HE was an Indian original. When seventies' arch villain Ajit delivered his pithy but apocalyptic pronouncements on screen in that booming voice of his ("saara shahar mujhe Loin ke naam se jaanta hai"), they were disarmed of any sense of irony and devoid of any deliberate attempt at humour. But it was more than enough to catch the Indian popular imagination: Ajit's ice-in-his-veins manner, the mangled Hinglish accent, the colourful molls, the doltish henchmen and, most importantly, the inadvertent humour.
Ajit himself was thrillingly bilious onscreen but aficionados sought to temper the persona with overt humour. Over the years, the public invented, related and hugely enjoyed several jokes based on the Ajit persona. And willy nilly, Ajit found himself at the epicentre of a unique cult. By being just himself, Ajit had mined a vein of black humour, hitherto unsuspected in the Indian consciousness.
The actor had practically retired a decade ago but the humorous image thrust upon him thrived due to quippy comperes like Javed Jaffri and Shekhar Suman, and his actor son who tried to build a career by lampooning his father. And so, Ajit jokes and myths (much cited and 'site-d, they find a place on almost every India-based Internet site) promise to endure even after the actor's death on October 21.
Ajit began life as Hamid Ali Khan in pre-Independence Hyderabad. There's an apocryphal story of how the strapping, well-built Hamid sold his books to finance a trip to Bombay, the Mecca of his celluloid dreams. After several years of knocking around, doing small roles in the studio-dominated Bollywood of the 1950s, his luck turned when film-maker K. Amarnath changed his name to Ajit and cast him in the well-received Beqasoor opposite Madhubala. Though he wasn't a major draw, Ajit enjoyed a career as a hero throughout the fifties, working opposite heroines like Meena Kumari (Halaaku) and Geeta Bali (Baradari). He reached his peak with Nastik, the success of which saw him paired with its heroine Nalini Jaywant in almost a dozen subsequent films—largely of descending merit.
When even character roles like in Naya Daur and Mughal-e-Azam grew thin on the ground, Ajit switched to villainy with Sooraj (1966). However, his straight-laced portrayals won little acclaim till Zanjeer (1973) saw the birth of a new persona. Director Prakash Mehra reveals that this transition was not exactly accidental. "Ajit felt that the villains of Hindi films shout a great deal; so he created a soft-spoken villain. He said he had observed that underworld kingpins often spoke with a great deal of humility. With Zanjeer, Ajit revolutionised the way villains spoke." In a scene from Zanjeer, when a high-strung Amitabh accosts Ajit with, "Teja, main jail se bahar aa gaya hoon", a cool Ajit parries with, "Kaho toh phir andar karva doon?" Ajit projected a casual calm that was unnerving in its implicit danger. However, it wasn't his golden brown hair or the smart array of bathrobes but his store of quotable quips ("Mona darling", "smart boy") peppered throughout the film and delivered in his archetypal style that set the tone for the Ajit persona of several seventies films.
A distinct plus was the bodacious Bindu as his moll, Mona darling. Her exaggerated oomph and rapid-fire dialogue delivery complimented Ajit's toned-down evil and languorously spoken lines. The twosome shared a cosy camaraderie that caused much havoc in Zanjeer, Des Pardes and Chhupa Rustom. A camaraderie that lives on in the Boss-Mona jokes (Mona: "Boss, why were you dancing so much with Polly last night?" Ajit: "Sometimes I dance with Mona, sometimes with Polly. Nobody has a monopoly.")
1973 was boom time for Ajit with successes like Yaadon Ki Baarat, Jugnu, Kahani Kismet Ki, besides Zanjeer, crowding the theatres. Later, hits like Kaalicharan (1976) earned him the sobriquet of Lion after he mispronounced the word with great abandon. By the eighties, failing health made the lion retire to his lair in Hyderabad.
The lion in winter was, however, still coveted by Bollywood. In the early 1990s, Ajit made a few films like the Ajay Devgan starrer Jigar. The roar had not changed into a purr, but it was not the same. Dev Anand, who cast him in his recent Gangster, recalls: "He was a fine human being but with age he had become slow." Also, he seemed out of step with new trends—hypothetically speaking, in a realistic look at the world of criminals a la Satya, Ajit would have been an oddity. What he required was an incubator oxygenated by fantasy to breathe freely.
Ajit returned to his farm in Hyderabad. Happily, one of his favourite pastimes in his last days was to enjoy the Ajit jokes which his son obtained for him from the Internet. (Sample these—Robert: "Boss, please name my new born twins." Ajit: "Simpal. Ek ka naam rakho Peter aur doosre ka Repeater. Robert: "Iss informer ka kya kiya jaaye?" Ajit: "Isko liquid oxygen mein daal do. Liquid use jeene nahin dega aur oxygen use marne nahin dega.) The Lion king left on his last journey, happy in the knowledge that he had become a cult figure.