Keshto Mukherjee is perhaps one of the most prolific and versatile actors Bollywood has ever seen. He was born in Kolkata, then Calcutta, which was a part of the Bengal Presidency under the British. His career spanned over three decades, during which he delivered hit after hit, but he became a household name with the Hindi film Zanjeer. Mukherjee acted in over ninety movies and was known for his comic timing.
Despite playing the role of a drunkard so well, he was actually a teetotaller, he had not touched a drop of alcohol in his life. Yet, people remember him as the comical drunkard who would stumble over his words and make the audience laugh with his silly antics. He managed to shine even as a side character and captured the audience’s imagination.
It was Asit Sen who discovered the “drunkard” in Mukherjee and gave him a role in ‘Maa aur Mamta’ the Nutan-starrer 1970 film. Since then, the role of the Bollywood drunkard became synonymous with Keshto Mukherjee.
An entire generation grew up watching his films and actually believing that the man was a drunkard even in real life. Such was his charisma that people could not separate his reel life from his real life. He is arguably one of the most talented comedians to have graced Hindi cinema, his glimpse can be seen in actors like Johnny Lever.
Mukherjee started his journey in the movies as early as 1952. He made his debut with Ritwik Ghatak’s Nagarik. The film preceded director Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali as the first art film in Bengali cinema. However, both Keshto Mukherjee and Ritwik Ghatak never got to watch the film on the big screen because it was released after both of them had passed away.
Working with Amitabh and Hrishikesh
Keshto Mukherjee appeared in Musafir (1957) directed by Hrishikesh Mukherjee. This is when his career picked up and he started appearing in smaller roles. In ‘Chacha Bhatija’ (1977) he graced the silver screen with legendary actor Dharmendra, who suggested a song on Keshto. This was the inception of the song Keshto Chala. The song started to be associated with the drunken comic everyone had come to know and love.
Keshto Mukherjee and Amitabh Bachchan were a hit on-screen pair. Mukherjee delivered many hits as a supporting character in Amitabh’s movies. The most notable being ‘Zanjeer’. The 1973 hit has achieved a cult-like status. Keshto Mukherjee’s role as a drunkard in ‘Golmaal’ (1979) made the movie eternal. He was almost a permanent fixture in Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s movies. The whimsical smile he had on-screen was hard to miss.
Mukherjee was nominated for several awards, before winning a Filmfare Award for Best Comic role in ‘Khoobsurat’ in 1981. In the iconic film Sholay, he played the role of Hariram, the resident prison barber who was also a notorious tattletale. Comedy came effortlessly to Mukherjee, he had the ability to make an entire theatre double over in laughter.
He breathed his last in his Mumbai residence on 2 March 1982. To this day he remains the immortal comedian of Hindi cinema who captivated people with his eccentric roles.