People are waiting to pull you down: Asrani, who turns 79 today

Farhana Farook
·9-min read

Veteran Govardhan Asrani turns 79 today. Here’s a quick look at his versatile run…

The ’70s were definitive years in Hindi cinema. It gave us two superstars in quick succession. Rajesh Khanna, who witnessed unprecedented stardom between 1969-72, was suddenly and unsuspectingly overtaken by ‘dark horse’ Amitabh Bachchan in 1973. Romance reluctantly paved way for rage. Witnessing this unfold first-hand and at close quarters was actor Asrani, who was part of both their pivotal films.

The blue-eyed boy of Hrishikesh Mukherjee (Guddi, Abhimaan, Namak Haraam) and Gulzar (Mere Apne and Koshish), Asrani went on to carve his own trajectory as a comedian and supporting actor in around 400 films.

For a while he even dabbled with direction (Chala Murari Hero Banne and Salaam Memsaab). Taking to the stage and the web world was a further expression of his talent. Just as was launching his own acting academy. It’s been an enriching journey for Asrani but not without hard knocks and harder lessons.

“We comedians and character artistes are far more sensitive than heroes. We feel more, observe more, convey more and are easily hurt. With heroes... they would rather hurt than be hurt,” he was once quoted saying. At the same time he also said, “That comedians are sad people is a wrong notion. Yes, I am an observer of life and that’s what has helped my art.”

Malaamal Weekly 2
Malaamal Weekly 2

Asrani was born on 1 January, 1941, into a Sindhi family in Jaipur. He graduated from Rajasthan College, Jaipur. To provide for his fees, he worked as a voice artiste at All India Radio, Jaipur.

He graduated from the FTII in Pune 1966. His first break in Hindi films came in Biswajeet’s Hare Kaanch Ki Choodiyan (1967). Later, Hrishikesh Mukherjee gave him a small role in Satyakam (1969). Meanwhile, he did a few Gujarati films as a hero. In a bid to survive, he took up an instructor’s job at the institute.

“For six years, every Friday evening I’d take the Deccan Queen train from Pune and visit Mumbai to look for acting opportunities. The ticket cost me six rupees and six annas,” he recalled his days of struggle.

Asrani and Om Prakash in Chupke Chupke
Asrani and Om Prakash in Chupke Chupke

The time when Hrishikesh Mukherjee came looking for his Guddi at the FTII is vivid in memory.

“Jaya (Bhaduri) was a student there. She was aggressive and ambitious. She had done Mahanagar (1963) with Satyajit Ray. Ray had recommended her to Hrishida. Jaya was in the canteen having tea with Anil Dhawan and Danny Denzongpa. When she was told that Hrishida had come to meet her, she exclaimed ‘What! Hrishikaku?’ with the cup nearly slipping from her hands,” narrated Asrani.

Asrani also got a bit role in Guddi (1971) – that of a small-town boy, who aspires to become a hero but ends up as a crestfallen junior artiste.

“Hrishida gave me money to travel first class from Pune to Mumbai for the shooting of Guddi. Then on till Jurmana (1979), he included me in all his films. During his last days, when I visited him at the hospital, he wrote, ‘Asrani Mukherji’ on a piece of paper and gave it to me. Hrishida meant to say, ‘You’re like a son to me’,” mentioned the actor in an interview.

Mere Apne
Mere Apne

Gulzar’s campus drama, Mere Apne (1971), won Asrani further notice. Other memorable performances in the ’70s include those in Koshish, Parichay, Abhimaan, Mehbooba and Do Ladke Dono Kadke.

Asrani shared a good bond with Rajesh Khanna and went on to do around 25 films with the superstar from Bawarchi (1972), Namak Haraam (1973) to Ghar Parivaar (1991). He was witness to the frenzy that Rajesh Khanna stirred at the premiere of Do Raaste (1969) at Metro cinema.

“There were swelling crowds outside and a full house inside. There was pandemonium as though ‘God’ had arrived. There was lathi-charge… Everyone wanted to touch him. It took him 40 minutes to reach the stage. When the song ‘Bindiya chamkegi...’ was played… there were whistles and coin throwing. He was whisked away even before the screening was complete,” shared Asrani.

Asrani was part of Hrishida’s Namak Haraam (1973), in which Rajesh was paired opposite Amitabh Bachchan. “There was basic courtesy between the two. But Rajesh suffered from a superiority complex. He thought ‘no one can shake me’. Throughout the film there was palpable tension between the two,” Asrani candidly revealed in an interview.

