INDIA’S CHAPLIN-LOVING TOWN
In the rising heat of a flaming Indian summer, more than 100 people have gathered in a small town in Gujarat to celebrate Charlie Chaplin's birthday.
There are girls and boys, men and women. They are young and old, fit and feeble. They have all trooped out into the streets of Adipur dressed up like the legendary actor's tramp – toothbrush moustache, bowler hat, scruffy black suit, cane.
What binds them is a love of Chaplin's cinema – most are members of the Charlie Circle, a local fan club which has been celebrating the actor's birthday every April since 1973.
I thought, is Chaplin an actor or a magician? I fell off my seat laughing in the darkness
Club founder Ashok Aswani
Out on the streets, a colourful party fuses Chaplin worship with Indian song and dance.
Scores of impersonators imitate the tramp's bow-legged dance walk and waddle with mixed results. Then they begin jumping up and down to Bollywood songs sung by a portly local singer and pumped out from crackling speakers strung on top of a rickety mobile music cart.
In the middle, girls togged out in colourful local costumes swirl around doing the garba, a popular local dance.
A couple of camel-drawn carts bring up the rear. One is packed with toddler Chaplin impersonators. In the other, a small statue and a big poster of the actor are “worshipped”, complete with a chanting Hindu priest and burning joss sticks.
The Chaplin fan club opened in 1973
“The tramp is dead, long live the tramp,” cries Kishore Bhawsar, a 52-year-old bus conductor and fan club member who has composed a paean to his favourite actor.
Mr Bhawsar says his life changed after watching The Gold Rush, the 1925 comic gem featuring Chaplin chasing fortunes in the icy wilderness of Alaska.
“Chaplin absorbs grief and makes you laugh. He said, 'I walk in the rain to hide my tears.' He was a poet,” Mr Bhawsar shouts above the din.
The gathering roars in approval, as the procession snakes through the town while bystanders gape and traffic comes to a halt.
As dusk settles over the town, festivities move to a crummy hall where locals perform mimes, skits and watch a Chaplin film on the big screen.
“It's a day we wait for every year. It's our biggest festival in many senses,” says Arjunji Bhimji Fariya, a 70-something Morgan Freeman lookalike and retired bus driver.
Mr Fariya saw his first Chaplin silent short as a 12-year-old in Karachi, Pakistan, where he was born. Now he is one of the oldest members of Charlie Circle.
“I have been walking in the Chaplin procession for the last eight years,” he says with a hint of pride.
Ashok Aswani launched the club after watching Chaplin films
Adipur, in arid, sprawling Kutch region, is an unlikely place for Chaplin adulation to grow deep roots.
Not very long ago, it was a sleepy town of refugees from Sindh in Pakistan, better known for a urea factory and a thriving port in its neighbourhood.
Two cinemas – one quaintly named Oslo after a Norwegian who visited the town – showed mainly Bollywood films.
But one man's serendipitous discovery of Chaplin led to the town's obsession with the actor.
Back in the summer of 1966, The Gold Rush, thanks to a quirk of cinema distribution, arrived at Oslo and changed the life of Ashok Aswani, the son of a local pharmacist.
A drama and cinema buff – early pictures show him as a rakish young man, dressed sharply with an oil-slicked bouffant – Mr Aswani was cycling to his work as a typist when he saw a poster for the film. He screeched to a halt.
“I was wonderstruck. I found his dress and look fascinating. How does the man bend his legs like that?” he reminisces, bleary-eyed.
He says he got off his bike and gaped at the poster for 10 minutes. Then he forgot about his job, left his cycle outside the hall, bought a ticket and went in.
“A whole new world of cinema opened up for me. The music, technique, photography was so different! And I thought, is Chaplin an actor or a magician? I fell off my seat laughing in the darkness,” says Mr Aswani.
That day, Mr Aswani watched all four showings of The Gold Rush. He was also fired.
The procession is a major festival in the town
“I lost my job, but I gained Chaplin. I became obsessed with him, I became interested in acting and wanted desperately to become an actor,” he remembers.
The young man, his life changed by Chaplin's cinema, dropped out of college and applied for an actor's course in India's most famous cinema school in the western city of Pune. He passed the admission test, joined the school but was thrown out after six months when he failed his tests.
Returning to Adipur, Mr Aswani opened the Charlie Circle club in 1973. He became a practitioner of indigenous medicine, giving away free Chaplin CDs with his potions.
Over a quarter of a century, the Chaplin fan club has grown (more than 200 members and rising). It has inspired a 74-minute documentary by Australian filmmaker Kathryn Millard, a website and TV offers to participate in reality shows.
“When I set out to research a documentary about Chaplin imitators around the world, I had no idea that I would meet a very special community – perhaps Chaplin's most devoted followers – in a small town in India,” says Ms Millard.
She says whenever she shows the film, people ask her whether there is a way they could join the Charlie Circle: “I hope they may start accepting associate members from other countries!”
Chaplin impersonators are to be found all over the world, but it appears his spirit is truly alive and well in Adipur.
“The celebrations will never cease,” says 60-year-old Mr Aswani, as the party winds down and he shakes off his tramp suit.
“Our children and grandchildren are already hooked to Chaplin's films, so our homage to the actor will never end.”