Every legend begins with the same phrase: Once upon a time… So, once upon a time there was a comedian named Mehmood, son of Mumtaz Ali, an actor-dancer who spent a frugal career within the marginal category just above extras in the fluid caste hierarchy of Bollywood cinema.
Mehmood, born in 1932, knew everything there was to find out about deprivation. He had to work as child: a brief cameo in the 1943 film Kismet, or selling chicken and eggs on the street, before graduating to a salary as driver of a wellknown film director, PL Santoshi.
Mehmood’s most creative odd job was teaching Meena Kumari table tennis; it did lead to his first marriage, with Meena Kumari’s sister Madhu. Guru Dutt gave Mehmood a mini-break, in CID, for which he was deeply grateful, as a stopgap villain. Comedy came in 1961, with Sasural. The next two decades could only have been predicted by an imaginative astrologer: 300 films, awards aplenty, imported limousines and racehorses. This is what you begin life selling eggs for; you wait for destiny to hatch a few Impalas and Jaguars.
Mehmood learnt one lesson from the irreverent school of existence: help others. Help was the only thing he gave quietly.
It is therefore not very well known that Mehmood opened his home to a young man struggling to find a niche in a slippery world. That young man was Amitabh Bachchan.