My friend and film encyclopedia Arunkumar Deshmukh contacted me a few days ago with the news that he had met family members of “yesteryears” actor and singer Parshuram. He was offering to write a guest post about this largely forgotten but long-time contributor to Indian cinema, who began his career in 1937, in V. Shantaram’s Duniya Na Maane (and Kunku, the Marathi version) and worked steadily for three more decades plus.
Naturally I jumped at this generosity! A big thank you to the family of Parshuram, and of course to Arunji.
TIME is a great leveller.
So is our film industry. This industry has lifted many people from rags to riches and also some have been dragged from riches to rags.
This is a Maya Nagari.
Those who thought that all that glittered here was gold have suffered the bitter effects of the stark reality.
There are umpteen number of cases in the industry where the Artists who reached a certain height in their professional career,died unsung,unknown and unattended.There are instances like Parveen Babi and Nalini Jaywant, whose deaths went virtually unnoticed, their last circumstances unknown and when discovered, too late. For many the end was violent, like Sayeeda Khan (murdered), director Brij (suicide), Madholal Master, MD (murdered), Vasant Desai (crushed between lift doors) or Shankar Dasgupta (came under a local train). Some committed suicide like Guru Dutt and Bulo C Rani etc.
But the worst is when death does not come quickly and the last days are spent in poverty, begging or being bedridden without attendants.
Master Nissar, whose popularity was such that the Bombay Governor had to stop and give way to his crowds of fans, died penniless in Kamathipura slums. His last rites were done by the Artists’ Association.
The charming bubbly Meena Shorey begged for money for her daughter’s marriage and died unsung and penniless. Her last rites were paid for by charity donations.
Wasti, the one time hero, was seen begging near Liberty Talkies in Bombay. Rattanbai, onetime famous singer and actress begged at a durgah, as did Khan Mastana. Rajkumari, Vimi, Dwijen Mukherjee, Bharat Bhushan, Bhagwan all spent their last days in penury, humiliation and obscurity. Cases are many and varied. The point is that life in the film industry was tough for most.
When I read about the plight of Parshuram as narrated by Tabassum, I felt very sad. Parshuram was an actor/singer I remembered most for his wonderful song “Man saaf tera hai ke nahin” in the film Duniya Na Maane (1937).
I was keen to know more about him. I tried every possible source in my knowledge, but nowhere could I get any information about him.
It is extremely difficult to collect information about oldtime actors and singers, because records are kept only for the very famous.Unless you find some close relative, you cannot get any authentic information. Once the artist becomes very old, even he can not give much information as his memory fails him. Sometimes he may give wrong information, albeit with good intentions, but it does not corroborate with other sources. I have come across close relatives of some old artists who expected money for the barter of information. They think that we must be making money by writing about them. For a common man, it is beyond his imagination that anyone can do this work merely out of love for old films/songs/artists. In this selfish world we can not blame them for this.
History is witness to the fact that almost every project—be it writing history, collecting rare data, inventing things or helping social causes—has come out of obsessive love for it rather than for the money it might accrue !
In the month of November 2011, I wrote an article on Atul Ji’s blog, referring to Parshuram. One reader from Australia drew my attention to a comment made by a person on Parshuram’s song on YouTube, claiming to be Parshuram’s grandson. I was thrilled. I immediately wrote to him, and to my delight he indeed was Parshuram’s grandson.
Mr. Mangesh Barde, grandson of Parshuram (his daughter’s son), is settled in New Zealand, with his family (wife and son). He not only responded to my email, but also got in touch with his mother in Mumbai and asked her to get in touch with me.
Sure enough, I got a call from his mother and after confirming my credentials and genuine interest, she agreed to meet me in early January 2013. On the appointment day, I went to her residence in Bandra, Mumbai, where she lives alone after her husband’s death. She worked in the Indian Customs department until she retired sometime back. Her two daughters are also married happily, and one stays close by on Pali Hill in Bandra. She too joined us after some time although both ladies requested anonymity.
From her home we spoke to her son in New Zealand via Skype. Mangesh is a very handsome young man who works for an airline company there. We three had a long discussion and I got a fairly good amount of information about Parshuram. His daughter had kept some very old photographs and cuttings of an article from a Marathi magazine on Parshuram, though that did not have much information and whatever was there was mostly incorrect, she said.
Parshuram Laxman Sonnis was born in a small village of Ahmednagar district of Maharashtra in a very poor family. From childhood he was fond of acting and singing. He used to regale people with his mimicry. Due to his family’s poverty his education did not go beyond 4th Standard, but he was fond of reading and used to read whatever came to his hands. This improved his language and also his knowledge.
When he was around ten, his father shifted to Bombay. He tried to fix Parshuram as an extra at Ranjit Movietone. After an year or so, after realising that there was no scope there for him, he left it. Then his father would take him on shoulder and look for jobs while Parshuram sang songs from films. One day when they were doing this, V.Shantaram passed them. Hearing Parshuram’s song he followed them and asked his father to leave Parshuram in his custody at Prabhat Film Company in Poona to groom him as an actor. Delighted with this, his father agreed and left him at Prabhat.
Thus started a journey of life.
At Prabhat, he got a salary of Rs.5 per month plus food, shelter and clothing as perks. Here he took the opportunity to learn music from stalwarts like Master Krishnarao Fulambrikar and Keshavrao Bhole, a big name in classical and film music that time. Being a good learner Parshuram picked up singing quickly.
His first break came when he was given the singing role of a beggar boy in Prabhat’s iconic milestone film Duniya Na Maane. He sang the song so beautifully that Shantaram and all others at Prabhat were very pleased, and his acting was also flawless. He sang in the film’s Marathi version Kunku too. The song became very popular and it opened doors for another role soon.
