Shoojit Sircar’s Gulabo Sitabo (2020) takes its title from Gulabo-Sitabo puppets created by Ram Niranjan Lal Srivastava in the 1960s. Gulabo-Sitabo were presented as warring sisters-in-law in shows and were known for their commentary on society’s evil practices. There is also a related but different art form called ventriloquism where a person creates an illusion that their voice is coming from elsewhere, usually a prop, known as a dummy. While puppeteers give words to their dummies from behind the stage, ventriloquists lend a voice to their dummy from a stage. These art forms have been represented in cinema, especially, in some of the older films when these were quite popular.
One of the earliest films to feature a ventriloquist in Hindi cinema was Roop K. Shorey’s Ek Thi Larki (1949). As its title suggests, the film’s story is centered around a girl named Meena (Meena Shorey). She is on the run from the police as she is being accused of a murder she did not commit. In one particular sequence in the film, she disguises herself as the Princes of Champatpur and checks into a hotel where a ventriloquist performs a comical act with a dummy in front of an audience. Ek Thi Larki is also popular for its song Laara Lappa Laara Lappa Layi Rakhda. Dwarka Khosla’s Dilruba (1950) also featured a ventriloquist. The film’s plot revolves around a dance troupe owner named Professor (Yakub) who steals an expensive necklace and plants it on Ratan (Dev Anand) while traveling on a train. Professor, then, asks one of his dancers Roopa (Rehana) to recover the necklace from Ratan. At some stage in the film, Roopa and her dance troupe stay in the house of the local landlord Diwan Sahab (Gogia Pasha) who has a ventriloquist’s dummy named Chandu. The dummy often makes biting comments against his master Diwan Sahab.
Ek Thi Larki (1949)
Kishore Kumar played a ventriloquist in Narindra Suri’s Begunah (1957). The film, however, has an infamous story associated with it. Within ten days of its release, it was taken off from the theaters as it was believed to be plagiarized from Hollywood film Knock on Wood (1954) that starred the famous American comedian Danny Kaye. The story goes that Danny Kaye had come to Bombay for work and was informed about Begunah. He watched it and felt it was copied from his film. He then contacted the producer of his film Paramount Pictures who filed a case in the Bombay High Court alleging plagiarism under the provisions of the new copyright act. The court concurred with them and ordered the producers to immediately withdraw the film from the theaters and destroy all prints within a few months. Therefore, no known prints of this Begunah are believed to exist. It was only recently the National Film Archive of India reported that it had found a reel of the film. Begunah also featured the song Aye Pyaase Dil Bezuban that had a cameo appearance by music director Jaikishan (of Shankar-Jaikishan fame).
The most popular instance that immediately comes to mind while thinking of puppets in films is the song Jahan Main Jaati Hoon from Anant Thakur’s Chori Chori (1956). The song is picturized on Raj Kapoor and Nargis who play Sagar and Kammo in this unofficial version of Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night (1934). The song begins with a puppet show where two puppets are dancing. Moments later, in a dream sequence, Sagar and Kammo are also transformed into puppets singing the duet. Raj Kapoor had another puppet song Are Buddha Hai Ghoda Laal Hai Lagaam in P.L. Santoshi’s Sargam (1950). A sequence in the film involves an old man wanting to marry a girl much younger than his age. The characters played by Raj Kapoor and his co-star Rehana perform a puppet show and mock the elderly gentleman who had also come to watch the puppet show by singing a song about him (a buddha) wanting to spend his life with a young woman.
Chori Chori (1956)
Amiya Chakrabarty and Nitin Bose’s Kath Putli (1957) not only just featured puppets but was titled after puppets, too. The film starred Vyjayanthimala and Balraj Sahni in the lead roles. It is the story of Pushpa (Vyjayanthimala) who wants to assist her puppeteer friend Shivraj (Jawahar Kaul) with his puppet show to make ends meet. Unfortunately, he meets with an accident and is left paralyzed making him unable to perform puppet shows anymore. Staring at a life of penury, Pushpa approaches a theater owner Lok Nath (Balraj Shani) for help, who offers her work as an actor. The film also features the song Bol Ri Kathputli Dori Kaun Sang Bandhi in which Pushpa dances like a puppet.
Kath Putli (1957)
Gulzar’s first directorial venture Mere Apne (1971) had Meena Kumari as Anandi Devi, an old widow who is brought to the city by her distant relatives. She soon realizes that the real reason her relatives brought her to stay with them was that they wanted to keep her as a house help. She leaves them and starts living in a dilapidated house in the city where she is taken care of by some young struggling men. One of these young men is Sanju, played by Danny Denzongpa (in his debut film), who is a ventriloquist, or a jamura as he calls himself.
Mere Apne (1971)
Amitabh Bachchan played the only triple role of his career in S. Ramanathan’s Mahaan (1983). The film was the remake of Kannada film Shankar Guru (1978) and portrayed the story of the separation of a family. One of the roles that Amitabh Bachchan plays in the film is that of a ventriloquist. India’s only well-known ventriloquist Ramdas Padhye’s doll was used in Mahaan. It is believed that Amitabh Bachchan was mighty impressed with Ramdas after watching him perform at the 1982 Filmfare awards and expressed his desire to play the role of a ventriloquist. Amitabh Bachchan got an opportunity to do so in Mahaan. Ramdas and his wife Aparna played an important part in Mahaan and operated Amitabh’s puppet in the film. Ramdas Padhye’s father Yeshwant Keshav Padhye was also a ventriloquist and is credited to have started ventriloquism in Indian in the 1920s. His puppets have also featured in Hindi films, such as Nandlal Jaswantlal’s Akeli Mat Jaiyo (1963) starring Meena Kumari and Rajendra Kumar (in a double role). Akeli Mat Jaiyo is a story of mistaken identity where one of the characters played by Rajendra Kumar is a ventriloquist and has a dummy named Jack.
