Saturday, March 26, 2011

A tribute to Bob Christo

Anyone who remembers mainstream Hindi movies of a certain vintage knows about the eye-popping sets that served as villains’ dens. In these hotbeds of vice, rogues and molls alike wore colourful futuristic outfits and behaved in ways that made Return of the Jedi look like a stark kitchen-sink drama. They connived, clinked Scotch glasses and rakshasa-laughed at regular intervals – and face it, you and I would have done much the same in their place, for the set decor included any combination of the following: spiky walls, quicksand, silhouettes of dancing girls just behind the curtains in the background, and floors that would part at the snap of a finger to reveal either a pink pool of boiling acid or hungry sharks swimming in a water tank (but never both at the same time; hungry sharks in pink boiling acid would mean a waste of valuable resources, and there had to be a certain underlying logic to the interior decoration).

The Australian-born actor Bob Christo, who died last week, was a vital part of this world, the classic looming henchman. He was a bit like the giant “Jaws” in those garish Roger Moore-James Bond films of the late 1970s - looking at this hefty man, it seemed impossible that he could ever be thwarted, but he always was. “My chief memory of Christo,” a friend tells me on email, “is snippets of him getting beaten up by much smaller, brown men.” And that’s his career in a nutshell.

Checking Christo’s filmography on the Internet Movie Database reminded me of the assembly-line 1980s movies that my generation still thinks so fondly of (even when we grudgingly accept how bad most of them were). The very titles of some of his films read like answers to questions posed by the titles of earlier, unrelated films (thus Insaaf Kaun Karega, 1984; Insaaf Main Karoonga, 1985). In many of them, Christo played a character designated merely as “Bob” – though he was occasionally promoted to “Inspector Bob”, “Terrorist Bob” and even “Commander Bob”. He was also “Henchman (Baldy)” in Satte ka Bol Baala, “British Man” (Sarfarosh), “Second Rapist to be Shot Dead” (Humshakal), “Boat organiser” (Gupt) and, quite impressively, “Mr Goodmark, Gold Smuggler” (Toofan).

Compared to all this, “Mr Wolcott” (in Mr India) almost sounds dignified - someone on the set took the trouble of thinking up a name for the character during a cigarette break! - though my only memory of Christo in that film is of him getting clunked over the head by a Hanuman statue wielded by the invisible hero. (There was probably something subtextual going on here, what with an evil gora being taught a lesson by an Indian God. Perhaps it was to balance things out that Christo played a character named “Ram” in the Kamal Hassan-Amitabh Bachchan starrer Geraftaar.)

But possibly my favourite Christo role was in B Subhash’s cult classic Disco Dancer, where he played “International Hit Man”, named so because he has bumped off seven people – including a world-famous singer – in London. Indeed, when we first see him, he looks like he might just have emerged from the English Channel; he's walking menacingly towards the camera dressed in what looks very much like a scuba diver's outfit (the setting is a hotel bar), but it turns out to be just a tight-fitting black shirt over tight-fitting black trousers.

International Hit Man has been hired to dispose of the guitar-wielding Jimmy (Mithun Chakraborty) and he commences this mission by landing a punch that knocks the hero flat. Given their respective sizes, that should have been the end of that, but of course Jimmy rallies and thrashes the big guy to within an inch of his life. So Christo stoops to sneaky saazish. After outlining a scheme to electrocute the disco dancer with a 5,000-volt current, he delivers the deadpan line “Phir hamaara dushman ud jaayega” (“Then our enemy will be blown away”) and makes a sweet little popping sound with his mouth. It’s an incongruous gesture coming from such a large man, though it wouldn't make a list of even the 1000 strangest things you'll see in this movie.

But of course the plot is foiled (Jimmy’s mother grabs the tampered guitar instead, which results in the most electrifying – and, it must be said, most enjoyable – death scene of a Hindi-movie ma you’ll ever see), and there is a final fight where International Hit Man is reduced to a quivering mass beneath the brown hero’s white shoes. Happy ending. 