Namak Haraam
Namak Haraam

Asrani revealed that Hrishida had asked Rajesh and Amitabh to choose their characters in the film based on Becket. Rajesh chose to die. Apparently, Amitabh lamented his decision of ‘not dying’ in the film. But after its release he became a superstar. It was after Namak Haraam that Rajesh Khanna’s downslide began. “The ‘lover boy’ phase was over. The ‘angry young man’ had arrived,” maintained Asrani.

Through the years Asrani’s relationship with Rajesh remained cordial. “He never confided in anyone. I don’t think he was close to anyone. Rajesh liked to be with people, who only spoke good things about him. He never accepted his downfall,” Asrani said.

Asrani was also close to Jaya and was one of the four ‘brothers of the bride’ at their wedding along with Gulzar, Ramesh Behl and a cousin. “Even today when Jaya meets me, she addresses me as ‘Sir’ as I was her teacher at the FTII,” claimed the veteran.

Coming back to his career, Asrani’s subtle comedy was appreciated in the ’70s in films like Roti, Prem Nagar, Chupke Chupke, Chhoti Si Baat, Rafoo Chakkar and Pati Patni Aur Woh.

Aaj Ki Taaza Khabar
Aaj Ki Taaza Khabar

He won the Filmfare Award for Best Comedian for his performances as impersonator Champak Bhumiya in Aaj Ki Taaza Khabar (1973) and the affable Sharat in Balika Badhu (1976).

It was during Rajendra Bhatia’s Aaj Ki Taaza Khabar that he fell in love with co-actor and future wife Manju Bansal. Later the couple featured in their home production Hum Nahin Sudhrenge (1980), directed by Asrani. Their son, Naveen Asrani, is a dentist in Ahmedabad.

Asrani’s popularity peaked after he spoofed the infamous Adolf Hitler in Ramesh Sippy’s Sholay (1975). For his role of the jailor, Asrani picked the look and vibe from Hiltler’s photographs.

“Acting institutes have Hitler’s recorded voice to train actors. He had hypnotised and provoked an entire nation with his voice modulation... I said the dialogue, ‘Hum angrez ke zamaane ke jailor hai!’ emulating that,” Asrani explained how he perfected his iconic character.

His other offbeat roles from that era include that of the evil brother in Koshish (1972),the double role of a hippie and villager in LV Prasad’s Bidaai (1974), a beedi-puffing squanderer in Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Chaitali (1975), a pimp in KS Prakash Rao’s Prem Nagar (1974) and a romantic in BR Chopra’s Nikah (1982).

Chala Murari Hero Banne
Chala Murari Hero Banne

Pushing the envelope, he played the hero in Chala Murari Hero Banne (1977), which he wrote and directed as well. His stint as a director revealed several life truths. The colleagues he socialized with didn’t want to do his film.

“Heroes suffer from a complex - he’s a comedian, why take orders from him? Gulshan Rai advised me saying, ‘The day you announce yourself as a director that day you will lose your credibility as an actor. Take the examples of IS Johar, Mehmood, Johny Walker and Deven Varma,” once shared Asrani.

He continued to be prolific in the ’80s with films including Hamari Bahu Alka, Ek Hi Bhool, Kaamchor, Agar Tum Na Hote, Maqsad and Biwi Ho To Aisi. In the ’90s, he regaled in entertainers like Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar, Gharwali Baharwali and Bade Miyan Chote Miyan.

While the millennium saw Asrani in a number of Priyadarshan films like Hera Pheri, Hulchul, Garam Masala, Malamaal Weekly and Kamaal Dhamaal Malamaal. He also featured in Rohit Shetty’s Bol Bachchan (2012) and Satish Kaushik’s Gang Of Ghosts (2014) apart from several Gujarati films. His recent film outing was Dharmendra’s Yamla Pagla Deewana: Phir Se (2018).

The actor reveres his idols. “I was impressed by Kishore Kumar. I also liked Motilalji and Yakub. To an extent, I liked Johnny Walker. Even Mehmood was versatile… till the double meaning dialogue... That was obnoxious… I always said no to wearing female costumes unless it was extremely necessary,” he was quoted saying.

Embracing all mediums, he featured in the popular web series Permanent Roommates (2018). He has also done plays like Baap Ka Baap and Kya Family Hai. “Eventually, you need to polish yourself,” says the actor, who launched his acting studio called Asrani’s Acting Studios in 2017.

His advice for youngsters is clear. He urges in keeping the personal and professional separate.

“You are with each other the whole day. Then you sit for drinks where you end up gossiping… You sap your creative energies by interacting too much… This is a cutthroat world. People are waiting to pull you down. So stay professional!” True that.