indian cinema heritage foundation

Chameleon: Kanhaiyalal, beyond and before Sukhilala

08 May, 2020 | Long Features by Sumant Batra
Kanhaiyalal. Image Courtesy: Filmfare

The star system that developed in the early decades of the Hindi cinema prized photogenic men and women of great physical beauty and charisma. Yet early on, the public also took to its heart actors who may not have been glamorous but were capable of portraying a range of characters. They were the actors who played supporting roles. Many out of them, however, were charismatic and succeeded in establishing their own relationship with the viewers, encouraging them to return regularly to movie theatres to watch their films. Many were crowd pullers and many a time outshone the lead actors by their performance. They were ‘star’ in their own right. Kanhaiyalal was one such eminent character actor in Hindi films.
 
The generation of film viewers that grew up in the 60s or later, often recall Kanhaiyalal as the perennially dhoti-clad actor - the wicked ‘Sukhilala’ of Mother India (1957), who either played the greedy money lender or a sycophant aide to the arbitrary village landlord in films based in rural settings, and a lecherous, plotting businessman in films with urban India stories – an immensely inaccurate, even unfair impression of a brilliant actor with a glorious acting career spanning over 45 years. 
 
 
Kanhaiyalal with Nargis in Mother India (1957). Image Courtesy: Cinemaazi archives
In fact, what Sholay did to Amjad Khan in 1975, eternally branding him as “Gabbar Singh”, but also stereotyping him as a villain for a long time, Mother India did to Kanhaiyalal in 1957, unapologetically typecasting him in characters similar to the one he played in Mehboob Khan’s iconic film.
In fact, what Sholay did to Amjad Khan in 1975, eternally branding him as “Gabbar Singh”, but also stereotyping him as a villain for a long time, Mother India did to Kanhaiyalal in 1956, unapologetically typecasting him in characters similar to the one he played in Mehboob Khan’s iconic film. So powerful was Kanhaiyalal’s portrayal of the lecherous moneylender desirous of seducing the widowed Radha in lieu of food and medicine for her sick, starving children that it has an instant recall value at the mere mention of Mother India. While Mother India assured Kanhaiyalal a secured place in film history, tragically, it also made Kanhaiyalal a victim of its success. Filmmakers could thereafter only see him in similar roles. While the young Amjad Khan was able to eventually struggle out of being typecast, the industry was not as kind to the aging actor (he was already 46-year old then) and was repeatedly called upon to deliver roles similar to that of Sukhilala. 

In a way, after Mother India, Kanhaiyalal’s 44 year-long celluloid career got divided into the Pre-Mother India and Post-Mother India period. This essay looks at the actor’s 19-year long career before Mother India.  
After his father died, the brothers tried to run the drama company for some time but it proved ‘a rather difficult job’ and Kanhaiyalal ‘decided to seek a film career in Bombay’, but without the ‘slightest intention of acting.’ He wanted to make films and also write in them.
Like in 1957, even at the beginning of his career, destiny had a role to play. Although he had grown up amidst theatrical activity (his father, Pandit Bhairodutt Choube, popularly known as Choubheji, ran a fairly popular theatre group in Varanasi called, Sanatan Dharm Natak Samaj), Kanhaiyalal was not encouraged by his father to take up any form of stage work.  He had to be content doing odd jobs in the troupe and was only occasionally permitted to play small roles. He ran a provisional store and later, a flour mill for a short while. His elder brother, Sankata Prasad Chaturvedi, a fairly modern man in comparison, had already left for Bombay to make a career in films. He acted in many silent films though he did not see much success. After his father died, the brothers tried to run the drama company for some time but it proved ‘a rather difficult job’ and Kanhaiyalal ‘decided to seek a film career in Bombay’, but without the ‘slightest intention of acting.’ He wanted to make films and also write in them. Although his education was limited to Grade 4 in Hindi Medium, Kanhaiyalal had taken a liking for writing when he was 16. 
‘The dialogue I had to speak ran to a full sheet of foolscap paper. Almost everyone on the sets was ready to laugh at my trying to set up as an actor, but God helped me and I did my job,’ he told in an interview published on 10 July, 1964 issue of Filmfare.
 
