This Indian Doctor Worships Charlie Chaplin And Uses Laughter As Medicine

Photo: Ashok Aswani as Charlie Chaplin. Photo by Roc Morin.


by Roc Morin

on April 29, 2015

“Every morning when I get up,” Dr. Ashok Aswani began, “I just remember Charlie’s face. I pray to him as my God. Don’t let me cry. Because, if I laugh people will laugh with me. Make me like you, so I can make other people happy.

The 68-year-old gestured towards a shrine. A ceramic statuette of the Little Tramp stood surrounded by a pantheon of figures: Jesus, Buddha, Gandhi, Hanuman, Ganesh.

Photo: Charlie Chaplin Shrine. Photo by Roc Morin.

Photo: Charlie Chaplin Shrine. Photo by Roc Morin.

Aswani had been impossible to reach beforehand, so we drove blind to his hometown, and just started asking strangers. None of them recognized his name. When we asked for Charlie Chaplin though, everyone pointed immediately. And, that is how we found him. (Last month, in search of the doctor, a woman in a taxi had simply flashed a crude drawing of a mustached man in a hat — it worked as well as any address.)

As Aswani’s wife later told me, “Ashok is Charlie.”

We found the man himself at his dispensary. In his role as the Ayurvedic doctor, Aswani was handing out packets of medicine and prescriptions for The Kid, Gold Rush, and City Lights — all classics by the silent film master.

In his promotion of laughter as medicine, the doctor is supported by number of recent studies demonstrating the ability of humor to prevent heart disease, increase immunity, reduce anxiety, and mitigate pain.

“You look like Charlie!” I blurted, when I saw Awani for the first time. He had smirked at me in that familiar way — eyebrows darted, shoulders flaunted, lashes fluttering.

“You look like Charlie!” he echoed.

He turned to my translator, “And, you look like Charlie!” he cried. “Your height, those eyes, that smile.”

“There is some Charlie in everyone,” he added.

Nowhere is that more apparent than in Adipur. Every April 16 in honor of Chaplin’s birthday, the entire town parades around in black hats, stub moustaches, and bamboo canes — men and women, young and old.

The first festival in 1973 was a smaller affair — only Aswani, his wife, and two sisters. The young man had just discovered Chaplin at a local theater, blowing all his money on serial viewings of The Goldrush. “I laughed so hard, that I fell down from the seat many times,” he recalled. “I wanted to understand. How is he doing this? How is it possible?

Photo: Ashok Aswani as Charlie Chaplin. All Photos by Roc Morin.

Photo: Ashok Aswani as Charlie Chaplin. All Photos by Roc Morin.

The celebrations have grown every year since. “At first,” Aswani beamed, “the people couldn’t even pronounce ‘Chaplin.’ They called him ‘Charlie Champion!’ Now, during the festival, for two kilometers you see only Charlies. Charlies laughing. Charlies dancing. Charlies singing.”

Aswani’s devotion has spread as well. There are plans for a marble statue and a temple dedicated to the film star. When professional Chaplin imitator Jason Allin flew in last year from Toronto, Canada, he was treated like a deity. “They draped me in flowers,” he recounted. “They kissed my feet.”

Throughout the revelry, the Chaplins croon a plaintive Gujarati hymn:

Oh Charlie, we are crazy for your name

You always smile and make us smile

Black hat on the head

And black coat on the shoulders

Here you come shambling

The image of you, Charlie

We will welcome you so well

That you will forget your London

Chaplin is always referred to here in the present tense.

“He is not actually dead,” Aswani’s daughter Monica Navani explained. “He didn’t die. He just went away.”

For Navani, growing up, Chaplin was always present. “Charlie is part of the family,” Navani reminisced. “Dad always used to put on his movies. When you come home, you see your father, your grandfather, and you see Charlie. It’s the same. Those movies are as good as an autobiography.”

Ashok Aswani as Charlie Chaplin - Roc Morin (1)

They even borrowed his language. “We never actually used to talk a lot, my father and I. We used to communicate by making faces and smiling.”

In the religion of Charlie, smiling is a form of prayer. Smiling, though, has not always been easy for Aswani.

“I have known Ashok a long time,” fellow Chaplin imitator Haresh Thakkr observed. “He has had many difficulties in his life: social, physical, psychological. But, he never shows anybody. He is always happy, always smiling. He is a friend of life.”

We drank tea at the doctor’s home, as he struggled to shave. Arthritis had curled his hands. When his sleeve fell past his wrist, we could see the beginnings of the deep scars that crisscross his body. A fall, several years ago, between the cars of a moving train nearly killed him. He is able to walk now only with artificial joints. It has become impossible for the man to imitate so many of his idol’s signature gestures and shuffling gait — movements that a young Aswani had once practiced for 6 to 7 hours a day.

Grandson Talin Navani stepped in to finish the shave before anointing his grandfather’s upper lip with a little fake moustache. The older man immediately brightened. His body seemed lighter, as he stood, grabbed his hat, and led us to the roof.

It was there that the transformation became complete. With all of Adipur at his feet, Aswani balked, minced, simpered, and flirted with the air, just as his idol had done nearly a century ago.

“The people still don’t know what Charlie was,” Monica Navani lamented. “We have these beliefs that God does miracles. Watch Charlie’s movies. Watch Modern Times. Watch The Circus. He is tightrope walking, skating, doing gymnastics, singing. How can one person do all those things? Isn’t that something not from this world? He is like a perfect one, and the perfect one is only God. Even in being imperfect he is perfect.”

His state of perfect imperfection exists because of his vulnerability, she explained. “He is vulnerable to the kind of societal evils which we take so lightly, and which he shows in such a beautiful way. These things do affect us, but we carry on, leaving our innocence behind. He carries his innocence with him.”

“He reminds me of Krishna,” I reflected.

“Yes,” Navani confirmed. “Krishna would do pranks all the time, and he has innocence also.”

Ashok Aswani as Charlie Chaplin - Roc Morin (6)

She told a story about Krishna as a child that almost could have been performed by the Little Tramp himself.

“Even though Krishna was the son of a king,” she began, “he had this habit of stealing butter from the ladies of the village. He used to wait until they went to work in the fields and break their earthen pots, and eat the butter, and waste it. One day, the ladies caught him and dragged him home. His mother did not believe their accusations, so they said, ‘You can look in his mouth and see the butter.’ His mother told him to open his mouth. When he did, she could see the entire universe inside.”

“When you talk about Chaplin’s perfection then,” I offered, “isn’t it our perfection too that he’s showing us?”

“Yes,” she replied. “Everyone is a vulnerable, innocent person on the inside, afraid to reveal what we are. He is simply showing us that.”

I thought of a recurring dream that Aswani had shared when he heard that I was collecting them. In the dream, the doctor is in Switzerland, standing at graves of Chaplin and his wife Oona. “I’m there,” Aswani marveled, “and I’m seeing them. They say, ‘Ashok has come.’ They’re just embracing me, and I’m crying on their shoulders. They say, ‘You’re doing a very good job.’”

Roc Morin is a freelance journalist, currently collecting dreams from around the globe at World Dream Atlas.