Sairat and Dabangg are only following in its footsteps. Decades before those movies with their catchy dance numbers, the score of a 1951 film had compelled audiences to leap out of their seats, shimmy in the aisles and throw coins at the screen.

Albela, directed by Bhagwan and starring him alongside Geeta Bali, had a dozen foot-tapping tunes by the composer C Ramchandra. Hits from the film can still be heard on Mumbai’s streets during the Ganpati celebrations. The magic of Albela and the story of the man behind the phenomenon are the themes of Ekk Albela. Directed by Shekhar Sartandel and starring Mangesh Desai as the intrepid actor and filmmaker and Vidya Balan as Bali, Ekk Albela will be released on June 24.

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The trailer of ‘Ekk Albela’.

The 120-minute biopic, which covers Bhagwan’s remarkable rise to fame and wealth up until his moment of glory in 1951, is aimed at reintroducing contemporary viewers to his remarkable spirit, Sartandel said. “We have chosen events and things that would matter to audiences today,” he said. “Bhagwan was a very adventurous man and people should be inspired by him. He had few resources and possibilities, but he had the daring to make films across genres.”

Bhagwan.

Albela stars Bhagwan as Pyarelal, who dreams of performing with his idol, the theatre actress Asha (Bali). Pyarelal realises his wish, but like the Jewish hero from The Jazz Singer (1927), Pyarelal is alienated from his family, which slides into poverty. The threadbare plot is an excuse to roll out one of Ramchandra’s best scores. Nearly every song is a winner, with the infectious Hawaiian-themed “Shola Jo Bhadke” and the waltz “Bholi Surat Dil Ke Khote” topping the list.

These two songs have been recreated in Ekk Albela, which has been produced by Monish Babre’s Kimaya Motion Pictures. Babre, a radiologist by training, is from Parel, the central Mumbai neighbourhood that houses Lallubhai Mansion, in which Bhagwan lived. “During my school days I used to see Bhagwan Dada at the window of Lallubhai Mansion dancing during the Ganpati festival,” Babre said. “He was a patient of my grandfather, who was also a doctor. I wanted to know more about this person, and we initially thought of making a documentary, but we found so many fantastic things during the research that we decided to make a biopic.”

Although Ekk Albela is in Marathi, the hit songs that have been restaged from Albela are in Hindi. The movie’s biggest talking point for non-Marathi viewers is the casting of Vidya Balan as Geeta Bali. In fact, Balan actually plays a small role in a film dedicated to “a flamboyant and impulsive man” whose generosity bordered on whimsy, Sartandel said.

There is the telling anecdote that Sartandel gathered during his research. One of the movies made after Albela involved a shower of rupee notes raining down from a tree. It is said that Bhagwan sold one of his many houses, filled a sack with real notes, and used it in the song. Once the shoot was done, he left the sets without taking the money.

Another oft-repeated anecdote is of how Bali, a regular of A-list productions in the 1940s, agreed to co-star with Bhagwan, even though he was considered a B-grade action hero. The story goes that Bali’s secretary tried to prevent Bhagwan from meeting her. When the two stars in their respective orbits finally met, Bali graciously agreed to headline the movie – in the same way that Balan readily agreed to play Bali in Ekk Albela. “Vidya Balan has the same personality as Geeta Bali – she is humble and does not throw tantrums,” Sartandel said.

Though Bhagwan’s bustling career included at least 500 acting credits, Sartandel eschewed the cradle-to-grave approach to focus on a fruitful phase of his subject’s life. “I was inspired by the biopics Chaplin and Hitchcock,” Sartandel said. “Things should be shown as they happened, and not cross their limits or be hyped too much. Nothing should be planted.”

Cinematographer Uday Deware has adopted a classic style, with splashes of high-contrast lighting, Sartandel added. The cast includes Vignesh Joshi as C Ramchandra and Tejasvi Patil as Bhagwan’s wife, Asha.

The choice of Mangesh Desai in the lead role wasn’t immediate – the stage and television actor does not immediately resemble Bhagwan. “Mangesh Desai doesn’t have a chiselled face, but he is a very good actor,” Sartandel said.

Mangesh Desai as Bhagwan in ‘Ekk Albela’.

For Desai, the biggest challenge was that he had very few performances to refer to. Almost nothing has survived of Bhagwan’s creations except a few YouTube clips and Albela. A fire at a storage unit in 1968 destroyed the negatives of all the films produced by Bhagwan’s banners. A print of Albela was saved only because it had been loaned to an exhibitor.

Desai initially had nothing more than photographs, posters and newspaper interviews on which to build his depiction. “I asked Shekhar, do you want me to mimic Bhagwan and he said, no, you have to make him come alive,” Desai said. Simply watch Albela, was Sartandel’s advice.

“I didn’t initially understand the similarity, but then I realised that our cheekbones and eyes did match, and in a few skits on television, I had acted in a similar style,” Desai said. His assessment of Bhagwan as an actor? “He leans towards exaggeration and melodrama but is fundamentally a naturalistic actor,” Desai said.

