Dr. Ashok Aswani is an alternative medical practitioner and mime. He is also Charlie Chaplin's biggest fan in India. Every year, on Chaplin’s birthday in April, he organises a parade of a few hundred people through his tiny hometown, Adipur, in Gujarat.

The sun, usually a benevolent giver of light, energy and balance was in an incandescent blaze. As the midday temperature crossed 45 degrees centigrade, traffic, both human and vehicular started to get scarce in Adipur, Gujarat. But the stream of patients and visitors to Ashok Dispensary in the town centre, continued unabated. The visitations had been shifted to the entrance of the clinic due to a power cut. Behind a table sat the portly figure of Dr.Aswani, in a worn, collared T, his expressive, piercing blue eyes regarding every person in front of him with a mix of humour, concern and practical wisdom. “He has helped every member of my family from my grandfather to my granddaughter,” revealed a patient, with an affection that was reflected through two days in Adipur. 
This was the day before Charlie Chaplin’s birthday (April 16) and preparations for an annual celebration were in full swing. Ashok Aswani, the man behind this phenomenon, offered some historical context, while driving his bruised and battered car, “In 1973, I decided to do something to keep the memory of Charlie Chaplin alive. So I got a cake on April 16, cut it and distributed it. The first time there was only my brother, sister and I. Most people didn’t even know who he was back then, they would think his name is Charlie Champion. In the years that followed it started getting bigger but it was only in 1980 that I invited more people and my friends started helping me. Four years ago it was officially registered as the Charlie Chaplin Foundation.”

Aswani has had a long journey from his childhood as the town prankster, when he would dress up as the Phantom to scare people at night. After a brief but bright stint at the FTII (Film and Television Institute, India) in the 60s he returned home after being shunted out by faculty politics, even though he had high marks in his examinations. By then his love affair with a certain Charles Spencer Chaplin was in full bloom, “What both God and Charlie do is to teach the common man how to live,” said Aswani, “They teach him how to laugh, increase his will power, how to bear his suffering and move on. That’s why I believe in him so much. In my view if you have to walk a hundred steps, you have to start with the first one. So I started with one step, and the rest has just happened.”
This seemed a gross oversimplification. With little or no funding and the support of a constellation of people who start to orbit Aswani as April nears, the yearly parade happens despite significant challenges. This year was especially hard, with two of his trusted lieutenants unable to attend. So the work had to be distributed among other regulars like local choreographer/dance teacher Juhi, ex-bus conductor Kishor, a host of young acolytes that regard Aswani as their guru, and his effervescent seventeen year old grandson, Talin Navani. All these human resources don’t always translate to funding, “Even though we have formed this trust no one is willing to donate even a rupee. Only three trustees regularly donate; me, my daughter and a close relative. Just yesterday I had to take Rs.12,000 from my daughter to pay off the DJ. Even the hall costs Rs.30,000 to rent for a few hours. We have to spend on water, food, DJ, Lights, costumes, hats, sticks, along with the hall. Every year so many hats and costumes are not returned or damaged.”  

