Tuesday, March 12, 2013

When Sambha danced - on the strange fame of Mac the naif

In his most famous movie role, he sat atop a big rock with a gun in his hand and replied to his master’s calls of “Arre O Sambha”. It was a small part, but it became so iconic that his profile could be used as the sole image on a “minimal Bollywood poster”, and anyone would know instantly that the film was Sholay. Yet what did the actor MacMohan himself feel about being defined and shadowed by that tiny role for the rest of his career?

I ask because a few weeks ago I caught a glimpse of an alternate future for the man, via a song from a 1964 film titled Aao Pyaar Karein. In the sequence (which you can and must see on YouTube here), the young MacMohan dances – daintily play-acting as a woman – with the movie’s leading man Joy Mukherjee, while their friends sit around clapping, shaking their heads and generally being baboons. Minus the distinctive beard and the streak of white hair, dressed in a formal suit with a bow-tie, filmed in black-and-white, MacMohan is unrecognisable from the screen persona he would eventually inhabit. His movements are lithe and graceful even during a strip-tease that ends with him in vest and striped shorts; with the always-affable Mukherjee giving him company, it doesn’t seem in poor taste (the woman who makes occasional appearances in the scene is more problematic).

Watching little Mac here is a reminder that a performer with disparate talents might get so pigeonholed that it becomes impossible to imagine him doing anything else. At this point in his career he was probably a young actor hoping for a big break, and on this evidence he might have had a future as a reliable supporting player: as the hero’s foil or a genial comedian. If he had been more personable and good-looking (whatever those words might mean in the context of the dubious physiognomic history of the Hindi-movie leading man, about which more in Mukul Kesavan’s essay “The Ugliness of the Indian Male”), he may even have hoped for something better. 

Something else that’s amusing about the Aao Pyaar Karein scene: clowning about on the periphery – as one of the other buddies – is the young Sanjeev Kumar, years before his stardom. In other words, here are two bit-part actors on level ground, long before their respective destinies in Hindi cinema were set, and a decade before they found themselves on opposite sides of the law – and at opposite ends of the fame continuum – as dacoit-minion Sambha and upright hero Thakur Baldev Singh.


In a way it is fitting that one of MacMohan’s last screen appearances – 45 years after he danced with Joy Mukherjee – was in Zoya Akhtar’s Luck by Chance, a film that knows about the serendipitous moment; about the combination of events – a chance encounter, a portfolio that happens to make its way to an office at just the right time, catching the eye of this rather than
that person – that can make the difference between good fortune and continuing struggle. It is a film with sympathy for the underdogs, has-beens and never-weres of the movie industry, and it gave MacMohan the respect of a bona fide cameo part (as opposed to the anonymous sidey roles he played in so many films). Playing himself, he visits an acting workshop, where he is asked by enthusiastic students to speak the line that made him famous. He looks down, pauses for a moment, looks up and says “Poore pacchaas hazaar”.

It’s a touching moment, a view of a career summarised in – and frozen by – three words. The cynical might look at his worn expression and at the students' grinning faces and say this is a case of a man invited to participate in self-parody. But you can also see a performer making a serious effort to “act” for the two seconds or so it takes him to say the line. In its quiet acknowledgement of the dignity of labour, the scene reminds me of Satyajit Ray’s fine short story “Patol Babu, Film Star”, in which a middle-aged man hired to play a part in a film discovers that he is required to say nothing more than “Oh” in his scene, but then gets over his disappointment by uncovering the possibilities contained in the single word:

Patol Babu uttered the word over and over again, giving it a different inflection each time. After doing this for a number of times he made an astonishing discovery. The same exclamation, when spoken in different ways, carried different shades of meaning. A man when hurt said “Oh” in one way. Despair brought forth a different kind of “Oh”, while sorrow provoked yet another kind. There were so many kinds of Ohs – the short Oh, the long-drawn Oh, Oh shouted and Oh whispered, the high-pitched Oh, the low-pitched Oh, the Oh starting low and ending high, and the Oh starting high and ending low...Patol Babu suddenly felt that he could write a whole thesis on that one monosyllabic exclamation. Why had he felt so disheartened when this single word contained a golden mine of meaning? The true actor could make a mark with this one syllable.
I wonder if MacMohan, in his post-Sholay life, sometimes quietly muttered “Poore pacchaas hazaar” to himself, examining the phrase for depth and meaning, and reflecting on the strangeness of his fame.

P.S. the "Patol Babu" excerpt above is from Ray’s own English translation of the story, most recently published in Classic Satyajit Ray. Incidentally, this is also the story that Dibakar Banerjee has adapted for his short film for the 100 Years of Cinema project. As mentioned in my Banerjee profile for Caravan, Nawazuddin Siddiqi - an actor who struggled for years before breaking into the big league - is playing the lead role in that film, which will incorporate elements from Nawazuddin's own real-life story.

