‘Naam Tha Kanhaiyalal: Documentary about a True Artiste

By Pradeep Anand

This morning I saw one of the most moving documentaries in my life. It was about Kanhaiyalal, an actor who was type-cast into playing harsh roles of a munshi or a clerk, a bearer of bad news or deliverer of monetary harassment to the heroic main characters of Hindi movies. Before there was Amjad Khan (as Gabbar Singh) in Sholay, there was Kanhaiyalal who defined how small characters could raise anger and disgust in their audience, so the bright golden heroic characters could shine in deep contrast.

The reason I saw this documentary was because I knew him and met him intermittently from about 1958 through 1968. So, there was a personal motive in knowing more about this artist.

His son, Prabhulal, was one of my “best friends” during those years at Don Bosco and SIES College, before he went to JJ School of Architecture.

Don Bosco had a peculiar weekly schedule. We got two days off during a school week—Thursdays and Sundays. No other school for miles around (except St. Joseph, another Salesian-run school) was closed on Thursdays. So, we Boscoites hung around with each other, often in each other’s homes.

And one of the homes where I was welcomed very warmly was Prabhulal’s, at Kings Circle. Over the years, we forget details. During later years, Prabhulal told me that his father, who was very protective about his children, had quizzed me about my family background, very sternly, before I was qualified to visit the home. I was one of two friends who had made the grade.

However, I do remember that Prabhulal, who was very understated, told me hesitatingly that his father was an actor. I must have said, OK, and moved on when he told me his father’s name. When I did not recognize it (I was eight years old!), he told me that he played the character that Nargis locks up in a trunk in the movie, Mother India.

I hadn’t seen the movie. I was too young to see movies then but that comment about how a friend uniquely defined his father’s career was indelibly etched in my memory forever. That was Prabhulal, one of the most brilliant people I have ever known in my life. He was an incredible combination of an artistic imaginative mind and skills, including literature and storytelling, combined with an astute and deep understanding of science and mathematics.

In my opinion, he possessed all the pieces to be a creative genius, like Steve Jobs, but he passed away, in his early thirties, before he had a chance to change the world.

The documentary, Naam Tha Kanhaiyalal, shed such a beautiful light on the creative genius that was Prabhulal’s father, Kanhaiyalal Chaturvedi.

The documentary was so beautifully constructed with cameo shots from his roles in different movies, beginning with memorable ones from Mehboob Productions’ Mother India. The commentaries and tributes shed light on his life, and professional and personal journeys from Varanasi to Mumbai.

Anchored by Krrip Kapur Suri, a stream of Bollywood stars and stalwarts such as, Amitabh Bachchan, Naseeruddin Shah, Salim Khan, Javed Akhtar, Anupam Kher, Boman Irani, Boney Kapoor, Randhir Kapoor, Johnny Lever, Govinda, Paintal and more, come forth to pay amazing compliments to his acting, his ability evoke emotions, immersion in his character and situation, his discipline, his focus on perfection, and other facets of the craft.

One also recalls an instance where he helped an inexperienced and, perhaps, nervous younger actress who had forgotten her lines by improvising and absorbing them into his lines, thereby preventing an expensive reshoot of the scene. Vignettes upon vignettes, both cinematic and verbal build the story. Journalists and film archivists add more layers and strokes to a cine-painting of a thespian, whose name was Kanhaiyalal.

And then came Hemaa Singh, his daughter, who talked about her father and his roots, his family, his personal life, and his end. She is the loving force behind the documentary. It is a daughter’s tribute to her father, woven with such artistry, skill and love.

As a child I saw very few movies. During that period, while I knew the person, I did not know the actor. During my later years, when I began seeing films, there was a period when I got to know the actor but I lost touch with the man. This documentary added so much to both aspects of the man.

During his heydays, I knew the man but I did not know the actor. Even as I grew up and began to appreciate and love the artistry in cinema, I could only catch glimpses of his brilliance in a crowded field.

And when I saw Naam Tha Kanhaiyalal, I discovered that he was truly a method actor whose performances were based on understanding and experiencing different characters’ emotions and deepest motivations that too, with discipline and professionalism.

He was a true artiste!


Naam Tha Kanhaiyalal on MX Player, which is available on Smartphones’ App Store.