“These rumors are created by certain camps who have are not happy with my success. These people have enjoyed making me a victim of their vindictiveness for a long time. I do not want to belittle myself by lashing out at these people and giving them undue importance. I must say that I am upset and very disappointed with two of my female co-stars. I don’t want to name names, but I will say that I have no intention of working with them in the future.”
(Tatanova, March 1, 2001)
Son of playback singer Nirmala Devi, Govinda nevertheless hails from a middle class background , and still occasionally struggles with the industry’s chosen language of business — English. But contrary to expecation, his appeal isn’t limited to India: fans around the world call him the best comedian and perhaps the best all-around entertainer since Shammi Kapoor.
Despite his family’s film background, Govinda couldn’t count on connections to pave his path to stardom. Nearly broke, traveling by rickshaw and dressed in “declasse” street wear, he literally pushed his way into films by hanging around the Rajshri Productions office until they caved to his appeals.
Now he has a slew of comedic hits to his name, and his portfolio of work is staggering in length. Yet as his competitors Aamir and Shahrukh Khan branch out into more artistic cinema, some are beginning to fear that Govinda has typecast himself into an early career grave. Govinda himself ridicules the notion: “Asoka was made to bag the Oscar while the film which won the Oscar last year was Life is Beautiful, which, unlike Asoka, is my kind of film. Any sincere effort will receive acclaim somewhere. Of course, improvement is a must. One must constantly improve!” (Cineblitz, Mar. 2002)
The less-than-flattering reference to Asoka as failed Oscar bait (which the Cineblitz journalist notes is spoken with obvious sarcasm) may reflect Govinda’s on-again, off-again war of words with Shahrukh Khan. Khan, in a March 2000 interview with Filmfare Online, explains the origin of the sniping: “I’d said something in English which was misunderstood by a certain segment of people around him. I’d said something on a show to the effect that ‘I can do what I do best. I cannot do what Govinda can do and perhaps Govinda can’t do what I can’. It did not mean that I will not do what Govinda does. I wish I could do what Govinda does. I wish I could put my lungi over my head and dance but I can’t do it. But it was quoted very differently. He told me also that his mother was very hurt because she felt I was saying that Govinda doesn’t do good things. I felt very bad about that. I didn’t know how to explain. I called him up and said, ‘Listen, please explain to your mom that I didn’t mean it this way.’ I just said that in English it sounds very different. That I can’t do what he does and maybe he can’t do what I do. It wasn’t meant to be that I will not do what he does. Or what he does is derogatory or bad. I guess that cleared it up. After that I’ve never had a misunderstanding with him.”
Khan is not the only actor to have experienced misunderstandings with Govinda. He had a falling out with Salman Khan that was allegedly due to his displeasure at the prospect of Khan working with Rani Mukherjee, the actress with whom Govinda is rumored to be having an (extramarital) affair. Govinda denies that this was the cause: “It’s all bullshit! My misunderstanding with Salman was over a film that Arbaaz [Salman’s brother] and I were to star in, which has also been sorted out. There was no fight. Who am I to interfere with Rani’s life? She is a free individual and can work with whoever she wants. Besides, this story of my so-called affair with Rani has gone on for too long. I am really tired of it. Rani and I are just co-stars and good friends, whether the media likes to believe it or not!” (Tatanova.com, Mar. 1, 2001)
Amisha Patel, who has recently dropped out of two upcoming Govinda films, is also supposed to share cool vibes with the actor. When asked whether she hates him, he diplomatically replies, “There is nothing to like or dislike really. But yes, there is a desire to work with certain people… If this desire is missing at the other end, I realise it by a simple handshake. Yes, a mere handshake with my would-be co-star is enough for me to gauge how strongly s/he wants to work with me. I felt that Amisha didn’t want to work with me. But then she has a mind of her own and everyone is free to make their own choices.” (Cineblitz, Mar. 2002)
Govinda has alienated newcomer Amrita Arora (sister-in-law of Salman Khan’s brother), who he replaced shortly before shooting was to begin on their film on the pretext that she looked too young for him. Amrita publicly replied that he looked too old for her, and that it was his loss for firing her. He obliquely responds, “It’s true, it is my loss. Besides the loss of doing a film with her there’s also the loss of respectability. Things should have been discussed at the onset itself and shouldn’t have been left to the last minute. All said and done, she is a newcomer and my best wishes are with her.” (Cineblitz, Mar. 2002)
But the scandal that hit him hardest was being taken in for police questioning following the mafia-instigated Bombay riots of 1993. Though, unlike Sanjay Dutt, he was not charged with a crime, he still dislikes talking about it. “These rumours about me being involved in underworld activities are baseless. Tell me, can I do something like that? I am a happy man, earning my bread and butter from acting in films. If you are talking about the photographs of mine with the underworldwallahs, so many people walk into the sets to have pictures taken. How will you know who is a member of the underworld? Please don’t talk about these matters.” (Rediff, Dec. 1997)
Perhaps Govinda’s most famous asset is his dancing; choreographers like Farah Khan have praised his skill in film glossies and co-stars shudder at the challenge of matching his liquid grace. But not everyone is impressed. Renowed artist M.F. Husain, when discussing his obsession with Madhuri Dixit to Rediff in February 1999, explains, “See the way she moves, the way she dances. Compare it to Govinda. Whereas he looks coarse, vulgar, unbearable, she looks gorgeous, almost sacrosanct.” In his impolitic way, Husain has actually pinpointed Govinda’s appeal: instead of playing to the over-refined tastes of a pretentious elite, Govinda targets the group he himself hails from — the “common” masses. And rightly, they love him for it.