I will never forget my first glimpse of Chandramohan as a bloodthirsty Rajput in Mehboob Khan’s historical Humayun. Those pale and compelling eyes! That determined hunger for vengeance! I was instantly enchanted by his persistent enmity in the face of his foe’s tolerant goodwill. Indeed, Chandramohan dominates my review of that film. His flamboyant appearance and theatrics were unforgettable.
Then I saw him in Pukar as the Mughal emperor Jehangir and he caught my heart. His tender chemistry with Naseem Banu as Noor Jehan and fine performance as the legendary king bowled me over. His astonishing good looks and unique speaking voice did not hurt either! Again, he dominated my post on the movie.
So of course I had to know more about this gorgeous and charismatic actor, and the first thing I discovered is that he died in his early 40s on Saturday 2 April 1949, penniless. Nooooooooo!!!! Nahiiin!
But there was a silver lining: if there’s one source of information that reliably does show up on the interwebs, it’s an obituary. I found one in the April 1949 issue of Sound magazine on Surjit Singh’s invaluable website which ran into four pages and soon realized that he was as colorful a character in real life as he was onscreen.
One of those larger-than-life people you rarely see anymore, he was generous to a fault, a favorite with the ladies (I have such impeccable taste!) and a lover of the finer things in life. He counted among his friends contemporaries like Motilal, K.N. Singh, K.L. Saigal and Prithviraj Kapoor, and a few Maharajahs with whom he shared a passion for horse racing.
He was born in Narsinghpur in what was then known as the Central Provinces to Kashmiri Brahmin parents on July 24, 1906 and named Chandramohan Watal. His mother died when he was very small and he was brought up “with great indulgence” by his maternal grandmother. He left home in 1930 and took a series of odd jobs, including managing a cinema and a film distributorship. During this last job he met V. Shantaram of Prabhat, who was struck by his pale gray-green eyes and thought he would make an excellent actor.
Chandramohan refused him at first but a couple of years later agreed to appear in the Hindi version of 1934’s Amrit Manthan as a seriously intimidating high priest. Amrish Puri had nothing on him! The film famously opens with a closeup of his eyes and pans out slowly to reveal his face. I would love to see it, but have only been able to find the Marathi version of the film; that scene is missing from my copy anyway. I fondly nurture the idea that Shantaram maybe used some Chandramohan closeups in it though.
Sadly I have not been able to find any color pictures of him, although I have also read that he went prematurely gray in his late teens. But certainly even black and white film shows how fiercely dramatic his eyes and expression were. Even surrounded by a thick thatch of wig and beard, they are startling in their intensity.
In his Filmindia obituary of Chandramohan, Baburao Patel wrote:
Syed Fateh Lal, the great artist of Prabhat, was so much fascinated by Chandramohan’s unique eyes that he would sit for hours looking at them wondering how they would be received on the screen.
He was a huge star from Amrit Manthan onwards, and soon became the highest paid actor in Indian cinema. In the thirties, actors worked for specific studios much as their counterparts in Hollywood did, and Chandramohan was one of the first to break that trend. He left Prabhat in 1937 after a disagreement with Shantaram over whether the studio made an actor successful or it worked the other way around. He went on to work at several other studios for a short time before becoming a “free-lancer.” In the December 1941 Filmindia, he is quoted as saying:
I never work for money (that rolls in automatically) but only to satisfy the artist in me…I like to be able to express my own ideas about how I should play a scene. A director must say what he wants to say to the public through the artiste, but the artiste must have some say in the matter. If directors could act they would not need to have artistes to put over their films, but as long as they can’t act they must allow actors more scope for interpreting the role in the way they think is best.
He also nursed an ambition to go to Hollywood, where he wanted to do horror films and Buster Keaton’s kind of comedies “where the characters would be serious but the situations funny”—but sadly this dream was never realized.
Chandramohan spent the lakhs of rupees he earned for each film entertaining his friends and on his beloved race horses. He was a loner who never married “because if I did I would lose my individuality and I wouldn’t be able to take chances.” He enjoyed the company of friends but lived by himself and liked being alone. His attitude towards his fellow men was practical:
Man is a compound of good and bad. If a man is not that way he is not a man.
He was often accused of being arrogant and defended himself:
I am not a brag. I just state facts. If a man talks a lot he’s called a brag and if he doesn’t have anything to say, he’s called a fool, so I just state the truth about myself and let people think what they like.
Baburao Patel was often asked about him by readers in the Q&A sections of Filmindia:
Q: I want to know something about Chandramohan?
A: Write to him [address] and he will tell you everything. He doesn’t give others a chance to tell his story.
