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One would never know how far Mehmood would go. This factor underscores two important components of humour: discomfort and unpredictability. The premise of any joke rests on creating a situation that generates anxiety and discomfort (with the punch line providing mirthful relief). Also, the most entertaining jokes are ones that are fresh, ergo, not predictable.

Mehmood was a master of both. He was the classical back-bencher prankster of your school days who enjoyed rebellion, anarchy and attention. His humour was cheeky, bold and loud. It came across as spontaneous and authentic. It was over-the-top, sometimes scatological. It was also a no-holds-barred, politically incorrect variety of humour. And it happened to be very, very funny.

Mehmood belonged to a time when there existed in Hindi cinema a category called the comedian. Like the vamp, this category has more or less vanished, having been usurped by the hero/heroine/item number. Comedians provided a parallel tract to the main story, largely unrelated to it, but serving various useful functions, one of which was to simply provide comic relief, particularly when the main story got emotionally heavy and serious.

But Mehmood’s humour could be disruptive and irreverent. This irreverence sometimes even extended to the hero of the film. This obviously did not go down well with the stars. Many popular heroes of his time refused to work with him since he was the quintessential scene-stealer. Mehmood had no other option but to make movies himself, with him as the lead, and a lesser hero (often it was Vinod Mehra) in a supporting role. Mehmood did not feel the need to have any leading female actor as well, since it did not matter who else was in his movie.

Mehmood the comedian could not be separated from Mehmood the man. He was the source of his material. The comedy sprang from him rather than from the script. He was a guest on Phool Khile Hain Gulshan Gulshan, the television show hosted by Tabassum in the 1980s. The opening shot has him facing a wall, legs spread, with his back to the camera and his hands in front of him just below waist level. An alarmed Tabassum tells him, “Arre bhaijaan, toilet udhar hai, idhar nahi (the toilet’s that way, not here)." He turns around and shows her the wad of cash he has been counting. When he and Mukri were hosting the same show later, his constant entreaties, book in hand, to Mukri, in a child’s voice, were “Main padoo?", a reference to a line from his Chhote Nawab. Later, for several months, this Mehmood-inspired, gas-attack threat was our response to our parents when we were asked to study. His radio programme promoting the movie Do Phool began with him mocking the “Hum All India Radio se bol rahe hai" with “Hum moo se bol rahe hai."

For all the coarseness and physicality of Mehmood’s humour, there was little innuendo. He was rarely risqué. I can only think of a single scene from the funniest Hindi film ever, Bombay to Goa, where he plays a bus conductor named Khanna (the driver’s name is Rajesh). Khanna is flirting with Manorama’s daughter. Manorama gets irritated and tells him to get back to his seat. “Kamaal hai," Mehmood complains. “Jab main khada ho jata hoon to bitha deti hai, jab main baith jata hoon to khada kar deti hai (It’s amazing. When I stand, she forces me to sit, when I sit, she makes me stand)"

Mehmood made us laugh out loud, for physical comedy causes a physical response. The cerebral kind of humour did not work for him. Mehmood’s comedic genius operated from a lower centre—the gut. Like Charlie Chaplin, Mehmood combined comedy and sentimentality beautifully. The object of the sentimentality was never the love interest (how would that ever work?) but a child (Mastana, Kunwara Baap) or the mother (Main Sundar Hoon). The lullaby “Aa ri aa ja, nindiya tu le chal kahin" causes many grown men to burst into tears, Sonu Nigam, Johnny Lever and myself included.

Mehmood could sure express sentimentality well, but he could not be entirely serious. In the last scene in his Sabse Bada Rupaiya, where he is pontificating on real wealth and fake friends, he provides as an example an emaciated, uniformed man, his driver, who has an unusually bulbous nose. “Inko dekho, itna shareef hai yeh bechara mera driver (look, how humble my poor driver is)" and can’t resist adding, “yeh Anand Bakshi".

Recently I was in Rome and saw buskers dressed as performing Indian fakirs near the Coliseum. Who else but Mehmood came to mind, with his line from Humjoli, in which he mimicked Prithviraj Kapoor, who is scandalized by his grandson’s alleged affair with one Lilly (“Lilly, tu mujhko kyun milli"). The grandpa says, disparagingly, “Hari oooom! Yeh bhaaarat hai yaaa hai Rooome!"

Mehmood set the bar high for low comedy. For him, his successor was Johnny Lever, a claim contested by Lever himself. “He was the king, and when he died he took the throne away with him," Lever said. I agree. Using Mehmood’s own techniques of reprise, Lever sang, “Mehmood mere, Mehmood mere, tu hai to duniya kitni haseen hai, joh tu nahi to kuch bhi nahi hai."

Hemant Morparia is a cartoonist with Mumbai Mirror.

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