I'd seen one of Geeta Bali's films and I was struck by her innocence. I knew immediately that she was my Asha Devi. None of the other established heroines would do - Bhagwan

The making of Albela

It was just serendipity. Raj Kapoor and Bhagwan frequented Famous Laboratories at Prabhadevi, Mumbai, for processing their films. Every time there was a trial of one of Bhagwan’s films, despite posting a couple of burly assistants at the gate, Raj Kapoor always managed to sneak past.

After one such show he looked at Bhagwan with respectful awe and murmured, “Dada you have such wonderful technique. Why don’t you move from stunt films to socials. Once your films reach Lamington Road (that’s where the theatres screening the much-appreciated blockbusters were based) you won’t be able to keep the crowds away.”

That set Bhagwan thinking. Should he take RK’s suggestion seriously? Why risk it? People might think he was copying RK. The thought was filed away.

Life continued as usual. Bhagwan slogged six days a week but every Tuesday was his day off. With a Gujarati friend, Mangalbhai he would eat, drink and make merry, usually managing to catch a 3-6 pm show of a latest release. Around 6.30 pm they’d meet another old friend, music director C. Ramchandra and troop into a restaurant near Regal cinema for a marathon booze session which lasted almost till midnight. Even when the restaurant was closed the owner never turned away his regular patrons. They were always given a place and bottles of beer.

One Tuesday evening Ramchandra suggested to his friend that he move from stunt films to socials. Raj Kapoor had given him the same advice only weeks earlier. Now Ramchandra was telling him the same thing. It called for some serious deliberation.

Son of a carpenter in a drama company, Bhagwan had grown up in a world of stage plays and had long cherished the ambition to become an actor. And he’d lived out his dream. Within days Bhagwan wrote out a sketchy screenplay revolving around a reigning queen of a natak mandal who picks up a bewakoof servant boy and turns him into a talented performer. With a rough draft of the script, he landed up at Geeta Bali’s doorstep. “I’d seen one of her films and I was struck by her innocence… her bhola bhala chehra. I knew immediately that she was my Asha devi,” Bhagwan confesses.

Geeta Bali, at the time a top movie star, was quite surprised by Bhagwan’s unexpected visit. He admitted frankly that he needed her. “I have this story of a naachnewali who grooms a boy. I’m the hero of the film, you’re my heroine. Now tell me what’s your price?” he asked with startling candor. After a few speechless moments, Geeta started telling him the exorbitant prices producers were paying her. “I can’t match those prices,” Bhagwan admitted, “but I can offer you an extremely challenging role with the promise to exploit your histrionics in a way no one has before. None of the other established heroines will do. If you trust me accept my film otherwise I’ll pick up a newcomer and mould her.”

After a long thoughtful pause Geeta Bali told him quietly, “Dada I’ll work with you. But what’ll you pay me?” she enquired. Bhagwan refuses to divulge the exact figure but admits it was a quarter of what she was getting at the time. “I’ll do it,” she nodded and surprised not just Bhagwan but her mother too who was quietly told by her daughter, “Ma don’t say another word. I know what I’m doing. So far I’ve only been working with directors but Dada is an actor-director and to have an artiste directing you is a great privilege.”

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However, it wasn’t long before her confidence in her actor-director was shaken. With family and friends constantly telling her that she had made a big mistake agreeing to work with a maker of stunt films, Geeta Bali was beginning to feel very apprehensive indeed. On the day she screeched upto Asha Studio where the film was being shot, she was told that the scene for the day was a meeting between the actress and the servant boy. The dialogue went “What is your name?” she asks him. “Well, my father called me Pyare and ma called me Pyarelal. I’ve decided to stick to ma’s name,” he answers her query. She poses another: “What’s my name?” This time there’s no explanation. “Asha devi ,” he says promptly. “From now on I’ll call you Pyare and you’ll call me Asha, okay?” she tells him. She’s a star, his malkin. How could he call her Asha? Despite her na nas and lovingly encouragement it’s always Asha devi. End of dialogue. It was a simple scene but a significant one. By insisting that he call her Asha and her preference for Pyare, she was discreetly trying to bridge the distance between them, get more intimate with this naive boy who she could sense could become very important in her lonely life. “Explaining this to her, I enacted out the shot for her,” Bhagwan remembers. She watched him through with rapt attention and at the end fell at his feet. “Dada you’re great. I don’t know why people dismiss you off as a comedian,” she told him with wide-eyed wonder. “For days people have been asking me sarcastically, ‘Who are you working with?’ Now I know who I am really working with. Dada promise me you’ll extract a memorable performance from me?” He kept his promise.

Albela was distinctive for its subtle, sensitive romantic scenes. “The feelings did exist in the heart but it took us a lot of time to bring them to the lips,” Bhagwan points out. The character of Asha devi , he confesses, was inspired by his wife, Asha was a quiet woman who kept her feelings bottled up. She never visited his sets and refused to even go with him for the film because she hated those sly nudges and those too loud whispers that followed, “Who’s that lady with Bhagwan?” The veteran actor remembers how once after he brought her a new convertible, she agreed to go for a drive with him but within 15 minutes he was ordered to turn back and drive her home – she heard those whispers again at traffic signals. “I told her that I ought to have put a board up front: Bhagwan with his wife,” he chuckles, adding with a sad sigh, “In our time romance was always discreet. Today the hero and the heroine meet in the morning and sham ko gale milte hain.” He remembers in the film Asha devi falls in love with her Pyare but he’s completely unaware of her feelings. She takes him to a party and watches with jealous rage while Pyare, dashing in a well-cut suit, talks nineteen to dozen with a pretty girl. Back home she tells him angrily, “You never talk to me like that!” That’s when Pyarelal, much to his amazement, realizes that the lady loves him. “It was such a tender moment and yet so wonderfully discreet,” Bhagwan says with a satisfied smile. “So different from the vulgar kokshastra you see being enacted on the screen today. I quit way back in the ’70s because I find such goings-on objectionable.”

