Starring Leela Mishra & Kanhaiyalalby Aparajita Krishna January 10 2022, 12:00 am Estimated Reading Time: 15 mins, 3 secs
Aparajita Krishna talks to eminent members of the film industry and Indian theater to explore how Leela Mishra and Kanhaiyalal figure in India’s cine-memory 2022.
Film historian, author and archivist Smm Ausaja informs my curiosity of whether publications, readers are interested in the works of the two. “Stray articles only. Nothing much is written on supporting actors. Especially these days. Till the 1980s Madhuri, Screen and Mayapuri had good interviews and features.”
This article is honored to have special quotes and recalls from some very noted persons who in their exquisitely chosen words pay respect to the two thespians and address their career in context to an India and a cinema we once had.
On our side of the cine-globe these two actors created their own idiom of acting and by any reckoning or definition of acting excelled in their groove. They are their own acting reference and proved how type-casting can also make you immortal. Re-playing with great expertise the sameness of their acts in all roles, they kind of fulfilled in the cine-goer the comfort of familiarity. The audience knew what was coming in the act, but like an eager child listening to the same grandmother’s tale day in and day she/he lapped up the narration.
Both had some kind of a connection with Natak Mandali. Both have also starred together in films. For example as Mr and Mrs Lala Jagat Narayan in Daag (1952) and in Chotte Babu (1957), Ram aur Shyam (1967) to name some.
In these hyperventilating publicity-kill times when, pardon me, nearly every xyz and even non-z actors have registered or unregistered Fan Clubs, these veterans gone down in history ought to have institutions named after them.
One learns that Kanhaiyalal’s daughter Hemaa Kanhaiyalal is making a documentary on her father. My best wishes to her as I herein pay my respect to the Acts of these veterans gone into history.
While I was self-ideating this article Sholay again popped up on Star Gold Channel and hello just at that scene between Mausi and Jai. She held her own so well. If you ask ‘What is Mausi’s name in Sholay?’ The reply will be ‘Leela Mishra’.
Leela Mishra was born in Jais-United Provinces of Agra and Oudh-in British India. She died in 1988 in Bombay. As a character actor Leela Mishra worked in over 200 Hindi films for 5 decades. Then there were her Bhojpuri films. When she died at the age of 80, she had appeared in over 300 films.The stock character of Mausi er Mausiji and Auntydom came to be identified with her. Her husband Ram Prasad Mishra was himself a character artist working in silent films. She got married at the very young age of 12. By the age of 17 she had two daughters.
While her debut film listed on the Internet is Gangavataran (1937), it is said that she was discovered by Mama Shinde who was working for Dadasaheb Phalke’s Nasik Cinetone. He persuaded her husband to make her work in films. There used to be severe scarcity of women actors in films. The pay-cheques that the couple individually received at the Nasik shoot proved the discrepancy and in a way came as a blessing too. While husband Ram Prasad Mishra was hired on a salary of Rs 150/- per month, Leela Mishra was offered Rs 500/- per month. But it is said that consequent to the couple faring poorly in front of the camera, their respective contracts were canceled. The next two opportunities also saw our to-be Mausiji lose out on heroine roles for she refused to play romantic parts. The makers of Honhaar could not turn her out legally and so offered her the role of the mother of hero Shahu Modak instead of that of his heroine. The role clicked and the to-be heroine became screen-mother at the age of 18. Now to her roles, which varied from mothers, benign or evil aunts, to comic roles.
Early on in her career Leela Mishra acted in notable films even if in small roles. Noteworthy among them are Chitralekha (1941), the musical hit Anmol Ghadi (1946), Awaara (1951), Daag (1952), Aandhiyan (1952), Pyaasa (1957), Lajwanti (1958), Ganga Maiyaa Tohe Piyari Chadhaibo – Bhojpuri (1963), Leader (1964), Dosti (1964), Ram Aur Shyam (1967), Majhli Didi (1967), Bahu Begum (1967), Dushman (1971), Amar Prem (1971), Mere Apne (1971), Parichay (1971), Saudagar (1973), Jai Santoshi Maa (1975), Sholay (1975), Khushboo (1975), Geet Gata Chal (1975), Bairaag (1976), Mehbooba (1976), Dulhan Wahi Jo Piya Man Bhaye (1977), Shatranj Ke Khiladi (1977), Baton Baton Mein (1979), Chashme Buddoor (1981), Nadiya Ke Paar (1982), Katha (1983), Sadma (1983), Abodh (1984), Prem Rog (1985). Aatank (1996) would be one of her last.