Fate though had something else in store for Kanhaiyalal. On the recommendation of Sankata Prasad, Chimanlal Desai, the owner of Sagar Movietone took him on his rolls to play an extra in Sagar Movietone films on a monthly salary of Rs. 35.  His first film as an extra was Sagar Ka Sher (1938). Sagar Movietone was making a film, Jhul Badn (1938) based on a story written by K. M. Munshi. Directed by Sarvottam Badami, a celebrated filmmaker of his times, the film starred Motilal and Sabita Devi in the lead roles. One day, the actor playing Motilal’s father failed to report on the sets. Kanhaiyalal, who was present in the studio on the fateful day, was called upon by Motilal to ‘step into the breach’, as revealed by the actor himself. ‘The dialogue I had to speak ran to a full sheet of foolscap paper. Almost everyone on the sets was ready to laugh at my trying to set up as an actor, but God helped me and I did my job,’ he told in an interview published in 10 July, 1964 issue of Filmfare. He bagged the role. Kanhaiyalal was only 28-years-old (born on 15 December 1910) when he was called upon to play father to the man his own age. Born on 4 December, 1910, Motilal was older to him by only 11 days. 
 
The only logical explanation to the young Kanhaiyalal accepting the role of an elderly man could be that as an aspirant of a career in writing and filmmaking, he did not bother to analyze the risk of playing an elderly role or getting typecast as an actor. The role earned him an increment of Rs. 10 per month, which in itself was an important outcome for the young man struggling to find feet in the tough industry. Jhul Badn, thus, became the debut film of the actor, who was destined to have a long inning in acting. In the same year, his second film, Gramophone Singer (1938) was released in which he played a friend to Surendra, the lead actor. The film also starred Bibbo and Prabha. Kanhaiyalal had a small role in the film.
 
His career took another key turn in quick succession. Chimanlal Desai had invited Kanhaiyalal to pen the dialogues and lyrics of Sadhana (1939), thus, giving him the break he desperately wanted to start his career in writing.
 
His career took another key turn in quick succession. Chimanlal Desai had invited Kanhaiyalal to pen the dialogues and lyrics of Sadhana (1939), thus, giving him the break he desperately wanted to start his career in writing.  As fate would have it yet again, while Kanhaiyalal was reading out to Desai the dialogues he had written, the Sagar proprietor announced that Kanhaiyalal should himself enact the role of grandfather to Prem Adib, the hero of the film. Shobhana Samarth and Bibbo were the other two prominent actors in the film. ‘It was a big role’ and Kanhaiyalal did not refuse. Or perhaps, he could not muster the courage to say no to his employer. When Sadhana was being made, quite a number of people thought Kanhaiyalal was ‘bogus’ and ‘withheld co-operation’. The film turned out to be a big hit running to a silver jubilee at the Imperial Cinema.  After Sadhana, in the words of the actor, he became ‘acceptable.’ The flip side of Sadhana was that, in the youthful age of 28, Kanhaiyalal had already enacted the role of a grandfather. The actor once said in jest, Sadhana was, “another promotion” he earned, ‘to play grandfather instead of father.’  
 
A page from Sadhana (1939)'s booklet. Image Courtesy: Cinemaazi archives
 
Ek Hi Raasta (1939). Image Courtesy: Cinemaazi archives
 
Kanhaiyalal started receiving meaty roles after Sadhana. All roles that came his way may not have been of characters his age, they were surely younger than what he had played in Jhul Badn and Sadhana. In Mehboob Khan’s, Ek Hi Raasta (1939), Kanhaiyalal was invited to play the role of a villain. This was his first film with Mehboob Khan with whom he would eventually do the two most discussed films of his career.  ‘Banke’ of Ek Hi Raasta was also Kanhaiyalal’s first enactment as a villain. He was also the dialogue director of the film, his second as a dialogue writer. His next release was Seva Samaj / Service Ltd. (1939).
 
