Since the untimely death of Sushant Singh Rajput nearly all television news channels have invited industry insiders from across different generations to talk about the workings of Bollywood. Amid the nepotism and the ‘insider-outsider’ debate, it was also revealed how certain stars found themselves at the wrong of the stick when it came to being treated fair by the peers. One such name was Govinda, who fell out of favour with an industry that he was not only an integral part of but also dominated in the 1990s after hitting a bad phase. Veteran actor Shatrughan Sinha’s statement that despite being an institution in himself, the industry shunned Govinda confirmed what many commentators have suspected for a while.
One of the most successful male actors in Indian films, Govinda was in every sense of the word a one-man industry though the course of the 1990s. Having debuted with Love ’86 (1986), Govinda enjoyed stardom with Ilzaam (1986) that also established his credentials as a dancing sensation. The initial few years were not too kind on him because of the competition in the form of Anil Kapoor, Sunny Deol, Sanjay Dutt, Jackie Shroff and later Aamir and Salman Khan, who arrived on the scene a couple of years later. The focus was either on the likes of Anil Kapoor and Sunny Deol, who were considered to the contenders to replace Amitabh Bachchan as the new numero uno or the two Khans, Aamir and Salam, who were the new kind of leading men. Govind also had to survive the ‘poor man’s Mithun Chakraborty’ tag because of his dancing prowess. What is interesting is that even at this stage in his career, Govinda was being seen as the complete actor in the mould of Dharmendra, who could do everything with equal ease and panache.
Although Govinda hailed from a film family — his father Arun Ahuja was a one-time famous actor who lost all his savings after a film that he produced sank at the box office, and his mother, Nirmala Devi, was a well-known classical singer — the going was not easy for him. By the time he started doing the rounds of producers’ offices, the family had long shifted from a bungalow in the city to Virar on the outskirts of Bombay. Govinda strived hard and lapped up the first opportunity that he got in Love ’86, and never looked back. He also reportedly signed over 27 films at a go. He produced Hathya (1988) that was directed by his brother, Kirti Kumar, to push the limits as an actor and the success of the film opened up new vistas beyond the dancing star tag.
The early 1990s saw the advent of Ajay Devgan, Akshay Kumar, Shah Rukh Khan and others that were cut from Aamir-Salman fabric in terms of stardom but Govinda was a throwback to the older era. At a time when the likes of Anil Kapoor, Sunny Deol and Sanjay Dutt were finding it difficult to survive as the classical Hindi film hero as compared to the younger lot, Govinda switched gears and transformed into a box office colossus. When it comes to Bombay cinema, a popular notion suggests that unless a male star was comfortable doing comedy, they would have a limited career. Stars have attempted comedy to get them out of a rut and one can see this with Dilip Kumar (Ram Aur Shyam, Kohinoor), Rajesh Khanna (Bawarchi), Dharmendra (Pratigya, Chupke Chupke, Dillagi), Amitabh Bachchan (Amar Akbar Anthony). In this aspect, few came close to Govinda, where beginning with Shola Aur Shabnam (1992) he went from being the second or third option to a bona fide star.
Through the course of the 1990s, a decade generally believed to be the highpoint in the careers the Khans or Devgn and Kumar, Govinda dominated the box office. There was not a single year where one of his films was not in the year’s top grosser — Aankhen (1993), Raja Babu (1994), Coolie No. 1 (1995), Saajan Chal Sauraal (1996), Deewana Mastana ((1997), Hero No. 1 (1997), Bade Miyan Chote Miyan (1998), Dulhe Raja (1998) and Haseena Maan Jaayegi (1999). With such a background, one can’t help but ponder what went wrong… when did things change for Govinda? More importantly, why did one of the biggest stars in India suddenly find himself left out in the cold?
On some level, one could say that the kind of films that Govinda dominated had lost their audience, and therefore the actor, too, found himself in the crossfire and did not know what to do. Govinda had also refused films such as Taal (1999), he was reportedly offered the role that Anil Kapoor played, citing that he was the ‘hero’ and couldn’t play the second-lead. Had Govinda experimented the same way as he did in the early stages of his career things might have been different as well. He was also notorious for being late for shootings and these things tend to become the tool with which one’s detractors can get back. In any case, Govinda also lost films that were planned with him but for some reason he was replaced. One such film was Anil Sharma’s Gaddar -Ek Prem Katha (2001) that revived Sunny Deol’s fortunes, Sharma had reportedly offered it to Govinda while working on Maharaja (1998), he had also ‘gave up’ Judwaa (1997) upon Salman Khan’s request and he pitched the idea for a 2013 remake of Chashme Baddoor to David Dhawan but it is said that the director opted for Rishi Kapoor, which also led to a fallout between the two.
From a box office phenomenon to an actor whose role in Jagga Jasoos was unceremoniously chopped, Govinda has witnessed just about everything the industry has to offer. Today, with the OTT platform that has given a new lease of life to actors such as Bobby Deol, (Class of 83, Aashram) and Sushmita Sen (Aarya), the environment perfect for Govinda to rediscover his groove.