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regular-article-logo Thursday, 23 May 2024

Mithun Chakraborty was and remains much more than ‘the poor man’s Amitabh Bachchan’

The star who turns 73 today won the best actor National Award for his debut film Mrigaya under Mrinal Sen’s direction

Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri Calcutta Published 16.06.23, 01:34 PM
Mithun Chakraborty

Mithun Chakraborty

Few superstars of Hindi cinema have traversed the journey from the sublime to the ridiculous and back, time and again, as well as Mithun Chakraborty. Action stars of the 1970s, including Dharmendra, Vinod Khanna and Shatrughan Sinha, had their share of clangers, and bad ones at that, but few plumbed the depths Mithun Chakraborty did with his gallery of films that a critic memorably termed ‘brand of impossible heroics and made-for-the-front-row lines’.

At the same time, none of these stars scaled the heights that Mithun did with as many as three National Award-winning performances — Mrigaya, Tahader Katha and Swami Vivekananda. Name any other actor who can carry off a Ramakrishna Paramahamsa with as much elan as a Jallaad.

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For every Mrigaya, there were scores of forgettable capers. In 1989, Mithun had a world-record 19 films, including front-bencher favourites like Guru (which had one of the biggest openings in the history of Hindi cinema at the time; interestingly, over the years, he starred in three films with the same title), Ilaka, Daata, and what is considered by many film enthusiasts as one of the finest crime dramas in Hindi cinema, the underrated Mujrim. Only three years later, he was wowing all those who had dismissed him as an actor with Buddhadev Dasgupta’s Tahader Katha (only a year ago, he was lifting his lungi, playing Krishnan Iyer MA in Agneepath).

This almost schizophrenic choice of films reached its apogee in 1998, the year he won his third National Award for Swami Vivekananda. This was the year of Hitler, Military Raaj, Chandaal and Gunda (possibly among the ‘greatest’ of ‘films so bad they have become cult’). In 2005, he received another National Award best actor nomination for Kaalpurush (again with Buddhadeb Dasgupta), around the same time that he was defying all narrative logic and conventions of ‘good taste’, setting new standards for one-liners like ‘marbo ekhane, laash porbe sashane’, ‘public-er maar, keoratalar paar’ and ‘ek chhobole chhobi’ (untranslatable gems of our pop culture).

For a star and an actor who was once seen as a contender to Amitabh Bachchan, it is unfortunate that the MLA and Minister Fatakeshto-s, a Mafia Raaj and a Loha overshadow his more nuanced work in, say, Titli or Guru (directed by Mani Ratnam, which featured him in what was the best act of the film).

Or that later directors failed to capitalise on the romantic appeal of his Tarachand Barjatya hits, Tarana and Sun Sajna. Or that his disco years put to the shade his attempts to break the mould. Those who remember the star for his crowd-pleasers tend to forget that Basu Chatterjee cast him in winning romcoms like Shaukeen and Pasand Apni Apni (albeit the director was by then a shadow of his peak self). Sitara (directed by Meraj, long-time assistant to Gulzar) showcased his acting prowess as did Rakesh Roshan’s Jaag Utha Insaan in atypical roles.

Unfortunately for Mithun, these films failed the box-office test as did a few others at crucial junctures when he seemed destined to break through to the next level (Boxer in 1984, Bhrashtachar in 1989, Yugandhar in 1993, and the two fiascos with Amitabh Bachchan, Gangaa Jamunaa Saraswathi and Agneepath).

The Gunmaster G-9 Years

Despite a dream debut with Mrinal Sen’s Mrigaya, the star had little to show in the next few years, with blink-and-miss appearances in Do Anjaane (though his one-scene cameo with Amitabh Bachchan has become something of a cult) and Mukti. Among his first lead roles was Mera Rakshak, which has, according to an entry in Wikipedia, Mithun ‘playing [a] key role… along with a goat who acts as the Rakshak (bodyguard) in the film’. It was Ravikant Nagaich — who had directed hit spy and actions thrillers Farz (1967) and The Train (1971), and Rajesh Khanna’s major disaster Mere Jeevan Saathi — who put him on the road to stardom with Hindi cinema’s version of 007, CBI officer Gopi, a.k.a. Gunmaster G-9.