Aurat (1940). Image Courtesy: Filmfare
'I regard my Aurat role as a really good one. I was helped tremendously by the lines Wajahat Mirza wrote for me. In fact, I firmly believe that what an actor needs most of all is good dialogue to enable him to do well,’ he said.
 
Sagar Movietone closed down by the end of 1939. Chimanlal Desai joined hands with Yusuf Fazalbhoy to form ‘National Studios’.  Mehboob Khan had acquired eminent position of importance in National Studios. He decided to make Aurat (1940), the earlier avatar of Mother India (1957). In Aurat, Mehboob Khan wanted to make a film with faithful and realistic portrayal of a village life never seen before. He had grand ambitions. On the suggestion of Wajahat Mirza, Mehboob Khan invited Kanhaiyalal to play ‘Sukhilala’, the wicked moneylender with designs on the young widow then played by Sardar Akhtar, a role pivotal to the story. Initially, there was all-round scepticism if Kanhaiyalal would be able to do justice to the crucial role. As he reminisced in an interview, “On this production, too, I had the feeling that the ice had yet to be broken. There was no make-up man free or willing to attend to me. When I explained this difficulty to Faredoon Irani, the cinematographer, he calmly said, ‘Don’t worry. Just appear as you are and I will photograph you without makeup.’ He did just that. His make-up consisted only of a moustache. ‘There are not very many cinematographers who will stake their reputation by agreeing to photograph artistes without make-up. I admired Mr. Irani’s courage and self-confidence. I regard my Aurat role as a really good one. I was helped tremendously by the lines Wajahat Mirza wrote for me. In fact, I firmly believe that what an actor needs most of all is good dialogue to enable him to do well,’ he said.  This in some way also cemented his faith in the importance of the natural look and acting in films something which he stayed immensely loyal to till the end.  
 
Radhika (1941). Image Courtesy: Film India, 1941
 
Aurat had a golden jubilee run. In his rather generous review of the film, Baburao Patel, the editor of Film India, a critic feared by the industry, applauded Kanhaiyalal’s performance: ‘Sukhilala, the moneylender, played by Kanhaiyalal, succeeds in earning the odium of the spectators and the role becomes popular in its being cordially disliked with every appearance.’  Aurat was a "career-defining performance" for Kanhaiyalal.  It would not be an exaggeration to say that Mehboob, Wajahat Mirza and Faredoon Irani were instrumental in kick-starting the ascension of his career graph.
 
Asra (1941). Image Courtesy: Film India 
 
It comes across rather surprising that after Ek Hi Raasta, Kanhaiyalal had got disgruntled with the films, and in a moment of frustration, returned to Varanasi. On Desai’s persistence, he agreed to come back but only after being assured that he would get to assist Virendra C. Desai in the direction of Sanskar (1940). Kanhaiyalal wrote the songs and dialogues for Sanskar. The film, released on 31 October 1940, failed but the fortune was still on his side as Aurat, destined to serve as a springboard for his acting career released a few months earlier, on 10 May 1940. Kanhaiyal also wrote the lyrics and dialogues of Ramchandra Thakur’s Civil Marriage (1940).
 
Image Courtesy: Film India, February 1941
 
He was so good that the four scenes conceived for him were spun out into fourteen by Wajahat Mirza. Kanhaiyalal ‘lived his part.’ Film India wrote: “The best performance is given by Kanhaiyalal in the role of a pickpocket.”
Kanhaiyalal was flooded with work after Aurat. In Radhika (1941), a National Studios film, directed by K. B. Lall, Kanhaiyalal was asked to play a ‘mahant’ (temple priest). In Asra (1941), yet another film by National Studios, he played the role of a ticket examiner. The same year, Mehboob’s Bahen (1941), based on story written by Zia Sarhady was released. Bahen was the excessive obsession of a tall, hefty brother for his maidenly sister tackled on a subdued note. Kanhaiyalal played ‘Moti’, a good-natured pickpocket in the film. He was so good that the four scenes conceived for him were spun out into fourteen by Wajahat Mirza. Kanhaiyalal ‘lived his part.’ Film India wrote: “The best performance is given by Kanhaiyalal in the role of a pickpocket.” This was the second big endorsement of Kanhaiyalal’s acting by Baburao Patel, the most dreaded film critic of the times. Rangbhoomi, the prestigious Hindi film magazine, too termed his performance as the best, overshadowing the others in the main cast. 
 
