Jagdeep aka Soorma Bhopali: An actor who stood out among giants passes away

A protege of the legendary director Bimal Roy, very few people remember the actor beyond his comic roles, but Jagdeep's depth of acting stretched far beyond a character actor known for his comic timing

The garrulous, greedy, timber merchant was present on screen for barely five minutes, yet the character gave an immortality that is destined to only a select few. It happened with Amjad Khan. It happened with MacMohan. It also happened with Syed Ishtiaq Ahmed Jaffri, better known as Jagdeep, who passed away on Wednesday night at the age of 81.

How, where and when Syed Ishtiaq Ahmed Jaffri became Jagdeep is not clear. On screen he was always Jagdeep. Born in Madhya Paredesh’s Datia in 1939, Jagdeep took to acting at a very early age to support his family, with a couple of uncredited films before BR Chopra chose him for a role in Afsana. Next came Phani Mazumdar’s Dhobi Doctor, with Kishore Kumar in the lead. Dhobi Doctor dealt with the caste system and Jagdeep played a young Kishore Kumar.

Soon after he followed Bimal Roy’s Do Bigha Zameen, where he literally shined as the shoeshine boy Lalu Ustad, who polishes shoes below Calcutta’s Shahid Minar during the day and sleeps on the pavement outside the famed Grand Hotel. The street-wise Lalu Ustad forges a friendship with Ratan Kumar and offers him and his father (Balraj Sahni) a place to sleep. The role brought Jagdeep recognition.

Two years later, Jagdeep shared screen space with Kishore Kumar in another Bimal Roy film Naukri, where he was again a shoeshine boy. The young adult bagged an important role in Hum Panchhi Ek Daal Ke, which further helped him get a few romantic leads in Bhabhi and Punarmilan, but most of the roles that came his way were supporting ones with a comic touch.

This was the time when the Hindi film scene was packed with comedians. Johny Walker and Mehmood were at the top of their game, followed by the likes of Rajendranath, Mukri, Sundar along with actors who would do all kinds of roles like IS Johar, Om Prakash and Asit Sen. Whether for leads or in supporting roles the scene was already crowded and most of them had serious backers. Like no Guru Dutt film would ever be made without Johny Walker. This continued even after Dutt’s death. In 1975, when Dutt’s younger brother Atmaram was making Yeh Gulistaan Hamara with Dev Anand, Sharmila Tagore and Pran, Walker had questioned how a film under Guru Dutt’s banner could be made without him. Needless to say, a role was created especially for him. Among the comedians too, there was a kind of formula. Johny Walker and Mehmood, despite being in comedic-supportive roles, would get to lip-sync songs, many of them still very popular. Other comedians of that era were not that lucky with songs. I have so far not come across any sad song picturized on Johnny Walker!

Jagdeep’s early mentor Bimal Roy was not a run-of-the-mill director and died early. It will remain a matter of speculation whether Roy would have looked at his child protégé now struggling as an adult.

His role as a reformed crook in the Shammi Kapoor blockbuster Brahmachari (1968) was again much appreciated.

Seven years later came the role that defined him and he had almost given it up even before taking a single shot. In her book Sholay: The Making of a Classic, Anupama Chopra says, “Jagdeep was about to walk out from the film following a tiff with a production manager over Rs 1,000. Jagdeep was ready to pack his bag when the film’s cinematographer, Dwarka Dwivecha, intervened and settled it. The following day Jagdeep gave his shot in the timber merchant’s shop bragging about his bravado in one take. See the sequence again to understand the depth of his talent. Sadly, following the massive popularity of Soorma Bhopali every director wanted him to do a louder Soorma Bhopali, whatever be the length of the role. So much so, in 1988 Jagdeep persuaded his Sholay colleagues Amitabh Bachchan and Dharmendra along with others to make special appearances in the only film he wrote, produced and directed Soorma Bhopali. The film tanked almost everywhere except Madhya Pradesh.

The loud expressions and exaggerated gestures also found him much in demand in another genre of filmmaking which has never been taken seriously in India, the horror films from the Ramsay Brothers.

Much later in his career, the audience got a glimpse of the pre-Soorma Bhopali Jagdeep in Priyadarshan’s Muskurahat, where he played Man Friday Badriprasad Chaurasia to Amrish Puri’s Justice (retd) Gopichand Verma without the mannerisms that he was identified with for nearly two decades.. An ode to Soorma Bhopali came in Rajkumar Santoshi’s cult classic Andaz Apna Apna, as Bankelal Bhopali, father to Salman Khan’s Prem.

Jagdeep’s passing away is the end of an era not because he was born in 1939 and joined films in the pre-independence days. It is the end of an era because it brings down the curtain some more on a particular school of filmmaking, which was drawn heavily on melodrama, emotions, a strong storyline, outstanding music scores with realism kept outside the studio perimeter and yet thoroughly entertaining.

Rest in Entertainment Jagdeep sa’ab…

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