The dancing was the most challenging part for Desai. Bhagwan was a fleet-footed dancer in real life, a skill that he passed on to his children and grand-children. At the trailer launch of Ekk Albela, Bhagwan’s son, Arun Palav, obliged the cameras with a jig.

Arun Palav, who is 75 and lives in Vashi in Navi Mumbai, is one of the forces behind Ekk Albela. Palav had heavily contributed to Albela Master Bhagwan¸ a 1991 biography in Marathi by journalist Isak Mujawar. Palav and Mujawar came up with the basic story of Ekk Albela.

“My dad’s main motive was not money but the chance to revisit my grandfather, while my motive was to hear stories that I hadn’t heard before,” said Sunetra Palav, Arun Palav’s daughter and an event manager.

Bhagwan gave Sunetra Palav her first dancing lessons. “He used to tell me that the music starts in your heart and not in your feet, and it moves through the shoulders to the face and the hands and feet.” She demonstrated a rumba move by gracefully moving just her knees. Bhagwan taught her this, she said.

Arun and Sunetra Palav.

Arun Palav is one of three brothers and three sisters, one of whom continues to live in the family home in Parel. He is filled with reminiscences of his father’s movies, including the madcap comedy Bhagambhag (1956), starring Kishore Kumar and Shashikala. This title is one of the few surviving examples of Bhagwan’s directorial style.

“When I watched the film, it didn’t make any sense to me,” Arun Palav said. “It’s then that my father explained that the title means chaos, nothing links to anything else, and everybody is running around.”

Arun Palav also has vivid memories of the raucous public reaction to Albela. In one cinema, he recounts, the theatre manager complained to the police that the audience members were ruining the seats by dancing on them. Policemen were stationed at stationed at the cinema to prevent this, but they could not resist Ramchandra’s beats and joined the jig.

Among the legends that circulate about Bhagwan, at least one is true: he did have seven cars, one for every day of the week. The car used in the Albela song “Dheere Se Aaja” is from Bhagwan’s fleet, said Arun Palav. The titles of Bhagwan’s films testify to his hedonistic streak – Albela, Jigar, Rangila, Bhagambhag, Halla Gulla. Was the spark lit by one of his earliest roles in the 1936 movie named after his favourite car brand, Chevrolet?

Albela was Bhagwan’s zenith. A regular actor in low-budget stunt films, action thrillers and comedies, many of which he produced and directed, Bhagwan reached peak with Albela. But attempts to recreate Albela’s success through such films as Jhamela (1953), Shola Jo Bhadke (1961) and Labela (1966) proved futile.

‘Shola Jo Bhadke’. Courtesy National Film Archive of India.

Although Bhagwan continued to act in and make films, his wealth gradually shrank. Before he died on February 3, 2005, some newspaper reports described him as a broken man, with his characteristically large and mischievous eyes sunk deep in their sockets. But the Palavs dispute these accounts of penury. “We were never poor, he didn’t rack up debt, and he never once asked for a handout,” asserted Sunetra Palav. “All of us grandchildren are well settled, with half of us in foreign countries.”

Even so, Bhagwan’s slide from affluence to middle-class status is a cautionary tale that is echoed across family-owned companies in the Hindi film industry. Bhagwan’s rise is all the more fascinating when you consider his modest upbringing. He was born Bhagwan Abhaji Palav on August 4, 1913, into a mill fitter’s family. He studied till the fourth standard, did odd jobs and learnt wrestling before taking up small movie roles. He was so effective in his first role, as a hunchback in the silent film Bewafa Aashiq (1931), that he didn’t get work for two years: producers assumed that he was handicapped in real life, writes Sriram Tamrakar in his chapter on Bhagwan in the book Beeta Kal Ke Sitare.

Among Bhagwan’s earliest influences were the Hollywood stars Charlie Chaplin and Danny Kaye. Between 1938 and 1949, the stocky actor appeared in “stunt and action films that appealed to the working class”, Tamrakar writes. “The common people saw themselves reflected in the five-foot tall man with large eyes.”

His first film as director was Bahadur Kisan in 1938. Bhagwan is credited with making one of the first comedy-based horror films in 1949, called Bhedi Bangla.

Bhagwan also finds a mention in Kishore Valicha’s 1998 book on actor and filmmaker Kishore Kumar. In Kishore Kumar the Definitive Biography, Valicha writes of how “Albela paved the way for the full-length comedy films of Kishore Kumar and Mehmood”. Due to the massive popularity of Albela, “the dichotomy of the film into the serious and the silly had been partly distorted”, Valicha writes.

The author described Bhagwan’s trademark minimalist dance move, which has been imitated by Amitabh Bachchan, Mithun Chakraborty and Govinda over the years, as “a slow, lumbering, gauche dance which has an earthy and somewhat lewd appeal”. All these years later, Albela is chiefly remembered for Bhagwan’s rhythmic shuffle, which proves that simply anybody can dance.

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Shola Jo Bhadke from Ekk Albela.