Charlie’s angel in Adipur

Rutam Vora | Updated on July 31, 2020

Bringing the tramp home: An Ayurveda practitioner, Aswani recommends Chaplin films to patients battling anxiety or depression   -  IMAGE COURTESY: HARI ADIVAREKAR

Cake, DVDs, smiles and optimism — Chaplin enthusiast Ashok Aswani gives a Gujarat town unique moments and memories

* Ashok Aswani is the founder of the annual Charlie Chaplin Carnival in Adipur

* The highlight of this carnival — celebrated on Chaplin’s birth anniversary on April 16 — is a parade by people in black coats and hats

* Aswani also organises open-air screenings of Chaplin’s films on the day of the carnival

In September 1966, comic actor, composer and film-maker Charlie Chaplin was busy shooting for his last film — A Countess from Hong Kong — in England’s Buckinghamshire. Around the same time, more than 6,000km away, an 18-year-old boy in Gujarat’s Adipur town started scripting a new chapter in Chaplin’s legacy of humour. Ashok Aswani was cycling to his workplace in Kandla one morning when he came across a man with a “long hat, a tiny butterfly moustache, a walking stick, loose pants and a tight-fitting coat” . The character stared back at the bewildered teenager from a film poster pasted on the walls of Oslo theatre in Gandhidham. A curious Aswani parked his bicycle outside the theatre, purchased a ticket for 30 paise and entered the hall for a screening of The Gold Rush, a silent film that Chaplin had written, acted in and directed in 1925. He watched two more shows back-to-back, unable to take his eyes off the man who became his idol for life. While Aswani lost his job as a typist that day, he went home with a passion for Chaplin that runs strong even after 50-plus years.

The chance encounter with Chaplin inspired Aswani, now a septuagenarian, to practise the art of comic mime and even try for a career in films. While the latter didn’t go too well, Aswani’s unwavering love for his screen icon made him start the Charlie Chaplin Carnival in Adipur in 1973. The annual affair, celebrated on April 16 — Chaplin’s birth anniversary — had a continuous run for 45 years before an orthopaedic ailment restricted Aswani’s rounds of Adipur dressed as the Little Tramp.

For Aswani, who was born in Rajasthan’s Kishangarh after his family migrated to India during Partition, a career in the arts was not the most obvious choice. Son of a pharmacist who later worked at a clinic in the Kutch town of Adipur, Aswani’s penchant for humour, he says, came from his father. “He was a lively person. He kept visitors to the clinic entertained with his jokes,” he tells BLink during a phone interview. Despite his limited means, Sukhumal N Aswani encouraged his son to pursue acting. “I started doing mime acts in colleges [in order to] popularise Chaplin’s format of comedy. People started liking my work and I even won several awards,” Aswani recalls.

The next step in Aswani’s pursuit of comic acting took him to Pune, where he enrolled for a two-year course at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII). However, at the end of the first year, Aswani had to leave the academy due to “internal politics”. He returned to Adipur a depressed young man and switched to a course in Ayurvedic medicine instead. “My livelihood was ensured but life seemed meaningless,” he says.

It was a letter from actor Raza Murad, Aswani’s friend from the FTII days, that helped the reluctant physician re-establish contact with his former self. “Raza asked me to keep Chaplin alive inside me. And that gave me the idea of taking Chaplin to people, to spread the message of happiness. I decided to start a festival to mark Chaplin’s birthday,” Aswani says.

On Chaplin’s 84th birthday in 1973 — when the world was celebrating the artist’s first Oscar in a competitive category for Limelight — Aswani created ripples in Adipur by cutting a birthday cake for his idol in public. He also took to the streets dressed in trademark Chaplin gear: Black bowler hat, black suit, butterfly moustache and walking stick. The people of the town greeted their own Chaplin with claps, cheers, questions and even barbs. Aswani’s confidence and love for Chaplin grew with every passing year — along with the number of people who joined his Charlie Circle over the decades. Boosted by this growth in popularity, Aswani and his comrades started distributing DVDs of Chaplin films among the people of Adipur. Aswani spent his own money in organising open-air screenings of some of Chaplin’s best-known works: The Gold Rush, of course, apart from The Kid, City Lights and The Circus. “People love watching his films, so we put up screens at crossroads. Even if only for a day, Adipur looks happy and cheerful,” Aswani says.

The efforts and social media reach of Talin Navani (18), Aswani’s grandson, who is also a student of dentistry in Vadodara, has helped Adipur’s own Chaplin festival find a global audience. More than 300 people are now members of this community, Navani says, while adding that people from the US, Canada, Italy and Switzerland have joined the celebrations in Adipur. The highlight of the carnival is a parade, which is attended by scores of Chaplins in black suits and hats.

Aswani’s love for Chaplin also characterises the equation he shares with his patients. Along with medicines, he often hands them DVDs of Chaplin films in order to help them fight stress, anxiety, insomnia, depression and other health conditions. “Charlie was a common man and every common man has a Charlie within, so they can relate to his art and forget their problems,” he says.

As the world falls back on food, music, poetry and art to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic, Chaplin enthusiast Aswani relies on his films to find a reason to keep smiling. “Smiling is the best thing to do when you are stressed,” he says. It’s a learning that he has shared with his grandson and innumerable others in his favourite role of Charlie’s angel.

Published on July 31, 2020

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