In tribute to a foreigner who became one of the most endearing parts of our 80s cinema.
It’s one of those t-shirt ideas I had a long time ago and really should get made one of these days. All I’m looking at is a plain white tee with the words “Jai Bajrang Bali” in quotes. Attributed to, of course, Bob Christo. You’re welcome.
We lost that unforgettable gent earlier this week, and the outpouring of grief and genuine commiseration on the Internet has been heartening, triggering off a wave of nostalgia about that ruddy, beefy Australian man our cinema so enthusiastically cast as the face of foreign evil.
Depending on what exactly you Google, you learn that Christo had quite the checkered past — involving CIA spy-ships and engineering and karate and terrorists in Rhodesia — before he came to India, became Sanjay Khan’s bodyguard, and apparently struck up a friendship with the gorgeous Parveen Babi. He then became Bollywood’s wicked-whiteman in residence for a quarter of a century. Fascinating stuff, and apparently, a memoir by the man is mercifully on its way. It’s just a shame that Bob won’t be around to see us lap it up.
For lap it up we doubtless will. Christo, frequently clad in either period costume as a British officer in pre-Independent India, or in Bollywood costume as a smuggler (read: gold-framed Aviator sunglasses), always entered the film all guns blazing, promising to be a formidable foe to the good guy till he inevitably received his comeuppance. Yet, incredibly enough, this firangi foil, this stock-character Caucasian cliché — a strongman with a bald head and french beard, like a caricatured wrestler — turned out to be a hugely popular actor with a genuinely warm screen-presence, likable even in folly: even, in fact, as he cowered at the feet of an invisible superhero trying desperately hard to pronounce a line of prayer right.
Rest In Peace, Bob. You were one of Bollywood’s blessed imports who gave the industry true character. We are an industry notoriously quick to latch on to foreigners showing an interest in our wares, but ruthlessly quick to drop them as soon as we find something more unique.
Yet there are names who become a part of us and whom we appropriate as our very own. The English-Greek Fearless Nadia is as much a part of Indian cinema as is, say, Madhubala. Katrina Kaif, the most successful actress in the country today, is as Indian as heroines can get. We have forced them into being ours, just as we did with Bob. And ours they shall remain.
So thanks, Mr Christo. Not just for taking the punches all those years, but for being such a sport about all our jingoistic idiocy. We’ve always appreciated it. May the force be with you. Or, as you said, Jai Bajrang Bali.
First published Mumbai Mirror, March 23, 2011