Bahen (1941). Image Courtesy: Filmfare
 
in Bahen (1941).
Image Courtesy: Film India

In Khilauna (1942), a love triangle, Kanhaiyalal played Kishore, a young man who, due to his motor accident injuries fancies Asha, an educated but poor girl played by Snehaprabha to be his recently dead wife, while Asha is in romantic alliance with Amar, a painter, played by Jairaj. The film was hailed as an entertainer with an excellent story idea, snappy music and “excellent as usual” Kanhaiyalal. Then came Nirdosh (1941), singer Mukesh’s first film as singer-actor.  Kanhaiyalal played Shadilal, the government pensioner, a role in which he outshined the rest of the cast and proved to be a saving grace for the film.  The movie was lampooned by Film India as “not worth the trouble of production or for that matter of seeing,” but the excellent performance of Kanhaiyalal was once again applauded by Baburao in his review of the film. 
 
Kanhaiyalal in Nirdosh (1941). Image Courtesy: Shishir Krishna Sharma
Kanhaiyalal may not have been conventionally handsome but in the first four years of his career, Kanhaiyalal had already built a reputation of an actor par excellence.  Baburao Patel, a very hard to please critic was clearly very impressed and termed Kanhaiyalal as an “incomparable artiste”.
Kanhaiyalal may not have been conventionally handsome but in the first four years of his career, Kanhaiyalal had already built a reputation of an actor par excellence.  Baburao Patel, a very hard to please critic was clearly very impressed and termed Kanhaiyalal as an “incomparable artiste”.  “Whatever Kanhaiyalal does has “excellent” stamped on it”, he noted in one of his reviews. ‘The inclusion of Kanhaiyalal in a useless story constitutes an insult to not only that incomparable artiste but also to his fans,’ he said. 

The audiences too were increasingly seeking Kanhaiyalal. The year 1943 saw the release of Dulhan and in 1944 came Pagli Duniya, a film in which Bulo C Rani sang as Bhola. 
Lal Haveli (1944). Image Courtesy: Cinemaazi ar
 
Lal Haveli (1944). Image Courtesy: Filmfare

The early 40s was the time when talkies had taken to telling historical and social films, a shift from previous decades when mythology ruled the roost. The star system had started rising in the 1940s and the substance and form of popular Hindi films was beginning to get influenced by the leading stars of the day. Films were now woven around the persona of stars: Raj Kapoor the tragicomic, Dilip Kumar the tragedian and Dev Anand, the debonair. New ways of telling stories had been discovered. Indian People's Theatre Association (IPTA) had been formed in 1943 and by the time the Second World War ended, many dynamic writers of the age had flocked to Bombay. Members of IPTA and Progressive Writers Association – some of whom worked in the film industry as actors, directors, scriptwriters, lyricists, technicians, etc.’ started operating ‘in tandem to produce a radically new set of images, metaphors, vocabulary, even aesthetics.' The Studios were giving way to independent producers. All this was rapidly changing the landscape of Hindi films and its players. Studios, filmmakers, even established actors had to deal with the changing dynamics of the film industry and cinema it produced. Some succeeded in negotiating their way forward, while others struggled to sustain their career.
Though not entirely immune from the changes happening in the industry, Kanhaiyalal remained busy through the decade. But his hope of becoming a writer or make a film started fading.  Roles in social, romantic and comedy films continued coming his way.
Though not entirely immune from the changes happening in the industry, Kanhaiyalal remained busy through the decade. But his hope of becoming a writer or make a film started fading.  Roles in social, romantic and comedy films continued coming his way. In Bombay Cinetone’s Lal Haveli (1944), also directed by Lall, Kanhaiyalal played the comic role of a Pandit. Lal Haveli was an ‘interesting moonshine woven round the ruins of a historical building in North India, starring Nur Jehan, Ullhas and Surendra in the lead. Playing Rasik, the local Brahmin Pandit, Kanhaiyalal easily ‘beat’ the others in the film in performance.  Yakub was the only other actor in the film who was appreciated. His frequent punch line telling Kanhaiyalal, ‘Chacha, pasina aa raha hai’ became quite famous.  
 
