By Danish Siddiqui
After an excruciatingly long 15-hour journey from Mumbai, I stepped out of the car outside Adipur train station and found two children waiting to welcome me with flowers. Both were wearing bowler hats and had t-shirts depicting the silent film star Charlie Chaplin. Of course, I was yet to meet the town’s biggest Chaplin fan.
Adipur, a small town in the western Indian state of Gujarat was only famous for its salt pans until Ashok Aswani started living like Charlie Chaplin. A practitioner of indigenous medicine by profession, Aswani has been celebrating Charlie Chaplin’s birthday on April 16 with his fan club for the past 39 years. He even holds a candlelight vigil and a prayer meeting on the legend’s death anniversary on December 25.
Aswani turned a die-hard fan of Chaplin’s after watching his film The Gold Rush in a nearby cinema. The film cost him his job as a type-writer. He didn’t go to work that day and spent the entire time watching the same film over and over again.
Aswani told me he was so impressed by Charlie Chaplin that he started following his lifestyle. The 63-year-old started a unique fan club called Charlie Circle. It now boasts more than 200 members including men, women and children. The oldest member of the club is 75 years of age and walks with the help of a walker. The youngest is Aswani’s grandson, all of just three.
The bedroom in Aswani’s home has a huge poster of him posing as Charlie Chaplin on a wall, while his prayer room has a statue of Chaplin alongside those of Hindu Gods. Aswani, who suffers from multiple arthritis, practices physiotherapy with the help of his son everyday, but that doesn’t deter him from walking or posing like Charlie Chaplin on the streets, or as in my photo shoot, at a salt pan.
I spent three days with Aswani in his house, at his clinic, at his friends’ shops, and quite often I found him referring to Chaplin films in his conversations with the people he met. He seemed to have memorized every scene of Charlie Chaplin’s numerous films. Just a mention of a scene from any Chaplin film, and Aswani’s face lit up; excited like a child.
In all the time I spent with Ashok Aswani, I never once caught him frowning. Whenever he went out on the streets, every few meters people would stop and shake his hand or touch his feet, as a mark of respect.
At his clinic, Aswani would hand out Charlie Chaplin film copies to his patients to cheer them up.
I couldn’t help but ask the die-hard Chaplin film fan for his favorite piece of dialogue. “I always like walking in the rain, so no one can see me crying,” said the medical practitioner as he smiled. I smiled back.
(View a slideshow of images here)