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Get your bowler hats on!

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In a quiet town in Kutch, Charlie Chaplin is alive and kicking.

It’s the unlikeliest of processions you would expect in a small Indian town. But Adipur, a few kilometres from Gandhidham, in Gujarat’s Kutch region, is known for its annual parade of Charlie Chaplin impersonators—particularly Chaplin’s iconic character, The Tramp.

Every year, on April 16, the birth anniversary of Chaplin, over a hundred women and men, girls and boys, even little toddlers dressed in crumpled old coats, bowler hats, toothbrush moustaches and cane in hand, march down the streets in The Tramp’s signature bowlegged walk. The grand event is a month in the making as the town rehearses for the grand finale. On this day, the town erupts with enthusiasm as camel carts with larger-than-life cut-outs of The Tramp and boom boxes blaring traditional and Bollywood dance music trail by. Yes, in Adipur, The Tramp is alive.

The Chaplin impersonators belong to the Charlie Circle, a club set up in 1973 by Ashok Aswani, an ardent follower of Chaplin’s work. “Many many years ago, my fiancée [now wife] and I cut a cake and distributed it to our neighbours and relatives. Today, we have the whole city, young and old, celebrating with us.”

It was the summer of ’66 when the young son of a pharmacist first spotted the poster of Chaplin’s The Gold Rush at the Oslo theatre on his way to work. “It was unlike any other movie poster I had seen!” recalls Aswani, now 69. “Amid all the pretty faces of heroes and heroines was this fascinating yet common man. I bought a ticket for 30 paise and sat in the front row. And there he was, doing the craziest things. I fell off my seat laughing and even got scolded for it.” When the movie ended, Aswani bought a ticket for the next show and went in again. And again. “If there was a fourth show, I would have gone for that too.” That day, Aswani was fired from his job as a typist in the Food Corporation of India but it also marked the beginning of a lifelong obsession with Chaplin.

Aswani eventually enrolled at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune. But never one to take academics too seriously, he dropped out after six months and returned to Adipur. He became a registered Ayurveda practitioner and along with his prescriptions, started handing out Chaplin DVDs to patients…as a remedy! “As they say, laughter is the best medicine. Laughter makes you feel half your age.”

Aswani started Mime Vrudh in 1973, which later became the Charlie Circle. Having taken a few miming classes at his brief sojourn in FTII, he taught the craft to theatre artists in Adipur. “It became an obsession. We got a high from the Charlie mimes and they eventually took to it even more than me.” Over the decades, thanks to Aswani, Chaplin entered the homes and lives of many. “The children especially love to wear the cap; Charlie starts from there for them. Even the girls dress up. I see them for a few years and later they get married. And just when I think, ‘Charlie chala gaya,’ they come back with little Charlies. It’s a wonderful circle.”

Forty-three years and running, Aswani hopes the tradition will continue for generations, long after he’s gone. But first he hopes there will come a day when he will see Chaplin’s ‘Tramps’ roaming the streets from one corner of the town to the other. “There is something about The Tramp—his crumpled clothes, his sad expression, his walk. He is the common man, a street tramp with no home or hope in life, who finds happiness making others happy. It’s an intoxicating joy and I want people to understand that.”

Photos: Sumukh Bharadwaj
Text: Natasha Rego
Featured in Harmony — Celebrate Age Magazine
July 2016