And an anecdote from an email exchange: probably not something one should read too much into, but then again who knows. A few months ago a photo of the young MacMohan from the Aao Pyaar Karein song was doing the rounds on the internet; movie buffs were asking each other to identify the man, “who became unexpectedly famous in the 1970s”. A friend tells me she was astonished by how many of her correspondents wrote back asking if the picture was that of a skinny young pre-stardom Rajesh Khanna, because “the smile is the same”. Perhaps the angle of the photo was particularly flattering to MacMohan, or perhaps this was because Khanna had recently died and everyone had him on their mind. But as my friend put it, “even if they were seeing things, clearly in that snap he did look hero-like enough for them.” (Or nearly as hero-like as Rajesh Khanna, which is not an unequivocal compliment.)


  1. "Baboons"? You meant "buffoons" right? Or were they all rigged up in animal costumes?

  2. Viju Khote had a similar (to McMohan's in Luck by Chance) role in Atithi Tum Kab Jaoge?

    You need to watch the scene, JAS.

  3. Nice , brought a smile on my face :) and a special "hooray" to you for possessing a thought process to come with the idea of writing this whole piece .

    Macmohan is so graceful in that sequence and that woman ... sigh... , and it can only happen in a 1960s kaa Hindi movie that a dainty and slim dancing man is imagined as a largely out of shape woman who is nothing like him.

    And I agree , that Viju Khote scene is a keeper . You should watch it in case you haven't.

  4. It's quite poignant, Mac Mohan and Sanjeev Kumar sharing screen space so early in their careers. Who could have known what the future would bring.

  5. Mac the naif: what a great pun. Seriously.

  6. Though I love that MacMohan scene in Luck By Chance, I have to say this that this idea is not first used in LBC. In a fine, yet unreleased film called 'kabutar' which I watched in Osians some years back, a bunch of young reckless boys from Dhaulpur comes to Mumabai first time. They roam around aimlessly in the city in the hope that they will see some star somewhere. And all they can see is MacMohan aka Sambha buying paan from a roadside paanwaala!

    But they were amazed and back home they tell everyone that "humne sambha ko dekha! wo sadak par paan khareed raha tha!"

    But much like Sambha's fate, 'Kabutar' never got a proper release and died a slow death. Films producer went on to directing SRK in RaOne. Films director (Maqbool Khan) waited long and then went on to make another film (lanka) which eventually released and got doomed.

    When I was watching much acclaimed Kai Po Che last week, I painfully remembered 'Kabutar' many many times. Few people here who have somehow seen Kabutar like me, will understand why.

  7. Mihir: sounds interesting. Does MacMohan have a speaking part in that scene, and does he get to say something about himself? Or is it shown exclusively from the boys' perspective? I felt the Luck by Chance scene gave him a certain amount of importance while also providing a bittersweet commentary on his career (and using it as a cautionary tale for the many youngsters in the acting class, sitting there with stars in their eyes).

  8. SanSip: thank you! Normally I succeed in resisting the pun possibilities that pop into my head, but not this time.

  9. In Kabutar, the boys are from small town, who actually just started in the world of crime, in their city. The film is about how they end up as being 'kabutar' of some other big guys in this local bloody gang war they are fantasizing about.

    If I'm remembering correctly, they are in Bombay for holiday, as a reward for their first independent killing done. It's actually interesting, how after killing they were told to hide for someday, and they ask that can they go to Bombay? They are killers now, but then they are still teenagers! And with that reference they meet 'sambha'. They are shocked seeing sambha as a normal man buying cigarettes from a roadside shop! But they see him as a 'man to look forward' to in their imaginary future world, imaginary future world of crime.

    Again Jai, I'm not saying that LBC scene is a copy. Just making this point that using MacMohan as a pop culture reference to our film industry and to it's all good and bad is not that novel.

  10. THanks for bringing the experience of the so-called has-been, bit-role, and never-been actors. Discussions about them and a look into their lives reveals a different aspect of acting/stardom/creativity; it seems a way of doffing one's hat to their effort to respond to what I imagine was an insatiable urge to be a performer. Over the years, I've been feeling the same way particularly about television actors; having been nauseated by Bollywood's rampant squandering of resources in favor of the well-connected, I feel television at least ends up trying to bring in actors from all nooks and corners of the country who have embraced the uncertainty that this career entails. Of course, it is not a conscious choice that television makes; I imagine it is a result of the frenzied pace in which Indian television works. The unyielding shooting schedules that ensure that actors don't have a single moment to themselves probably scare off any well-connected aspirants who're used to a secure, privileged life. Thanks again!

  11. Just to provide an example of how the efforts of talented but struggling artists occasionally find an audience thanks to TV (such a boon in a place like India where nepotism rules, particularly in places where creativity should be allowed to bloom):


    This is a clip from the TV show Comedy Circus; both the performers and the tabla player they mock, affectionately I hope, are people who have stories of great struggle behind them and it is so heartening to see their talent find an audience.

  12. 'always-affable' is a good description of Joy Mukherjee.

    I'd like to read a post about him