A few God men
Over the years, many actors have played God on small screen and become famous overnight. People have touched their feet to seek blessings, women have queued up outside their homes to catch a glimpse of them and some have even propositioned to them. With mythological shows centrestage yet again, SHALINI SAKSENA chats up with the first few who played God on TV
Man who was God No 1
His smile, low baritone and taking everything in his stride ensured that millions of people in India would sit in front of their television sets every Sunday morning and tune in to Doordarshan to watch Ramayan. While the post-Internet viewers may not even know his name, those in their 40s and above don’t need an introduction to the man who played God for the very first time on TV. Arun Govil or one should call him Arun ‘Ram’ Govil, as he was popularly known way back in 1986 when the epic went on air, has had his share of ups and downs, but the actor-turned-director-turned-producer tells you that he is at peace with himself.
Hailing from Meerut and the son of a waterworks engineer, Govil never aspired to be an actor though he did take part in school plays. The only reason why this boy who completed his education in Mathura landed up in Mumbai was to help his brother in his business. But he soon realised that his mind was not in it.
His first movie Paheli (1977) starring stalwarts like Durga Khote, AK Hangal and Dina Pathak impressed the Barjatyas of Rajshri Productions so much that they signed Govil for a three-film deal. His Savan Ko Aane Do (1979) opposite Zarina Wahab did well and he became a star, going on to do 10 movies before he played Ram in Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayan.
“I had already done a film with Sagar Arts Limited and was doing Vikram Aur Betaal with them when I came to know that Ramanand Sagar was planning a tele-series for DD. My gut told me to play Ram. I knew that I would be able to do justice to the role. So I went to Sagar and told him that I wanted to be Ram. He peeped out of his spectacles and said: ‘I will see’. Later, I was called for an audition and was outright rejected. I was dejected but took it in my stride,” Govil recounts.
Later, Govil was offered to play Lakshman and even Bharat but he turned down both offers. The entire cast was announced and dates finalised. But it was Govil who had to play Ram, so after a couple of days of shooting, he was called and the role came to him. “At that time I told Ramanand Sagar, we have come a full circle, that we are back to where it all began. I was destined to be Ram,” Govil says all these years later. Once the role came to him, he took all the challenges in his stride, the main being a switch from 70 mm to the small screen.
“Unlike a movie, where one’s performance is judged only the day the film releases, on television, it was then, there and day after day. That put a lot of pressure. Also, one was playing God, an avataar of Vishnu. This came with a huge share of responsibility,” Govil tells you.
Once a photographer from a very popular celebrity magazine walked up to him with a request — to click a photograph of Ram with a glass in hand. Even an empty glass would do, the photographer told Govil. The reason was simple — to create a scandal that Ram, played by Govil, drinks. “After that I was very careful how I behaved and what I had in my hand each time I came out of the dressing room. I was constantly on guard. It was very taxing but I took it in my stride. I was not much of a drinker anyway and would rarely eat non-vegetarian food. But, I was a chain smoker and though I quit smoking in 1991, I would never ever smoke in public as long as I played Ram. I even had to tone down my movements. Hours were spent in practising how to move my head and hands slowly. All gestures had to appear as if they were flowing smoothly,” the 57-year-old says.
Though Govil became God overnight with people touching his feet wherever he went — something that still happens to him when he visits smaller towns and cities — he was in for a rude shock when the series ended. He just stopped getting roles.
“This was something I was not prepared for. I thought to myself: Yeh kya ho gaya. People could see me only as Ram. Roles dried up with only a few mythological roles in shows like Luv Kush, Harishchandra in Vishwamitra and Buddha in TV series Buddha coming my way. I realised that playing Ram had its negatives. But now that I look back, it has had its share of positives as well. The love and recognition that I still get is overwhelming. The fact that the media still calls me up for interviews, is humbling. After all, there have been two more Ramayan serials after Ramanand Sagar’s but can you even recall who played Ram in them? Those who grew up watching the first Ramayan remember my name. This is good enough for me,” Govil tells you, adding that the reason why he became so popular is because there was only one channel — Doordarshan — and everyone would sit and watch the epic.
“The fact that it was the first of its kind of epic, that too produced so brilliantly, made sure that Sunday mornings were spent before the TV. Also Ram is maryada purshottam. I, as Ram, was playing perfection. Somewhere people connected to God with me. But today, there are so many channels and so many mythological shows. The good part is that youngsters playing God are not getting typecast and have a lot more exposure. But very few will remember their name once the show gets over,” Govil says.
