Ballu, the cinemawala

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Artwork by: Pankaj Murmu


ack in the day when I had the opportunity of serving the rural parts of India, I had met Ballu, the cinemawala. It so happened that soon after my MBBS, I was sent off to a nondescript village in Bihar’s Champaran district. This was the 1980s and Bihar then was not at all the Bihar which is now. A city boy bred and fed in the lap of luxury, I found this new place of service extremely daunting and loathsome. No matter what my personal opinions were, I vowed to myself that I would try to fulfill my duties as the general physician of the local health centre to the best of my abilities. It was around this time that I met Ballu.

Ballu was the son of a local farmer of the village who practically did nothing, however he was extremely popular among the village folks. He went against his father’s profession as his “interests” didn’t align with it and had a small tea shop. Daily, twice a day, he would come to our health centre to give a cup of hot tea to the doctors and other staff. On days that I didn’t have many patients, I would chat with Ballu. He was a film buff and loved talking about Hindi movies, non-stop. He could also mimic various film actors, one just needed to utter the name of the actor and pat will come a dialogue from that actor’s film. His favourite hero was Amitabh Bachchan, and knowing that I come from Bombay, he would often request me to take him to Bombay once to meet his favourite star.

I found this guy unusually peculiar. Who on earth would save his hard-earned money to watch his favourite star’s movie in a theatre that was 20 kilometers away from his village? His folks were also against his wandering ways, but Ballu’s eyes were filled with the dream of making it big in life. A sort of madness had consumed him entirely – the madness of cinema.

Since I loved watching films myself, we would discuss them often at length. Ballu knew when to make an exit from the centre, no one needed to tell him that. Whenever a patient came into my chamber, Ballu would collect the tea cups and leave the room with his trademark, “Doctor Saab, I will come again in the evening”.

We had forged a strange sort of camaraderie and soon there came a time, where I would wait for Ballu for a few minutes of hearty chat. There would be days when I couldn’t meet him due to cases of emergency, but when we met, we compensated for the lost time. Ballu, being the tea seller, had all the gossip of the village at the tip of his tongue, his tea stall was the ‘adda’ of many a news maker of the area. Apart from that, he would share his dream to go to Bombay one day and work in the film industry. I would often ask him how would he do so with a wife and a little son here? He would tell me that his wife is very understanding and supportive and that she also wants him to become a hero. I would listen to this guy with utter amazement.

Time elapsed. My tenure in that health centre came to an end. I was posted to another village in Gujarat after three years. It was time to bid good bye to Ballu, by then a dear friend, who made my life in that unknown place a little better with his company and ‘cinematic’ chatter. On the day that I was leaving, Ballu had come to meet me. I didn’t want to break his heart, at the same time, I tried to tell him that it would be rather practical if he concentrates more on his tea shop, rather than such flimsy ideas, but saw that he was a little hurt by that. He told me bravely, “Saab, one day, you will see this Ballu in the cinema screen.”

Dreams do not come in any shape or size, a tea seller from a remote village had the desire to become an actor as big as Amitabh Bachchan. I patted his back and prayed wholeheartedly for his well-being.

Years later, I was again posted in that village. It was 2001. I was married by then and went there with my wife and two children. I couldn’t find Ballu anywhere. His tea stall was now a garment shop and the road leading to the local market also had changed. The entire area looked very different. The health centre was also in a far better shape. There were more doctors now and the infrastructure was also better. The vagaries of time, I thought to myself.

Days passed without any trace of Ballu. One day after my duty hours, I decided to inquire about him myself. I walked towards his erstwhile tea-stall area and caught hold of a middle-aged man who looked like a local of that area. He was initially quite taken aback at my asking about Ballu. I explained to him in detail about my stay in that area, many years back, and cleared the deep confusion that was running in his mind.

He stared at me for some time and then opened his mouth. “Doctor Saab, so you are searching for Ballu, the cinemawala. ‘Abhi humko samajh me aya’ (now I understood). Ballu doesn’t live here anymore, Doctor Saab. He left for Mumbai many years ago. He came to our village three years back. He did not come to the village for many years, no letter, no telephone. His family and all of us had thought that he must have died by coming under some car. But God is great, he came back to the village after seven long years. Then he took his wife Vimla and his son with him.”

“Did he become a hero there?” Though I had not seen his face in any recent films, I asked.

“No no Saab, he is a cinemawala there. I don’t know what they call it. Is there not a person who puts the cinema cassette behind the screen for the audience to see? Hamara Ballu wahi karta hai, Doctor Saab (Our Ballu does that). So what if he isn’t a Hero, he has met many film stars there in ‘Bambai’, He told us all about it. He has made all of us very proud Saab.”

So Ballu had made it to his dream world. A smile escaped my lips thinking about his spontaneous mimicry of actors all those years ago. He couldn’t become a Hero, but his village folks think high of him. That day after hearing this, a part of me was extremely proud of this man, the dreamy eyed tea-seller, Ballu, the ‘cinemawala’.