An Indian Doctor's Cure-All: Charlie Chaplin Ashok Aswani has been a fan of Charlie Chaplin for more than 40 years. Now, the practitioner of ayurvedic medicine heads a club of other equally serious fans of the silent-movie-era icon and uses Chaplin movies to help patients suffering from depression.
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An Indian Doctor's Cure-All: Charlie Chaplin

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An Indian Doctor's Cure-All: Charlie Chaplin

An Indian Doctor's Cure-All: Charlie Chaplin

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NPR's Philip Reeves reports.

PHILIP REEVES: This is the clinic of Dr. Ashok Aswani. It's not much bigger than a walk-in closet. A couple of women in bright saris sit outside the door amid the heat and dust, waiting for the afternoon session to begin.


REEVES: Inside, Aswani pulls from a drawer a fistful of his favorite medicines. They're Charlie Chaplin movies. Which of these movies is the most effective?

ASHOK ASWANI: "Kid," "Modern Times," "Gold Rush," "City Lights."

REEVES: Aswani works in Adipur, an obscure industrial town on the edge of a salt desert in western India. He practices Ayurveda, a medical system used widely in India for thousands of years. His decision to hand out free DVD's to patients is his own personal break from tradition.

ASWANI: They are very sad, they are sick, they are depressed. So what I do, I give them this cassette. I got all - so many cassettes inside here. See?


REEVES: These are all Chaplin movies.

ASWANI: Unidentified Female #1: (Foreign language spoken)

REEVES: There's a miniature shrine on a shelf above Aswani's desk. Alongside the icons of Hindu Gods, stands a China statuette of Chaplin. The doctor's patients seem a little bemused by all this.


REEVES: Aswani's fascination with Charlie Chaplin started with this movie "The Gold Rush."


REEVES: Forty years ago, Aswani went to see it. He liked it so much, he immediately bought a ticket for the next showing, although he was supposed to be at work.

ASWANI: I laughed a lot and fell down the ground. Three times I saw that movie, and next day I lost the job.


REEVES: Since then, Aswani has seen "The Gold Rush" more than 200 times. His admiration for Chaplin remains undiminished.

ASWANI: This was the greatest, greatest man on the Earth, I think. He was a good musician, good director, good editor, good writer, good actor, and good mime artist.

REEVES: When Chaplin died in 1977, Aswani was devastated.

ASWANI: I wept, I wept like a - like a kid. I feel he should be alive.

REEVES: Aswani's eyes fill with tears. He has startling eyes, large and blue, and also a mop of hair dyed russet red. His face is well suited to his pastime as a Chaplin mime artist.

ASWANI: Hat just fell of the stand. Now he's putting his hat on.

REEVES: Aswani prepares to demonstrate his skills. He's got the gear, the baggy trousers, the black bowler hat. He selects a cane from his collection of several dozen.

ASWANI: Long, small, for kids.

REEVES: Aswani's pushing 60. He's not in great physical shape, thanks to a bad motorcycle accident years ago and also arthritis. But he can do the funny walk beautifully. Aswani's enthusiasm has proved infectious.


REEVES: Meet his followers. This is the Charlie Circle, a group of Chaplin fans, aged from 72 to 14. They meet here in a cramped room above a photo shop facing onto a noisy and chaotic street. A large black and white cardboard cutout of Chaplin is propped up in the corner. Aswani prays to this before each meeting.

ASWANI: (Foreign language spoken)

REEVES: Every year the Charlie Circle honors the anniversaries of Chaplin's birth and death. Children dress up as Chaplin and paint on moustaches. There are mimes and movies.


CHARLIE CHAPLIN: (As Hynkel): They all one to help one another. Human beings are like that. We want to live by each other's happiness, not by each other's misery. We don't want to hate and despise one another.

REEVES: That's from "The Great Dictator," Chaplin's classic movie about Hitler and his first with dialog. Every Indian film student seems to know that Chaplin speech. L.L. Chiniara, a retired government official is a Charlie Circle member. He says Chaplin seems to strike a chord with many Indians.

ASWANI: He's a common man; we are also common men. So that's why we were attracted to the Charlie, that's why only. And we love the Charlie.

REEVES: This is a strange phenomenon, this club, so far away from Chaplin's world; from England, and Hollywood. Maybe they love Charlie because his movies were often silent and therefore in a country of many languages, speak to all. Or maybe, says Kishore Parma(ph) a bus conductor and Charlie Circle member, it's because Chaplin performed a man, well, who's just like him.

KISHORE VERMA: (Through Translator) I realized that I am actually a real life Charlie, because I'm a bus conductor and there are all sorts of people that come on my bus. There are people that have family problems, there are people from the government that come on my bus, there are people that are (unintelligible) rued to me. And I have to deal with all these people. So I feel I'm miming on the bus.

REEVES: Adipur is in Gujarat, India's only dry state, so there are no bars or nightclubs. The place is mostly focused on business or making money from the nearby seaports. Perhaps that's why the Charlie Circle revers Dr. Aswani. He is at least providing some entertainment in this cultural wilderness. Aswani's daughter Monica(ph) also reveres him. She says her childhood was dominated by her dad's unusual obsession.

MONICA ASWANI: REEVES Because of her childhood, Monica has become a lifelong Chaplin fan, but not like her father. In this town he's known by his nickname.

ASWANI: The Charlie doctor. He loves Charlie, he gets up, it's all Charlie. He never tries to be Charlie. It's just in him.

REEVES: To see that you only need to peek into Aswani's wallet.

ASWANI: This moustache.

REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News, New Delhi.

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And I'm Linda Wertheimer in Washington.

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