BY ALI PETER JOHN
He was the son of a textile mill worker somewhere in the interiors of Maharashtra, but was hopelessly carried away by the magic of films. He was illiterate and had to start life as an ordinary labourer but his love for films only grew stronger. He knew he had to reach Bombay if he had to do anything in films and started living in the then thickly populated mill areas in Central Bombay and made a name as a wrestler at which he proved to be a champion and got the name Bhagwan Dada.
His passion for films made him take to making the rounds of studios where he found work as a part of a crowd from where he rose to be a junior artist. It was while he was busy working in the studios that he developed his own school of dancing which later became popular as “the Bhagwan Dada School of Dancing”.
He made enough money to start his own film production company and after making a film which was an unmitigated disaster, he managed to produce, direct and act as the leading man with one of the most popular actresses all the time, Geeta Bali. The film called “Albela” was an out and out entertainer packed with Bhagwan Dada’s dances and some extraordinarily popular music by C. Ramchandra who was one of his best friends and the lyrics written by another friend Rajinder Krishan.
The film created a hysteria and was more successful than the films of Dilip Kumar, Dev Anand and Raj Kapoor during the time it was released. The songs and dances with Bhagwan Dada alone and the duets between Bhagwan Dada and Geeta Bali had created such a craze that people at every theatre the film was released in threw coins and even currency notes at the screen and danced in the theatres.
That one film, “Albela” changed the fortunes of the one-time labourer and wrestler. He now had a massive bungalow facing the sea at Juhu, a bungalow which had twenty-five spacious rooms. He had a wide variety of cars of which seven were for his own personal use. He used one car for every day of the week and was richer and much more popular than any of the other stars, male or female.
Success with just one film led him to repeat the formula of entertainment he had tried with “Albela”, but luck refused to be kind to him again. The three films he made which included “Jhamela” and “La Bela” which were inspired by the success of “Albela” flopped at the box-office and Bhagwan Dada was left in ruins. Very few had seen so much of success and so much more of failure in such a short time.
The mansion by the seaside had to be sold and so was his Jagruti Studios next to the famous R.K Studios (in fact it was Raj Kapoor with whom he had worked in “Chori Chori” who inspired him to turn a producer and director). The man who was a very helpful boss who helped all those who came to him for help now needed help himself. To add to his misery, some of his own relatives cheated him of whatever assets left with him and he was left all alone, broke, broken, bankrupt and back to living in a chawl in Parel where he lived when he was a labourer. His story had come a full circle, ruthlessly.
He did not try to fight back because he had already surrendered. The Bhagwan who moved around studios in a suit now went from studio to studio looking for any kind of work. Some who knew about his glorious days offered him work as a bit role player or as a dancer in a crowd and he was paid a few hundred rupees at the end of the day’s work. There was a well of sadness in his eyes but he never begged or pleaded with even those he had helped come up, like the famous lyricist Anand Bakshi who was a soldier in the army and wanted to write songs and he had given Bakshi his first chance to write his first ever song for films.
It was while he was facing the rough vagaries of life that another ruthless game was played with him. One of his relatives who had the rights of “Albela” released the film all over Bombay and surprisingly the film ran to full houses even after forty years and people of the new generation also threw money at the screen and danced to glory and there was a strong revival of the Bhagwan Dada kind of dancing which even Amitabh Bachchan picked up and gave it his own identity. All this went on as Bhagwan Dada fell sick and was confined to his dingy room in that chawl in Parel.
This writer had accompanied Sunil Dutt to Bhagwan Dada’s room where he was found in a home- made wheelchair which also worked as his toilet. He was in an entirely helpless condition and he had only a nephew and his wife who took some care of him. The man in whose house the best of whisky and all other forms of liquor were served at parties held every evening was overjoyed when Sunil Dutt knowing his weakness for whisky presented him with a bottle of the best Indian whisky and he held the bottle in both his hands, kissed it and placed it on his head and tried to make the kind of moments he made when he danced in “Albela” but gave up.
A few days later Bhagwan Abhaji Palav, the boy from a village in Maharashtra died of a massive heart attack and not even his best friends and those who he had given a new life had the time to attend his funeral.
All that is left of him as a reminder of an unusual story is a black plaque placed near the chawl where he died with his name written in white on it… But the Bhagwan Dada kind of dancing is still followed by some of the younger stars and is a “must item” at every kind of celebration anywhere and in any corner of India and even wherever there are Indians in different parts of the world.
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