Published On: Fri, Jun 17th, 2016

Remembering legendary bollywood’s actor Motilal, on his 51st death anniversary today.


Remembering Motilal, Hindi cinema’s one of the first natural actors, on his 51st death anniversary today.

Remembering Motilal, Hindi cinema’s one of the first natural actors, on his 51st death anniversary today.

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You never felt he was acting. Motilal was effortlessly natural. Dilip Kumar, Amitabh Bachchan, Naseeruddin Shah – and almost every performer of worth and heft in Bombay cinema has lauded his craft, acknowledged the insight and nuance he brought to parts.

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The Shimla-born starred in over 60 films, with at least 30 in the lead. But his smaller parts prompt maximum recall. In the hands of a lesser actor, the glib Chuni babu, who leads Devdas to alcohol, dancing girl and doom, could have easily become a negative character. Motilal dripped him in charm, made him value-free and earned his first Filmfare award for the best supporting actor. Even his villainy was relaxed and refined (Anadi, 1959, Paigham, 1959).

motilal1Perhaps his finest and most underfeted performance came in the title role of Mr Sampat (1952), which was based on litterateur R K Narayan’s story. As a charismatic crook who can even sell ice to an Eskimo, Motilal blended cool and cunning in a manner that’s impossible to improve.

Motilal started as a 24-year-old hero with Shaher Ka Jadoo (1934). In the following years, he reeled off a clutch of box-office winners, though, few remember anything about this phase of his career. Be it a swashbuckling sword-fighter (Silver King) or a millionaire (300 Days And After) – the actor romped through roles with an easy cool, typified by the tilted hat he wore. Among his first hits was also early Mehboob Khan’s serious romance, Jagirdar (1938).

KL Saigal lorded over the box-office those days. Film historian Firoze Rangoonwala points out how the two were different. “Saigal was a singer-star in heavyweight subjects and much bigger than Motilal, who was a lighter counterpart from fun-loving Bombay and its answer to Calcutta,” he says.

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By early 1940s, though, Motilal was opting for bolder plots too. He played the untouchable in Achhut (1940), a progressive film that also won praise from Mahatma Gandhi and Vallabhbhai Patel.

motilal-koozaUnfortunately, there were more stories on his flamboyant life-style than his art. His romance with Shobhna Samarth and Nadira. His love for racing, gambling, flying and cricket. One story went that Motilal had named one of his horses, Traitor, because it would look back at him just before the finishing line only to lose. Also known for his quips, he once told a journalist, “I have survived three heart attacks, an air crash, a near drowning – and several rotten films,”

Saira Bano, who acted in Motilal’s last film to be released, Yeh Zindagi Kitni Haseen Hai (1966), remembers him as a kind gentleman and a gifted actor who offered useful tips to improve a scene. She also recalled how the actor was nagged by a furious cough during the shooting. “I recall giving him joshanda, a herbal medicine, and it gave him a lot of relief. Grateful, he told me once, “Kaash meri tumhari jaisi koi beti hoti (Wish I had a daughter like you),” she said.

Motilal in 'Yeh Zindagi Kitni Haseen Hai' (1966)

Motilal in ‘Yeh Zindagi Kitni Haseen Hai’ (1966)

Shortly before his death, Motilal also acted in his only Bhojpuri film, Solaho Singar Kare Dulhaniya (The bride has decked up, 1965), a film lost to history. He also managed to complete his labour of love, ‘Chhoti Chhoti Batein’, which he had written, produced and directed.

Motilal enjoyed gambling and races and died almost penniless in 1965. But till the end, he lived with his dignity intact. He never borrowed even a penny from friends. But what he left behind in terms of acting was a legacy, which others were to carry forward.

In 2013, while celebrating 100 years of Indian cinema, the government brought out a stamp to honour him. But Motilal, a free radical in his own right, needs to be revisited more seriously.

About the Author

Syed Ammar Alavi

- is Lahore (Pakistan) based journalist & writer with 25-year experience in print, wire and broadcast forms of journalism. His major fields of interest are politics, film,tv,sports, climate change and technology