indian cinema heritage foundation

Dancing to a Different Beat: The Other Mithun Chakraborty

15 Jun, 2020 | Short Features by Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri
Mithun Chakraborty and Mamata Shankar in Mrinal Sen's Mrigayaa (1976). Image Courtesy: mrinalsen.org

Though seeti-maar dialogues of the Marbo ekhane laash porbe shoshaney (I will hit you here and your dead body will land in the crematorium) variety and paisa-wasool dance numbers like ‘I am a disco dancer’ made him a darling of the masses, Mithun Chakraborty has been brilliant every time he ventured off-the-beaten track. Here’s a look at five of his iconic roles which, interestingly enough, has the star essaying a character on the margins of society.

‘LOOKING FOR FTII GRADUATE OF 1973 BATCH, TALL, DARK, WELL-BUILT, BENGALI, NAME STARTS PROBABLY WITH ‘M’. CATCH HOLD OF HIM AND SEND A RECENT PHOTO IMMEDIATELY.’ – Mrinal Sen to K.K. Mahajan.

This will probably go down as one of the most important missives in the history of Indian cinema. The enfant terrible of arthouse cinema in India, Mrinal Sen, was looking to cast for his new film. He visualized someone with a good physique and rustic charm, a real ‘he-man’, in the role but could find no one who fit the bill in his circle of actors. Then he remembered the 1973 annual convocation of the film institute in Pune he had attended. Among the diploma-winning students, one stood out, horsing around, cracking jokes, oblivious of the stalwarts and veterans of the industry present at the function. Ebrahim Alkazi, who was also present, told Sen that the boy was a Bengali actor. Thinking back, Sen realized that the young man might be just the actor he was looking for, but he had forgotten all about him, except a vague memory of his face. That’s when he sent his cinematographer K.K. Mahajan the telegram. Undaunted by the task, Mahajan tracked down a photograph of the young man in question and Mithun Chakraborty was on his way to becoming an actor. 

The enfant terrible of arthouse cinema in India, Mrinal Sen, was looking to cast for his new film. He visualized someone with a good physique and rustic charm, a real ‘he-man’, in the role but could find no one who fit the bill in his circle of actors. Then he remembered the 1973 annual convocation of the film institute in Pune he had attended. Among the diploma-winning students, one stood out, horsing around, cracking jokes, oblivious of the stalwarts and veterans of the industry present at the function.
Despite winning a National Award for Mrigayaa, it would be a while before Mithun Chakraborty would find his feet as a star. After half a decade on the margins of stardom, that included his now-‘epochal’ take as Special Agent Gunmaster G-9 in Ravikant Nagaich’s Suraksha and Wardat, Mithun Chakraborty emerged as the Hindi film industry’s new dancing sensation with Disco Dancer (1982). Though the trade would soon anoint him as the heir apparent to Amitabh Bachchan’s status as number one star of the industry, unfortunately for him, his stardom coincided with the onset of a particularly bad phase in Hindi cinema. 

The flashes of brilliance that he demonstrated in a couple of his early films, Bapu’s Hum Paanch and Meraj’s Sitara, would remain largely that: flashes. Though he had his share of successful solo hits in Pyaar Jhukta Nahin and Prem Pratigyaa which offered him the scope to display his histrionic abilities, a majority of his outings in the decade would be in forgettable multi-starrers that did scant justice to his talent. By the time the decade wound down, new actors were breathing down his neck, including Govinda, who would take on the mantle of the dancing star. The failure of big-ticket films like Bhrashtachar and Yugandhar, which rode on his shoulders, would also put his stardom on skid-row. By the mid-1990s, he was making a name for himself in his monthly ‘Ooty’ films that deserve to be written about as a genre in itself: ‘cult classics’ that went by the names of, among others, Jallad, Ravan Raaj, Hitler and, the crowning glory, Gunda.

Mrigayaa (1976), d: Mrinal Sen
Mithun Chakraborty ended up winning a National Award for Best Actor in what would be his maiden film appearance. He plays a young tribal, Ghinua, an exceptional shooter, who befriends a British administrator in 1930s Bengal.
Mithun Chakraborty ended up winning a National Award for Best Actor in what would be his maiden film appearance. He plays a young tribal, Ghinua, an exceptional shooter, who befriends a British administrator in 1930s Bengal. Imbued with Mrinal Sen’s own unconventional take on fact – the tribal uprising led by the brothers Sidhu and Kanu in 1855-56 – and fiction (Bhagabati Charan Panigrahi’s story ‘Shikar’, adapted by the director and his long-time collaborator Mohit Chattopadhyay, along with Arun Kaul), the film gave the wannabe actor a dream debut – and Mithun delivered big-time. In retrospect, it was perfect casting as Mithun, with his well-built frame, rippling torso, dark features and expressive eyes, fits the requirements of the role to a T. By turns playful, angry, trusting, naïve, he is particularly good in conveying his inability to understand the double standards of his British ‘friend’ with whom he shares a passion for big-game hunting and who promises him a reward every time Ghinua brings him a hunt. But when his wife is kidnapped, leading him to kill the moneylender responsible for the dastardly act, instead of being rewarded, he is tried and sentenced to death. This after the administrator actually rewards the village informer who hunts down and kills a young revolutionary. An unforgettable tale that details the exploitation of tribals over centuries, Mrigaya offered Mithun just the perfect launch pad. 

