Bharat Bhushan: Hindi cinema’s beloved lovelorn poet

Bharat Bhushan avoided typecasting by portraying a diverse range of Indian religious, historical, and cultural icons onscreen.

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His ‘chocolate boy’ looks and an air of affability and sensitivity made him Hindi filmmakers’ preferred choice for roles of shy and unassuming lovers or poets or classical singers striving to make their mark, but Bharat Bhushan never got typecast as he went on to depict an impressive gamut of Indian religious, historical, and cultural icons onscreen.

In this, Bharat Bhushan matches the prowess of veteran Prithviraj Kapoor.

While the strapping patriarch of the Kapoor family played Lord Rama (twice) – and Raja Dashrath too, Arjuna, Karna, emperors Vikramaditya, Harishchandra, Akbar, and Shah Jahan, Bharat Bhushan essayed the roles of Kabir, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, Mirza Ghalib, Baz Bahadur (of Roopmati fame), Chandragupta Maurya, murderous outlaw Angulimaal, tragic love hero Mahiwal, Mahendra of Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay’s ‘Anand Math’, and ended up playing Kaippilly Shivaguru Nambudiri, the father of Adi Shankaracharya, in the eponymous first ever Sanskrit film.

In another resemblance with Kapoor, who played Alexander the Great – and a quarter-century later, his determined Indian opponent King Porus, he played both obscure yet gifted musician Baiju, who challenges music maestro Tansen, and then a decade later, the legendary king of music himself.

Bharat Bhushan also starred in Janmashtami and Ram Darshan – famous for its evocative bhajans (both 1950), though details of his exact role and the story of the films are not available.

But in his over-five-decade film career, Bharat Bhushan was fated to remain a leading actor over for some 15-odd years only, or less than one-third of the total, where he successfully stood his ground against the reigning triumvirate of Dilip Kumar, Raj Kapoor and Dev Anand. And his struggle in the remaining period echoed the tragedies in his personal life.

Born Bharatbhushan Gupta at Meerut in 1920, he was the younger son of distinct government pleader Raibahadur Motilal. His mother died when he was two years old and the siblings grew up at the grandfather’s house in Aligarh. Bharat Bhushan did his graduation from an Aligarh college, and while his father wanted him to follow in his footsteps as a lawyer, he chose a film career instead.

After a stint in Calcutta, then a prominent film centre, he landed up in Bombay, and debuted in Kidar Sharma’s Chitralekha (1941), based on Bhagwati Charan Verma’s eponymous 1934 novel. However, while the movie did well, the focus was more on the heroine Mehtab and her bold bathing scene, and our hero was overlooked. He did a handful of movies in the next few years, including Bhakta Kabir (1942), but only came to note in Suhaag Raat (1948). In this, he is at the centre of a love triangle with a rich girl (Begum Para) and a village belle (Geeta Bali, in her first leading role), amid some sordid doings involving a villainous step-brother.

(Source: Bollywood Pictures Gallery)

However, it was in 1952 that Bharat Bhushan achieved stardom with three hits – Maa, which would have been a formulaic tear-jerker had it not been for the deft handling of its director Bimal Roy making his first film in Bombay, Anand Math, in which he, as the hero, has to contend with Prithviraj Kapoor, Ajit, and Pradeep Kumar, and above all, Baiju Bawra.

For Baiju Bawra, music director Naushad impressed on director Vijay Bhatt to forego established stars like Dilip Kumar and Nargis for fresher faces, and Bharat Bhushan and Meena Kumari were chosen and achieved their tryst with fame – as did Naushad, Mohammad Rafi, and lyricist Shakeel Badayuni for the gems like Man tadpat Hari darshan ko aaj, O duniya ke rakhwale, and Tu Ganga ki mauj.

The next year, Bharat Bhushan starred in Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, which won him a Filmfare Award for Best Actor, making him its second recipient after Dilip Kumar. Mirza Ghalib (1954), opposite singing superstar Suraiya, further cemented his prowess.

For the rest of the decade, he appeared in both romantic and period films, paired with top actresses like Nutan and Madhubala. However, it was Madhubala he shone with in films like Gateway of India (1957) –  set in the course of a single night with the heroine escaping various predicaments and predators and culminating in an unprecedented ending where she chases the shy hero-saviour, a poet again, and proposes to him – and the qawwali fest Barsaat Ki Raat (1960), where the music of Roshan (Hrithik’s grandfather), the evocative lyrics of Sahir Ludhianvi, the voice of Rafi, and Madhubala’s ravishing incandescence  worked wonders.

Sadly, soon after that, it was all downhill for Bharat Bhushan – his wife’s death, his daughter’s ailment, near penury after heavy losses as a producer, and a forced shift to supporting/character roles from the mid-1960s onwards, but he stuck on till passing away in harness in January 1992.

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