Panihari (1946). Image Courtesy: Film India, October 1945

Other pictures released in 1944 were Navin Pictures’s film Dost, which was directed by Shaukat Hussain Rizvi; Gaali, a film directed by R.S. Choudhary in which Kanhaiyalal played Banke Thakur; and Kiran by Gajanan Jagirdar.  The year 1945 saw the release of Ramchandra Thakur’s Aarti; Sarvottam Badami’s Ramayani; Ahmed Essa’s Neelam; Ramnik Desai’s Rahat and Taramati.  Taramati was trashed by Film India in its review as “one long sequence of boredom” and described Shobhana Samartha playing Taramati “above the neck but below it”, but appreciated Kanhaiyalal’s performance, together with Saroj Borkar (playing his shrewish wife), as a “good performance.”  In Rasili (1946), a musical comedy by Hanuman Prasad, a music composer’s first motion picture direction, Kanhaiyalal and Ramesh Gupta played lead role. In Mohan Sinha’s Shri Krishn Arjun Yuddha(1945) he played the role of Narad. 
 
Rasili (1946). Image Courtesy: Film India, February 1946
 
Although the film industry did not typecast Kanhaiyalal as father or grandfather or even as a villain, the roles offered to him too did not get any younger. ‘I was quite young but I thus started playing “old” roles. And, down the years, I got older and older but my roles didn’t grow any younger and younger!’ Kanhaiyalal said in an interview.  
Close on heels was Bhookh (1946), a Dr. Safdar ‘Aah” film, a topical story about the pangs of hunger suffered by the poor people of India in those times of food scarcity. Husna, "a new find" was launched in this film which also featured “Sheikh Mukhtar and Kanhaiyalal leading a useful cast.”  Gunjal’s Panihari (1946) was another release in the same year. There was also Mansarover in 1946. The posters of this film showed his name at the top. In Toote Tare (1948) as Diwan Madan Lal, Kanhaiyalal played a perfect villain. In Mohan Sinha’s Dev Anand – Suraiya starrer, Jeet (1949), he played Thakur Kalyan Singh. 
 
Mansarovar (1946). Image Courtesy: Film India

 Although the film industry did not typecast Kanhaiyalal as father or grandfather or even as a villain, the roles offered to him too did not get any younger. ‘I was quite young but I thus started playing “old” roles. And, down the years, I got older and older but my roles didn’t grow any younger and younger!’ Kanhaiyalal said in an interview.
 
 
Bhookh (1946). Image Courtesy: Film India, 1946
 
Kanhaiyalal was a humble man rooted not only in values and principles of Benaras but also in his appearance.  The actor, unwilling to change into trousers and jackets, had to content with roles that suited his set persona creating some limitations for him.
The 50s was the time when filmmakers were delving into the idea of India and reflecting on the country’s state of affairs post-Independence. While exploring the heart-wrenching hardships faced by ordinary people from rural India, the filmmakers were also making films on other social issues urban India was dealing with. The focus of stories in films was gradually shifting to the cities.  For films made on stories set in cities, character actors, even villains with a different kind of look and persona were required. Bombay Talkies’s Ziddi (1948) had launched Pran's career in Bombay. He brought a new look and feel to the role of the villain. By 1950 he was gradually established as a premier villain in the Hindi cinema. From kohl-laced eyes that gave a menacing look to his particular style of smoking a cigarette or beedi, to his dialogue delivery, even his different hairstyles — everything was becoming a hit with the filmgoers. Kanhaiyalal was a humble man rooted not only in the values and principles of Benaras but also in his appearance.  The actor, unwilling to change into trousers and jackets, had to be content with roles that suited his set persona creating some limitations for him. Dhoti-shirt were his staple and only attire. An umbrella and paan daan (Betel Case) were his permanent attachments.  In an interview, his daughter recalled:

कन्हैया लाल जी मुंबई में भी पूरी तरह से भारतीय सभ्यता विशेषकर बनारसी संस्कृति के अलमबरदार रहे. उनका परिधान पूरी तरह भारतीय था. उसने भी कुर्ता पजामा ज्यादा प्रिय था. प्रेमा जी याद करती हैं – “बाबूजी में बनारसीपन कूट-कूट के भरा हुआ था. बनारसी अलमस्ती में ही वह मुंबई में भी वह कभी-कभी लुंगी-बंडी में बैंक तक पहुंच जाते. उन्हें डैडी या पापा संबोधन पसंद नहीं था. अपने बच्चों को उन्होंने खुद को ‘बाबूजी’ और मां को अम्मा कहना सिखाया.” (Even in Mumbai, Kanhaiyalal held on to Indian and specifically Benarasi ways of living. His attire was always quintessentially Indian, and in that, his preserence was for kurta-pyjamas. As his daughter recalls, “Babuji was a Benarasi man down to his bones. He carried his Benarasi flair to Bombay, and often went to the bank dressed in his lungi. He did not like being addressed as ‘Daddy’ or ‘Papa’. He made sure that all us children grew up calling him Babuji and our mother amma.")  

 
Sipahiya (1949). Image Courtesy: Film India, July 1949
 
But such was the respect for his talent among filmmakers, good work continued to pour in through the 50s, mostly in films set in rural backdrop, with some exceptions. In nearly all films, big and small budgeted, whether based in a rural setting or on an urban story, he excelled.  He was working with some of the best filmmakers and actors in the industry. His year started with Navketan’s first film, the Chetan Anand directed Afsar (1950) - a comedy, a satire on corruption, probably the first in its genre. The film was based on the Russian author Nikolai Gogol’s play The Inspector General, a satirical comedy that was a hit with the audience. Dev Anand played a journalist who comes to a village run by corrupt politicians led by the village tehsildar, played by Kanhaiyalal. They mistake him for a government inspector and treat him like a VIP. The expose of rural politics is intercut with a love story between Anand and the tehsildar’s sister played by Suraiya. The film substantially determined the style, and the key unit, characteristic of Navketan’s 50s productions.  This was followed by Harish’s Malhar (1951), the first of the only two films to be produced by ace singer Mukesh under the banner of Darling Films. The film had a young and largely inexperienced cast and crew. It was a debut vehicle for many, Shammi being one of them. Kanhaiyalal, who enjoyed a long stint as a character actor was ‘consummate as ever’ in the role of a funny character of a middle-aged man aspiring to marry a young girl. He takes offence to being addressed as ‘Tau’ (used in North India to refer to people older than one’s father) and retorts by saying, ‘Tau hoga tera baap’ (literally translated meaning, ‘go call your father old’).  In Hum Log (1951), Kanhaiyalal played the role of a poor man.
 
Amanat (1955). Image Courtesy: Film India
 
In Mr. Sampat (1952), based on RK Narayan’s book Mr. Sampat: The Printer of Malgudi, Kanhaiyalal played Seth Makhanlal Gheewala to perfection.  He also had a good role in Jagdish Sethi’s Insaan (1952). Pakistani actress Raagini visited India after partition to work in this film. His other releases in the 50s were, Daag (1952) in which played Lala Jagat Narayan, S.S. Vasan’s Bahut Din Hue (1954) in which he played the pujari; Ashok Kumar - Madhubala starrer Nishana (1950); Meena Bazar (1950); Shahid Lateef’s Buzdil (1951), starring Nimmi and Kishore Sahu; Ismail Memon’s Annadata (1952) starring Ajit, Veena and Sheikh Mukhtar; Phani Majumdar’s Dhobi Doctor (1954); Dina Nath Madhok’s Naata (1955), a Madhubala Production starring Abhi Bhattacharya, Madhubala, Chanchal and others; and Geeta Bali-Motilal starrer Lalten (1956). 
 