Today, the actor may not be as busy as an actor as he used to be, but his days are full. He is the director-producer for Happy Homes on DD. He is also an office-bearer of the Lakshmi Narayan Dham, a religious organisation, where he reads a lot of spiritual books and has a more spiritual outlook towards life means. He is at peace with himself.
‘I am 5000 years old’
The halo that hung around him won the hearts of millions across the country. Thousands of people would write to him. Girls would propose marriage to him and turn up at his doorstep. A woman was so much in love with him that she even wanted to live in as his mistress — as a real-life gopi. When he first appeared on the small screen, people saw him only as their saviour, an avataar of Lord Vishnu who had come on Earth to slay evil. But Nitish Bharadwaj, despite all the adulation that he has got since the time he played Lord Krishna in BR Chopra’s Mahabharat, is extremely grounded and has Ma Bhagawati to thank for that. It’s her grace, he feels, that people still love and respect him for his role even 25 years later. “Such things happen only with God’s blessing and the blessings of parents,” Bharadwaj says.
Ask him how does a vet surgeon get into acting and he immediately corrects you. The actor-director went on to became a vet later. “I was trained in Marathi theatre group during my school as a theatre director and actor. I trained under veteran actors, directors and writers in the craft. It was a hobby then. Academically, I graduated as a vet surgeon but later found my calling in cinema,” the 5000-year-old (he believes he is an ancient soul) tells you, adding that the role of Krishna came to him because it was destined. “That’s why my soul took birth in my parents’ home where the correct upbringing and sanskaar were given to me,” Bharadwaj says.
He was first auditioned in 1986 and cast as Vidur. Later, director Ravi Chopra felt that Bharadwaj was too young to play Vidur, the voice of reason and wisdom. He was then offered the roles of Nakul or Sehdev but he refused because he felt that they weren’t challenging enough. He turned towards films. It was only after he had completed two Marathi and one Hindi (Trishagni) movie in which he was the hero did he get another call for an audition from BR Films. This time, it was for Krishna for him and he passed the audition in flying colours.
Interestingly, when he was offered the role, Bharadwaj didn’t want to play Krishna as he felt that he was inexperienced to perform this pivotal and central character of the epic. But it was “uncle” BR Chopra, Ravi and his mother who convinced him to accept the role since he understood Krishna well from literature.
Another reason why he said yes was because an epic like Mahabharat was being made for the first time for Indian TV, that too by the Chopras. “It was a lifetime opportunity to perform the Lord,” Bharadwaj recalls.
He says that Krishna will always be his favourite role because the character was not just a part of him as an actor, but it is Krishna’s philosophy that has pulled him through his real life lows. It is not surprising that much older people wanted to touch his feet when he was just 23 and that they still remember him as Krishna. He feels humbled when bigwigs in their respective fields touch his feet. “Aasthaa of this intensity is possible only in Indian culture,” Bharadwaj asserts.
After playing Lord Krishna in the 1988 epic, he went on to do several other mythological serials like Geeta Rahasya and Vishnu Puran. Some would even remember him as Ram in BR Chopra’s Ramayan in 2003 in which Smriti Irani, now HRD Minister, played Sita. Playing God didn’t give him much time to ponder but he always seemed to know how Krishna would walk, talk, smile and play pranks. “I don’t know what it was but I always felt that he was a part of me. He blessed me. He made me portray Him. That’s His grace and mercy,” he says.
Bharadwaj has had his share of ups and downs in life. “Krishna has been my guide in the lows of life. He has taught me detachment and the zeal to fight for justice. I earned a lot of respect and trust of people which is very difficult in kalyug,” Bharadwaj says, adding that the only negative in his life has been certain decisions that went wrong.
Leaving India at the peak of his career in 1992 to go to England to pursue theatre, and neglecting his film career for politics were two decisions that went wrong for him. But Bharadwaj has finally found that his true and intense calling is films, as an actor and director. During his rough patch he would practise some part of The Gita to have a perspective in life. “I thank all those people who either left me or caused obstructions in my growth or gave me a lot of pain because it is due to their actions that I could evolve spiritually. That was their role in my soul’s life path and my soul chose them to be my friends or foes,” he says.
