The White wizard: Jeetendra’s south fetish

 

A sinister man in a black suit flips open his revolver and inserts bullets. As he aims the gun and fires, the letters slowly form on the screen: “Gudachari 116”. Thus begins one of India’s earliest secret agent films, made in Telugu. It was 1966, and James Bond had already marked his Hollywood debut with Dr. No four years earlier. Directly inspired from Gudachari 116, Bollywood was to have its first Secret Agent in Farz (1967) as Agent 116 aka Gopi, featuring Jeetendra.

Farz was offered to some major stars of the time, like Manoj Kumar and Shashi Kapoor (it gives me endless glee to picture Bharat Kumar as Agent 116). But the film was not considered a desirable project, to them it sounded like a “stunt film” (wonder whether Dara Singh was approached. He’d be so much fun as a spy! Right? Right.). Jeetendra, belonging to a family of businessmen who supplied fake jewellery to be used in film shoots, had been picked up by V. Shantaram and launched in Geet Gaya Pattharaon Ne (1964), but it was Farz that brought him fame and fortune. It was a Telugu remake, and a harbinger of things to come.

The lead in the original Gudachari was played by Telugu superstar Krishna, father of Mahesh Babu. In two years, Jeetendra found himself prouncing about in another remake of a Krishna superhit: Waris (1969), a reinterpretation of Nenante Nene (1968). That same year, Jeetu was featuring in Jeene Ke Raah, a remake of Bratuku Teruvu (1953), and Jigri Dost,  a remake of Govula Gopanna (1968). Both of these films were in Telugu and starred the illustrious Akkineni Nageswara Rao, superstar Nagarjuna’s father.

In the year 1970 alone, good ol’ jumping jack starred in three south remakes: Himmat (Adrushtavanthalu), Jawab (Sabhash Suri), and the badminton-shuttlecock infested Humjoli (Panakkara Kudumbum), two of which were made in Telugu originally. So, in a career spanning less than a decade, Jeetendra had already done as many as eight remakes, of which all but one were in Telugu. And these were not just  Bollywood remakes of south Indian films. Many of these were filmed by directors and technicians of Telugu and Tamil film industries of the time, such as the great L.V. Prasad, T. R. Ramanna, and Ravikant Nagaich.

The film that became a catalyst in Jeetendra marrying his wife Shobha Kapoor was also a Telugu remake. It was L.V. Prasad’s Bidaai (1974), remade from Talla Pellamma (1970), directed by and starring the infallible N.T. Rama Rao. At the time, some of Jeetu’s films were not doing so well, and he promised his childhood sweetheart Shobha that if Bidaai turns out to be a hit, they will tie the knot. And so it happened. Bidaai turned out to be one of his biggest hits ever, and Jeetendra and Shobha Kapoor were married at Janki Kutir, Shashi Kapoor’s present home and the abode of Prithvi Theatres. There were 15 more Telugu remakes in the 70s, including the fantastic Lok Parlok (remake of Yamagola) in which Amjad Khan plays The Boston Strangler a.k.a Raman Raghav.

So, Jeetendra’s filmography has been choc-a-bloc with remakes of South Indian films from the very start of his career. But the whole matka-oranges-white pants phase of the 80s that most people talk about, was brought about by one film that was miles away from the action and hip thrusts and bare midriffs. It was a Muslim Social, made by the man who practically invented the genre.

How The South was won

Harnam Singh Rawail debuted as a director when he was barely 19 years old, with Dorangia Daku (1940). He got his first hit with Patanga (1949), featuring the song that – 68 years later – still plays in modern pubs and parties: Mere piya gaye Rangoon. But he was destined to make the film that reinvigorated a whole genre. Till Rawail made Mere Mehboob (1963), the perceived high culture of Lucknow and Aligarh with Nawabs, courtesans and the shero-shayari rarely only found mention in historicals like Mirza Ghalib (1954), Humayun (1945), Shahjehan (1946), with some exceptions like Chaudhvin Ka Chand and Barsaat Ki Ek Raat (both 1960). But arguably the most popular and iconic film of this unique genre called ‘Muslim Social’ in the 60s was Mere Mehboob.

