What made Jagdeep a master of comedy?  Excellent comedic timing, says his son

“My Father’s Journey is the classic story of a Bollywood extra who became one of its most iconic comedians. A rank outsider, he grew up in the 1950s in Mumbai’s Mahim district, surrounded by poverty and misfortune. Ironically, he made the audience laugh although he himself seldom smiled. He was a rather serious man. Having faced so many obstacles during his early years of struggle , he often said, “I’ve seen so much in life that I can’t laugh anymore. He just had a hard time bursting out laughing at a superficial humor or a crude joke. Only something really deep could make him crack.”

Born as Syed Ishtiaq Ahmed Jafri in the district of Datia in Madhya Pradesh, her childhood was hard. He had lost his father at a young age and later he was affected by the partition of India as some of his family members moved to Pakistan. Other personal setbacks awaited him when he and his mother landed in Mumbai around 1949-1950. His own older brother who had a house in the city was unwelcoming and unsupportive, forcing them to fend for themselves. With nowhere to go, someone suggested they try their luck near Mahim Dargah, where my grandmother found work in a bhatiyar khana (community kitchen) while my father, who must have been around 9 or 10 years old, started doing odd jobs like selling soaps or flying kites on the trail. One day his life changed when someone came and told him that a film unit was looking for child artists for BR Chopra’s Afsana in 1951. He laughed at it at first but soon changed his mind when he realized he could make a better living as an actor doing small roles. Before this incident, he had never seen a film. Later in life he would smile at this memory, “Uss waqt khaane ko paise nahin hote the, film kya khaak dekhte (At that time I barely had money to eat, forget spending on a movie) .”

On the sets of Afsana, his Urdu background came to the rescue. While the other child actors found the courteous language asked of them a bit long, Dad delivered his lines convincingly. This was the start of his journey in Hindi cinema. He quickly became highly sought after due to his natural acting style. He played characters with names like Elaichi, Lalu Ustad, etc., usually an orphan, trail dweller, or bum but always with a heart of gold. He used to proudly recall that just for a small part of a shoe shine boy in Do Bigha Zamin (1953) who befriends the hero’s son (Balraj Sahni) on his first day in the new city, Bimal Roy saab took him to Calcutta. It was his very first flight! Then he starred with none other than Guru Dutt saab in Aar Paar (1954) where his character of Elaichi was a hustler who was fluent in the tasty Bombaiyya language. Dad had seen many kinds of tapori like Elaichi when he lived in Mahim. It came to him quite easily. His acting credo was to leverage your own life and the people and situations you encountered along the way.


Jagdeep, Nanda and Daisy Irani in the movie BHABHI.  Express Stock Photo Jagdeep, Nanda and Daisy Irani in Bhabhi movie. (Photo: Express Archive)

Brahmachari – A turning point

By the end of the 1950s, my father had grown up and he had the chance to play the main role in three of AVM’s films, Bhabhi, Barkha and Bindiya. One of them was in front of Nanda. Despite the commercial success of the films, the AVM contract proved to be a major obstacle to his career as a hero of Hindi cinema. Working for AVM, he lost a number of outside banner films that were eventually made with other heroes. When his career as a screen hero didn’t take off, dad was out of work for a long time until his luck finally returned with Shammi Kapoor’s Brahmachari (1968). In the film, he had a plum role of a comedian who had many audience-friendly scenes (including a hilarious drag sequence). He played Murli who left behind his rogue ways, but life takes revenge on him when he gets caught on one last job.

Shammi Kapoor, Manmohan and Jagdeep in BRAHMACHARI Shammi Kapoor, Manmohan and Jagdeep in Brahmachari. (Photo: Express Archive)

After the success of Brahmachari, the name Jagdeep became synonymous with comedy. Although he starred in over 200 films, it was Sholay in 1975 that gave him his screen image, specifically the famous catchphrase “Mera naam bhi Soorma Bhopali aise hi nahin hai”. For a certain generation of moviegoers, there will always be Soorma Bhopali. When my dad became a director, he titled the movie after this very popular character. The story goes that he had worked with writers Salim Khan and Javed Akhtar in a film called Sarhadi Lutera in 1966. Salim-Javed had a good personal and professional relationship with dad, but the reason they recommended him for Soorma Bhopali was because they felt he was well suited for the role. Soorma Bhopali was the creation of Javed saab. The character’s speech had an exaggerated Bhopali accent. From what I know, Javed saab was good at mimicry and he wanted Soorma Bhopali not to speak like a typical Bhopali man, but rather like a gossipy Bhopali woman to get a heightened sense of comic effect. Vanity worked.


A man full of stories

Almost two decades later, Sholay’s Soorma Bhopali was used as a point of reference in Andaz Apna Apna (1994). Many in the younger generation loved him as the father of Salman Khan. Although as a viewer I enjoy Andaz Apna Apna’s goofy humor, my favorite Jagdeep comedies are the slightly unusual ones – Ustadi Ustad Se, Agent Vinod, Apna Desh, Sangram, and Qurbani. Each of his characters in these movies are memorable because of how dad brought his own unique interpretation. When people ask me what makes Jagdeep saab great, the answer is that he had a keen sense of comedic timing, which is so important when you’re doing comedy. He was smart, quick on the game and very spontaneous and intuitive with his humor. When his co-stars wondered why he made faces and how it constituted a comedy, he explained: “The Indian masses understand the language of emotions. A viewer in Madras or Calcutta might not understand the Hindi dialogue, but he/she can still read my facial expressions and laugh in the right places. Also, his thought was that sometimes slapstick helps camouflage weak handwriting.

Andaz Apna Apna Jagdeep played Salman Khan’s father in the 1994 film Andaz Apna Apna. (Photo: Express Archive)

In personal life, dad was a man full of stories and he was never bored with him. He often remembered the 1950s with great emotion, how Guru Dutt saab was so encouraging for a young upstart like him or how Bimal Roy saab respected his actors so much that when he was unhappy with a scene instead losing his temper, he took the artist aside and whispered in his ear. Dad had a close relationship with all of his directors, whether it was Raj Kumar Santoshi and his father, the legendary PL Santoshi saab (Jagdeep starred in the director’s 1950s hits like Hum Panchhi Ek Daal Ke and Chalis Baba Ek Chor) or Ramesh Sippy and GP Sippy saab (Sazaa and Shehenshah). In his youth, he spent his evenings mainly with writers and poets. He was friends with everyone in showbiz and was generous with his compliments to his contemporaries and young actors. For example, he was a guest on a “Bollywood duplicate special” episode of Boogie Woogie. After seeing Jagdeep Junior’s number, he joked, “You’re better than me!”

There were a lot of big names in Hindi comedy in his day: Johnny Walker, Rajendra Nath, Mehmood, Mukri and later in the 70s there was Asrani and Om Prakash. There was no jealousy between them. What love and respect. Actors of the golden age could identify with each other because of their common sufferings and difficulties. As dad always said, “We were all broken. The industry gave us a home. He was really grateful to Bollywood for giving him a new lease of life. He never forgot that. We have been touched by the outpouring of love on social media and the messages of condolence we have received following the passing of my father on July 8, 2020 at the age of 81. I was happy to see that the industry and its fans hadn’t forgotten about it. Today, dad is no more but he left behind his films, his characters, all the stories he told us — and he left behind us too (laughs), his children and grandchildren. I hope he’s having fun somewhere in heaven.

(As told to Shaikh Ayaz)

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