Ramesh Deo: A legend goes down in history

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Ramesh Deo honoured at an awards function. On stage with son Ajinkya and wife Seema. Photo: Instagram / Ajinkya Deo

He was an institution in Marathi cinema as actor, producer and director. Ramesh Deo made a name even in Hindi films and also did theater, television and ads. He died February 2 of a massive cardiac arrest. Born January 30, 1929, he hailed from Kolhapur in Maharashtra.

The man who once dreamt of joining the Army won all his victories in showbiz. When I met him in 2011, he had done it all but refused to sit on his laurels. “Don’t worry at all! I am at home anyway!” he said when I had called him on the way as the traffic had delayed me. And yet he was still planning productions and taking up television and acting assignments “that suit me” at the age of 82. Out of choice, he had decided that needless ego or arrogance was not his cup of tea.

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Ramesh sir, as I would like to call him, was a bit indisposed but actually expressed gratitude to me, stating, “Talking about lovely memories with you has distracted me from this mild stomach problem I had!”

It has been seven decades since his debut cameo in the 1951 Marathi film  Paatlaachi Por. He has acted in over 150 Marathi films, mostly as hero, over 200 Hindi films (“My three Hindi films as a hero just crashed!”) as mostly character artiste, produced, or produced and directed, many Marathi films including the blockbuster Sarja, made television serials, produced several plays, staged over a 1000 performances, and founded and run 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 as lovers—now that should be a world record! The couple is proud of their two sons: actor-filmmaker in Hindi and Marathi films and TV, Ajinkya Deo (Sarja, 24, Sarkarnama, Tanhaji: The Unsung Warrior) and filmmaker Abhinay Deo (Delhi Belly, 24).

A Rajput by birth, Ramesh’s grandfather hailed from Jodhpur. He came down to Maharashtra to become chief engineer to Shahu Maharaj, while his father later became his legal advisor. A lasting lesson that the veteran actor had learnt over the decades is that everything in life was about Destiny. “My first break, my debut as a hero, meeting Seema and so many other things just happened because of a series of events,” he told me.

Illustrious Marathi filmmaker Dinkar Patil was a family friend in Kolhapur, where Ramesh was in college. He wanted to take a girl to watch a film shoot to impress her, but since people would gossip, he took seven more girls and eight boys along! As it happened, Patil was shooting a college gathering sequence for Paatlaachi Por. In Kolhapur, junior artistes would be of the muscular kind, so the director ended up cajoling Ramesh into persuading his friends to act as what they were – college students!

“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 very often! There were no retakes!” Deo had smiled.

The bug had bitten Ramesh. He enrolled as a junior artiste and would be paid Rs 25, a whopping amount, for a day’s work. After a few films he graduated to featured roles, and his first villain’s role was in Raja Paranjpe’s Andhala Magto Ek Dola (1956). In the same year he was second hero in Paaydali Padleli Phoole.

He was signed as villain for Saata Janmaachaa Sobati, but on the eve of the first shoot, the producer threw out the hero and asked him to do the role. The film was a major hit. “I was never typecast, and was doing lead and negative roles simultaneously! The publicity material would often have the teaser, Ramesh Deo hero aahet ki villain aahet olkhaa! (Guess whether Ramesh Deo is the hero or the villain!).”

Vardakshinaa, Avgaachi Sansaar, Ek Dhaagaa Sukhaachaa, Molkarin, Shevatchaa Maalusaraa, Gurukilli, Swapan Techa Lochani, Juna Te Sona, Chimuklaa Pahunaa, Apradh and Mee Hi Maanusach Aahe were among his many Marathi hits.

His love story with Seema was another example of destiny. “Seema has always been very lucky for me. I was angling for the second lead in a Datta Dharmadhikari film. I was told that they had offered the legendary author-actor P.L. Deshpande that role and I had a chance if he turned it down, as he was based in Pune. So I was going to Filmistan Studio by a suburban local train that was almost empty in the afternoon.”

He recollected getting a whiff of the mogra (a scented flower women wear on 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 recognized 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 station, she followed me right to 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 a film for Rs 500, I was offered Rs 1000 by the famous studio owner Tolaram Jalan – not for the entire film but per month, plus 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. “We introduced ourselves, became friends and very soon we got married. As a pair on screen, we became hugely popular.”

Ramesh had already started Ajinkya Theatres and was acting in outside plays too, when a group of Marathi heavyweight actors had gone to a hamlet to stage Lagnaachi Bedi. On the way back, when they stopped at a tea-stall, they were served in dirty aluminum glasses, though there were glass tumblers kept on a rack. The boy said that those were reserved for the occasional VIPs!

When a group member told them that Ramesh was a famous Marathi hero, he looked him up and down contemptuously and pointing to picture cutouts of Raj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar and Vyjayanthimala on the walls, said, ‘He hero!’ (These are heroes).”

And that is when Ramesh made a crucial decision. He said, “I realized that even a big-name hero in Marathi films was a nonentity vis-à-vis actors in Hindi cinema. I was ambitious, and this was like a slap for me. Back home, I first approached Tarachand Barjatya-ji and was lucky to get the role of Shashikala’s husband in his debut production Aarti (1962), a super-hit.”

Dus Lakh, Meherban, 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 among the husbands in this comedy”), Khilona, Jeevan Mrityu, Anand and many more remain among his Hindi greats. Ramesh acted all the way to Jolly LLb (2013), Ghayal Once Again (2016), Photograph and Marudhar Express in 2019 (Hindi) and Jivan Sandhya (2021) in Marathi.

Deo was usually cast in gray or negative roles in Hindi. “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 late when other actors would want to leave for their hotels!” he smiles. “For Anand, I approached Hrishikesh Mukherjee. “Oh, you are a Maharashtrian! Then I will take you!” For the first time in a Hindi film, Deo and his wife played Maharashtrians.

Jeevan Mrityu was a special high. Dharmendra had recommended Deo after Shikar, and Tarachand, once again the producer, paid him Rs 5000 extra for the shot in which he realizes that he has been duped by Dharmendra. “I laugh, and then I cry and go mad, run out on the street and get run over. It was a 700 to 800 feet shot and I guaranteed director Satyen Bose that I would do it at one go after 20 minutes of preparation. It saved them a huge amount! News spread and I was flooded with Hindi assignments, like Mere Apne, in which again my character fuels Meena Kumari-ji’s story. One has to take an opportunity, but that one golden chance is provided by luck!”

He turned producer because he was dissatisfied with his roles in Marathi cinema and directed movies like 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,” he had smiled.

But the legend’s story will never be complete without mention of his ad film concern, Ramesh Deo Productions. “We have made about six serials and I persuaded Ashok Kumar, Hema Malini, Smita Patil, Poonam Dhillon and Sunil Gavaskar to do their first ads!”

 

 

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