Akeli Mat Jaiyo (1963)
Mahesh Bhatt added ventriloquism in Papa Kehte Hain (1996) depicting the story of rich girl Sweety (Mayuri Kango) suffering from daddy issues. Sweety stays with her maternal grandparents. As a means to talk to her father, she carries a dummy dolly with her all the time and calls it Papa. She speaks to him and ventriloquizes his thoughts. Bengali director Goutam Ghose adapted a play of writer Mahashweta Devi to make his first Hindi film Gudia (1997). The film depicted the story of two ventriloquists trying to survive in an era that was becoming increasingly political and communal. One of them is Hamid (Pran) who has a dummy named Urvashi with whom he participated in many shows. After Hamid is diagnosed with cancer, he passes his knowledge to his assistant Johnny (Mithun Chakraborty) who takes Urvashi with him. Johnny and Urvashi perform acts all over and become popular with the masses. After communal riots break out in the city, Johnny unveils the culprits behind them through his acts which leads to Urvashi being destroyed by the same rioters. Johny’s assistant Rosemary (Nandana Sen) consoles him and brings him back on the stage and takes the place of Urvashi as a living dummy. Gudia was showcased in the Un Certain Regard section at the 1997 Cannes Film festival.
Papa Kehte Hain (1996)
There have been some films even in the 2000s that depicted these art forms. In Dil Hai Tumhaara (2002), Kundan Shah narrated the story of two stepsisters Shalu (Preity Zinta) and Nimmi (Mahima Chaudhary) who end up falling in love with the same man Dev (Arjun Rampal). The sisters’ mother Sarita (Rekha) tries to ensure that her real daughter Nimmi gets the love of her life. Shalu has a childhood friend Sameer (Jimmy Shergill) who is a ventriloquist and is seen with a puppet named Rangeela. Later, Amol Palekar adapted Vijayadan Detha’s short story Duvidha into his film Paheli (2005). The film is the story of a ghost who falls in love with a woman Lachchi (Rani Mukerji). He takes the form of her husband Kisanlal (Shah Rukh Khan) and starts living with her while he stays in the city for work. Life gets complicated when Kisanlal returns and Lachchi is confronted with a difficult choice as she, too, fell in love with the ghost. Instead of humans depicting stories of puppets, Paheli uses puppets to depict the stories of humans. Two puppets, voiced by Naseeruddin Shah and Ratna Pathak Shah, were the sutradhaars of the film. Paheli also features a song Phir Raat Kati where its lead couple dance like puppets with strings attached to them.
Dil Hai Tumhara (2002)
There have been a few films featuring ventriloquists that were made in other languages but were later dubbed in Hindi. One such film is Mahesh Khotare’s Khilona Bana Khalnayak (1995), originally made in Marathi as Zapatlela (1993). The film stars Laxmikant Berde as Lakshya who is a ventriloquist. He receives a doll as a gift that starts speaking on its own and goes on to kill people. It is, then, revealed that a noted criminal Tatya (Dilip Prabhavalkar) had put his soul in the doll and was using it as a means to fulfill his evil purposes. Another film in this segment is Srinu Vaitla’s Rakhwala Pyar Ka (2010), a Hindi-dubbed version of Telugu film Namo Venkatesa (2010), starring Venkatesh who plays a ventriloquist in the film.
Khilona Bana Khalnayak (1995)
Rakhwala Pyar Ka (2010)
R. Balki tried to give an interesting angle to ventriloquism using the baritone of Amitabh Bachchan in Shamitabh (2015). The film depicts the story of Daanish (Dhanush), a mute guy who wants to be an actor but is unable to find any work. An assistant director Akshara (Akshara Haasan) pities him and takes him to the doctor to help him get a voice. After examination, the doctor recommends a chip to be fit in Daanish’s larynx. Any third person can transfer their voice into the chip, and when that person would speak, the words would appear to come from Daanish’s mouth. Daanish goes ahead with the recommendation and approaches Amitabh (Amitabh Bachchan), an old failed actor, to lend his voice to Daanish. Shamitabh effectively turns a mute person into a living ventriloquist’s dummy which was a fascinating concept. Additionally, the film has some funny metacommentary all through it though its execution left a lot to be desired. At one point in the film, Rekha is called to give an award to Daanish and is left stunned by his voice as it reminds her of the man with whom she had a relationship in the past.
With time, new modes of entertainment came in, and puppetry and ventriloquism lost their charm. These art forms were nothing but precursors to cinema itself. Like cinema, these art forms rely on the medium of storytelling on a stage. As this post began with Shoojit Sircar’s film, it is only befitting that it concludes with one of his other films. In Piku (2015), there is a scene where Piku (Deepika Padukone) reminisces about an old theater in her city that was replaced by a building. Her wise companion Rana (Irrfan) comments that it is exactly how it happens in life; old things get replaced by new ones, just like the way, she is selling her ancestral home. He adds that it is not wrong and, “Maybe this is the way forward, isi ko log development bolte hain, but apni roots agar unko ukhaad do toh kya bachega.” Development is absolutely vital, but sometimes it is worth revisiting the path that brought about that development.
[Read more of the author’s work on his blog here]