Ganga Maiya Tohe Piyari Chadhaibo, the first-ever Bhojpuri film, starred Kumkum, Helen, Nasir Hussain, Ashim Kumar, Leela Mishra, TunTun and boasted of a soundtrack by Chitragupta, lyrics by Shailendra and songs rendered by Lata Mangeshkar and Mohammad Rafi.
Leela Mishra’s Hindi film festival would most surely feature these 8 ever-running acts in films: Ram Aur Shyam (1967), Bahu Begum (1967), Amar Prem (1972), Sholay (1975) - Mausi er Mausiji to Hema Malini’s Basanti fanned her way through the role with such empathy and identification that it continues to be an iconic character of just ex amount of screen time. She was already a veteran in front of the camera and stood her own so assuredly opposite Hema Malini, Amitabh Bachchan and Dharmendra. Alas there were no celluloid moments with Gabbar Singh else ho sakta hai Mausi bhaji maar lateen. Jai Santoshi Maa (1975) went to break all box office records, Shatranj Ke Khilari (1977) - It is said that of her grown repute Satyajit Ray and his writers picked up Leela Mishra for the role of maid Hirya to Shabana Azmi’s character Khurshid. Baaton Baaton Mein (1979) - Basu Chatterjee herein took away from Leela Mishra her Mausiji look and most interestingly gave her the look and role of a Christina Aunt Philomena who often stops by the Perreira household to give advice and company. Leela Mishra performed with aplomb! And Chashme Buddor (1981).
Amol Palekar (Actor, Director) says about her: I was still in school when I saw Leela Mishraji on screen. It was a film directed by I S Johar called Nastik (1954). Subsequently whichever film I saw, she was always an old woman from North India. We acted together in Baton Baton Mein. It was probably the only time when Leelaji was not typecast - none of us were Christians. Arvind Deshpande who played my dad and I were Maharashtrians, Pearl Padamsee and Piloo Wadia were Parsi, Ranjit Chowdhry a Punjabi and Tina Munim a Gujarati. Even the director Basu Chatterjee was a Bengali. Making this a perfect poster for National Integration! Well, those were the days!!!!
Dr Suman Keshari (Poet, Storyteller) said the following: In the characters played by Leela Mishra one finds not the shine and the get-up of the feudal zamindari, but instead the power and command of a typically rooted, rustic villager (theth dehatan ka thaath). Born in Jais of Malik Muhammad Jayasi (Sufi poet, peer, best known work Padmavat) the smell of the clay-pot lingered, stayed till the end in her being. She worked on her terms.
I asked Ashok Mishra (Film writer, actor) about what his understanding of the phenomenon Leela Mishra was and his thoughts were lucid: Cinema ke parde par Bharatiye film darshakon ne mahaan abhinetri Leela Mishra ki anek leelayen dekhi hongi. Darshak unki leelayon ko chatkhare lekar dekha karte theh. Till the 1970s in our Indian society the tradition of joint family living was very strongly embedded. In the joint families these mothers, grandmothers, aunts, ‘mausi’ played very important role. Leelaji kept these family members at the center of her performances. Through these characters she would reach out to the audiences, talk to them; at times made them laugh and at other times made them cry. The closeness that prevailed in the tradition of joint-family living could be felt in abundance in Leelaji’s acts too.
She figures in the very top list of those actors who proved that a film does not only run on the strength of a hero and heroine, but instead also on the merit of the other characters. If dialects like Avdhi, Bhojpuri have been spoken on the screen with their inherent sweetness then it is from the mouth of Leelaji. She has also performed the Muslim and Christian characters with complete belief. In them she proved her observation and grasp on life. Satyajit Ray cast her in his Shatranj Ke Khiladi in a small role of a sleepy old maid. With her very natural acting she made that small role fairly big.
