The first star comedian to emerge from Hindi cinema, Noor Mohammad “Charlie” was known as the Indian Charlie Chaplin. He walked, talked and even sported the tiny moustache similar to the comedy icon. In his 40 year long career he acted and sang in numerous films, making a space for himself in an industry dominated by heroes and villains.
Born in the Memon community in Porbandar, Gujarat the Indian Charlie made his debut in 1928 with the film Akalna Bardan directed by Praffulla Ghosh for Krishna Film Company. Like many young kids of his age Noor Mohammad was a huge fan of the Hollywood comedy legend Charlie Chaplin and the inspiration was visible clearly as he later started working in films. His comedic talent was not recognized early in his career as he went on working in films such as Lekh Par Mekh (1928) and Vasant Leela (1928) under the banner of Krishna Film Company and others. The career defining moment came from Indian Charlie (1933), a 7915-foot comedy movie made by the Elfin Film Company. The film was shot in 1929 but due to some unknown reasons wasn’t released until 1933. His gestures, costumes and features became so popular that he added the moniker to his name and came to be known as Noor Mohammad “Charlie.”
With the dawn of the talkie era in the 30s, Charlie started getting more roles as a comedian, with a stint at Sagar where he acted in Premi Pagal (1932) and Phantom of the Hills (1934)., Both films directed by Ezra Mir were huge hits. His most famous collaboration though was with Ranjit Studios where he did multiple projects, most of which went on to become great hits. Nazir Ahmed Ghory and Manohar Janardhan Dixit, better known as the Ghory and Dixit duo along with Charlie were regulars in Ranjit films. Working with Ranjit led Charlie to new heights in his career and he started getting main roles in the films. With Ranjit he acted in films like Toofani Taruni (1934) and Toofan Mail (1932). Then in 1935 he was cast in Chandulal Shah’s Barrister’s Wife which boasted of the first ever qawwali in Hindi cinema. The qawwali Nazariya tane hai teer kamaan, jaane lagi yah kis kis ki jaan was pictured on Charlie and friends. Another milestone came his way with the Chaturbhuj Doshi directed film Musafir in 1940 where he plays the role of a foreign returned prince, only to find his kingdom in a mess.
Charlie climbed the stairs of success, one film after the other, reclaiming the space of comedian as an actor and not just someone there to fill screen space. He was also perhaps the first actor to set the trend of using a catchphrase. In Sanjog (1943) he had a song woven around the phrase “Palat! Tera dhayan kidhar hain?.” Starting the trend of comic songs he had many iconic songs picturised on him throughout his career. His earliest was Jab se mali teri khak for the film Thokar (1939). Later in his career he sang many songs for films such as Musafir (1940), Manorama (1944) and Chanda Tara (1945). He left Ranjit studios in early 40s and started working outside the studios. With Taqdeer (1943) he began working for bigger directors like Mehboob Khan, A R Kardar and Phani Majumdaar.
He made his directorial debut with the film Dhandora (1941) and cast himself in a double role along with Dixit in a comedy of errors. Charlie, once famous for his slapstick comedy was characterized by the critics as vulgar and obscene in his later films such as Bansari (1943) and others. He left for Pakistan after the Partition and started acting in the film industry there. Although, the kind of stardom and love that Charlie got here could not be superseded. He came back to India and worked in three more films Zameen ke Taare (1960), Zamana Badal Gaya (1961) and the final film of Ranjit Movitones, Akeli Mat Jaiyo (1963). The situation in India had changed quite a bit by that time and he wasn’t given Indian Citizenship and a desolate Charlie settled in US with his sons and stayed there for most of his life.
Noor Mohammed “Charlie” had an influence on almost all the generations of actors venturing in comedy, from Johnny Walker and Mehmood to the later ones like Saurabh Shukla as well. Charlie has left a long shadow on Indian cinema. As early as 1953 Jayant Desai remade Manorama as Manchala with comedian Agha playing Charlie’s role. His other films were also remade; Thokar was remade as Mai Baap (1957), and Taqdeer as Duniya ka Mela (1974) in which Mehmood took on the role of Charlie. The legacy of the legendary actor still continues in the Indian Cinema history although the actor last appeared on screen almost five decades ago.
Noor Mohammad “Charlie” aka the Indian Charlie Chaplin died on 30 June, 1983 in Karachi, Sindh, Pakistan.
1. Eena Meena Deeka: The Story of Hindi Film Comedy by Sanjit Narwekar