Govinda, the Lost King of Bollywood

India, Oct. 19 -- Govinda, quite literally, burst on to the scene with a film called Love 86 (1986). The film featured Neelam, with whom he'd go on to form a memorable pair, Rohan Kapoor and Farah. Although he stood out in Love 86 it was Ilzaam (1986) that made him, albeit limitedly, nothing less than an overnight sensation.

The film had him dancing (remember I'm a Street Dancer), running from the police, romancing the lady, and doing just about everything that would keep a hero of the 1980s Hindi films busy. For Hindi cinema Govinda was nothing less than god's own creation. He was a deviation of Mithun Chakarborty molded on the lines of Dharmendra who could be like Amitabh Bachchan in films that had a very Jeetendra stamp. Following Ilzaam he signed 30 films or so at a go and worked three shifts a day.

The late 1980s was a time of great confusion as far as commercial Hindi cinema went. Amitabh Bachchan was getting tired of shouldering the burden of being the one-man industry, Jeetendra's southern sonata was almost reaching an end, Sunny Deol hadn't met Rajkumar Santoshi, Vinod Khanna was trying to make a comeback and the world still didn't know of the Khans, the Akshay Kumars or the Ajay Devgns. But in spite of the hits and an almost overbearing presence that saw him do nearly 50 films before the decade ended, Govinda would be talked of being dependable but wouldn't be considered anything more than the perfect pillion.

In the late 1980s Anil Kapoor had almost established himself as the one who'd be the king after Amitabh Bachchan. But with the emergence of Aamir and Salman Khans something changed in Bollywood. Suddenly Anil Kapoor wasn't cool enough and an entire generation between Bachchan and him that also featured Sunny Deol, Sanjay Dutt, and Jackie Shroff was unexpectedly robbed of a shot at the top slot. The younger audience was not only smarter but also more discerning and in the bargain someone like Govinda would hardly stand a chance.

Yet, surprisingly enough this is exactly the time when Govinda entered his golden phase. Shola Aur Shabnam (1992), Aankhen (1993), Raja Babu (1994), Coolie No. 1 (1995), Saajan Chale Sasural (1996), Hero Number 1 (1997) and Deewana Mastana (1997) made Govinda one of the biggest stars of the 1990s. But more importantly if looked closely then it wouldn't be incorrect to say that Govinda was, in fact, the interim king of box office between Bachchan and the Khans. Known for his comic timing Govinda has regularly surprised with interesting performances that go beyond his unique brand of absurdity. In Hatya (1990) he plays Sagar, a tormented artist who can't get over the death of his wife and child but gets a second shot at life when he rescues Raja, a deaf and dumb child who is the only witness to a murder. In Awaargi (1990), he plays a singer who falls in love with his understudy (Meenakshi Shesadari) who is also silently loved by a gangster (Anil Kapoor). This little known Mahesh Bhatt film is almost like an inspiration to Ram Gopal Varma's Rangeela (1995) and offers a much more realistic resolution.

One of the last heroes cast in the old school mould, Govinda would always be an afterthought. In a career that has lasted almost two and a half decades it was only a matter of time before the idea of Govinda became an oddity and there were opportunities when he could have extended his run but his mindset ended up causing more damage than anything else. For an actor whose body of work features more two-heroes films than anyone else Govinda never considered a role that wasn't the 'hero' in his definition. The original choice to play Anil Kapoor's part in Taal, Govinda refused the film, as it was a supporting act.

Today no one wants to work with the actor who momentarily made B-grade look like caviar and all we have left of him are reruns on television channels. Many young viewers might not think much of Govinda but sample a little bit of Dhule Raja or Saajan Chale Sasural and witness the brilliance of an actor who could not only make the ridiculous enjoyable but also acceptable.

Published by HT Syndication with permission from Hindustan Times.