The most cruel thing about growing up is that everything seems smaller – the park where you played, the toy gun that shattered the mid-afternoon quiet, and even the ghosts that followed you in dark alleys. You could say the same about Vikram aur Betaal, our weekly tryst with a toothless spirit and a poker-faced king that seemed grander and more attractive than it would today.
Based on the Sanskrit collection Betaal Pachisi and produced by Ramanand Sagar, the serial was a massive rage among kids who fell in love with the character meant to scare them – an old man in a flowing white wig, yellow under-eye highlights, scarlet lips stretched in a smile over a wide, denture-less mouth, and a signature cackle that echoed in school corridors and neighbourhood lanes, replicated pitch for pitch.
Watch it now and you will cringe at the cardboard sets with curtains and doors painted on paper, electric cables, concrete roads in cities during the reign of King Vikramaditya, manhole covers, plug points covered with black cloth and worse. Cars honk in the background when the king pauses for breath, men wear sherwanis and women Gujarati style-nylon saris. Even the trees in the forest appear to be dead. The only thing alive and potentially scary is a snake.
Even the dialogue swings wildly between time and place – “shaadi”, “barbaadi” and “chakkar katna” are uttered in the same breath as “parantu,” “vivah” and “prayatna”.
Arun Govil’s King Vikramaditya, who is tasked with carrying the spirit from a tree to a scheming mendicant, has precious little to do other than listen to the Betaal’s twisted tales. The star of the show is undoubtedly Betaal, played by Sajjan. A law degree dropout from Kolkata, Sajaan started his acting career in the Hindi movie Masoom in 1941. He never quite made it as a leading man and settled for bit roles. But a song from the 1951 film Saiyan, featuring Madhubala and Sajjan, reveals glimpses of his infectious energy and the generous smile that made Vikram aur Betaal what it was.
Macabre as it might now seem, the story of Betaal Pachisi is certainly fun for kids. The author Natasha Sharma revisited the stories in the lovely book Vikram and the Vampire, making the stories more palatable for a generation that is perhaps now used to a reality more bizarre than that of King Vikramaditya.