Devdas (1955). Image Courtesy: Film India
 
He also acted in films of Bimal Roy in the 1950s: Naukri (1954), Amanat (1955) and Devdas (1955).  Based on a famous story by Subodh Basu, Naukri (1954) tackles yet another social problem of unemployment in his usual impeccable and heartfelt manner. While it was a Kishore Kumar film all in all, Kanhaiyalal excelled in the supporting cast. ‘Generally, cast as a slimy ‘seth’ or moneylender or a crooked pundit, he makes the most of his positive role as the servant in the lodge Hari who tries to help out Kishore Kumar any which way he can, be it lying to the men from whom Rattan has hired a typewriter to type out his application by telling them he isn’t there or even helping him out financially.  Mehmood in an early bit part plays a small-time pickpocket in Bombay, reminding one of Kanhaiyalal’s role in Bahen thirteen years earlier, at the start of his career. In Devdas (1955), he plays the role of teacher. In Amanat (1955), produced by Bimal Roy and directed by Aravind Sen, Kanhaiyalal plays the role of a trader by the name of Laxmidas.
 
Naukri (1954). Image Courtesy: Film India
The characters Kanhaiyalal played were often a product of social and cultural upheavals of their time. In many films, he had but a handful of scenes, yet his character is the one viewers often remembered. For a humble man who lived in a chawl opposite King Circle Garden for a long time in his initial years in Bombay, this was no mean achievement.
By now Kanhaiyalal had already acted in 60 films (there may be more waiting to be discovered) over 18 years.  He played diverse roles: positive and negative, small and big, comic and cunning, rural and urban. The characters Kanhaiyalal played were often a product of social and cultural upheavals of their time. In many films, he had but a handful of scenes, yet his character is the one viewers often remembered. For a humble man who lived in a chawl opposite King Circle Garden for a long time in his initial years in Bombay, this was no mean achievement. 
 
It was around this time that Mehboob Khan decided to make Mother India, ‘an opulent colour remake of his earlier austere black and white film, Aurat. Raised in a village himself, Mehboob was familiar with rural life, its customs and manners, its soil, seasons, sufferings and joys and creates a totally Indian experience in milieu, detail, characters and dramatic incidents.’ Mehboob raised all these elements to make a film that is larger than life and one that admittedly takes a totally romanticized look at rural India. ‘The film is an ‘ultimate tribute to Indian Womanhood!' If Do Bigha Zamin (1953) was a paean to the dignity of the Indian peasant, this epic saga of the sufferings of an Indian peasant woman, is the ultimate tribute to the resilience of the serf.

In the casting of Mother India, only Kanhaiyalal reprised his role. Mehboob once said:

“मैंने कन्हैयालाल से जब यह कहा कि आप लाला की भूमिका फिर से करने वाले है तो उनकी आँखों में चमक आ गयी | बात सच भी थी कि “मदर इंडिया” की सारी कास्टिंग को अंतिम रूप देने में मुझे अडचन आयी लेकिन लाला की भूमिका में मै कन्हैयालाल के अलावा किसी ओर के बारे में सोच भी नही पाया”  (When I told Kanhaiyalal that I wanted him to play Lala once again, his eyes shone in anticipation. While it is true that completing the casting of Mother India to my satisfaction came up against numerous obstacles, I could not imagine anyone other than Kanhaiyalal as Lala.)
 
So tremendous was its success that the film is often referred to as ‘a reference point in the long-suffering mother genre and is like an Indian Gone With the Wind (1939).’ Baburao Patel, who had praised Aurat generously but panned his other films mercilessly, wrote, “Mehboob’s Mother India is an unforgettable epic…the greatest picture produced in India during the forty and odd years of filmmaking in this country. In its epic sweep, it is perhaps as great as Gone With The Wind produced by Hollywood but it is greater than the Hollywood picture in theme and spirit, for Mother India portrays the eternal story of the soil – the mother of countless millions of human beings.” Mother India became the first Indian Film to be nominated for an Oscar in the Best Foreign Film category and at the 1958 Academy Awards lost out to another masterpiece Federico Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria by a solitary vote. 
 
