Jagdeep (1939-2020): Soorma and lovely curse of Sholay!

Updated: Jul 10, 2020, 08:18 IST | Mayank Shekhar | Mumbai

Over 400 films, and what we still remember best of Jagdeep are those four minutes from the 1975 movie! Amazing, isn't it?

Few years after Ramesh Sippy's Sholay (1975) — around the time the underworld held fair foothold in Bombay film industry — I'm told actor Jagdeep was mortally scared, noticing a stalker of sorts confronting him inside a studio. As he aimed to swiftly disappear or gently disengage, the man simply said, "You've played me, and now you're running away?"

The gentleman was a forest officer from Madhya Pradesh called Soorma Bhopali! Surely, Jagdeep owed a lifetime of fame to his name. Who, in turn, wished to take him to court for demoting him on screen, from a government/forest official, to a shady, second-rate wood-trader!

That Jagdeep hadn't met Soorma before, means he couldn't have modelled his iconic character on this particular Bhopali. Sholay's co-writer Javed Akhtar had grown up in Bhopal, which perhaps explains one of the last set-pieces added to the blockbuster's casting/script.

Either way, Jagdeep's Soorma Bhopali was Jagdeep first; and an adorable Bhopali only much later. Which is how audiences liked to see him: eyes wide open, face gesticulating in mock-shock and awe; looking slightly dunderheaded, seeming drunk. Film after film.

I'm guessing Jagdeep, in his own inimitable style, followed the tradition of comedians Johnny Walker, perhaps even Keshto Mukherjee before; and a baton that Johnny Lever carried along. Much like Mehmood reasoned about his profession, people basically expected them to make everyone laugh — even if they were returning from their father's funeral.

How did that instantly help with Bollywood screenwriting, filmmaking and viewing, as it were? The comic track, like the item number, had its purpose so well-defined that the very presence of Jagdeep on screen meant you needn't waste time explaining his character. He'll speak a certain way, and deliver a punch-line, that the film has conveniently segued into. There is comfort in the predictable. You laugh, because you're supposed to. Responding to cues is life itself. Why should cinema be any different.

This is what came to be known as the masala film as template entertainer, or labelled Bollywood, decades later. Who sort of set this template of the smashing hero, in colourful clothes, dancing, lip-syncing, along with the heroine; as the comedian, on occasion, walks into the space between fun songs, fine locations, and full-on drama? Strictly speaking, I suspect, Shammi Kapoor, in the '60s.

Unsurprisingly, Jagdeep properly forayed into the Bollywood comedy-slot, in a Shammi Kapoor film, Brahmachari (1968). And remained on-screen comedian practically for the rest of his life. His film's characters may have been different, only within their sameness — his own journey that was getting scripted alongside appears to me a solid documentary of its own.

In fact, the first time Jagdeep played a comic role was as the boot-polish boy in Bimal Roy's Do Bigha Zameen (1953). Roy had seen rushes of Jagdeep as the child version of Kishore Kumar in Phani Majumdar's Dhobi Doctor (1952). Jagdeep asked Roy what had he noticed in a sombre role in that film, to cast him for a funny part in Do Bigha Zameen? Roy said, "Jo accha rula sakta hai, woh accha hasaa sakta hai (He who can make you cry, can make you laugh)!"

Assuming both emotions come from the same space. Syed Ishtiaq Ahmed Jafri, screen-named Jagdeep, came from a hut near JJ Hospital. And to Bombay, with his mother, after his family had lost everything during Partition. He was literally picked off the street for his first role in BR Chopra's Afsana (1951). He was expected to be in a crowd of kids — watching a play. This got turned into a speaking part in that play, within the film.

From that moment onwards, you could observe Jagdeep's screenplay as a little Forrest Gump, simply finding himself in the midst of the all-time greats of Bombay films, and joining them as any other actor at work — with Guru Dutt (Aar Paar; 1954), Khwaja Ahmad Abbas (Munna; 1954), besides Roy (for whom he played a shoe-shine boy again, in Naukri, 1954).

