Laugh and the world laughs with you, Weep and you weep alone… this poetic expression is true to Punjabis, who are witty and humour comes naturally to them. Many comedians in Punjabi cinema provided peals of laughter and won the hearts of movie-goers. Gopal Saigal was one of those great comedians who pioneered the urban face of Punjabi comedy. He portrayed the unsuccessful lover in most of his films. But his performance as a comedian and character actor of substance won him many admirers in the Bollywood. He was successful in positioning himself well in the industry with the aid of his powerful acting. He left an indelible impression on the minds of viewers with his pure and innocent comical acts.
Gopal Saigal was born in a Punjabi Khati family to Sunder Das Saigal on 30 December 1925 in Jammu. After completing his graduation from Jammu, he got a clerical job in Jammu & Kashmir Bank. Afterwards, he joined the Ministry of Home Affairs and was posted in the Special Police Establishment Department, New Delhi. He was interested in plays during his college days, so he used to do theatre in Sapru House, Delhi. Meanwhile, he was transferred to Bombay, the city of his dreams. He involved himself with stage plays after office hours. Finally, he was spotted by Chetan Anand who cast him in his off-beat film Anjali/ Arpan (1957). Though the film was a disaster at the box office, it won a National Film Award. However, Gopal Saigal got his major break when he played the character of Ruldoo in Punjabi movie Bhangra (1959). Throughout the film, he requested for a penny to get his hair cut. But his master did not oblige him resulting in humorous situations for viewers to relish. The film proved to be a smashing hit at the box office and Gopal Saigal made a stronghold in the Punjabi Cinema.
After his successful Bhangra, he got many offers from Punjabi filmmakers. Next year he was cast in Shankar Movie’s Do Lachhian (1960). He gave a memorable performance in the comedy song O majjh gaan waaleya. His acting was so natural that the viewers still remember his tomfoolery. Dhol Jani (1962) was a commercially hit film, his comedy filled dialogues Haye ni piariye hun kitthe jake mariye and Munshi banka mal te bilkul lutiya putiya giya ae were favourites with the audience. In the film Laajo (1963) he played the role of a servant Kaama, whose humorous dialogue Dharam naal kehna was liked by the audience. The song Rukhi-sukki khaa gopala picturized on Gopal fitted the character well. In the film Lado Rani(1963) Gopal played the character of Moti and his pranks were liked by the viewers.
Gopal Saigal was in the lead role of Mamaji opposite blue-eyed Indira Billi in the film Mama Ji (1964) produced under his own banner Alpana Films. His character of Mamaji became such a hit that in all the subsequent films his name used to be suffixed with Mamaji. Its song Chhak chhak gaddi chaldi jandi depicted the prominent places of various cities of Punjab. In his next film Shokan Mele Di (1965), he was paired with Kharaiti Bhainga to droll and entertain the audience with their satirical anecdotes. The comedian trio of Gopal Saigal, Kharaiti Bhainga and Majnu provided pure entertainment by their buffoonery in Gabhroo Desh Punjab De (1966). His other prominent Punjabi movies included: Pagri Sambhal Jatta (1960), Khedan De Din Char (1962), Geet Baharaan De (1964), Sat Saliyan (1964) and Satluj De Kande (1965), etc.
In the late 1960s, Gopal entertained the audience with his simple comedy without resorting to any double meaning dialogues in movies like Laiye Tod Nibhaye, Kade Dhup Kade Chhan, Khed Preetan Di, Neem Hakim, and Paun Baran etc. In 1970-80s, he did twenty-odd films like Dupatta, Dukh Bhanjan Tera Naam (1974), Man Jeet Jag Jeet (1973), Sherni (1988), Bhagat Dhanna Jatt, Sat Guru Teri Oat, Changay Mande Tere Bande, Daaj (1976), Dharti Sadi Maa, Papi Tare Anek, Sacha Mera Roop Hai, Lachhi, Giddha (1978), Ladli (1978), Jat Punjabi, Jugni, Kuwara Mama etc. With the entry of Mehar Mittal in Punjabi movies, Gopal Saigal had to face a tough competition and he could not cope with the new challenge. Slowly, he was phased out with small roles in Punjabi films like Jatti (1980), Do Posti (1981), Angrejjan (1982) and Do Madari (1983), etc. His last film Jaag Punjabi Shera (1987) was released after his death.
Though he was busy doing Punjabi films, yet he had time to do comic roles in Hindi films simultaneously. Some of his prominent Hindi movies were: Miss Good Night (1960), Hum Matwale Naujawan (1961), Dr. Vidya (1962), Banarasi Thug (1962), Naag Rani, Cobra Girl (1963), Shriman Satyawadi (1960), Fariyad (1964), Ghar Ka Chirag (1967), Neel Kamal (1968), Kaajal (1965), Majboor (1964), Badi Didi (1969), Maa Ka Anchal (1970), Badnam (1975), Phir Wohi Raat (1980), Suhana Safar (1970), Kartavya (1979), etc. But he could not get the same recognition as was enjoyed by him in Punjabi cinema.
After a successful career in acting, Gopal Saigal decided to enter into the film production arena. He launched his own film company Alpana Films and the first film produced under this banner was Mama Ji (1964) in Punjabi. In 1969, he produced a comedy Hindi movie Gustakhi Maaf (1969) in which Sanjeev Kumar and Tanuja played the lead roles. The next venture was a Punjabi movie Saal Solvan Chadhya (1977) featuring Zahira, Vinod Mehra and Rekha, etc. His son Kishore Saigal was the producer of this film which was directed by Surinder Singh. His fifth production was in Hindi Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, but this film never saw the light of the day. In the year 1984, he started work on his sixth film, Thann Thann Gopal, a satirical venture in Punjabi. However, the film could not go beyond the stage of planning and mahurat. Gopal Saigal’s dream remained unfulfilled on account of his untimely and unnatural death.
In 1949, he was married to Shakuntala Chopra and their son Kishore Saigal was born in 1951. Like his father, Kishore also took to film production and produced four films in addition to his export-import business. He dedicated a film Bol Mere Kukdoo Koon (2015) in memory of his father Gopal Saigal.
During his illustrious career of more than two decades, Gopal Saigal acted in 42 Punjabi and 30 odd Hindi films. He suffered from depression for some years but he never allowed his worries to be reflected on the silver screen. Some of his contemporaries became jealous of his name and fame. He reportedly became a victim of this hatred when he was murdered in his office on the night of 12 March 1984. Punjabi cinema lost a great actor who entertained the masses with his simple and pure comedy.