Song Booklet for Mother India (1957). Image Courtesy: Cinemaazi archives
 
As Sukhilala, Kanhaiyalal surpassed his performance in Aurat. A feudal era oppressor exploiting the mass of peasants, he dazzled by making the role a yardstick with which all similar characters (including his own), prior or since, are still measured.
 
As Sukhilala, Kanhaiyalal surpassed his performance in Aurat. A feudal era oppressor exploiting the mass of peasants, he dazzled by making the role a yardstick with which all similar characters (including his own), prior or since, are still measured. The on-screen mutation this mild-mannered god-fearing man underwent for a role was nothing short of miraculous. His role got etched amongst the most contemptible yet memorable characters of villainy. Rest as they say is history. 

 
Kanhaiyalal with Dilip Kumar in Ganga Jamuna (1961). Image Courtesy: Filmfare, 1964 July 10

After Mother India, he acted in 95 more films (again, there could be more), totaling 155, excelling in many of them. In Bimal Roy’s award-winning film Parakh (1960) the irrepressible Kanhaiyalal, playing the role of village priest matches Motilal with some fine acting. He gave a sterling performance in Nitin Bose’s Gunga Jumna (1961) as ‘a grumbling munim…. and of his love-hate relationship with a street mongrel who chases him despite being fed by him.’  In Gemini’s Grahasti (1963), he played a station master. He also shone in Mahesh Kaul’s Sautela Bhai (1962) although the film tanked. He played a cunning servant in Bharosa (1963). In Oonche Log (1965), in which he played a school teacher and Biradari (1966), in which he played Rammurthy 'Dudhwala', his role was primarily comic and he enacted some excellent hilarious scenes. In Upkar (1967), he played a wily baniya, an art perfected by him. In Ram Aur Shyam (1967), Kanhaiyalal again excelled as a ‘munim’. He also gave memorable performances in Dulal Guha’s Dharti Kahe Pukar Ke (1969); Satyen Bose’s Jeevan Mrityu (1970) and Dushman (1971). 

Kanhaiyalal breathed his last on 14 August, 1982.  
Kanhaiyalal gave numerous enduring performances in his 45 years long career. In lower-budget films, he was cast in complicated leading roles that won him acclaim; in mega-films, he added soul to underwritten, potentially clichéd parts.
Kanhaiyalal gave numerous enduring performances in his 45 years long career. In lower-budget films, he was cast in complicated leading roles that won him acclaim; in mega-films, he added soul to underwritten, potentially clichéd parts. In all the films, the grounded paan chewing artist, a very natural actor, continued to rely on his smaller every day reactions and emotions expressed overtly - his signature style. He injected a note of humanity into the characters he played. His distinctive voice and manners of dialogue delivery kept him apart and unique.  Dilip Kumar once admitted that he felt ‘nervous in presence of Kanhaiyalal. It was very difficult to match him in dialogue delivery,’ he confessed. The superstar Rajesh Khanna called him as ‘a natural actor’. Sunil Dutt was in awe of his acting abilities and during the making of Mother India, observed him in adulation while the film was being made.  He played many enduring characters but in the glare of his villainous role as Sukhilala, a formidable body of work has remained unnoticed. His work deserves recognition and appreciation, beyond the glare of Mother India

The shrewd, crafty and greedy moneylender as he is known in his films, Kanhaiyalal was a man with a golden heart in real life, and lived the motto of his own popular dialogue in Dushman: ‘Kar bhala toh ho bhala.’ 



References:

https://www.filmcompanion.in/gunga-jumna-movie-review-bollywood-50s-60s/

https://upperstall.com/film/naukri/

https://upperstall.com/film/mother-india/

https://www.outlookindia.com/website/story/from-aurat-to-mother-india/296745

Inhe Na Bhulana (2018) by Harish Raghuvanshi


https://cinemaazi.com/feature/the-glory-days-of-the-progressive-writers--movement-and-the-bombay-film-industry

https://cinemahaul.com/mera-cinema-meri-baat-kanhaiya-lal/


 

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