A four-decade long stint in Indian cinema, a talent for slipping into roles as if they were his second skin and his trademark dialogue delivery: all of these immortalized the actor Kanhaiyalal in the history of Indian cinema. Kanhaiyalal was born in Varanasi in 1910 to Pandit Bhairodutt Choube. His father was the owner of the Ramlila Natak Mandali in Varanasi, which often traveled to different cities to perform. As a young boy, Kanhaiyalal enjoyed being involved in the work of the Natak Mandali with his father. When he was around nine years old, he lost interest in formal education and devoted himself entirely to working with the Natak Mandali. He married young, but he had hardly attained adulthood when his father passed away. This loss left such a deep impact on the young man that he withdrew from the world for a while.
By then, Kanhaiyalal’s elder brother Sankata Prasad had moved to Mumbai. Trained in acting techniques by virtue of their association with the Natak Mandali, Sankata Prasad easily got work acting in films as well. Kanhaiyalal followed his brother to Mumbai as well and got a few roles as an extra in films. He shot to fame with Mehboob’s Aurat in 1940, in which he played the role of Sukhi Lala, the covetous moneylender of the village. His incredible performance as the villain in Aurat established him as a leading character actor repeatedly cast as memorable villains in the Hindi cinema. Typecast as a greedy, exploitative man, Kanhaiyalal often played tyrannical zamindars, scheming moneylenders and parasitical bookkeepers. Some of his unforgettable characters included the Pandit in Lal Haveli (1944), Lala Dhaniram in Upkar (1967), Munimji in Ram Aur Shyam (1967), and Ghoghar Baba in Himalay Ki God Mein (1965), among others. Not just an actor, Kanhaiyalal also wrote the immensely popular dialogues for the film Sadhana (1939) at the beginning of his film career.
Kanhaiyalal was an eccentric man, very attached to the traditional ideals he had been raised with. He took care to keep his family far from the film industry, and he took his children to see plays or poetry recitations in the theatre instead. Interestingly, he always appeared in public formally attired in a dhoti and kurta, never in shorts or pants. This did not mean he was unwilling to experiment sartorially: he was also a collector of many kinds of hats and shoes. A lover of literature, Kanhaiyalal could recite most of Dagh Dehlvi’s shayaris from memory, and he included Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s works as part of his daughter’s dowry when she was married.
In 1981, while shooting for the film Hum Paanch, Kanhaiyalal was gravely injured. Though he started moving around after being laid up in bed for weeks, the injuries affected him deeply, and he passed away on 14 August 1982.