In 1938, Prabhat made another bilingual film (Hindi and Marathi) called Gopal Krishna. Parshuram got the meaty role of Pendya, the childhood friend of Krishna and a leader of other Gope children of Gokul. The role was important and big. He sang three solos and a trio in this film. The trio was with Shanta Apte and Ram Marathe—both expert singers—but Parshuram sang along with them with equal expertise.
The same year he acted in yet another bilingual Prabhat film called Mera Ladka (Maza Mulga in Marathi). In this film he sang just one song with Master Chhotu, a reputed stage artist.
As per those days’ customs it was time for him to get married as he was about 18 now. He got married to Leelabai, a girl selected by his father. This was in 1940. Shantaram gave him Rs.500 for his marriage. In those days it was a big amount and the entire marriage was accomplished with the money without any problem.
Parshuram was very happy. He was sure that his career will take off from here now, but alas! he was not given any role in any Prabhat film after this. This was the time when Shantaram was having problems at Prabhat and it was rumoured that he was leaving it. As Parshuram was an actor of his ‘camp’, he was shunted aside and he continued being only a servant of Prabhat doing household work in directors’ houses. Frustrated, he left Prabhat and got a role in National Studio’s Meri Duniya (1942). He sang three songs in this film but no recordings were made for any of the its songs.
Meanwhile Shantaram had also left Prabhat and started his own Rajkamal Kalamandir Studios and production company. He called Parshuram and employed him at 80 rupees per month salary. Parshuram got a role in Rajkamal’s first film, 1943’s Shakuntala. Parshuram did the role of Kanva Muni, the foster father of all the ashram girls including Shakuntala. In this film he sang two songs, with Jayashree (Shantaram’s wife) and with Zohrabai Ambalawali.
His family needs were increasing and work at Prabhat slowed for him after Shakuntala. With Shantaram’s consent, he started doing films outside of Rajkamal. However he also continued to work for Rajkamal whenever called: in Jeevan Yatra (1946), Matwala Shayar (1947) (Lokshahir Ramjoshi in Marathi), Bhool (1948), Apna Desh (1949), Teen Batti Char Raasta (1953) and Geet Gaaya Patharon Ne (1964).
During this time he also worked in Chor Bazar (1954), House No. 44 (1955), Jagte Raho (1956) and Bhagam Bhag (1956).
His next big break came when Bharat Bhushan called him for an important role of court singer in his home production, Basant Bahar (1956). He sang on screen the very famous song of Bhimsen Joshi and Manna Dey “Ketaki gulab juhi champak…”. Perhaps he is the only one in those days to get a playback from Bhimsen Joshi!
Then came Khuda Ka Banda (1957), Khazanchi (1958), Barkha (1959), Shriman Satyawadi (1960), Saranga (1961), King Kong (1962), Aashiq (1962), Main Chup Rahungi (1962), Aap Ki Parchhaiyan (1964), Rustom-e-Hind (1965), Bheegi Raat (1965), Bharat Milap (1965), Laadla (1966), Ram Aur Shyam (1967), Majhli Didi (1967), Suhag Raat (1968), Safar (1970) and Man Mandir (1971).
He also worked in 6 Marathi films: Kunku, Gopal Krishna, Maza Mulga, Lokshahir Ramjoshi, Amar Bhoopali and Vyjayanta.
He had a good relationship with AVM bosses and he used to fly to Madras in those days for shooting.
After 1968 his bad period started. He met with an accident and broke his leg; a rod had to be fixed in it, giving him a limp. Films were not being offered now that his type of singing and acting was out of date. He fell into bad company and began drinking in frustration, and even showed up drunk on set. Somehow he worked in a few films as an uncredited extra. His family life was devastated due to his drinking, and his wife and son deserted him. They too had to make ends meet somehow. Parshuram started asking for and borrowing money from everybody for drinks. People began avoiding him and he became almost a beggar.
One day actress Tabassum saw him at the Lucky Hotel traffic light at Bandra. She recognised him as she had acted with him in some films. Her film-based TV show “Phool Khile Hain Gulshan Gulshan” was in full swing in the 1976-77 period. She stopped her car, took him to TV station, fed him, cleaned him up, gave him some clothes and did a live talk show with him on her programme. She also gave him Rs.1000 on the spot.
After this interview was telecast, many people were moved with his story and wanted to help him. Shiv Sena announced a pension of Rs. 100 per month to him.
His condition was so bad that he was unable to do any work. Rejected by family and ruined by alcohol, he was found unconcious on the footpath one day (his daughter was already married and was away). Some good samaritans took him to Bhabha Hospital and informed his family. Neither his wife nor son went to see him, and by the time his daughter came to know about it he had died, on the 24th of January, 1978. His daughter did his last rites.
His wife died on soon after on June 26, 1981, and his son died in 1982.
Parshuram was an original, a natural actor and singer. His role of court singer in Basant Bahar is simply unforgettable. Though he was not educated, he could speak English which he had learnt on his own. This was very handy in Madras when he did AVM films.
Bharat Bhushan and Raj Kapoor (he did two films—Jagte Raho and Aashiq with RK) respected him for his work. Even small roles were made memorable by his acting.
Today only his daughter, grandson and granddaughter remember him fondly as affectionate father and grandfather. He loved his granddaughter very much.
When I visited them, they were all overwhelmed that, 35 years after his death, someone had shown interest in his work.
All photographs are courtesy Parshuram’s family (and Arunkumarji who provided pictures of them).