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Desperately seeking Charlie in dry, humourless Kutch
NIDHI GUPTA  9th Sep 2012

Ashok Aswani dressed as Chaplin in the film

hand-held camera pans upon the dry, arid desert of Kutch, Gujarat. Stuck in the middle of this sandy terrain that looks suspiciously like an iced over lake is a stick with a bowler hat dangling off it. As the sun sets, a folk song begins playing in the background. The rustic voice is singing an invitation to, surprisingly, Charlie Chaplin: "In our Kutch, someday, in our Kutch, even if you get lost on your way, Charlie visit us, we will provide you with such hospitality that you'll forget your London." And suddenly, there he is: the Tramp, stick in hand, feet wide apart, ambling towards you.

In this strangest of encounters, the East and West have stumbled upon each other to birth a fascinating fusion story. The tiny village of Adipur in Gujarat is today a 'Chaplinised' town – it is peopled by fans, young and old, who know his biography and filmography by heart. They impersonate him, celebrate him and worship him. Filmmaker Nimesh Desai, in a 56 minute documentary titled The Ageless Tramp, looks at the root of this eternal love and traces it to one man's obsession.

The film traces the life and times of Ashok Aswani who is, among other things, an Ayurvedic doctor, venerated around the village. But this isn't your usual dose of small-town respect for doctors – the man's healing powers come from a lifetime of lessons from Chaplin. "I had a temporary job with the Food Corporation of India as a typist. On my way to office, I used to cross a decrepit old cinema hall called the Oslo theatre. Once, a poster of Charlie Chaplin's Gold Rush caught my eye and I couldn't stop looking at it. So I decided to go watch one show. I was so entranced by what I saw that I kept buying tickets until I realised it was already dark and that I must head home. Next day, of course, I lost my job," he laughs.

This initial fascination translated into dogged fandom, as Aswani bought and sourced Chaplin movies, watching and reading vociferously, until every move and gesture of his was etched onto his brain. He then started impersonating Chaplin for private entertainment, joined and got kicked out of FTII for beating up Asrani, came back to a wife who wouldn't support him in his endeavour to act and finally settled in his hometown as a doctor and impersonator. But today, having founded the Charlie Club, he has ensured that Adipur becomes a living tribute to one of the greatest actors of all time.

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Chaplin’s birthday is a big deal too – the entire village takes on a new life as the streets are flooded with an army of little Charlies, some giving Bharatnatyam recitals, others dancing on Bollywood songs.

Desai, who owns a theatre club in Gujarat, first met him 15 years ago when the doctor came to him with records of folk music from Kutch. "Even in my stage work, I have constantly attempted to keep the serious out, instead focussing on human interest stories. Here was a man living a narrative more fascinating than fiction. I had to find how and why an entire village in the middle of a desert had made this connection," says Desai.

For him, it was fascinating to find that in this rural setup where people don't have money to buy three pairs of normal clothes, there existed about 15 tailors specialising in drafting Chaplin suits. "He's changed the way the children think. The girls who are part of his club wear Western clothes, recite Chaplin's full name reverently and now have a completely different outlook on life," he elucidates. Chaplin's birthday is a big deal too – the entire village takes on a new life as the streets are flooded with an army of little Charlies, some giving Bharatnatyam recitals, others doing matka-jhatkas to Bollywood songs on the stage.

But despite some brilliantly crafted scenes, as the one where Aswani is shown doing his Chaplin make-up in a close up shot, the movie leaves one wanting for more. Desai has kept the narration minimal, letting the interviews and visuals do all the talking, but this has left the script a bit disjointed. Desai himself feels it is incomplete still. There's one scene he says he'd like to put in – send eight children from Kutch trotting up a hill, and have an equal number of 'white' kids in Chaplin gear descend. In this symbolic visual of the East and West meeting, the story of Adipur would perhaps find better-honed, if more poetic, resonance.

The Ageless Tramp will be screened today as part of the Public Sector Broadcasting Trust's film festival Open Frame. For details, see http://www.psbt.org/general/programme .

 
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