Who can forget the Mausi of Sholay? A naughty smile playing on her face, an innocence and maternal love had become Leelaji’s signature act. It surprises one to think of how a girl from a Brahmin family, who was married as a child, became a mother of two before full youth, could balance the profession of acting and the domestic role. In the world of acting she came to occupy a respectable place with her own signature style. The biggest of our actors and directors would bow down to wish her. But time is fast-changing. Leelaji ki jeevan leela samapt hote hi maano cinema se daadi, naani, mausi, bua ki leela bhi shesh nahi rahi.
Seema Kapoor (Filmmaker, writer) brings back her memories from the past: ‘Gaye dino ka suraag lekar kidhar se aaya kidhar gaya wo, ajeeb maanus ajnabi tha mujhe toh hairaan kar gaya wo.’ There used to be a gathering of familiar strangers in my father Shri Madan Lal Kapoor’s Parsi Natak Mandali (Company Theatre). Leela Mishra had for some time worked in our company too. As Shakespeare’s saying goes ‘Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.’ Leela Mishra was a born artist. Our Indian audience loved actors to sketch every character played by them in a typical way. Leela Mishra had her own special and simple way of enacting roles, emotional or ordinary. This quality, whether we call farcical or superfluous, was always believable. In Ram Aur Shyam her character of the mother finds you laughing and at the same time making you so emotional that tears well up. Without proper training these actors could enliven their roles. In every artist resides thousands of persons. A good artist can enliven each character living in her.
SMM Ausaja says that Leela Mishra was a girl smitten by the silver screen when she landed in Bombay. She was lucky enough to find a role in Dadasaheb Phalke’s only talkie film Gangavataran. An actress of brilliant command over Hindustani, besides her innate acting talent made her last decades in this profession, giving justice to myriad roles, which are still etched in memory.
Banaras born in the year 1910, Kanhaiyalal landed directly into an environment that was seeded in the vocation he would choose. His father Pandit Bhairodutt Choube was the proprietor of the Sanatan Dharm Natak Samaj at Varanasi. Kanhaiyalal started by doing odd jobs in the troupe. It led to his writing and then doing small roles. When the father died the company had to down the shutters. Kanhaiyalal Chaturvedi decided to seek a film career in Bombay. His elder brother Sankata Prasad Chaturvedi had already established himself as an actor in silent films. Kanhaiyalal came to Bombay not with the intention of acting, but wanting to write and direct and find a space on the stage.
He took to playwriting and staged his own written play ‘Pandrah August’ in Bombay. He also began working as an extra in Sagar Movietone’s Sagar Ka Sher. The 1938 release Jhul Badn saw his talkie debut. In Sagar Movietone’s Sadhana he got cast as the grandfather. He is also said to have written the dialogues and lyrics of the film. Ek Hi Raasta, which was released in 1939 - it had him in a character called Banke. The yearning to direct and write is said to have not left him easily. Destiny was waiting in the wings. In 1940 he went on to land up with the role of the money lender Sukhi Lala in Mehboob Khan’s film Aurat. When Mehboob Khan revisited his film Aurat as Mother India he again cast Kanhaiyalal to apprise the role of Sukhi Lala.
The role-call of his acts in films that merit constant mention are Gramophone Singer (1938), Ek Hi Raasta as Baanke (1938), Aurat (1939) as Sukhi Lala, Bhook (1946), Behan (1941), Daag (1952), Devdas (1955), Mother India (1957) as Sukhi Lala again, CID (1959), Ganga Jamuna (1961), Grihasti (1963), Himalay Ki Goad Mein (1965), Upkar (1967) as Lala Dhaniram, Ram Aur Shyam (1967) as Munimji, Teen Bahuraniyan (1967), Doli (1969), Dharti Kahe Pukaar Ke (1969), Bandhan (1969), Jeevan Mrityu (1970), Gopi (1970), Dushman (1971), Banphool (1971), Apna Desh (1972), Heera (1973), Dost (1974), Anokha (1974), Dil Aur Pathar (1977), Satyam Shivam Sundaram (1977) and Hum Panch (1980).
