Updated: Apr 1, 2020
India is now said to be free of polio. The scourge has been vanquished. Polio is said to breed in filth and affect the poor more than it affects the rich. Surprisingly this wasn’t true just a few decades ago.
One of my heroes in the fight against polio is perhaps the last person on this planet that anyone would think of. Today’s generation might not even know his name. While Mr. Bachchan has loomed large on billboards and TV ads urging people to give their infants ‘just two drops’, my hero is someone from the same fraternity. He goes by a simple name Mehmood.
The name to countless of my generation will conjure up memories of a comedian who made us laugh. He was Master Pillai of Padosan, the cook singing “hum kaale hain to kya hua…” (so what if we are dark skinned…) and many other adorable characters. He started out as a villain and did many negative roles; perhaps the one most memorable to me is from the movie “Pyaasa”.
Mehmood was a simple human being that grew to be a larger than life character in reel and real life. He married more than once and had wonderful children. Lucky Ali the singer and the one time child star Ginny are the two most famous ones. But there was another that affected Mehmood the most. This was his son, Maqdoom Ali. Macky as he is known, contracted polio. Very little is written about the father son relationship but one has to watch “Kunwara baap” to get glimpses of the father that doted on a disabled son. Somewhere Mehmood felt horrible at the tragedy that he could have easily avoided.
The movie is a tearjerker even today. But very few see the real pain Mehmood feels in every single shot of the movie. From the time the poor rickshaw puller discovers the abandoned child has contracted polio due to his negligence, to getting the boy admitted to a ‘regular school’, there is pain in his voice and in the soul of the movie. No one can forget the shot where the poor rickshaw puller carries his son on his shoulder in a sprint. He doesn’t want the child to feel inferior. At the end of the movie, the rickshaw puller is seen dying while his adopted son weeps. It is in this scene that Mehmood dreams of a polio-free India and urges his son to become a doctor. He wants the son to carry the message to every mother,and to ensure no one ever suffers from this devastating disease. In that shot look closely and you will see Mehmood the father honestly crying. He was a good actor but he was a doting father too. For a movie made in 1974, it didn’t do well. No one wanted to face polio; even fewer learnt anything from Mehmood’s message.
Critics slammed it, audiences shunned it, but for Mehmood it was a labour of love. He lost a lot of money from movies he made for his children (Ginny aur Johnny was another for his child that bombed). He lost many battles in life but if he were alive today, he would smile at seeing India free of polio.
Mehmood sahib, I know you are somewhere smiling to see your dream come true. This piece is dedicated to you and all the lesser-known crusaders that set India on the path to becoming polio free.