The eyes have it, Buddhadeb Dasgupta told Pavan Malhotra. The director was looking for an actor to play a tiger impersonator in his new movie. Malhotra had completed his first major lead role as a small-time thug in Saeed Mirza’s Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro. A magazine had put Malhotra on the cover. Dasgupta saw the publication and called Malhotra. Your eyes are really striking, the actor recalls being told by Dasgupta.

The film was Bagh Bahadur, now regarded as one of the finest films by the renowned director died in Kolkata on June 10 at the age of 77. While he worked mostly in Bengali, Dasgupta made a few films in Hindi too, of which Bagh Bahadur is possibly the most widely known.

The Hindi-Bhojpuri production stars Malhotra as a quarry worker who travels back to his village every year to transform himself into a tiger. His body painted in black-and-yellow stripes and clothed in a tiger costume, Gunuram performs with the majesty of a big cat and the grace of a dancer

But the times are changing. A group of entertainers brings a caged leopard to the village, setting up a clash between human and beast and folk art and the circus.

The film’s central conflict is between art and artifice, a human who absorbs the spirit of the tiger when in performance mode and an animal that entertains its audiences only when poked and prodded. Bagh Bahadur is based on a short story by Prafulla Roy. Shot by Venu, Bagh Bahadur was filmed in Nayagaon in Orissa over a month-long schedule in 1989.

Bagh Bahadur (1989). Courtesy Doordarshan/National Film Development Corporation.

“The role was very different from Salim Langde,” Malhotra told Scroll.in. “I felt that I simply had to do the film.”

Salim, a streetwise Mumbai resident full of swagger, is similar to Gunuram only in his idealism and dreaminess. Gunuram wants to marry his sweetheart Radha (Archana) and is dismayed when she too is enamoured of the new attraction.

Gunuram doesn’t only leap about, but twirls around too. Malhotra had done a bit of physical theatre and dance during his years on the stage in Delhi before he embarked on a career in films and television in Mumbai. Malhotra had played one of the dogs in an adaptation of George Orwell’s play Animal Farm. “That play had used Chhau movements,” Malhotra said. For Bagh Bahadur too, Malhotra’s preparations included basic training in the dance form.

Buddhadeb Dasgupta during the shoot of Bagh Bahadur in 1989.

The hardest part of the shoot wasn’t tackling the leopard, a tamed feline whose mouth was sown up and feet tied in the scenes in which it wrestles with people. It was the facial and bodily make-up.

“The enamel paint used to take over three hours,” Malhotra said. “I had to stand with the support of two sticks while I was being painted head to toe. Then I had to sit in the sun to let the paint dry.”

After the day’s shoot was completed, Malhotra had to submit himself to make-up removal, which involved the use of kerosene. He was often the last person to leave the location and return to his hotel. He needed at least a couple of bars of soap to get rid of the smell of kerosene, he recalled.

“It was all worth it,” Malhotra said. “Both Salim Langde and Bagh Bahadur won National Film Awards in 1990. Whatever I am today is because of God’s grace and these two films.”

Pavan Malhotra.

Dasgupta was clear in his instructions to his actors and the look and feel he wanted from his team. “He would speak to me in Hindi and then if he got excited, he would pinch me and lapse into English and then Bengali,” Malhotra said.

The co-production between the National Film Development Corporation and Doordarshan travelled to film festivals before being released in Bengal and a few other places. It was popular enough for Malhotra to be called “Bagh” by fans.

“I met a German filmmaker some years ago and he looked at me and said, Tiger Man,” Malhotra said. “This is what great cinema is – you remember the films decades later. Whatever we learn from such films stays with us our whole lives.”

The actor went on to play a series of well-received roles, including the British production Brothers in Trouble (1995), Black Friday (2004), Jab We Met (2007) and Bhaag Milkha Bhaag (2013). In 2015, a retrospective to commemorate Malhotra’s acting prowess was held in New Delhi. The film that inaugurated the package: Bagh Bahadur.

Also read:

Buddhadeb Dasgupta tribute: A chronicler of dreamers in a hostile world

Buddhadeb Dasgupta: ‘Put some dreams, magic, reality into a glass and shake it. That’s my cinema’

‘Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro’ revisited: A timeless tale of a small-time thug dreaming of the big league