The legend from Kolhapur

He is an institution in Marathi cinema as actor, producer

and director, and at 82, still loves to make films. Ramesh Deo has made a name for himself even in Hindi films and also done theatre, television and ads. The man who wanted to join the Army won all his spectacular victories on celluloid.

When we call up about a small delay due to traffic, he just says, "Don't worry at all, son! I am at home anyway." Only a true-blue superstar who has been there, done that and more would say that, we guess. And Ramesh Deo is still active, planning productions and taking up some television and acting assignments "that suit me". But then Ramesh Deo probably chose early in life not to learn arrogance and starry attitude - out of choice.

He is a bit indisposed but actually expresses gratitude to us for coming. "Talking about lovely memories with you has distracted me from this mild stomach problem I have!" he declares.

Long haul

It's been six decades since his debut cameo in the 1951 Marathi film Paatlaachi Por. In this long innings, he has acted in over 150 Marathi films, mostly as hero, over 200 Hindi films ("My three Hindi films as a hero just crashed!") mostly as character artiste, either produced or produced and directed many Marathi films including the blockbuster Sarja, made television serials, produced several plays and staged over a 1000 performances and founded and ran a successful ad film company.

His love story with wife Seema Deo resulted in their co-starring in almost 75 Marathi and Hindi films together, mostly as husband and wife or lovers. Today, Ramesh Deo is the proud father of actor-filmmaker Ajinkya Deo, one of Marathi cinema's top stars and directors, and filmmaker Abhinay Deo, now in the news for directing Aamir Khan's smash-hit production, Delhi Belly.

But Ramesh Deo does not believe in resting on past laurels. "We are planning to make two films, a comedy in Hindi, whose narration Kareena Kapoor, Rani Mukerji and Kangna Ranaut have liked, so let's see. It's a big star-cast film and will be directed by one of the Deos!" he smiles. "The other will be a Marathi film. Titled Paaulkhoona, it is about children of NRIs who need to connect with their roots as they are born abroad. I am playing a grandfather rooted in the Konkan."

Proud of his son's recent triumph in Delhi Belly and happy about Hindi cinema's recent spate of entertaining hits, the veteran says, "People want to take a break from life's stresses and go to a movie hall to relax."

Deo is a Rajput by birth. "My grandfather was from Jodhpur. He came down to become the chief engineer to Shahu Maharaj, and my father was his legal advisor." About his wife Seema quitting acting some years back, he smiles and says, "She prefers to spend quality time with our grandchildren now, and she's right!"

The 'role' of destiny

A lasting lesson that the veteran actor has learnt over the decades is that everything in life is about Destiny. "My first break, my debut as a hero, my meeting Seema and so many other things have just happened because of a series of unplanned events," he says.

He mentions how the illustrious Marathi filmmaker Dinkar Patil was a family friend in Kolhapur. "I was in college. I wanted to take a girl to watch his shooting to impress her, but since people would gossip, I took seven more girls and eight to ten boys also along! As it happened, Patil was shooting a college gathering sequence. In Kolhapur at that time, all junior artistes were of the muscular pehelwan kind and the director ended up cajoling me into persuading my friends to act as what we were - college students!"

The girls were paid Rs 10 each, a big sum then, and the boys eight rupees. "Patil told me to play the student who would announce that the college queen would now sing a song, a cakewalk for me as I was secretary in my college and I had done that kind of thing often in real life! And there were no retakes!"

The bug had bitten Ramesh Deo. He enrolled as a junior artiste and would be paid Rs 25, a whopping amount, for a day's work. "After a few films I graduated to featured roles, and my first villain's role was in Raja Paranjpe's Andhalaa Magto Ek Dolaa (1956). In the same year I was second hero in Paydali Padleli Phoole.

Deo was about 14 films old when it happened. "I was signed as villain for Sata Janmaachaa Sobati, but on the eve of the first shoot, the producer and the hero had a major spat and the hero was thrown out."

The actor was playing cards with some unit members when Destiny dealt him an ace. "The producer came in and asked me if I could play the hero instead," recalls Deo. "I said 'No', but E.Mahmad, a noted cinematographer in those days, was in our group advised me, 'Luck has come knocking at your door. Don't close the door on it.' I listened to his advice. The film was a major hit."

The actor was never typecast. "I was doing lead and negative roles simultaneously," smiles the actor. "The publicity material would often have the teaser, Ramesh Deo hero aahe ki villain he olkhaa (Guess whether Ramesh Deo is the hero in this film or the villain)!"

Vardakshinaa, Avgaachi Sansaar, Ek Dhaagaa Sukhaachaa and Molkarin (all 1960) were among his early major hits.

Lady's luck

"Seema has always been very lucky for me," says Deo affectionately about their oft-told love story. "I will tell you in a very concise way because most of our fans know the story," laughs Deo. "I was angling for the second lead in a Datta Dharmadhikari film with my friend Raja Gosavi as leading man. I was told that they had offered the legendary P.L. (Pu La) Deshpande that role and I had a chance if he turned it down because he was based in Pune. So I was going to Filmistan in Mumbai's Goregaon by a Mumbai suburban local train that was almost empty in the afternoon."

Deo recollects getting a whiff of mogra (a scented flower women wear in their hair) as soon as he entered the compartment. "Since I love the smell, I followed it and so came to sit opposite a girl who was with a lady. I had made a fair name as a villain and the girl clearly showed that she recognised me. Her escort did too, and to my amusement told her not to respond to anything I said, because 'these villains are not good people!' When I got down at the Goregaon station, she followed me right into the studio, which is when I thought that she must be struggling for a role too."

