You see, the carrier got a small commission from the theater. How can one forget these gestures?”

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What proved to be the defining role for him was in Atma Ram’s Chanda aur Bijli (1969). Playing the wide-eyed drunken sod, complete with hiccups, kept audiences amused and bestowed on him, cinematic immortality. Very often the producer who signed him had only one brief, “Just do your drunken act once again.” Enough, one presumes to drive any strong man to the bottle, which it did.

Sometimes he was also the object of envy of leading stars, “This hero was worried about the camera focusing on me in a scene and he told the director. I was behind bars, pleading pathetically to be let out. Despite the business on the sets being revised to suit the leading man’s whim, my hands stretching out through the bars in mute appeal seemed to catch audience attention.”

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In Sholay, he dramatized a range of expressions, the exhibition of sobriety suiting him, as the lovable informer who misfires more often than not. He tried other roles, “In Bandish I played a madman, in Zanjeer a badman and in Niaz aur Namaz, a true blue villain but they wanted me drunk.”

Commotion on the street below invariably followed his stepping into the balcony of his flat. For all this adulation, no one could get his name right, even IMDb. “I’m always called Keshto”, he said, “as if someone tried to say Kesto but was too groggy to get it out right. Kesto, they feel, makes a very poor advertisement for Alcoholics Anonymous. If you can be this funny getting sozzled, you wouldn’t mind getting high.”

Tragically enough, his dark secret was the silent addiction which crept on him unknown. He was barely recognizable playing the role of a patient in Bad aur Badnaam (’84). No makeup was needed as he looked sickly, totally emaciated. Whenever required for a shot, people would help him walk up and lie him down on a bed. Shatrughan Sinha, who too played in this scene recalled, “He was a strange case. I have never come across a man who wants to embrace death with a smile on his lips.”

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When hospitalized, Kesto was informed he would pull through if he quit. He pleaded with his doctors not to ask him to give up the hooch, he knew the end was nigh and only wanted to drink in peace and die.He secured a discharge, tanked up and practically killed himself on March 4, 1982.

He raised many a hoot with his patent act in 150 films but the bottle had the last laugh.

Our Hariram Nai was 52.

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