Bharadwaj is now working on a Hindi film Yaksh in which he plays the main role, something that may surprise many. Quiz him more about the film and he tells you to wait and watch. His directorial debut film in 2013 was in Marathi and titled Pitruroon. It starred Tanuja and won five awards as heavy critical acclaim. “I want to tell all my fans that I am now here to stay in cinema, as an actor and also a writer-director. I want to give them happiness and joy,” Bharadwaj says.
That dishy one
He has taken Mahadev’s message across the world and the experience has made him a better human being. But Mohit Raina from Jammu tells you that he is all set to move forward and is looking for roles that will throw him a challenge. Raina, who had always wanted to act but was an outsider — didn’t know anybody in the industry who could help him — did what most people from small towns do to get into Bollywood. He took to modeling.
The commerce graduate tells you that he was part of the model hunt and ended up among the top five in the 2005 Grasim Mr India contest. It was then that he got his first break in a sci-fi TV show called Antariksh (2006). He went on to debut in Mithun Chakraborty starer Don Muthu Swami (2008).
For the next few years, Raina appeared in TV serials like Chehra (2009) and Ganga Kii Dheej (2010). But his claim to fame came only in 2013 when he auditioned to play Shiv in Devon Ke Dev Mahadev (DKDM).
“It was not that the role came to me out of the blue. I knew when I was going for the auditions that the role was for Lord Shiva. It just feels great even now that I was singled out to play such a character. I said yes immediately. I knew that the role would come with a lot of responsibilities. Something that I feel that I have done to the best of my abilities,” the 9th position on the Eastern Eye newspaper’s 50 Sexiest Asian Men In The World says.
He is quick to point out that it was not he who made the serial so popular but the story that touched the viewers. He was just a character in that story. The little nuances associated with Lord Shiva that people didn’t know made the serial so popular, he says.
“I doubt that people were following the serial just because I was Shiva. People loved the story,” Raina says, adding that when people walk up to him and tell him that their perspective to life has changed after watching DKDM, it feels good.
Though Raina feels liberated that he is no longer playing God of Gods, he values life more today. He understands the cycle of Nature and that everything in life is connected and that every person is equal. All the things that he has learnt while playing Mahadev have been beneficial. He tells you that DKDM was a huge learning experience and he hopes that the love he got while he was Mahadev would continue irrespective of what character he plays.
Raina, meanwhile, is not worried that he will be typecast. He says that viewers today are far more mature and can differentiate between Raina, the actor, and Raina as Mahadev. The fact that there are over a 100 channels means that unlike actors who played God some 30 years back were surrounded the minute they were out on the street and people touched their feet or queued up outside their home just to catch a glimpse of them, today things are different.
Raina says he is lucky that people don’t walk up to him and touch his feet or girls don’t come to his house and demand that he marry them just because he played Shiv, the ideal husband. “Back then, there was only Doordarshan and everyone was glued to it. It was also a first for TV to showcase an epic and that too on such a grand scale. It was bound to generate that kind of hype. Today, things are different,” the 32-year-old actor says who did a lot of research on Shiv himself even though the production house researchers gave everything to him in black and white. “I had to bring in something of my own. So I did some reading of my own,” he says.
But one thing he doesn’t rule out, that he has become a role-model for several youngsters not only in J&K but elsewhere in the country that it doesn’t matter from where you are. If you have the talent and are willing to work hard, the sky is the limit even for an outsider.
Though Raina took it in his stride that he was going to play the super God, his friends, relatives and mother were ecstatic. “When I told my mother that I had been offered to play Shiv, she couldn’t believe it at first. But of course, the news finally sunk in and people back home would call me and tell me that I was their role-model and they wanted to be like me. It is very humbling when people say things like this. It makes you want to live up to their expectations and do roles that are just as challenging,” Raina says.
While he doesn’t have a specific role in mind that will make it impossible for him to say turn down, what he is looking at is a good story because at the end, it is the script that matters whether he is doing TV or films. He also tells you that the difference between the two mediums is that while television recongises your work as an actor, films put a face to the name. And it is the name which becomes popular and it is rare that a character in a movie will be remembered.
Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule, he says. “On the 70 mm screen you — Mohit Raina — is the one who touches stardom. On the small screen, it is the character that one gets associated with,” Raina says. For now, Raina is looking at films but refuses to divulge any information on the project he has.
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