Q: Has Chandramohan sung in any of his films?
A: Chandramohan seems to have more sense than Motilal, and spares us the torture on the screen. Chandramohan, however, insists on tickling our ears on the sets.
Baburao shared Chandramohan’s love for racing and horses (he owned a thoroughbred named—what else?—Filmindia) and would comment occasionally on the losses which Chandramohan was piling up. He wrote once:
At the Race Course [Chandramohan] has become too popular with the bookies who want his autograph on the cheque book.
Chandramohan—who had long been an avowed atheist—became quite obsessed by the end of his life with religion, and especially the goddess Kali. He began drinking quite heavily and talked often about his dreams, especially one he had about his racehorse Kanta. He dreamed one night that Kanta fell and broke her leg at the fifth furlong post while racing, and asked his trainer the next morning if she was okay for the race she was scheduled to run that day. The trainer assured Chandramohan that Kanta had every chance to win the race—but she fell and broke her leg at the fifth furlong post.
These dreams and religious fanaticism came at a point after several years of flop films followed by little work, when his extravagant lifestyle had drained his once healthy bank account. His obituary in Sound magazine says that he often would say “I’ve lost Laxmi, but I’ve found Kali Mata.”
Although his fortunes appeared to be turning the corner at the time of his death (he had several new films in hand), he died penniless and his funeral rites were paid for by the Film Artistes’ Association. He left his female companion of three years, Sheila, and no doubt a string of broken hearts behind him; and we fans of Hindi cinema bereft of what could have been many more hours of his intensely magnetic screen presence to enjoy (he was famously K. Asif’s first pick to play Akbar in Mughal-e-Azam—Prithviraj Kapoor eventually replaced him).
He would have appeared with Nargis and Veena too, if K. Asif had managed to keep the project going through the upheaval of Partition.
Here he is with Veena in Humayun (he played her fiance, although his heart in that film was mostly devoted to retribution):
The headline of his obituary in Filmindia read “A Lion At Rest!”:
Leonine in bearing and noble in character, Chandramohan was recognized as a great friend and sportsman to whom all rushed in their hour of need.
Baburao also wrote in his “You’ll Hardly Believe” feature:
That Sardar Chandulal Shah can never excuse Chandramohan for dying on a Saturday—a race day. But the next day was also a race day and Chandramohan was too much in a hurry to wait till Monday to enable the Sardar to attend his funeral.
That almost every artiste, producer and journalist attended Chandramohan’s funeral but none from Ranjit was seen. Is every one in Ranjit a horse lover?
That when V. Shantaram…heard of old Chandramohan’s sudden death he felt like a sculptor whose model had been suddenly broken. Had Chandramohan known this, he would have postponed the event.
(Sardar Chandulal Shah was the owner of Ranjit Studios and decidedly not a favorite of Baburao’s: he no doubt more than once accused Shah of selling out in favor of money over art, and likened Ranjit’s productions to “sausages.”)
I have seen Chandramohan in six films: Pukar, Amarjyoti, Humayun—all written about here—plus Vahan (1937), Roti (1942), and Shaheed (1948); and I’ve loved him in every single one even if I had no idea what was going on (but especially when I did!). No matter the character—fierce Rajput, benevolent Mughal, ruthless capitalist, scheming priest—it is hard to look at anyone else when he is onscreen.
He appeared opposite Ulhas and Leela Chitnis in Vahan, playing Leela’s father.
His body of work is not as large as it would have been had he lived longer; but he was one of the very first cinema superstars, and an actor and man who deserves not to be forgotten!
My friend Atul sent a translation of an article about Chandramohan printed in a Hindi newspaper, and written by a very nice man named Raajkumar Keswani. He tells me he plans to post them in English as well sometime soon; for now, if you read Hindi you can find his article here along with a followup letter which he received from Chandramohan’s 82-year-old nephew afterwards. I found the letter particularly interesting, of course, and am posting Atul’s translations at the end here if you are interested too. You can also download the issue of Sound magazine linked above which contains his obituary if you want to read the whole thing; and I am including the wonderful Chandramohan interview from the December 1941 issue of Filmindia.
In his article, Mr. Keswani says that he is writing about Chandramohan in the hopes that some of the younger generation may thus discover him anew and explore his films. “When they watch these movies,” he says, “they will bless me.”
That perfectly sums it up for me too! Find a Chandramohan film, and watch it (I recommend Pukar or Roti, both outstanding movies). You can bless me or not, but you will rarely see a more compelling presence on screen: Chandramohan was—IS—truly one of a kind.