The Star Who Got It Wrong
An appreciation of Govinda, surely one of the finest and least acclaimed talents of his generation
Sometime in early 2000. An Anees Bazmee comedy released as Sandwich three years later was being shot in Mumbai. It was a scene in which the characters of Govinda and Raveena Tandon were meant to get married. Something was about to happen that would impede the proceedings. Everyone watching the shoot waited for that unknown turning point.
It was well past midnight. Govinda was nowhere to be seen. When the director asked for him, he emerged from the darkness in a groom’s outfit, walked towards that part of the set where the wedding was supposed to take place, suddenly looked disturbed and missed a step or two, and fell on the ground with a loud thud. Every minor actor standing close by helped him get up from the ground where he lay, looking sick and troubled. Bazmee got up from his seat to applaud the perfect take. The star nodded, smiled and left. The wedding had come to a halt, the last shot of the day.
November 2014. Young filmmaker Shaad Ali delivered Kill/Dil. Stylishly shot but handicapped by a flawed script, Govinda’s turn as gangster Bhaiyaji was the only outstanding feature of the film. And, it was outstanding.
As the don who mentors two youngsters (Ranveer Singh and Ali Zafar), Govinda is the man among the boys in spite of being shortchanged by an underwritten role. When he breaks into a dance, he is more spontaneous than either of the two male leads. At once authoritarian and unforgiving, his wisecracking character also enjoys silly jokes and riddles like, “Ek ladki jo chhat sey apney papa ko dhhakel deti hai, usey kya kehtey hai batao?” (What do you call a girl who pushes her father off the terrace?) Dev (Singh’s character) answers, “Push…pa.” On hearing the response, Bhaiyaji starts laughing. The laughter has a sinister manic quality, defining an uneasy darkness Govinda seems able to summon effortlessly as an actor, but which he has not summoned (or not been given a chance to), till now.
That Kill/Dil has practically disappeared in a crowd of recent releases is his misfortune. Having learned to live with disappointments and failures, however, Govinda would know how it feels and move on. Worthy of being called Mr Natural if Aamir Khan is the Mr Perfectionist, he had endured the neglect of mainstream media even when he was at his peak.
Ilzaam, with which he made his first impact in 1986 was directed by Pahlaj Nihalani. Although Govinda would credit John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever as the first star to have inspired him, he was definitely motivated by Mithun Chakraborty’s success as a disco dancing star. As a 22-year-old baby-faced youngster, what he lacked was Mithun’s screen presence. If Mithun was dressed up in a glittering cream-coloured outfit in the title track of Disco Dancer, Govinda wore bright red leather while performing Street Dancer in Ilzaam.
Unlike Mithun, whose dancing style was a blend of pelvic thrusts borrowed from Michael Jackson, lip-syncing and rapid feet movements that rhymed with the studio-sterilized rhythm patterns of disco tracks composed by Bappi Lahiri, Govinda was at his best when performing a diluted version of breakdance. But the Mithun effect could be sensed in the way he smiled, sang and styled his hair.
As he grew older and more mature, this form of dance made way for what should now be defined as the Govinda style of dancing. Reducing his emphasis on movements of the body, he added that one quality which nobody may be (or has been, till date) able to replicate: a unique set of facial expressions that accompanied his moves. When he danced, it seemed that a brilliant actor was at work. And it was true.
The change in his dancing style was gradual. But, after his initial successes, his career see-sawed between the occasional hit mingled with failures. Keen on making sure of a comfortable and secure life for his family, the young man from Mumbai’s Virar suburb, whose father had been paupered after his first film as a producer had bombed, went on an indiscriminate signing spree. His success-failure ratio could have reduced him to being just one more actor in Hindi cinema, but for his talent that allowed him to stay afloat until he formed a crack team with a director called David Dhawan.
The utterly batty Govinda-Dhawan comedies reached out to the interiors of larger India. What each film guaranteed was the actor’s incredible comic timing in scripts tailored to entertain viewers who watched movies in ordinary single-screen theatres, sitting on chairs layered with rexin ravaged by blades that incorrigible mischief makers smuggled inside. Many men smoked freely. Women who resented the smell covered their noses with the pallus of saris or their dupattas.
