With his quirky dialogues, playful eyes and superb body language, Jagdeep won hearts in theatres. Shoma Chatterji pays tribute to the immortal Soorma Bhopali who never failed to raise a laugh.
There was a time when Hindi cinema – much before the term “Bollywood” became common currency, was filled with some of the most outstanding comedians who also turned in wonderful serious performances whenever they were given the chance which, however was rare. In this celestial gallery were names like Om Prakash, Agha, Keshto Mukherjee, Mukri, IS Johar, Johnny Walker, Mehmood, Rajendranath, Tuntun, Manorama, and many more. Jagdeep, who passed away in Mumbai in July was the last among the batch of successors to the former, each having given humour and comedy in Hindi cinema in his own typical definition and character.
When heroes decided to wear the mantle of humour in films, the era of comedians almost faded away apart from heroes who also played the comic and the comic who also doubled up as an important character. Among these great talents, Jagdeep had a very successful career with around 400 films spanning a career of five decades or more.
I remember him as a teenager playing a shoeshine boy in Bimal Roy’s Do Bigha Zamin who teaches Shambhu’s son the tricks of the trade. Bimal Roy said he chose Jagdeep to play the role because when asked to rehearse the first shot, he found the boy kissing the polishing toolbox and then going his way. The director found this improvisation impressive and lengthened his role in the film. The rest, as they say, is history. Jagdeep became an overnight name as Lalu Ustad, the name of the character he played in the film.
His real name was Syed Ishtiaq Ahmed Jaffrey which was changed to Jagdeep when he stepped into films. But this happened later. He was born into a family of advocates in Datia, Madhya Pradesh. His father died when he was an infant and the family, placed in dire circumstances during the Partition, decided to shift to Mumbai when he was around eight on nine years old. His mother took up the job of a cook in an orphanage while he himself did odd jobs of selling cheap streetside toys like kites. He was spotted for a tiny role in Afsana (1951) and he got Rs.1.50 for the small part. He was given a dialogue and that doubled the sum he got. That was just the beginning.
For those who believe that Jagdeep can only be identified with roles like the one he portrayed in Sholay as Soorma Bhopali, must watch him in serious and romantic roles in some of his films when he grew up. This writer remembers him in AVM’s Bhabhi (1957) in which he played the second hero. The hero was Balraj Sahni and this southern family melodrama turned out to be a box office hit with wonderful songs composed by Chitragupta and lyrics by Rajinder Krishan. It was adapted from a Bengali novel by Prabavati Devi Saraswati noted for writing soppy family melodramas in her time. It was also the Hindi remake of the Bengali film Bhanga Gara. Jagdeep played Baldev, the brother of Balraj Sahini and a good-natured young guy. He falls in love with Lata (Nanda,) a child widow and his bhabi’s sister. Jagdeep’s performance as the silent must be seen to be believed. One felt this film would establish him as a hero but though it got him several similar roles, he was forced to fall back on comedy and he did and how!
Chali chali re patang meri chali re (Bhabhi, 1957) Chitragupt / Rajinder Krishan / Mohammed Rafi and Lata Mangeshkar
The same year, his role in a child-centered film Hum Panchi Ek Daal Ke impressed Jawaharal Nehru so much that he gifted the young actor his personal staff. Other memorable films he played lead romantic roles in were Barkha (1959), Teen Bahuraniyan (1968) and Bidayee (1974). Then came 1975 that took him forever to international glory in that small cameo as Soorma Bhopali in the iconic cult film Sholay (1975).
His catchphrase in the film, “Mera naam Soorma Bhopali aise hi nahi hai,” still echoes in our ears and will never be forgotten. With his quirky dialogues, playful eyes and superb body language, Jagdeep won hearts in theatres. Soorma Bhopali, a timber merchant, made us laugh back then and continues to do so today whenever we re-watch the film. “It takes a superb artiste to get all the nuances of a local character like that. Comedy is not easy. The timing has to be perfect and the reaction has to be right. It is not possible without talent. As a director, I cannot make an actor do comedy. I can only ask for improvisation,” said Ramesh Sippy who directed the film. He had seen Jagdeep in Brahmachari in which Jagdeep performed very well in a character role that was tinged with comedy. That decided him to pick the actor for this role. Years after Sholay, his character in Raj Kumar Santoshi’s Andaz Apna Apna was named, Bankelal Bhopali.
Javed Saab says, “Soorma Bhopali could not have been played by anybody other than him. He worked hard on the Bhopali accent and got it word perfect. His comic timing was very good but I rue the fact that he wasn’t given an opportunity to do more emotional and dramatic roles.” Yet, the grapevine says that Jagdeep did not want to play the part in the beginning.
An interesting anecdote says that Soorma Bhopali was the name of a real life, high-ranking government bureaucrat and the writers had borrowed this name without taking permission from the man. He is said to have been so angry after he saw the film and the character named after him that he threatened to sue Jagdeep who was frightened out of his wits. But no one knows what happened in the end.
In 1988, inspired by the fame of the character he played in Sholay, Jagdeep went on to produce, direct and act in a film he named after the character. But sadly, Soorma Bhopali flopped at the box office.
Jagdeep led a colourful personal life as he had married three times. He has a daughter who is a few months older than his grandson, the son of his elder son Javed Jaffrey.
Another anecdote reminisced with fun is that once, he had gone to a smaller town in Maharashtra to approve of a girl to be married to one of his sons. He liked the girl so much that he married her himself! His greatest pride however, lay in the fact that his two sons from his second marriage, namely Javed and Naved Jaffrey are very successful in their respective careers.
The problem with historically iconic characters like Soorma Bhopali lies in the fact that with every successive role in the actor’s next film, he is measured against that iconic role. This can never happen because no good actor would want to repeat what he has done before. On the brighter side, he happens to be one of the rare comedians in Hindi cinema who died a happy and successful man, surrounded by his family. This did not happen in the case of many comedians who died tragic deaths. Keshto Mukherjee died much before his time from cirrhosis of the liver as he had turned an alcoholic. IS Johar died of cancer and had instructed everyone not to inform the media about his terminal illness.
Jagdeep may have passed away at 81, but his celluloid avatar, Soorma Bhopali will live on forever.
Soorma Bhopali scene in Sholay
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