Surakksha became Mithun’s first major box-office success. He returned as Gunmaster G-9 in Wardat, and formed a winning team with Ravikant Nagaich in other capers of the era. Laugh if you will at the apocalyptic events G-9 is called upon to save India from – an atomic reactor that sends out deadly signals in Surakksha and a swarm of locusts unleashed by a dark secret world of underground scientists in Wardat – and the ‘stunts, car chases, fights, dancing with scantily-clad girls, some romance and comedy by agent Khabri’, but even over 40 years later, Gunmaster G-9 remains our only answer to anything resembling a spy franchise. And much before Disco Dancer changed the sound of music in Hindi cinema, Bappi Lahiri’s foot-stomping numbers in these films (Mausam hai gaane ka, Tum jo bhi ho, Tu mujhe jaan se bhi pyaara hai) can still get the adrenaline rushing.

Hum Paanch: The Star Arrives

Gunmaster G-9 made a star of Mithun, Hum Paanch consolidated his position. In a film that boasted actors of the calibre of Sanjeev Kumar, Naseeruddin Shah, Raj Babbar, Amrish Puri and Shabana Azmi, he not only held his own but also outshone them. This retelling of the Mahabharata also played an important role in giving Mithun the angry image that flowered in a string of hits all through the 1980s.

More importantly, it was the beginning of a fruitful partnership with filmmaker Bapu which resulted in three of the star’s most understated performances that also created and played on the image he came to acquire. Bapu would go on to direct Mithun in Pyari Behna and Prem Pratigyaa, the latter often regarded as one of his finest performances. Coming as it did bang in the middle of his 19-film marathon run in 1989, it gave a glimpse of what the actor was capable of if called upon.

Pyar Jhukta Nahin and the Family Dramas

Disco Dancer had given Hindi cinema its latest pinup star. Over the next few years, Bappi Lahiri and Mithun Chakraborty would go berserk with disco hits like Dance Dance (a take-off on Sidney Poitier’s musical directorial Fast Forward) and Kasam Paida Karne Wale Ki. Even as Mithun found his métier as the dancing star came Pyar Jhukta Nahin, a sleeper hit. Reminiscent of Jab Jab Phool Khile and Parent Trap, its songs were the rage.

Mithun, without throwing a single punch or setting foot on the dance floor, suddenly became the go-to star for family melodramas. Of course keeping in mind the star’s action image, these were peppered with a healthy dose of fights. With Bachchan mired in the cesspool of politics, Mithun began to be hailed as the heir to the throne with family specials like Pyar Ka Mandir, Charanon Ki Saugandh and Swarg Se Sundar, among others.

The Ooty Years: Mithun’s Dream Factory

It may have been called ‘Dream Factory’, but what came out of it were nightmares that had critics reaching for suitable adjectives and trade analysts scratching their heads at the business model these films perfected. This is the phase that really sets the star apart. So celebrated and so influential this period is in the history of B-grade Hindi cinema that it needs a good in-depth analysis of what made these films work.

The only star of stature in Hindi cinema who rivalled Mithun in the production of similar bottom-of-the-barrel stuff is Dharmendra. However, even he was not half as prolific as Mithun. Beginning in the early 1990s, Mithun greenlit close to a hundred films that were literally assembly-line productions, all — sometimes four to five simultaneously — shot in the vicinity of Ooty, where the star had established his hospitality business. Films that went by the titles Cheetah, Shapath, Ravan Raaj (which had the logline ‘A True Story’!), Yamraaj, and filmmakers like T.L.V. Prasad, Kanti Shah, Rajiv Babbar and Arshad Khan represented the high noon of a genre of films that make the films of the Jeetendra-Sridevi Madras phase seem like classics, and that give the word surreal a new spin.

More Than ‘the poor man’s Amitabh Bachchan’

Like Vinod Khanna in the 1970s, Mithun reached the top in the 1980s without a single big banner or director backing him. It did not help that his outings with big-ticket filmmakers like Ramesh Sippy (Bhrashtachar), Raj N. Sippy (Boxer), N. Chandra (Yugandhar), Manmohan Desai (Gangaa Jamunaa Saraswathi) and Mukul Anand (Agneepath) tanked. This absence of top-line banners meant that even when he starred in a number of family melodramas (essential for a star’s outreach) in the wake of Pyar Jhukta Nahin, his films were patronised by the working class more than the middle class (which had by this time abandoned the theatres for the comfort of the VCR anyway), giving him the rather unflattering sobriquet ‘the poor man’s Amitabh Bachchan’. He was and remains much more than that.

(Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri is a film and music buff, editor, publisher, film critic and writer)

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