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The real Amol Palekar, of all times

Updated on: 07 September,2022 07:12 AM IST  |  Mumbai
Mayank Shekhar |

Checked in on the great Mr Palekar, 78, now from Pune, because? Always wanted to!

The real Amol Palekar, of all times

Stills from Gol Maal where Amol Palekar played the roles of Ram Prasad and Lakshman Prasad. Pics/Twitter

Mayank ShekharMore than an actor-filmmaker, ‘Amol Palekar’ is decidedly a metaphor first. Meaning, in every generation since Mr Palekar—someone or the other has been called the ‘Amol Palekar’ of their times. 

I’ve myself recently described actor Jitendra Kumar (Kota Factory, Panchayat) thus. Same with Abhay Deol (Socha Na Tha, Ahista Ahista), when he made his debut over a decade and half ago. 

Between the two, even actors Ayushmann Khurrana or Rajkummar Rao have, at some point or the other, been called the Amol Palekar of their generation.  

As I mention this to a handsome, fit, real Mr Palekar, 78, himself, he interjects me, “It’s not just actors; even people from other fields! Ajinkya Rahane, for instance, has been dubbed the Amol Palekar of [Indian] cricket. Likewise, I noticed, Nitish Kumar has been called the Amol Palekar of [Indian] politics!”

That said, there is, of course, only one Amol Palekar. As a metaphor, I guess, we mean a slow and steady ‘boy next door’? Which is still a thoroughly limiting description of the genial, Everyman characters Mr Palekar has played on screen. 

Ever since his phenomenal Bollywood debut with Basu Chatterjee’s Rajnigandha (1974)—followed up by the equally commercially successful, Chhoti Si Baat (1976), and Chitchor (1976), also directed by Chatterjee. They’re all deeply distinctive parts, within their supposed sameness. 

And that instantly established Mr Palekar, in turn, as the ‘Amitabh Bachchan’ of Bombay’s middle of the road, or middle-class, realistic cinema—shot on streets, instead of studios, telling warm and simple stories, about ‘people like us’, rather than indulging in dreams/fantasies alone. 

What one doesn’t recall enough about Mr Palekar, as the office-going hero of the decade, is the film that he signed up for right after was as a villain of sorts, in Shyam Benegal’s Bhumika (1977). Playing an insecure, controlling, leech of a ‘husband’/manager of a female film actor (Smita Patil)—based on the life of Hansa Wadkar (1924-71), who used to be Mr Palekar’s neighbour once upon a time. 

He says Benegal was in a minority of one for this casting choice. His team, guessing co-writers Girish Karnad and Satyadev Dubey, wanted Mr Palekar to step in as the studio-era hero (finally played by Anant Nag). Further, in the whodunit Khamosh (1986), also set in the film world, directed by Vinod Chopra (“he hadn’t added Vidhu to his name yet”), Mr Palekar played a cold-blooded murderer. 

Yes, that’s a spoiler (come on, it’s been 36 years!). But you’ve got to watch that cracker of a suspense-thriller, anyway. The elaborate climax of that film was going to be shot on a golf course. It’s during the scripting/rehearsal stage that Mr Palekar recalls coming up with the creepy thought of a killer, who patiently explains his forthcoming moves—sending chills to the onscreen victim and audience alike. 

Khamosh is probably Mr Palekar’s last major role in a Hindi film, before he pretty much steered his career towards film direction—he has 20 directorial credits, between TV series, documentaries and features (many of them Marathi). 

But the “studio” in Pune, where I dropped in to meet Mr Palekar—because, have always wanted to, is actually an art studio, where he devotes all his time now, painting on canvas. He’ll be ready to travel with his new collection by next year-end.

Before he became an actor in theatre, and then films, Mr Palekar studied fine arts at Sir JJ School of Art. He eventually moved to Pune, because Bombay, where he was born and raised, isn’t the same city anymore—ugly hoardings have replaced public art, even places he frequented don’t exist anymore, such as Café Samovar (at Jehangir Art Gallery). 

The old-world charms of the Bombay of clean/wide roads/promenades, middle-classes in sparsely populated BEST buses, even falling in love on trains (Baton Baton Mein), you can still watch preserved in Mr Palekar’s ’70s/’80s films. 

Which reminds me: the chicken a’ la poos that his character Sunil always orders at Café Samovar in Chhoti Si Baat, that’s a fictional dish, right? “Yeah, Dada Muni (Ashok Kumar) came up with it!” 

Mr Palekar’s last major engagement with Bombay/Bollywood was of course as the director of Paheli (2005), that Shah Rukh Khan decided to “magnanimously” produce. He had only offered the film to Khan as an actor, because “he’d be perfect for the part: a rare double-role, where both characters are good [usually the other is evil].” 

The greatest double-role in Hindi films ever, I’m certain, still remains Mr Palekar’s in Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s masterpiece Gol Maal (1979). Which, come to think of it, is not a double-role, Mr Palekar points out: “Neither Ram Prasad, nor Lakshman Prasad [‘Lucky’], being played out [for Utpal Dutt’s Bhavani Shankar] exist! There is the third, actual lead character [channelling two imagined guys]. So it’s a triple role, or not even!”

Besides a metaphor, ‘Amol Palekar’ has been a popular stage impersonation for mimicry artistes, over decades. I ask him if he can impersonate his impersonators for me—a suppressed, hushed tone, extending to a long ‘Amol Palekar’ drawl. 

He can’t. Not that he minds his parodies, surely it’s flattering: “All those [mimicry] guys actually talk like Ram Prasad [from Gol Maal]. That’s not me, from any of the other films.” True—or even his real self, actually!

Mayank Shekhar attempts to make sense of mass culture. He tweets @mayankw14
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