How to play a dead body

How to play a dead body

“आ गए मेरी मौत का तमाशा देखने!”
प्रताप नारायण तिलक, 1994

In 1927, German filmmaker Fritz Lang took the Indian mythological fable of Savitri-Satyavan and adapted it into Der müde Tod/ Behind the Wall where a woman brings her lover back from the clutches of Death Himself. That was one of the earliest instances of Death as a character in cinema.

One of Bollywood’s timeless contributions to cinema is something that never existed before and nobody else in world cinema has quite grasped it yet: the Death Scene. It has been part of our most defining film ever, and encapsulates some of the most memorable moments of Hindi cinema.

However, there’s also this matter of the Great Beyond. What about after death? We can’t claim any patents when it comes to zombies, but we do have Baital Pachisi, the tales of King Vikramaditya and Vetaal, a wise but malevolent spirit inhabiting corpses. In its most popular avatar, this talking corpse was played by veteran actor Sajjan.

This post concerns itself with actors playing important corpses in movies, both desi and videshi. Yeah, important. Important to the plot.

Swiss Army Man

Speaking of talking corpses, good ol’ Harry Potter played the most friendly, intuitive, helpful, utilitarian, verbose, romantic, vengeful, jovial and well-dressed dead-body in the history of cinema. Swiss Army Man begins with a suicidal Hank (Paul Dano) discovering a dead man (Harry Potter) on an unmanned island. Hank quickly realises the corpse farts, and he could harness it to ‘ride’ the body through water. Besides being a jet ski, the cadaver functions as a shower, water spout, crossbow, slingshot, in addition to a host of other useful applications. While making the most profound observations and using his boner as a compass. The film is a wacky ride through crazyville.


Akshay Kumar and Ajay Devgan and Karisma Kapoor and this girl called Nagma canoodle through college, while Ajay gets to know his father is languishing in jail, framed for organ smuggling by Suresh Oberoi. The rub is, Akshay’s father Dalip Tahil might have been involved in this nefarious crime. The friends tussle for a while, till Dalip Tahil agrees to turn witness in court and implicate Suresh Oberoi. But before any of this could happen, Sinister Suresh shoots Dalip dead. But when has death ever stopPed anyone? The boys concoct a cracker of a plan. They carry the dead Dalip Tahil to the court, walking upright, supported by Ajay & Akshay and his legs tied to theirs. Obviously, nobody in the court notices. No swearing, nothing. Dead Dalip lifts his finger (the boys again, in case you don’t get it) and points to Suresh. Everybody then lives happily ever after. Everybody besides Dalip Tahil, of course.

Weekend at Bernie’s

Contrary to what was happening in India, the 80s was a rather fertile period in Hollywood. Especially when it comes to comedy. The likes of Tom Hanks and Robin WIlliams were coming into their own, franchises like Bill & Ted, Ghostbusters, National Lampoon and Hot Shots were gaining ground. But a theatre actor from New York named Terry Kiser was an unlikely participant in this. An alumnus of the famed Actor’s Studio, Terry schooled under the tutelage of Lee Strasberg, who mentored the likes of Alec Baldwin and Al Pacino. Terry was nursing himself back from a motorcycle accident when he was offered the role that was destined to define his career: that of Bernie Lomax.

Bernie Lomax is a corporate insurance hotshot who discovers to his shock that two bumbling simpletons under his employ (Andrew McCarthy & Jonathan Silverman) were onto his little insurance scam. In a bid to showcase their dedication, they had brought their little exposé to Bernie himself. Bernie invites them to his sojourn in the Hamptons where he intends to kill them. But it’s poor Bernie who gets popped and the boys have to make sure nobody knows about it. Hilarity ensues as the very dead Bernie hosts a house party, and ‘converses’ with his guests (making a point about how lively party conversations can be). The assassin, Paulie who is comfortable in the thought that he’d killed Bernie, keeps coming back to shoot him again and again and yet sees him ‘alive’ in various situations. Weekend at Bernie’s and its sequel turned out to be sleeper hits and developed a cult. So much so that Terry Kiser, despite appearing in countless films and founding The Actors Arena – his own acting classes – is still known for playing Bernie Lomax.

Buddha Mar Gaya

Like Terry Kiser, Indian filmmaker Rahul Rawail also planned to set up an acting school in Mumbai back in 2010. In collaboration with Stella Adler’s Studio of Acting, Rahul instituted a school for actors. Three years prior to this, the illustrious Rahul Rawail – known for making Sunny Deol a household name in the 80s (Arjun, Betaab, Samundar, Dacait) and giving Kumar Gaurav the only film he’s known for – had made his last film till date. It was very different from anything he had ever done.