The day proved extremely lucky for the actor. "I got the role—Deshpande had turned it down!—and while I was used to doing an entire film for Rs 500, I was offered Rs 1000 by the famous studio owner Tolaram Jalan—not for the entire film but per month, with additional return fare from Kolhapur where I was still based, free stay and meals!"

When he went to sign the contract, he met the girl again. They introduced themselves, became friends and the rest is ofcourse, their love story.

Entering Hindi cinema

The story of how Ramesh Deo entered Hindi cinema is yet another interesting tale, and Deo shows his dramatic skills as a raconteur while narrating it that unfortunately cannot come across in print.

Narrates Deo, "I had also started my own drama company, Ajinkya Theatres, and was acting in outside plays as well as producing my own. A few kilometres away from Kohlapur is a small hamlet called Radhanagri and Raja Paranjpe, Sharad Talwalkar, Raja Gosavi, Padma Chavan—all Marathi film and theater heavyweights—as well as Seema and I had gone to stage Lagnaachi Bedi there. We left for the journey home—all crammed into a dilapidated Fiat along with a driver!—at 7 a.m. The car got a puncture, and after our driver changed the flat tyre, we stopped at a wayside tyre shop next to a small tea-stall to repair it."

He goes on, "Sharad was outraged when we were served tea in dirty aluminum glasses when there were some glass tumblers kept on a rack. When he asked why this was the case, the thin, dirty boy scornfully told us that those were reserved for the occasional VIPs! He told the boy that we were all big stars, and that I, Ramesh Deo, was a top film hero. The boy looked us up and down contemptuously and pointing out to pictures of Raj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar and Vyjayantimala cut from magazines and stuck on the walls, said, 'He hero aahet!' (These are heroes)."

And that's when Deo made a crucial decision. "I realised that even a big-name hero in Marathi films was a non-entity vis-à-vis actors in Hindi cinema who had come from far-flung Punjab and Tamil Nadu. I was ambitious, and this was like a slap for me. Back home, I first approached Tarachand Barjatyaji and was lucky to get the role of Shashikala's husband in his debut production Aarti (1962), a super-hit. The second Hindi film was Mohabbat Isko Kehte Hain, in which I was second lead to Shashi Kapoor."

Popularity peaks

As the actor's Marathi career continued to peak with films like Shevatchaa Maalusaraa, Gurukilli, Swapna Techa Lochani, Juna Te Sona, Chimuklaa Pahunaa, Apradh, Mee Hi Maanusach Aahe, and many more, his Hindi career also boomed with good roles in Dus Lakh, Meherbaan, Shikar ("Without my murder, there was no story!"), Saraswatichandra ("I was Nutan's husband who drove the plot!"), Teen Bahuraniyan ("I was the only non-comedian actor among the three husbands in this comedy!"), Khilona, Jeevan Mrityu, Jaise Ko Taisa and Anand.

Deo was usually cast in gray or negative roles in his Hindi films, but there were a few highlights even there. "I was in demand especially in Madras (as Chennai was known then) because I never touched alcohol and could report very early and continue working till late when other actors would want to leave for their hotels!" he smiles. "I bagged Teen Bahuraniyan because I was staying at Hotel Woodlands, shooting for AVM's Baap Bete and when I went for a stroll one evening a downpour drove me to the portico of a neighbouring mansion where a lungi-clad owner ushered me in. After introducing myself, I mentioned to him that I would even bribe the watchman at Gemini Studios a hundred rupees to meet S.S.Vasan, and he asked for the note. I was surprised but I thought such a rich man would surely know Vasan. But he turned out to be Vasan himself! And when I told him that I could not see him in office at the time he called me as I was due on the AVM film's sets, he was impressed enough to sign me without a screen-test for that role!"

For Anand, it was Deo who approached Hrishikesh Mukherjee. "Oh, you are a Maharashtrian. Then I will take you!" said the filmmaker. For the first time in a Hindi film, Deo and his wife played Maharashtrians.

Jeevan Mrityu, recollects Deo, was a special high. Dharmendra had recommended Deo after Shikar and Barjatya, once again the producer, paid him Rs 5000 extra for the shot in which he realises that he has been duped by Dharmendra. "I first laugh, then cry and then go insane, dart out to the street and get run over. I guaranteed director Satyen Bose that I would do it at one go after 20 minutes of preparation. It was a 700 to 800 feet continuous shot and saved them a huge amount in studio rent! News spread about this and I was flooded with Hindi assignments, like Mere Apne, in which again my character's arrival propels Meena Kumariji's story. One has to take such opportunities, but they come only when your destiny decides this!"

The actor turned producer because he was dissatisfied with his roles in Marathi cinema. "Yaa Sukhaano Yaa was my first production. But I had my first major hit in Sarjaa (1987) and I have directed about eight movies including Chor Chor, Jeeva Sakhaa, Senani Sane Guruji and Chal Gammat Karu. I have won Best Director trophies at Film Festivals in Iran, Iraq and China." His latest directorial effort was Gosht Lagnaanantarchi about three years back.

And the legend's story will never be complete without mention of his ad film concern, Ramesh Deo Productions. As he says, " I persuaded Ashok Kumar, Hema Malini, Smita Patil, Poonam Dhillon and Sunil Gavaskar to do their first-ever ad campaigns!"

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