There’s a line from the Rajinikanth movie Baba which, when translated from Tamil, fits Govinda perfectly – “I may be late, but I am always the latest one.”

Govinda has always been about timing. One frequently reported fact about the Hindi actor is that he lands up in the p.m. for an a.m. shoot. Another certitude about Govinda is that he is comic gold, blessed with wit, panache, adventurism and shamelessness. When news leaked from the sets of Shaad Ali’s Kill Dill that the actor was actually showing up on time for his shoot, it meant only one thing: that Govinda is actually interested in reviving a career that has stalled in recent years.

Yet another accepted fact about Govinda is that he is mercurial, so if Kill Dill, which opens on November 14, and the November 21 release Happy Ending, turn the corner for him, he might just go back to his old, unprofessional ways. There is no telling with Govinda, which is why his fans adore him, and directors and producers are still willing to take a bet on him.

The makeover

Popular Hindi cinema went in for a makeover in the early nineties, partly cosmetic (new threads swathed well-worn themes) and partly real (greater realism, improved production quality, varied storylines, a raft of fresh talent). Second- and third-generation filmmakers were eager to reinvent established practices, or at least give the impression that they were doing so. They wanted to attract the emerging domestic middle class as well as the lucrative non-resident Indian markets that had grown disconnected from formulaic potboilers.

The accent was on gloss, glitz and sophistication. Hindi films had been travelling to foreign location shoots for decades, but the urgency increased. Crime movies had always been around, but they had the freshness of the morning newspapers, from which they were directly inspired. Romance was trying to shed its previous decorousness.

The moneyed classes had plenty to choose from. For everybody else, there was Govinda.

Dance sensation

He started off by acting in a proper, conventional Hindi movie way in the late eighties in such films as Ilzaam, where he showed off his fleet-footedness on the dance floor and Hatya, a Witness rip-off. After appearing in a string of productions with dire titles (Sachaai Ki Taaqat, Taqdeer Ka Tamasha) and mixed success, he made his breakthrough in David Dhawan’s Shola aur Shabnam in 1992.

Three years later, the comic vein that Dhawan tapped in Shola aur Shabnam erupted in the first of the so-called “No. 1” films. Coolie No. 1 was blessed by a trinity of talents that endured for several years and through several hits. Dhawan orchestrated the madcap plots, Kadar Khan wrote the wacky dialogue, and Govinda scampered across the screen, flinching from very little (dry humping Karishma Kapoor in Raja Babu,  turning his crotch into a projectile at a European holiday destination in Hero No 1).

These were films of and about the street, featuring ordinary people in extraordinary situations, mining humour from Mumbai patois, revelling in the kind of crassness that the rest of the industry wanted to flee from, and flaunting unabashed misogyny that was slowly becoming unfashionable. Bright clothes, cardboard sets, broad humour, unusual accents, simple stories, contortionist characters, zany conclusions, bizarre accents – the Dhawan-Govinda-Khan combination created a parallel universe that functioned as an antidote to the increasingly slick, affluence-fixated, urbane films of the nineties.

Actor to MP and back

The man who was seen as an extraordinary common man, who never lost his childish grin even in the basest or most ridiculous of moments, and who represented the robust unpretentiousness of the streets could not help but become an anachronism as cinema moved further and further into the middle-class drawing room. Govinda’s alleged tardiness and moodiness didn’t prevent him from being elected a Member of Parliament for the Congress Party in 2004.

But the Hindi film industry holds its members to higher standards than Parliament. A new breed of heroes and comedians, the staleness of the Dhawan formula, and greater emphasis on movies that worked both in Nagpur and New Jersey meant that Govinda was getting outdated. He embarked on a series of comebacks in ensemble movies and accepted second lead parts. He remains the best thing about the Akshay Kumar-starrer Bhagam Bhaag, the Hitch copy Partner, starring Salman Khan and an ascendant Katrina Kaif and the multi-character Salaam-e-Ishq. His cameo in Raavan, the Hindi version of Mani Ratnam’s dual-language Ramayana interpretation, is a reminder of the dramatic skills that lie buried under the continuous buffoonery of the nineties.

Govinda is a difficult actor to write for and cast, because there are some roles only he can do and others that only he can flub. In Shaad Ali’s Kill Dill, he plays a charismatic crook named Bhaiyaji whose two charges turn against him. Govinda will share the screen with Ranveer Singh, Ali Zafar and Parineeti Chopra, but there’s a strong possibility that he will emerge as the scene-stealer. Once again, he looks all set to get his timing just right.

Kill Dill (2014).