Ekk Albela: a tribute to Bhagwan Dada

The image of yesteryear Hindi actor/filmmaker Bhagwan Abhaji Palav, or Bhagwan Dada -- India’s first action star -- is inseparable from the movie Albela. So, when it came to making a biopic in Marathi on his struggles and early day achievements, choosing the title was the easiest part for Dr. Monish Babre, its producer.

Ekk Albela, on Bhagwan Dada's life, is releasing on June 24. Its teaser-trailer and songs -- especially the recreated versions of original Albela songs like Bholi Soorat Dil Ke Khote foot-tapping Shola Jo Bhadke -- have generated great enthusiasm over the last two weeks. It features Marathi actor Mangesh Desai in the lead role of Bhagwan Dada and has >Vidya Balan make her Marathi debut in a special appearance as Geeta Bali, the star of Albela

Dr. Babre, a radiologist by profession, ventured into this project due to his personal attachment to Bhagwan Dada. “The place where stay in Parel is very close to ‘Lallubhai Mansion’ in Dadar, where Bhagwan Dada spent the later part of his life. We have observed him, and his mannerisms, very closely right from our childhood. In those days, it used to be a protocol for Ganapati processions to stop near his chawl and play Bholi Soorat Dil Ke Khote. Bhagwan used to come out and perform his signature slow dance. Only then the Ganapati would move ahead. We used to witness all this with awe and wonder,” he says.

Talking further about his memories that acted as a trigger to make Ekk Albela, Dr. Babre says, “I was intrigued by the fact that even Amitabh Bachchan got inspired from Bhagwan’s style of dancing. There must have been some spark in him, something unique about this style. I wanted to explore more.”

Finding authentic material on Bhagwan Dada was as difficult as getting hold of his earlier day films -- those from the 1930s and 1940s, many of which has either been burnt or lost. Here, the documentation of his life by Isak Mujawar, veteran Marathi journalist who has written a biography called Albela Bhagwan, proved useful for the makers.

But why make a film in 2016 on someone who made films a good 80 years back? Ekk Albela’s director, Shekhar Sartandel, says Bhagwan was an unsung pioneer whose story deserved to be told. “He made India’s first horror movie, Bhedi Bangla. He introduced a new way of dancing which I call a ‘layman’s style’, which any ordinary individual, even one without any training, could follow. The dance many of us do at weddings, have their genesis in Bhagwan’s style. Hence, his influence extends to our own mundane lives” he says.

Two aspects of Bhagwan Dada’s personality that featured throughout my conversations with both Dr. Babre and Mr. Sartandel were his action and his dancing. In fact, the teaser of Ekk Albela begins with Bhagwan (Mangesh Desai) throwing away his hunchback paraphernalia, from his first action movie Bewafa Aashiq, and announcing his full name to his audience. It looks like he is breaking the fourth wall and introducing himself to us, the audiences of 2016. Talking about Bhagwan’s innovations on the action front, Dr. Babre says, “He introduced hand-to-hand fistfights to Indian films. In fact, he was known as the Douglas Fairbanks of India.”

Douglas Fairbanks, once known as “The King of Hollywood," and India’s silent-era actor Master Vithal, the lead in Alam Ara, were the inspirations for Bhagwan Dada’s traits, says Mangesh Desai, who plays the title role in Ekk Albela. Due to the non-availability of any of the early-day films of Bhagwan, he says he had to watch Albela 20-22 times and imagine and interpret his style from the 40s.

Ekk Albela ends with the success of Albela, Bhagwan’s first ‘social’, as the mainstream movies were called then. How did Bhagwan make the transition from formulaic action films to a mainstream entertainer? Mr. Sartandel says Raj Kapoor, impressed with Bhagwan’s filmmaking, asked him to make ‘socials’. This motivated him to make Albela, a movie that became the third-biggest hit of 1951, after Raj Kapoor’s own tour de force Awara and Guru Dutt’s Baazi. Not just in India, Albela was one of the biggest Indian hits in East Africa as well, says film scholar Rachel Dwyer. “Raman Savani, based in Mombasa, from the Savani distribution family, told me this,” she says.

The biopic Ekk Albela promises to be a tale of Bhagwan’s life that saw him rise up from a daily wage labourer to one of the highest-paid actors of the time. Mr. Sartandel says Bhagwan made at least 15 action films before Albela, most of them action flicks.

Bewafa Aashiq (1931), whose reinterpretation is shown at the beginning of the biopic’s trailer, was Bhagwan’s take on Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The trailer goes on to give a quick peek into his early films, through a fast montage of posters of movies like Jigar, Bakshish, Shoukin and Pyara Dushman.

Finally, how did Vidya Balan, who plays the role of Geeta Bali, come into the picture? “We had finished shooting the first part of the movie and were looking for a star. Vidyadhar Bhatte [famous make-up artist] introduced us to Vidya Balan. We found that she herself was a fan of Bhagwan and Geeta Bali” says Dr. Babre.

Bhagwan’s career nosedived after Albela as he became a victim of repetition. His similarly named films like Labela and Jhamela, were disasters. What could have been the reason? Mr. Sartandel says Bhagwan was not a typical hero. “There were stars like Dev Anand and Dilip Kumar better suited to ‘socials’. Perhaps Bhagwan did not fit into the scheme.”

Film critic M.K. Raghavendra says Albela was a movie that touched “the right chord” in the early 50s as it provided entertainment in a newly-independent poor country that was trying to find its feet. However, the style became outdated by the end of the decade. “Even Raj Kapoor did not continue with the tramp image very long and played completely different roles later,” he says, adding, “Star personae have only contextual value and many stars don’t understand it.”

Did you know?

Bhagwan acted in around 300 movies. However, he did not do any film in Marathi, his mother tongue

Introduced talented people like C. Ramachandra and Anand Bakshi to the industry. Was also instrumental in Hemant Kumar getting his first major break, Naagin

He made a Tamil film, Vanamohini (1941), which had M.K. Radha, Sri Lankan actor Thavamani Devi and an elephant in the lead role

He accidentally slapped Lalita Pawar while shooting for a movie in 1942 and caused an injury to her left eye. Pawar went on to re-invent her career after the injury by doing negative roles. She used to ‘credit’ Bhagwan for her popularity as a vamp.

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Printable version | Jun 19, 2021 1:45:07 PM |

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