Tahader Katha (1992), d: Buddhadeb Dasgupta
 
Tahader Katha (1992). Image Courtesy: IMDB
In what is arguably his finest act, Mithun Chakraborty plays Shibnath Mukherjee, a freedom fighter whom the British pack off on solitary confinement to the Andamans. This most harrowing of punishments meted out by the British causes him to lose his mental balance.
In what is arguably his finest act, Mithun Chakraborty plays Shibnath Mukherjee, a freedom fighter whom the British pack off on solitary confinement to the Andamans. This most harrowing of punishments meted out by the British causes him to lose his mental balance. The film begins with Shibnath being released from an asylum after three years, by which time the country is free. However, the ‘free’ world outside is anything but what the freedom fighter in him had visualized, and he finds it impossible to fit in. A pungent critique of what freedom meant for India, this is by far Buddhadeb Dasgupta’s most accessible film headlined by a jaw-dropping performance by the star. The actor’s face is a map of all the lost idealism of a nation. One sequence says it all – asked to comment on the state of the newly independent country, Shibnath, sitting cross-legged, bends over to his side slightly and … farts! It says as much about the state of the nation as it does about the star’s commitment to the role in going against every grain of his star persona. No wonder, the film fetched him his second National Award for Best Actor. And this is barely a year after his ‘lungi-raising’ act in Agneepath

Kaalpurish (2005), d: Buddhadeb Dasgupta
 
Kaalpurush (2005). Image Courtesy: IMDB
The heights of Tahader Katha would always be hard to match, but Mithun Chakraborty’s second film with Buddhadeb Dasgupta manages it with aplomb.
The heights of Tahader Katha would always be hard to match, but Mithun Chakraborty’s second film with Buddhadeb Dasgupta manages it with aplomb. In fact, if anything, the star is the best thing about Dasgupta’s characteristic abstract and surreal take on memories and relationships. It is by far one of the most difficult roles the star has essayed, operating as it does in a shadowy realm that’s difficult to define and verbalize. Mithun is a revelation in a character that eschews anything visibly dramatic. It is his unspoken longing for his ‘son’ and the unarticulated sense of regret and pain he conveys that drive the narrative in the absence of ‘events’ doing so. 

Shukno Lanka (2010), d: Gaurav Pandey
 
Shukno Lanka (2010). Image Courtesy: Movies Sulekha
 
Mithun Chakraborty is delightful as an actor who is literally picked up from anonymity by an award-winning ‘intellectual’ film-maker and cast as the lead.
The shukno lanka – the humble dry red chilli that adds much flavour to our palate but is seldom recognized for its contribution – here is a metaphor for the role ‘extras’ play in our films. Mithun Chakraborty is delightful as an actor who is literally picked up from anonymity by an award-winning ‘intellectual’ film-maker and cast as the lead. You can only sit back and marvel as one of Indian cinema’s biggest stars plays a humble, inconsequential junior artist … haggling for an extra hundred rupees from a production manager, philosophizing on life and destiny on his daily tonga rides with his wife at night, or suffering pangs of doubt about his ability to pull off the role he has been entrusted with. And he literally charms your pant off as he breaks into an ‘awkward’ dance to Kishore Kumar’s iconic ‘Shing nei tobu naam taar shingo’ – it takes a lot for a dancing star to come off as someone with two left feet. That is where Mithun Chakraborty aces it in Shukno Lanka.

Nobel Chor (2011), d: Suman Ghosh
 
Nobel Chor (2011). Image Courtesy: IMDB
Mithun Chakraborty is pitch-perfect as a poor farmer who chances upon Tagore’s Nobel medal, which went missing in 2004. In this acerbic yet sentimental satire, Suman Ghosh takes on from Amartya Sen’s comment that deplorable as the theft is, at the end of the day it was just a piece of metal.
Mithun Chakraborty is pitch-perfect as a poor farmer who chances upon Tagore’s Nobel medal, which went missing in 2004. In this acerbic yet sentimental satire, Suman Ghosh takes on from Amartya Sen’s comment that deplorable as the theft is, at the end of the day it was just a piece of metal. While it is important to get it back, it is more critical to ask ourselves how much of Tagore we have imbibed in our daily lives. Not much, as Bhanu (Mithun Chakraborty) – Ghosh named his protagonist after Tagore’s pen-name Bhanusingha – discovers. The star strips himself of all starry facades, sucking the viewer in on his voyage of discovery of Robi Thakur. Driven by a screenplay that’s as much an exposé of our hypocrisy as an exploration of how our icons have all become fodder for our materialistic instincts, Mithun does not put a foot wrong as the simple villager who understands the essence of his Thakur (God) better than the other more ‘educated’ and ‘cultured’ folks around him. 
 

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About the Author

Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri is either an 'accidental' editor who strayed into publishing from a career in finance and accounts or an 'accidental' finance person who found his calling in publishing. He studied commerce and after about a decade in finance and accounts, he left it for good. He did a course in film, television and journalism from the Xavier's Institute of Mass Communication, Mumbai, after which he launched a film magazine of his own called Lights Camera Action. As executive editor at HarperCollins Publishers India, he helped launch what came to be regarded as the go-to cinema, music and culture list in Indian publishing. Books commissioned and edited by him have won the National Award for Best Book on Cinema and the MAMI (Mumbai Academy of Moving Images) Award for Best Writing on Cinema. He also commissioned and edited some of India's leading authors like Gulzar, Manu Joseph, Kiran Nagarkar, Arun Shourie and worked out co-pub arrangements with the Society for the Preservation of Satyajit Ray Archives, apart from publishing a number of first-time authors in cinema whose books went on to become best-sellers. In 2017, he was named Editor of the Year by the apex publishing body, Publishing Next. He has been a regular contributor to Anupama Chopra's online magazine Film Companion. He is also a published author, with two books to his credit: Whims – A Book of Poems (published by Writers Workshop) and Icons from Bollywood (published by Penguin Books). 

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