Surprisingly, there was one thumri number in Albela which Geeta Bali found objectionable too. Balma bada nadaan and the expressive eye movements which Bhagwan suggested were a little too risqué for the star. She refused to do the movements and in fact, even wanted the song scrapped. Bhagwan insisted that the number would be a rage in UP and Punjab. “If it doesn’t get claps when it comes on on -screen I promise I’ll edit it out after the first show,” he promised Geeta. She was present at the first show and was so overwhelmed by the response to the number that she immediately got up from her seat and walked out. The people sitting besides her also followed wondering what was wrong. She walked up to Bhagwan who was standing in the foyer and asked imperiously, “Dada am I doing your next film?” Surprised he nodded, “Of course, you are.” “Then promise me that in your next film you’ll have a number like this and next time I’ll do whatever you tell me to do,” she promised him.

Albela had ten very popular chartbusters. One song for every region, Bhagwan admits. For UP there was the folksy Balma bada nadaan and Meray dil ki ghadi and the romantic Sham dhale khidki tale which appealed to all desi Romeos and Juliets. For Gujarat there was the party song Bholi soorat based on the distinctive thekha rhythm. Talking of rhythms, Bhagwan admits that Deewana parwana had a very African beat. Bhagwan confesses that during their Tuesday romps he would invariably stop over at Rhythm House and tune into African music. There was even a lori, Dheere se aaja re. And it was very appropriate. Asha, before joining the nautanki was just a household help, and when she’s asked to sing the only song she knows is this lori she used to croon to her baby brother to put him to sleep. Situational songs were a highlight of the film. Bhagwan remembers the popular Kismet ki hawa, kabhi naram kabhi garam which takes off with Pyare tripping and falling. The bartans he’s carrying also come crashing down. Terrified, he quickly tries to gather them together. A handi is lying at a distance. He uses a spoon to draw it closer. The spoon strikes the bowl and makes a melodious ting. He’s intrigued. He strikes another vessel. Another ting, slightly different. And soon a concerto follows. “We had composed a different piece of music for this number but when my lyricist Rajendra Krishan heard it he wasn’t happy. ‘Anna this is a kitchen song, it should have kitchen music,’ he pointed out. And that’s how the idea of actually using spoons, bowls and kadais came about,” Bhagwan explains.

Rajendra Krishan was another good friend who quite often would drop by well past midnight. Bhagwan would pour him a chhota peg and Krishan would read out to him the latest mukhda he’d written. “If I ever told him I liked it, he would tell me, ‘It’s yours, take it,'” Bhagwan remembers with a fond smile.

However, despite his very cooperative cast and crew there were moments of despair. At the beginning the film was stuck as he ran out of finances and had to accept outside films to earn money to pump into the project. “But this meant that I was shooting all day and the only time I could shoot for Albela was after 7 p.m.,” he maintains. He requested Geeta Bali to shoot for him from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. The first day she was there at 7.p.m, shot for half an hour and then told him that she had to leave early. Bhagwan immediately called for ‘Pack-up’. The next evening she shot till 11.30 p.m. before complaining of tiredness. Again he called for immediate ‘Pack-up’. After that, he remembers, she used to work till 5-6 a.m. without a word of complaint. Working through the nights they managed to wrap up the film in eight months. Bhagwan recalls that they even managed to wrap up a half complete screenplay in just one night. They had a shoot the next day and Bhagwan’s assistants insisted that they would work through the night if they had to, and would have the scenes ready. Those days the last bus out of Chembur was at 11 p.m.. The driver had instructions to honk outside the gates of Asha Studio and all the technicians and crew would come rushing out.

However, that night despite his urgings Bhagwan’s assistants refused to leave. “I went home which was just next door, had dinner and returned to the studio around 1 p.m. Then we sat for a story sitting and with a daaru ka bottle by his side ideas started flooding in. I told my assistants that I’d do all the talking, they could take down whatever I said. I started at about 1.30 a.m. and finished at 5.54 a.m.. At 3 p.m. when I returned to the studio my assistants had made a fair copy of my monologue and were so impressed that they insisted that they had their final screenplay, not even a word had to be changed. I didn’t believe them till I had gone through the copy. It was impressive. Maybe the bottle by my side had inspired me,” Bhagwan reminisces with a smile.

The film caused a hangama on the very first day of its release. Made at a cost of mere Rs 5-6 lakhs it raked in the moolah for the distributors. It ran for 18 houseful weeks at the Taj and 25 weeks at the Imperial in Mumbai. “Everyone made money except me,” Bhagwan sighs. “My managers swindled me.”

After Albela, whose title had been inspired by an English film, Bhagwan launched Jhamela with Geeta Bali. It managed a creditable 18 weeks run but couldn’t repeat the success of Albela . Even today, 45 years later, the Albela tradition continues. Bhagwan’s eldest son has a saloon in Navi Mumbai which is called – you guessed it – Albela Saloon. (As told to Roshmila Bhattacharya in 1996)