Veteran actor Jagdeep, who immortalised the character of Soorma Bhopali in Hindi cinema’s greatest hit, Sholay (1975), was among the last of Bollywood comedians whose mere presence on screen was enough to evoke laughter in the theatres for many years.
In an era when film-makers considered comic relief to be an integral element of a script to give respite to the audiences in between intense and tear-jerking sequences, Jagdeep’s was a ubiquitous face in commercial cinema.
The actor, who died at 81 in Mumbai on July 8, did not depend on sharp and witty one-liners to bring smiles on the faces of cine-goers. Instead, he was expected to evoke guffaws, at times even without a proper script, with his facial contours, zany expressions and crazy situations. And he was damn good at it.
The stiff upper-lip gentry and the critics loved to abhor him for his brand of what they called loud and mindless comedy but the masses lapped up whatever he did.
Beneath the veneer of a smiling face, however, lay an intense and spontaneous actor who resented, once in a while, that comedians were always considered comedians, not actors assigned to playing a particular character. Like many other comics like him in the industry, he was not given his due but he kept on making the audience laugh with the bizarrest of lines in film after film.
In his career spanning more than six decades, he did more than 400 films, mostly playing a bumbling comic, often a police constable here or a bartender there, at times even a hero’s sidekick. But that is not how his godfathers in the industry had foreseen his future when he had started his career on a promising note as a child actor in early 1950s. After making his debut in B. R Chopra’s Afsana (1951), he did films with the biggest of banners and directors, including Bimal Roy, Mehboob Khan and Guru Dutt before graduating to doing central roles in films like Bhabhi (1957) and Barkha (1959). In fact, so impressed was the erstwhile Prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru with his performance in the National Award-winning children’s film, Hum Panchhi Ek Daal Ke (1957) that he gifted his walking stick to him. It was sheer bad luck that he lost the lead role in Subodh Mukherjee’s Junglee (1961) which was offered to him before it went to Shammi Kapoor and made him a dancing sensation in the 1960s. The failure of Jagdeep’s subsequent movies forced him to accept what were called ‘side roles’ in the film industry parlance.
The turning point in his career came in the mid-seventies with Sholay, where he stood out as Soorma Bhopali despite his minuscule role in the multi-starrer. It gave a big boost to his career but it also harmed him at the same time. There is no denying the fact that Sholay opened the floodgates of offers for him and his character became so popular that he went on to produce a movie called Soorma Bhopali (1988) many years later. But as an actor, he also ended up getting typecast and could never get out of the image trap to make the most of his talent, which he had shown in his early black and white movies.
Nonetheless, playing such characters had its own fringe benefits. In Feroz Khan’s 1980-hit, Qurbani, he played a bar owner named Muhammad Ali, a fanatic fan of the legendary heavyweight boxer of the same name. So popular his character became after the release of this film that he was invited by a few US-based admirers to take part in a mock fight with none other than the legendary Muhammad Ali himself, for a fund-raiser they had planned for building a mosque in Chicago. “Thankfully, it was a mock fight,” Jagdeep was later quoted as saying with a sigh of relief.
Jagdeep became a recluse in recent years and did rare films, as his brand of comedy became absolutely obsolete in the new millennium with the audiences beginning to show a remarkable aversion for over-the-top comedies. It was not as though he could not play intense characters but Bollywood, obsessed as ever with the image of an actor, refused to look up to him as an actor who was capable of doing more than the Soorma Bhopali act in film after all. That was neither the fault nor the loss of the actor, who will be remembered for long for providing myriad moments of mirth to successive generations of moviegoers.