The villainous scheming money lender of Mother India, Ganga Jamuna, Upkaar is a syllabus study. His histrionics breathed its last in 1982 at the age of 72. Hathkadi was perhaps his last release in 1981- 82.
Amol Palekar has said about him: Though I never got an opportunity to work with Kanhaiyalalji, I was delighted to spend some time with him. He was a neighbour of my art school colleague. My first reaction in meeting him was, “Oh, you are so young!” He responded with a hearty laugh; his warm personality filtered through our long chat and the contrasting down-to-earth simple nature of that fine actor made a lasting impression on me. He was aware of my entry into the theatre world and shared his nostalgic moments in theatre and films of his young days. It was amazing to see how non-dramatic he was compared to those times and how convincing he was in portraying characters, which were miles away from his real self. Subsequently, we met a couple of times before he passed away.
Dr Suman Keshari said, “Only the madness of acting would make a young man address, at an age when the nectar of youth overflows, not just the role of a father, but grandfather too, and with such aplomb that the audience would remain unaware of the truth of his age. In my mind Kanhaiyalal lives as an elderly and as a very clever, scheming man. Remembering him in the present makes me experience both the emotions of pain and overflowing respect.
Here are some observations of Ashok Mishra about Kanhaiyalal: An unique actor of our pre and post-independence times! He may or may not have been versed in the acting theories of Stanislavski, Brecht, Grotowski, but the environment around him that became his acting school gave him deep insight and observations of the characters he played. This defined the making of the actor in him. He was an Indian actor rooted in the roots and soil of Uttar Pradesh. After Mother India he became the symbol of the exploitative Lala. The government of the day did make laws against feudalism and money-lending, but Kanhaiyalal, through his acting, invoked such hatred for the exploitative money-lender that the masses willy-nilly became aware and many of them and the money-lenders too had a change of heart. Through his acts he proved that an artist if he wants to can play a role in bringing social change. His performances went beyond mere acts and turned into authentic documents of life. Typical Banarasi look! Typical gesture and posture! The same rhythmic pattern of speech! All this made Kanhaiyalal so believable on screen that his act would like a magnet keep the audience attracted to him. His on-screen exploitations would personally afflict the audience in the movie-halls. There would be a collective outcry. Those with delicate hearts would burst into tears and the theatres would reverberate with sobs and cries. Much attempt was made to stereotype him, but our man could play the same role in hundreds of ways. Many a film got extra energy from his acts. Very accomplished actors had to especially prepare themselves while enacting with him and energize themselves again and again on the set by gulping down water.
Seema Kapoor: A good artiste can enliven each character living inside of him. One among such was the very fine actor Kanhaiyalal. With Mother India he got re-named as Sukhi Lala. Back then actors had their distinct style. Gope, Nazir Hussain, Motilal, Johnny Walker, Mehmood and Jeevan were actors who did not come from acting schools, but instead brought to life on stage and screen the characters from the school of life. Today I miss such simple, middle class faces - their language, mannerisms, body language, which was of their own. Every now and then I watch them to learn the sense of abandon and the truthfulness in their characterizations.
SMM Ausaja: Kanhaiyalal was a powerhouse performer. His expressions and timing remain matchless, and he stood ground against some of the top actors of his time. Perhaps that is the reason that he worked with the most celebrated directors of his time in roles only he could essay and do justice to.
Sidharth Sengupta (Director): To bring in yourself a character, to own the character in a way that there is no divide between the real and reel, is the magic of actors like Kanhaiyalal, Leela Mishra and Surekha Sikri They were so real and honest that they stood out and became so endearing even when they portrayed the darkest of roles.
So, coming back to the question of how the two rest in our cine memory, let me end with film director, writer Chitrath Singh’s remarks: “We will never know the real depth of real talent the duo possessed because they fell into the film industry’s trap of typecasting. The duo had mastered the roles, the emotions, the shades and their portrayal to perfection. Even the mighty Dilip Kumar dared not cross swords with Kanhaiya Lal in Ganga Jamuna or Leela Mishra in Ram Aur Shyam.”