The film brought Rawail much fame and success, which encouraged him to keep dabbling in the genre. Mere Mehboob was followed by Mehboob Ki Mehndi (1971) with Rajesh Khanna which was the mildest of Kaka’s hits in that phase. Close on its heels, Rawail came up with another blockbuster in the shape of Laila Majnu (1975), featuring Rishi Kapoor and newcomer Ranjeeta. Emboldened by the continued success, H. S, Rawail put together the most illustrious batch of living Urdu writers and poets for his next film – including the likes of Sahir Ludhianvi, Kaifi Azmi, Dr. Rahi Masoom Reza, Indeevar and even a dead one – Amir Meenai, the legendary Urdu poet active in the late 19th century. Amir’s celebrated ghazal Sarakti Jaaye Hai Rukh Se Naqaab was used in the film, later popularised by Jagjit and Chitra Singh.

By now, Jeetendra had spent almost two decades in the industry. It was time to get into production now, lending his family a hand in the process. Muslim Social seemed as bankable a genre as any, especially when H. S. Rawail was making it. The film was Deedar-E-Yaar (1982). Jeetu’s brother Prasan Kapoor was producing, and Jeetendra “presented” the film, in addition to co-starring with Rishi Kapoor and Tina Munim.

Jeetendra went all out. What could go wrong? Well, Deedar-E-Yaar was the biggest flop of his career, nearly wiping out all his savings. He was crestfallen. This was a huge blow. The quickest way to drag himself out of this mess was to turn to his friends down south. Jeetu headed straight for Madras. Harnam Singh Rawail never made a film again.

Says Jeetendra in a BoilywoodHungama interview: “There I could organise my finances properly, because they were always making pictures within schedule. So I knew how much money would come from which film and when. Otherwise in Bombay everybody used to work in 20-25 films…because nobody knew which is film is going to be completed and by when. Pictures used to progress slowly and producers used to shoot for two days, then a ten days gap, then another ten days gap, get money from people, show the rushes…the film would normally take one-and-a-half to two years…but in Madras they used to make the film in one go. So I went to Madras, I stuck around there. so that I could take care of my liabilities from Deedar-E-Yaar.

This sparked off an almost continuous slew of Telugu movie remakes – 60 films in a span of eight years, including titles like Himmatwala, Justice Chawdhry, Mawaali, Tohfa, Maqsad, Haisiyat, Patal BhairaviSanjog, Dharm Adhikari…you get the drift. Most of the originals had stars like N. T Rama Rao, Krishna, and even a young Chiranjeevi. But why Telugu?

Jeetendra believed – and with good reason – that Telugu films were very similar to Bollywood in terms of content. Loud, garrulous characters wearing garish clothes, reinforcing, even celebrating cultural stereotypes, the male gaze, female objectification, gyrating hips and throbbing busts. Telugu cinema had everything that Bollywood wanted, and more. So, even more than Tamil or Kannada (and almost never Malayalam apart from a handful exceptions), successful Telugu films almost always worked when made in Hindi.

During this phase, Jeetendra collaborated with directors like K. Bapaiah, Dasari Narayana Rao, Rama Rao Tattineni or T. Rama Rao, but his most frequent partner in crime was K. Raghavendra Rao, with whom he made more than a dozen films. With Rao, Jeetendra made some of the most representative films of his career during that phase, right from Himmatwala to Tohfa to Justice Chawdhury. And it was Rao who came up with the pots and the sarees and the oranges.

…and then there were these gleeful wigs that Jeetu was made to sport. “Yeh wig wali baat meri samajh mein nahin aayee.” Jeetu said once, “Why did K. Raghavendra Rao make me wear a wig in Himmatwalla? Another hero who has much less hair worked with him recently… but wasn’t made to wear a wig at all! Maybe, he wanted to make me look different. Once the wigged look clicked in Himmatwalla, all the other directors in the South insisted on it.”

How Jeetendra – a hot-blooded Punjabi who relished his whiskey – viewed his stint in south India and what it meant for him is illustrated in the following lines:

“Several of my South socials were shot in Vijaywada. We would travel by train from Chennai. As soon as the train crossed the Godavari bridge, I would abstain from alcohol. There was no religious significance to the move, I just went off liquor when in Vijaywada. And this made me more focussed on my work.”

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