Veteran actor Manoj Kumar – he who turned the trembling lower lip, the twitching eyebrow and the martyred expression into an art form – is upset about the way he was parodied in Om Shanti Om. Now we can’t have a veteran actor (much less one who by his own admission is a living embodiment of patriotism) feeling humiliated, so here, by way of compensation for Shah Rukh Khan and Farah Khan’s insensitivity, are a few of my favourite moments from Manoj Kumar’s films:
- From Kranti: this multi-starrer has countless fabulous setpieces, including the timeless song sequence “Zindagi ki na toote ladi” where a slithering Hema Malini donates her cleavage to the revolutionary cause. But my favourite scene is the one where Manoj Kumar and Dilip Kumar have been captured by the British and made to stand precariously, nooses tied around their necks, on two ends of a weighing scale-like instrument. With their lives and the future of their country thus at stake, our heroes unexpectedly begin singing a song that includes the lyrics: “Mera channa hai apni marzee ka” (rough translation: “My chickpea has a mind of its own”). Perhaps it’s because the scale makes them feel like legumes in a bazaar, though I’d be more inclined to think of two giant chunks of ham.
- From Purab aur Paschim: The upright Mr Bharat visits decadent London (it’s a – shudder! Lip tremble! – Western city) and is shocked by how Indians abroad have forgotten the values of their motherland. Particularly the haughty Saira Banu, who smokes cigarettes (!) and wears a mini-skirt (!!). Bharat is dismayed, though the twitching of Manoj Kumar's thespian eyebrows as he looks down at her uncovered legs suggests that this isn’t the only emotion he’s feeling. Eventually he converts her to the pallu-covered Good Indian Girl, but not before taking a few more peeks beneath the pallu.
Note: contrast Kumar’s approach in this film with that of Dev Anand, who coincidentally was also parodied in Om Shanti Om. In Des Pardes, which Anand directed and starred in, his character actively encourages Tina Munim to strip, saying the equivalent of “When in Rome, wear what the Romans do!” Manoj Kumar would have covered his face and looked away. (To paraphrase Tolstoy, "Every Bollywood legend is a legend in his own way, and they can all be parodied regardless.")
- From Gumnaam: in this 1960s thriller based on Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians (alternative title: Mr Bharat and Nine Other Indians), there’s a blink-and-miss moment when the alluring Miss Kitty (Helen) comes a little too close to the dashing pilot played by Manoj Kumar. Watch how he recoils; it’s like he’s been bitten by a cobra! (This lends credence to the belief that Kumar preferred not to get too close to women onscreen because Priapism and Patriotism don’t mix well.) Later he tells heroine Nanda not to drink alcohol because then she will be no different from Kitty (whose only fault, as far as we can see, has been to dance about in a swimsuit). This film was made before Kumar’s patriotic ventures, but he was already primed for a career in fending off the depraved westernised woman.
- From Kalyug aur Ramayan: In a case of inspired casting, Manoj Kumar plays a monkey in this latter-day film - a safari-suited modern-day incarnation of Hanuman-ji, returned to earth to check out what’s been happening since the Treta Yuga; are discos still in vogue, for example? During a prayer meeting a pandit alternatively shouts “Jai Shri Ram!” and “Jai Hanuman!”, but the Kumar character joins in the chorus only when the name of Lord Rama is being hailed (he does this by covering his face with one hand – presumably to conceal his orgiastic glee – and pumping the other fist in the air). When the cry of “Jai Hanuman!” goes up, he remains silent (he does this by covering his face with one hand – presumably to conceal his orgiastic humility – and keeping the other hand down). Because you see, being Hanuman himself, how can he participate in self-worship?
Perhaps the real-life Mr Bharat should have taken a cue from the above scene.
“Dogs produce pups, but a lioness delivers cubs.”
(Manoj Kumar, when asked why he didn’t direct films more often)
“The lioness is back – quick, get out the kitty litter!”
(Anonymous studio hand)