I am talking of the Govinda of the '90s, when he was nimble and agile and capable of generating the kind of laughter that was happy, unself-conscious, and above all, free. He had been lurking on the periphery of Bollywood since the mid-'80s in a string of no-account films (Tan Badan, Love 86, Sada Suhagan) and then graduating to semi-successful singing-dancing parts, which started to bring that chokra from Virar (the suburb his family lived in) to our attention. But he really went mega when he teamed up with director David Dhawan for a series of earthy, frothing, rolling-in-the-aisles-funny entertainers.
Conventional film wisdom cautions actors from performing alongside animals and children, because they are natural scene stealers. In Aankhen, one of my favourite Govinda films, he shared screen space with a monkey (and Chunky Pandey, not a comic slouch himself, and Neelam and Raageshwari, the kind of leading ladies that became a Govinda hallmark, giggly and flighty and happy to play third and fourth fiddle), and out-monkeyed the simian.
In a conversation I had with David Dhawan several years ago, he told me why he liked working with Govinda. "He is completely in tune with the way I think. Very often, we are on the set, he senses exactly what I want him to do, and he does just that," he said. That business of picking things from the director's head is not an exaggeration: from what I heard, going by the standard working style of Dhawan, there were no bound scripts (there were occasions Dhawan wrote lines on the back of a cigarette packet just before the shot, I was told by people who were there); most of the time, they were improvising madly.
A sighting of the man around this time when he was reigning (stories of him turning up horrendously late on film sets, or not at all, throwing his weight around, were rife) gave me an insight into his huge success. It was after a press conference, and he was walking out of a Delhi five-star hotel, wearing a black tux. Now this was a vision. Govinda as a Technicoloured tangerine would have been perfectly acceptable: this was clearly his version of an LBD, telling us, hey, I can wear a suit too. Someone asked him, Govindaji, yeh suit kahaan se aaya? He wheeled around, beamed, and said, "Designer hai!" There was something likeable about the way he said that. His suit may have been designer, but he was clearly one of us. There was full-throated laughter amongst everyone present, taking the cue from the man whose grin, fronted by the whitest of even teeth, was like a sunburst.
That feeling of brightness and lightness and effortlessness was Govinda's key to spreading his brand of cheer. His short, stocky self, decked in blinding costumes, moving and shaking to a rhythm that was completely his own, was a happiness virus. He was, and still is, one of the best dancers that Bollywood has produced. When he dances, each pore moves, from his toes, to fingertips and eyes. He brought that same sense of rhythm to his speaking parts, so that even when he was doing the same thing over and over again, you couldn't help cracking a smile.
But now Govinda has fallen upon bad days. In one of his last big outings, he was seen chasing skirts, which is just the kind of pathetic parts sliding stars often do in the hope of a resurrection.
Is this the end of the Govinda we know and love? I hope not. I hope he does come back. Because we need the laughter. Because we need to smile.