It’s a wonder Buddha Mar Gaya didn’t get a cult following. It stands apart from any work that Rahul himself ever did. It’s loud, crass, badly made and loads of fun. It should be called a cult. Anupam Kher plays Laxmikant Kabaadiya, a scrap dealer who’s made millions from his business. His children and relatives are on the prowl, waiting for the old man to pop so that they could inherit the riches. And pop he does, in the most glorious fashion while canoodling in bed with a struggling actress (Rakhi Sawant). The buzzards swoop in to snatch the loot but there’s a catch. LK’s company is due for an IPO worth millions in the next few days. If the news of his death were to spread, the valuations will go for a free-fall. It is imperative that LK be kept alive. But he’s dead. Thus begins an absolute nuts of a film that quickly stops making any sense whatsoever. Om Puri is Vidyut Baba, a bisexual sanyasi who seems to have the hots for LK’s sister as well as his son. The film from time to time reminds you that it is a “black comedy”. After LK’s body has been hacked to pieces to escape identification, a lady police officer examines the groin and recognises “him” immediately. Do catch Buddha Mar Gaya. It’s streaming on Zee5. But be warned: it’s not for the weak-willed.

The Trouble with Harry

The Trouble with Harry was based on a story by Story. You got that? Sorry. The Trouble with Harry is a novella by Jack Trevor Story, which became the basis for the Alfred Hitchcock movie of the same name. It is also the only rom-com made by Hitchcock. Philip Truex was known for his work on the stage. Son of veteran actor Ernest Truex, Philip’s greatest moment on Broadway was when he landed the lead in Finian’s Rainbow. But his stint as an actor was short-lived. In the May 22, 1955 issue of The New Yorker, it was reported that Philip Truex had just opened the “City Gardener” on the balcony of a camera store. “He sells plants, fertilizer and chameleons.

Early that year, Philip was called for by none other than the great Hitchcock. He was supposed to play the “lead” in his latest movie. Philip, poor thing, believed his time had come. Title role in a Hitchcock film? Wow. But it was this performance that eventually led Philip Truex to quit acting and switch to city gardening. He was indeed playing the lead in The Trouble with Harry – he was Harry Worp, a cadaver the whole story was woven around. A boy is running through the woods playing with his toy gun, when he hears real gunshots. The boy is stunned for a moment, only to come upon Harry’s dead body, blood trickling out of his head. The boy runs to his mother Jennifer (Shirley McLaine in her Hollywood debut). An array of colourful characters keep populating the screen in the next hour or so, doing all sorts of things to the corpse. All but report it to the authorities. Mundane things are discussed over the dead man, whether it’s food or relationships. Nobody seemed to care there was a dead guy around.

For the first time ever, the “master of suspense” was making a comedy. Hitchcock’s flair for black humour was evident from a lot of his trailers (in the trailer of The Birds he delivers a lecture about ‘man’s old friends, the birds’, in another he washes up as a dead body on the shore), but this was the first time he was making a whole movie about it. Hitchcock’s fans weren’t amused. They’d expected a thriller and were doled out a comedy. The film flopped miserably. And hence, good ol’ Philip Truex had to bid adieu to acting, despite ‘playing the lead’ (funny how it rhymes with “playing the dead”) in an Alfred Hitchcock movie.

Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro

Of course. The definitive entry in the list is also the most iconic. When director Kundan Shah shared the idea of a dead man on skates, Naseeruddin Shah thought he’d gone bonkers. “You’ve conceived a bloody animation film!” According to Jai Arjun Singh’s brilliant book on the making of the film, when Kundan shared the same idea with Ravi Baswani, he immediately demanded to play the dead body. Kundan quipped, “Nahi nahi, woh role toh maine reserve kiya hua hai!” It could only have been Satish Shah for him.

Satish Shah had earlier worked with Kundan on an FTII diploma film called Bonga. While he delivered an inspired performance, he didn’t exactly get deluged with offers after graduating. It was his association with Kundan Shah that was to turn the tide of Satish’s career. And I’m not talking about Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro alone. It was a tv serial called Ye Jo Hai Zindagi back in the mid-1980s that – quite literally – made Satish Shah a household name. Kundan directed the show, and it was after this that Satish got to be seen in movies more often.

Satish was apparently not too pleased with the fact that for a crucial part of the film, he will be playing dead, doing nothing. But eventually when the script unfolded before him, he realised how interesting and crazy this was going to be. Whether it was driving a car with Om Puri or “playing Chess” with him, or being passed from one hand to another as Draupadi on the stage, for many of us Dead DeMello was the most definitive Satish Shah role ever (a burly dead Christian playing Draupadi on-screen? Imagine that happening in 2019).

Honourable mention

Five years after Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro, the Production Controller of the film appeared as a dead body in his own movie (was the title a reference to Hitchcock’s The Birds? We don’t know).

This other film created history of its own too, but that story is for another time.

Footnote: Buy the book


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