Charlie Chaplin is not dead. Independent photojournalist Atul Loke found he is alive and kicking in Adipur, a small town in Gujarat's Kutch region
Not long ago, Adipur in Kutch was a quiet town of refugees from Sindh in Pakistan. The only thing it was known for was a urea factory and a thriving neighbourhood port. But one man's discovery of the genius of Sir Charles Chaplin (Charlie Chaplin) led to the town's obsession with the inimitable actor-director.
Dr Aswani gets measurements for 120 custom-made Charlie Chaplin
jackets for Chaplin's 121st birth anniversary celebrations in April 2010
Dr Ashok Aswani walks the streets of Adipur, early one morning. "It's
one of my favourite shots in the series. The people there love him.
They are used to seeing 'Dr Charlie' in this avatar, so you don't see
anyone in the frame gawking at him," says photographer Atul Loke
Local villagers await their turn at Dr Aswani's residence-cum-clinic
Praying to an idol of Charlie Chaplin, and other Gods, is a daily
morning ritual for Dr Aswani
Kishore Bhawsar, a bus conductor, and his 18 year-old daughter Anjali
School students learn how to walk and act like Chaplin at a photo studio
where the Charlie Circle conducts free sessions once a week
Dr Aswani does a Charlie Chaplin act on the streets of Adipur village
The transition from medical practitioner to Chaplin in progress
Chaplin's masterpiece The Gold Rush arrived at Oslo -- one of Adipur's two cinema halls, named after a Norwegian tourist -- in 1966, and changed forever the life of Dr Ashok Sukhumal Aswani.
Dr Aswani was cycling to office -- he worked as a typist -- when he noticed a poster of the film. He stood gaping at the scrawny, unusually dressed young man, feet turned out and knees bent at an unbelievable angle. A smitten Aswani left the cycle outside Oslo and bought a ticket. He watched four shows of the 1925 film on the same day, and lost his job, but gained a life-long obsession with two Cs -- Chaplin and cinema.
Dr Aswani then joined a film school in Pune, but was out six months later.
Back in Adipur, he resumed his passion by opening Charlie Circle on Chaplin's birth date, April 16, in 1973. Since then, the group meets every week at founder-member Harish Thakker's tiny photo studio to practise their moves and watch Chaplin classics. Dr Aswani runs a clinic out of his home, where he gives away free Chaplin CDs to patients, along with his medicines.
"So infectious is Aswani's enthusiasm that the whole town has Chaplin impersonators, 200 and counting," says photographer Atul Loke, who spent a week photographing the club on Chaplin's birth anniversary this April. His photo essay Chaplins of Adipur and short film The Great Imitator capture Adipur's enthusiasm for the filmmaker, who also made the 1940 black comedy The Great Dictator.
A keen observer, Loke works closely with his subjects and has a strong distaste for parachute journalism. "I spend enough time with them to the point of becoming invisible. I wait for the people to forget that there's a guy with a camera and he's photographing them," says Loke, whose work has been showcased at the Photoquai Festival in Paris, Revela Photo Festival in the North West of Spain, Fotopub Foto Festival in Slovenia and at Angkor Photo Festival. Three times lucky at World Press Photo, Loke is currently working on a personal book project on life in a Mumbai chawl.
After spending one night in a hotel room in Adipur, Loke requested Dr Aswani for more proximity. "He put up a bed for me in his living room and treated me like a son. For seven days, I was around him from the moment he woke up for his meditation and Pranayam, followed by a prayer to Chaplin's idol, through his transition, to the time he called it a night," says Loke, in awe of the 61 year-old who relentlessly keeps the Chaplin mania going despite two knee replacement surgeries.
'I like walking in the rain, because no one can see my tears.' This famous quote by Chaplin was 18 year-old Charlie Circle member Anjali Bhawsar's answer to the question Loke asked everyone -- "Why Chaplin?" Her father Kishore Bhawsar, a bus conductor, is also a member. "He has even composed a folk song as a tribute to the man's genius," says Loke.