Canes in hand and bowler hats atop their heads, Charlie Chaplin impersonators tramped through the streets of a small port town in western India to celebrate the birthday of the Hollywood silent-film legend.
Chaplin has an odd resonance in the industrial town. Surrounded by salt flats bordering the Thar desert, Adipur’s only claim to fame is the annual parade — now in its 40th year — to honor the filmmaker and comic actor known for his The Tramp character.
More than 100 people participated in the parade that included brass bands, camel carts and open jeeps carrying life-sized cutouts of Chaplin. Men and women dressed in crumpled black suits and carrying canes practiced the cheerful bowlegged walk of The Tramp as the parade made its way through the streets.
“Charlie Chaplin is our hero. Every year we celebrate his birthday with a parade,” said Ashok Aswani, founder of the Charlie Circle, a club that has been celebrating Chaplin’s birthday since 1973.
Women dressed in colorful local costumes performed traditional Indian dances around the Chaplin impersonators, as boom boxes loaded on small trucks belted out Hindi film songs.
The two-hour parade winds down with club members performing skits mimicking Chaplin and the day’s festivities end with a screening of one of his classic films. Chaplin’s filmography includes City Lights and Modern Times, both still considered among Hollywood’s greatest films.
Chaplin, born in London in 1889 and one of the most significant figures in early Hollywood, has long had a following in film-loving India.
Aswani, a portly 64-year-old wearing a black bowler hat and sporting Chaplin’s trademark toothbrush mustache, said Chaplin’s films have universal appeal.
“Every Chaplin film has a message for the common man. It’s a message that has relevance even today,” Aswani said.
Aswani said the first Chaplin film he watched was The Gold Rush back in 1966 and he was hooked.
Aswani recalled that he was on his way to work when he saw a poster of Charlie Chaplin dressed as The Tramp at the local movie hall.
“I watched all three shows of the film that day. The next day, I was sacked from my job for taking the day off without informing the office,” Aswani said. “I lost my job, but I discovered Charlie Chaplin and I’ve stayed his fan ever since.”
Aswani, who practices traditional Indian medicine for a living, said that he often hands out DVDs of Chaplin films to his patients when they are feeling low.
“They always return feeling upbeat and wanting more Chaplin films,” he said.
The Charlie Circle club has about 200 members, all living in and around Adipur, and the annual bash for Chaplin’s birthday is the club’s highlight.
Among the club members is 79-year-old Arjunji Bhimji Karia, a retired bus driver, who counts himself among Chaplin’s oldest fans.
“I saw my first Charlie Chaplin film when I was a young boy of 10 in Karachi, before my family moved from Pakistan to India,” Karia said.
“I would mimic Charlie Chaplin to amuse my wife,” said Karia, now a widower. “She would laugh out loud and that made me so happy.”