7 December 2014

Straight-faced, not strait-laced: Remembering Deven Verma

My Mumbai Mirror column

Perhaps Deven Verma didn't get a chance to fully explore his range, but he was still among the most subtle comic actors Hindi cinema has ever produced.

Deven Verma did several non-humorous roles: from his first cinematic appearance in Yash Chopra's Partition drama Dharamputra (1961), to playing Sharmila Tagore's proposed husband in Anupama (1966) and a mental asylum inmate in the high-octane tragedy Khamoshi (1969). But he began his acting career as a funny guy – he had had some success with comic stage acts before Dharamputra – and it is as a comedian that he will be remembered.

Within the comic realm, Verma's characters seem at first glance to have been fairly varied. He was a good mimic, with a talent for accents and language, which he put to use in several films. In Thodi si Bewafaii (1980), for instance, he played Rajesh Khanna's good-hearted employer, a Dakhani Muslim optician with the jokily accurate name of Noor-e-Chashmis, and “Shaan Khuda ki” as his endearing takiyakalaam. Two of his three Filmfare-award-winning performances had the Kutchi actor playing a Gujarati-speaking seth: he was a book publisher called Parvin Chandra Shah with zero financial sense in Chori Mera Kaam (1975) and a businessman (again called Parvinbhai) saddled with a stolen idol in Chor ke Ghar Chor (1978). There were other repetitions in his career: he was a mamma's boy desperate to get married in Basu Chatterjee's Khatta Meetha (1977) – but he had played a version of that character earlier, in Anil Ganguly's Kora Kagaz (1974), where as the doofus Dronacharya, he worshipfully attempts to woo a half-amused and wholly dismissive Jaya Bhaduri.

So Verma did get typecast to some extent. But he was always immensely watchable—and very funny. His bhondu persona, played with a deadpan face, halting dialogue delivery and a deliberately bemused manner, is probably his most lasting legacy. It reached its acme in Verma's celebrated double role as twin servants (both named Bahadur) to twin masters (two Sanjeev Kumars, both named Ashok) in the charmingly funny Angoor, Gulzar's adaptation of Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors.

Who can forget him as Bahadur 1, faced with the prospect of being shown up as an imposter in the house he's in, throwing its rightful resident Bahadur 2 off the scent by barking and growling like a dog from behind the front door? In this scene, as in several others, he made the ridiculous sublime. My most vivid Deven Verma memory from childhood is also from Angoor: the memorable bhang-addled 'Preetam Aan Milo' song, where he watches with glazed eyes as a ball that he hasn't thrown seems to bounce up a staircase, and emerges into a balcony to find a toad in rhythmic symphony with his song.

Angoor was a marvellously poker-faced take on the identical twins theme so ubiquitous in both Shakespeare plays and Hindi cinema—first it doubled the number of twins, and then in the climactic scene, had one Sanjeev Kumar say to the other one, deadpan: “Do you have a mole here on your shoulder? You don't? Oh, then we must be twins.” This is one of Sanjeev Kumar's funniest performances, but there are some scenes where Verma absolutely steals the show with his mastery of body language and timing. One such is a moment where he fails to stop himself from eating what he knows to be bhang-laced pakodas. “Nahi maanta?” he says to his hand as it moves stealthily towards the plate and starts to stuff pakoras into his mouth. “Toh phir kha. Kha ke mar!” At that moment, Bahadur 1 is himself split into two: the self that's dying of hunger, and the self that can't afford to get stoned. There is something fantastic about Verma's rendition that transforms the film's otherwise un-profound use of doubles into a momentary philosophical riff on the self.

As the two Bahadurs (one with rolled-up sleeves, the other not), Verma switches unerringly between being befuddled and trying to be crafty under duress. But even when carrying out one of his schemes -- like putting bhang into the pakoras he's made for the women of the house, or pulling a key out a sleeping Aruna Irani's cleavage – he is never sleazy or threatening.

This quality is also crucial to my other favourite Deven Verma role: as the comic mastermind Ravi Kapoor in Hrishikesh Mukherjee's Rang Birangi. In a pre-NRI era, he played an America-returnee who decides to spice up the marriage of his boring friend Ajay (Amol Palekar) by getting him to flirt with his secretary (Deepti Naval). Ravi Kapoor specialises in hilariously bad lines: “Kill the cat on the first night, bacchu”, or “America mein pata hai secretary ko goad mein bitha ke dictation dete hain. Aur shorthand hi nahi, underhand bhi karte hain”. What makes this role remarkable is that Verma plays against type, and does so masterfully. The chubby-faced childishness that usually gave him an inoffensive, almost asexual air was here used as a kind of camouflage for the sexual chalu-ness of the man-about-town.

Maybe that was Deven Verma's secret—that you could not take him seriously. But perhaps that was also to do with the mild middle class comedies of which he was an indispensable part. Much as I love them, these sunny '80s films weren't beyond showing annoyingly stereotypical marriages, or everyday sexist jokes, say, about about working women taking away men's jobs. But it was still a time of innocence: men might be incorrigible flirts, but you knew they didn't have it in them to be truly slimy. Deven Verma died only last week. But the world he stood for died long ago.

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