Jagdeep played Salman Khan’s father in Andaz Apna Apna
Jagdeep played Salman Khan's father in Andaz Apna Apna

Reportedly for a role in the film Hum Panchi Ek Dal Ke (1957), he was personally felicitated by Prime Minister Nehru. Who was the assistant director, who got him from the audience, on to the stage in Afsana — his break, so to say? Yash Chopra! Over a six-decade career, he went from little Dilip Kumar (in an unreleased film, Shikwa), to playing Salman Khan's father in the iconic Andaz Apna Apna (1994).

More significantly, for him, for his art's sake, Jagdeep graduated from a hut to a kholi in Mahim, and a bungalow in Bandra, after a big house in Madras. The latter, because the South-based AVM, arguably the longest surviving Indian studio, eventually cast him in his first major/lead role in Bhabhi (1957), and a few other films followed. Residential address is the story dreams in Bombay are made of.

Does it matter then than Jagdeep was largely stereotyped as a comedian? Who's not been typecast in Bollywood? Or as Jagdeep's almost namesake, the super-talented Saeed Jaffrey used to say, reduced to "rich daddy and naughty uncle," as in his case, for the cheese? If Jagdeep's genes are anything to go by, frankly, there's nothing that his son Javed Jaffrey can't do like a dream, either — dance, act with phenomenal range, ad-lib on stage/shows, write…

Jagdeep himself was a closeted Urdu poet. And with his death, as is the tragedy with posthumous tributes, you keep reading/hearing about some of his underrated/under-seen performances. Whether in Priyadarshan's Muskurahat (1992).

Or as cult-material in a grind-house sort of way —with the Ramsay Brothers' Purana Mandir (1984). Or going deeper still, him reprising Michael Jackon's Thriller video, with the song Bacha le in 3D Saamri (1985)! My favourite clip, scrolling so far, is an old one (film unknown), where they ask Jagdeep, you're so educated, "Itni vidya kahan se seekhi?" "Chinchpokli Dadar Lower Parel University se!"

And that's also the thing with treating comedy portions in films as item tracks. You can slice them out completely, without any context, and enjoy the scenes for their own worth. That's my earliest memory of Jagdeep. He featured regularly in the Chitrahaar of (mostly funny) film scenes — a popular show called Wah Kya Scene Hai that Archana Puran Singh used to host in the mid '90s.

That's also how Jagdeep's career of around 400 films boiled down to around four minutes, 35 seconds of screen-time as Soorma Bhopali in Sholay —arguably the most re-watched film in history. And therefore an adorable curse of sorts —for actors with minor roles in it. Because those scenes have been re-watched as separate films. Hence, total-recall for everyone, from Kaalia (Viju Khote), Jailor (Asrani), Sambha (Mac Mohan), Imam Sahab (AK Hangal), Ramlal (Satyen Kappu)…

For one, Jagdeep gave Bhopal its most popular public figure, although the fellow is a complete feku (teller of tall tales!). Unsure, if I've met someone like Soorma in Bhopal (that twang does faintly still exist in the city's old-town).

It's how the nation knew Jagdeep for 45 years, until his death, at 81. He directed a full-fledged feature called Soorma Bhopali (1988). Even his character in Andaz Apna Apna, that has multiple Sholay tributes, was called Bankelal Bhopali. Clearly, he didn't mind this life-long association. Saying it one last time, on behalf of everyone, goodbye, Soorma Bhopali. And we agree — aapka naam aise hi nahin hua!


He imbibed character beautifully: Ramesh Sippy

Rema

Jagdeep’s character as Soorma Bhopali remains unforgettable. Bhopal has a culture of its own. In the early ’70s, you’d see these charming characters, especially in the hinterlands of India. Jagdeep witnessed that, imbibed the character, and blended it beautifully into our script. Jagdeep’s sense of timing was immaculate. A film like Sholay is made by many people, including writers Salim-Javed. One discusses many possibilities, and finally arrives at characters befitting sequences. Who other than Jagdeep could have played this part [better]?


Used character previously too: Salim Khan

Salim

We come across characters like Soorma Bhopali in real life, and remember them when writing stories. Javed [Akhtar, co-writer] had studied in Bhopal. I have lived there too. We had used the character of Bhopali in Adhikar (1971) too, where Pran saab (Shikari Banne Khan Bhopali) played it successfully. [In Sholay] though, it was crafted differently.

As told to Upala KBR

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