Book: Sudershan (Chimpanzee)
Author: Rajesh Devraj, Rajesh Devraj
We meet Sudershan the chimpanzee for the first time at an Irani hotel in Byculla, Mumbai. He is smoking Charminars and willing to trade a “lifetime of memories for a cup of chai”.
These memories take the reader to the B-side of B-town in the ’60s, when animals like Sudershan played lead roles in the movies. The idea of animals being superstars, although initially ridiculous, grows on you. After all, the current and past list of B-film actors aren’t much less ridiculous.
Rajesh Devraj previously co-authored The Art Of Bollywood, a study of the film industry through its posters. This book is similar in that Devraj has used Sudershan’s story to reveal the layers of the B-film industry.
Sudershan’s family works at a circus. Sudershan, however, is not good at the tricks. One day, he discovers that the crowd enjoys it when he mimics humans. After the show, he wonders, “Why were they so amused by this mockery of their own selves, this distorting mirror?” Sudershan doesn’t know the answer, “but in the crowd’s laughter he sensed an escape from his banal world.”
Sudershan lands up in Bombay. He sleeps on footpaths, steals money for food and sells drugs to visiting hippies, before landing up on film sets where he finds work as an extra. He grows close to Najubhai, the director of several super-hit films, and eventually gets his big break as a lead actor in the film, Chimpoo The Ape Bomb.
After a series of hit films — which include Return Of Chimpoo, Rocket Chimpoo, Detective Chimpoo, and Chimpoo Aur Jadui Chirag — Sudershan finds that fame doesn’t bring him lasting satisfaction. That’s when he falls in love with a heroine, Padma.
Padma too is in love with Sudershan, but ultimately gets cold feet. Sudershan realises, “He could scratch his scalp, squint at a paper, rub his belly like fat Batra, and people would laugh. But if he took his mimicry too far, the world would recoil in horror.”
The mimicry that gave him an escape now seems like a curse. Sudershan tries escaping into what should be his natural domain — the jungle — but finds that he cannot adjust to the life there. He belongs nowhere. A bitter Sudershan meets the Giggling Guru, who distributes drugs amongst his devotees. The police nab the fake guru. But Sudershan is forgiving since the guru, for all his faults, gave him peace.
The humour and filmy language makes Sudershan immersive. For instance, commenting on how pride goes to Sudershan’s head, one of his co-stars says, “Bandar ki neeyat hai. Nakal to seekh lega... lekin akal kaun dega bhai?”
The writing is complemented by Meren Imchen’s artwork. The monochrome sketches convey the dark humour and bring out the shady world which the characters inhabit.
The real takeaway from the book is the worldview of people who work in B-films. Without judgment, Devraj shows the aspirations of actors employed by this industry go beyond wealth and fame. There is a genuine love for acting, which degenerates into delusions of grandeur — just as it does with their A-list counterparts.