As soon as Govinda made an entry in the film, the men yelled and the ladies giggled. His fluid face took everything he said beyond the dreams of the scriptwriters. The zaniest and illogical of all scenes became acceptable. Because this was Govinda, this was a Govinda film. He had not borrowed or modified from any known institution of Indian acting. There was no Kishore Kumar in his style, no Bachchan either. He was Govinda. That was all. It was the talent of a natural great. The person flowed along with the sequence of scenes, happy and hardly hesitant about showing it.
Having assessed his ability to make the viewers laugh until they cried, Dhawan discovered characters for him that nobody among his contemporaries would have dared to play in the 1990s. In Saajan Chale Sasural, he was a man who ends up having two wives. On hearing that his first wife has died, he marries again, but learns that his former wife is alive. Once that happens, he has to find ways to make sure that neither of the two gets to know the truth.
In Haseena Maan Jaayegi, he plays one of two brothers (Sanjay Dutt plays the other) who fall in love with two sisters. Dutt’s character requests his brother to pose as his uncle and fix his marriage. The latter tries to do that, but gets into trouble when the girls’ aunt falls in love with him. Aankhen, Coolie No. 1, Raja Babu which also became notorious for the song Sarkailo Khatiya, Dulhe Raja directed by Harmesh Malhotra, Kuku Kohli’s Anari No 1: all these were typical Govinda films, each of them loved by his fans and served up by the star with effortless ease. At times, it seemed as if Hero No 1 wasn’t just the title of one of his films in the No 1 series. In the 1990s at least, the nation had a substantial section of film-goers who saw him as their Hero No 1.
Did Govinda make any significant effort to leave his comfort zone during his days at the peak and thereafter? He did, with films like Shola Aur Shabnam, Awaargi, and Hum in which Rajinikanth and he played supporting roles to Amitabh Bachchan’s dominant protagonist. What made him one of the frontrunners of his generation was that he was the most successful, and the only brilliant comic star of his era. His relaxed casualness even overshadowed his master co-star Amitabh Bachchan in Bade Miyan Chhote Miyan in 1998. Nine years later, Salman Khan was the male lead of Partner with Govinda in a supporting role. By the time the film ended, Salman was the one who seemed to have supported his minor partner.
Hindi cinema hasn’t produced a single major commercial star-actor who started out in the 1980s and didn’t overact in any of his films. So did Govinda, which should take nothing away from the fact that his popular appeal in the subsequent decade was immeasurable, a quality that was never acknowledged in the popular awards functions where he was not honoured with a single Best Actor award. He has won a Special Jury award, a Special Award, a few for his performances in comic roles, but the top prize has eluded him throughout his career. Strange, considering the kind of mediocre performances that have been glorified with the award so often.
Since the turn of the century, his career graph has been on the decline. His failed romance with politics after he became a Member of Parliament in 2004 and took a three-year break from films is a decision he will regret forever. He did have two big hits, Bhagam Bhaag and Partner, both comic multi-starrers. But the two films released way back in 2006 and 2007, which shows that not many good roles have been coming his way.
For Raavan, released about five years ago, he had personally approached Mani Ratnam, resulting in a brief appearance in the ambitious take on the Ramayana that flopped.
Cameo appearances like the one in Holiday and forthcoming films like Dabang Sarkar and Hey Bro are friendly gestures that won’t change the course of his career, although optimists including the star himself do have reason to believe that his turn in Kill/Dil might do the trick. So what if the film flopped? Producers and directors who watched it would have realized that the actor’s star power and acting skills haven’t lost their sparkle.
(There is an interesting—and entirely coincidental—connection here. John Travolta, Govinda’s first idol, started his career as a dancing star, moved on to comedies, and then entered the doldrums, disappearing from the screen (just like Govinda). Years later, he made one of the biggest comebacks in film history, playing a gangster in Pulp Fiction, directed by Quentin Tarantino, whose Kill Bill of course inspired the title of Kill/Dil, in which Govinda plays a gangster. Could this lead to the same sort of extraordinary second innings that Travolta has enjoyed?)
Even if that doesn’t happen, the actor who is now in his early 50s can be sure of winning one award at least later in his career.
A Lifetime Achievement Award for his contribution to Hindi cinema. Some would say it is a richly deserved award, but for many others, it would be an inadequate recognition for a huge talent who has been one of the finest actors and consistently least appreciated of his generation.
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