The veteran octogenarian actor Chandrashekharji has left us behind with a vacuum which can never be filled. The doyen among actors in Bollywood , 98 year old Chandrashekhar Gaurishankar Vaidya, better known affectionately as Chandrashekharji, would have turned 99 on July 7 next month. I have spent several hours with him when he has talked at length about transitioning from being an extra to a producer-writer-director-actor. As a mark of tribute to the departed soul, we reproduce this rare and honest interview of Chandrashekhar Ji taken by JYOTHI VENKATESH four years ago at his residence for the now defunct film trade weekly BLOCKBUSTER. Incidentally, our condolences are due to the affable Ashok Chandrashekar who happens to be Chandrashekharji’s son and TV actor Shakti Arora, who is his grandson.
Excerpts from the conversation with the late Chandrashekhar Ji, who had given the break to actress Helen with the film Cha Cha Cha.
What do you think when you look back at our chequered career as an actor?
I feel elated that I have been a part of this great film industry for the last 74 years, a feat which no one can boast of in Bollywood or for that matter Hollywood. My last film was released 13 years ago. Today though I am 94 years old, I am happy that there has been a transition from those days when actors were ‘slaves’ of producers in the era of the studio system to the new era when actors are even made partners in profits by producers who matter. I cherish my days in the industry where I have not only just acted but also written, produced and directed films like Cha Cha Cha and Street Singer. This industry is nothing but a ‘paathshaala’ for me as it has taught me from A to Z and made me what I am today. I have no regrets at all.
You left your wife after your marriage and came to Bombay in search of a career because you did not want to become a doctor like your father wanted. Is it true?
Can you believe it, I was forcefully married when I was just 13 and did not even know what the definition of marriage was and I had not even met my wife. It was only after she came of age that her parents sent her to me. I ran away from home as my father who was a unani doctor wanted me too to become a doctor.
If I am not wrong, you started your career as an actor not as a leading man but as an extra!
When I first came from Hyderabad to Bombay as Mumbai was then called, I used to sleep on the footpath as I did not have a roof above my head. A gentleman observed me outside the studio in Dadar and asked me if I could attend a wedding party and also earn some money. I shot for the party scene the whole day and was paid Rs 1 and 8 annas. I was told that it was the daily wage for an ordinary extra. Yet another agent noticed me and told me that I should not end up doing just an ordinary extra’s role and promoted me as a senior extra and I started getting Rs 8 a day.
You must have rubbed shoulders with almost every big actor of those times!
When I was working as an extra, at the Bombay Talkies studio canteen, where meals were subsidized for all the actors and the technical crew, I used to see Dilip Kumar and Raj Kapoor also having their meals. On the sets, I have seen Dilip Kumar getting nervous while delivering his dialogues. I have also seen Raj Kapoor during his initial days of struggle, struggling with his lines on the sets. Look at how both Dilip Kumar and Raj Kapoor gained confidence over the years and proved to be great actors. Dilip Kumar was not only a nice person but also was humility personified and had dignity besides humility. Without dignity, namrata is nothing but chamchagiri.
When did your career take a U turn from being an extra to an actor?
One day I saw an extra being slapped very hard by the director. It struck me then that it was not the kind of life that I wanted to lead. It was then that someone told me that Shalimar Studios in Pune was looking for actors for their next film Prithviraj Samyukta with Prithiviraj Kapoor in the lead. I was appointed as an actor on a salary of Rs 60 per month. Though I was getting Rs 8 to Rs 10 per day as an extra in Bombay, I preferred to work on a monthly salary with Shalimar Studios (whose name was changed to Saraswati Cinetone) because I was very insecure as an extra.
You played the side hero to Bharat Bhushan in Rangeela Rajasthan!
After the partition, I came to Bombay where I happened to meet Pandit Bharat Vyas who asked me if I could support him in his film direction. I not only assisted him in direction but also played the side hero with Bharat Bhushan in the film. After Rangeela Rajasthan, a friend offered to take me to meet V Shantaram. Though I couldn’t get to meet Annasaheb as V. Shantaram was called, I was introduced to Keshavrao Date who appointed me on a salary of Rs 60 per month for acting in a film at Rajkamal in which Umesh Sharma was the leading man. Of course eventually I acted with Annasaheb in films like Apna Desh, Dahej and Surang.
When did your tryst as a leading man begin in films?
It was with the film Biradari in which I was teamed in the romantic lead opposite Geeta Bali. H.S. Rawail signed me to play the lead in Mastana opposite Nigar Sultana. I played the lead in Bajrang Bali too. Though I did not have a big muscular body, I was cast in it because I was told that I looked smart. It was Kaali Topi Lal Rumal which made me a recognizable face in the industry. Then came a film like King Kong
You turned a producer with Cha Cha Cha!
Yes. With Cha Cha Cha which I made in 1964 at a cost of Rs 6 lakhs, I turned a writer-producer-director. The film had Helen as the leading lady opposite me. I also produced a film called Street Singer based on children of the footpath who were orphans. It did not do as well as I expected it would do, though even Indira Gandhi saw the film and appreciated me for my effort. Cha Cha Cha based on dance turned out to be a hit at the box office.
How was your stint as a character actor?
I started doing character roles in the 70’s when I became older and a lot of younger actors started emerging on the scene. As all the actors were new then, I started getting good payment even as a character actor. I was actively associated with the trade unions for the sake of the betterment of actors. The best compliment that I received was from the late Shakti Samanta who remarked that I was one of the few actors who could fight for the rights of the workers and also do any role effectively, whether it is positive, negative, fighting or dancing or for that matter a comedy role. I also cherish the compliment that the late Times of India critic Bikram Singh had said about me in a review of a Shakti Samata film that ‘Chandrashekhar stands out in an unusual role’.
You are one of the few yesteryear actors who still lives in a bungalow of your own!
I came as a tenant to live in this bungalow when it was in the midst of a jungle in 1952 when I was getting Rs 160 per month for Surang. It was like a police quarters then. After paying rent till 1974, I bought it from its owners for just Rs 59,000. Today I am happy that one of my sons Ashok Shekhar has been dabbling in production of films as well as TV serials and my grandson Shakti Arora is busy as an actor in TV serials.