The parade itself seems incidental in this ongoing love affair that draws people as disparate as accomplished Canadian Chaplin impersonator, Jason Allin, and bollywood doyen and Aswani’s old buddy, Raza Murad, who drew hundreds of mobile phones cameras like a magnet. 
When it finally began at 5.30pm on April 16, the crowd of Chaplin children, adults, assorted well wishers and gawking hangers on were rivalled by three separate film crews including one from the BBC and half a dozen photographers, scrambling between garba dancers, acrobats, a camel drawn carriage and a largish DJ truck, blaring dance music. A small town spectacle rich in spirit and authenticity. After a brief stop at the gates of the Gandhi Samadhi (one of two places in India that house his ashes), the procession moved to Prabhu Darshan Hall for a string of performances by students and supporters of Aswani, interspersed by a couple of quick skits (including the famous Dictator speech) by Jason Allin in classic Chaplin garb. While the quality and organisation had wild variations, a spirit of inclusion and good will prevailed until the very end when a gloriously pink rectangle that was more frosting than cake was cut and fed to everyone at arm’s distance. The night came to an end as Aswani hovered outside the auditorium dealing with payments to various vendors. 
While this well meaning annual celebration is a big evolution from the cake cutting of the early years, it is just a step towards a more concrete goal to build Charlie Bhavan, that will house a mini museum, performance and teaching spaces, as well as accommodation for fans and artists. Ashok Aswani left us with a sobering thought, “I don’t know how long it will take to complete Charlie Bhavan as there are no funders. I had to even buy the plot myself for Rs.5 to 6 lakh with no help or funding.” 
This seems to be a common refrain around here, passion and purpose butting heads with funding. After almost half a century of struggle and good cheer to keep his flame for Chaplin burning bright, we can only hope that the good doctor Aswani is allowed some respite for his tired, arthritic limbs as Adipur gets its annual (heat) wave of publicity, “To bring a smile to someone’s face it very difficult but if you keep trying then the reward will definitely find you. Because through their face you can bring them joy from within. I have so many illnesses but I never let them cause suffering. I have learned to live with them. As you can see, I am severely arthritic and can barely move, walk or even turn my head properly. Where did I get this inspiration to keep going? Charlie, of course.”


Dr.Aswani treats a patient at his tiny clinic in Adipur. “What both God and Charlie do is to teach the common man how to live,” said Aswani, “They teach him how to laugh, increase his will power, how to bear his suffering and move on. That’s why I believe in him so much.

With little or no funding and support, a constellation of people start to orbit Aswani as April nears. This year was especially hard, with two of his trusted lieutenants unable to attend. So the work had to be distributed among other regulars like local dance teacher Juhi, ex-bus conductor Kishor, a host of young acolytes that regard Aswani as their guru, and his effervescent seventeen year old grandson, Talin Navani.
Just an hour before the parade, Aswani is helped by his grandsons to get dressed. Although severely arthritic and in his 70s he still does his own make up.
Bollywood doyen, Raza Murad (c) is an old buddy of Aswani and turned up in the 2017 edition as a valued guest of the parade and celebrations. Cameras and mobile phones followed his every move in this small town. Here he and Aswani host a small town press conference (R) and watch a performance that is part of the celebrations.
Jason Allin is a professional Chaplin impersonator who came down from Canada for the parade. "I needed 4000 canadian dollars to get here and back and Ashok was going to take care of everything after I landed here. It was terrifying because it was hard to communicate with Ashok in English. But the moment I got here I believed that I had been here before that I belonged here. So for me it shifted everything I thought as a North American actor, thinking I am great and will get better. You got to go out and receive something that you didn’t even know was there, take a leap of faith and learn from people who have passion on another level and see if you can absorb that passion. And I think I grabbed it."
Dozens of young people turned up in full uniform, including a group from a nearby orphanage who were dressed by Charlie Circle, an organisation started by Aswani and his well wishers.
Canadian Chaplin impersonator, Jason Alin (r) and Aswani's grandson Talin Navani (l) kicked off the parade.
When it finally began at 5.30pm on April 16, the crowd of Chaplin children, adults, assorted well wishers and gawking hangers on were rivalled by garba dancers, acrobats, a camel drawn carriage and a largish DJ truck, blaring dance music.

Every year the parade takes a break to pay their respects at the Samadhi of Mahatma Gandhi, one of the places in India where his ashes are interred.

 While this well meaning annual celebration is a big evolution from the cake cutting of the early years, it is just a step towards a more concrete goal to build Charlie Bhavan, that will house a mini museum, performance and teaching spaces, as well as accommodation for fans and artists. Ashok Aswani left us with a sobering thought, “I don’t know how long it will take to complete Charlie Bhavan as there are no funders. I had to even buy the plot of land myself with no help or funding.”
Jason Allin is fed some gloriously pink birthday cake as a personification of Charlie Chaplin. 

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