In Helen: The Life and Times of an H-Bomb, Jerry Pinto suggested that the reason for Helen's success in Hindi films was that "she almost always failed...In failing she kept the moral universe intact". Bob Christo wasn't anywhere near as significant (or nuanced) a personality as Helen, but on his much smaller scale he played a similar role. As I write this, the Indian cricket team is about to win their World Cup quarter-final against a bigger, brawnier set of fair-skinned athletes (who just happen to be of Christo’s nationality), and watching the chest-thumping reactions of the Indian spectators gives me a better understanding of the part that someone like Christo must have played in wish-fulfilment for our moviegoers all those years ago. R.I.P. Bob the Morale Builder, the big white guy who got beaten up so we could feel good about our own heroes.

[Did a version of this for my Business Standard film column]

Villain's den photo courtesy here. My own post on Manmohan Desai's Parvarish is here


  1. Wonderfully written. Would you like to read this?

  2. I remember watching a very funny Bob Christo episode on Movers n Shakers. In one movie with Raj Kiran, Bob was was getting beaten up by him in a swimming pool and because Raj Kiran couldn't swim, Bob had to keep saving him from drowning. Shekhar Suman couldn't stop laughing on that one . . .

  3. Its surprising that he wasn't as popular as Tom Alter!

  4. Wonderful post! And when I started reading this post, the first thing I remembered was the Hanuman clunking this guy in Mr. India. I guess that was this guy's most famous scene ever!
    Totally loved your subtextual analysis of the gora-bhoora situation!!

  5. No one wrote about him while he was alive!

  6. when we guys studied films in jamia, we had a caption for every secondary actor of 80s and for our dear Bob, we had -

    'Dil mei mere hai Bob-Christo, Bob Christo'... like Dard-e-disco'

    somewhere i read that Bob like Tom was an intelligent guy to stay back in bombay coz they knew that a colonial-hangover wala india will always have stories about the cruel angrez and thus they would always be in demand..pretty crude - but amazing insight...

    btw - i happen to work with binod pradhan and gifted him your book on JBDY on his bday...- unfortunately he already had one...:(

  7. Hardik: yes, I'd sent Binod a copy of the book. Thanks for the gesture though, and do spread the word to any filmi folk you know who might be interested in the book.

    In one movie with Raj Kiran, Bob was was getting beaten up by him in a swimming pool and because Raj Kiran couldn't swim, Bob had to keep saving him from drowning.

    Apoorv: see, now that's the sort of thing that should be on YouTube!

    Abhishek: nice post - and yes, Christo was the anti-Dara Singh in a sense, given that Dara Singh famously never played a villain.

  8. I didn't know Bob Christo passed away. RIP.

    On another note - do write a post about the 1000 other weird things about Disco Dancer. I was about 9 or 10 when I saw that movie and absolutely loved it!! :))

  9. Deepa: have you read Anuvab Pal's monograph on Disco Dancer? It's part of the same Harper Collins film series that includes my book on Jaane bhi do Yaaro.

  10. I think he was a practicing Yoga instructor in Bangalore for the last few years. Its funny how no one wrote about him all these years, but anybody who has seen at least five Bollywood films from the 70s will recognize him instantly!

    A very good read.

  11. Hey, I didn't know that Bob was no more. Thank you for the fitting tribute. He shouldn't have been compared to Helen. They played different roles in the film industry. There is no BIG person or SMALL person.

  12. Indeed. He was a special man. You did a great thing by writing this post for him. I'm sure you have even more fans now.

    Good luck!

  13. I adored Bob Christo :) My Dad is a huge fan esp of that line from Mr India which he would oft quote.

    I hope his autobiography hits the stands soon. That would be a good read.

  14. "I hope his autobiography hits the stands soon."
    Huh? Are we taking the phrase "ghost writing" literally?

  15. Rahul: Christo's memoir is written and will be published soon - think there was an excerpt in one of the magazines recently.

  16. Thanks Jai!

  17. there was a recent article in the sunday express eye .. it was a fascinating account of his personal life, made me look at him in an altogether different light

  18. Anon: thanks for the submission, but bad news for you: I discontinued my year-end comments selection a couple of years ago. Great effort though, and keep trying!