Courtesy: ©The Globe and Mail, Toronto, Canada
Toronto, Thursday, April 16, 1998
By James Macgowan
Bombay movie legend. Born in Lucknow, India, on July 14, 1908; died on March 27, 1998, of cancer in Toronto, aged 89.
AGHAJANI Kashmeri, a charismatic, witty and garrulous writer of more than 40 Indian films, spent 60 years in the Bombay motion-picture industry, where he was lauded for his authentic dialogue. That talent owed much to his habit of recreating scenes he had witnessed — including a voyeuristic episode from his youth that he rehashed to get a honeymoon scene just right.
When he was about 13, he and some friends climbed onto the roof of a house whose occupants were newly married. They proceeded to observe the mysteries of love unfold before their eyes. “The dialogue remained etched in his mind,” said his son Zuhair, a Toronto writer and media-relations consultant. At other times, continued Zuhair, in order to find out what the common man thought, his father would spend time on the streets of Bombay talking with barbers and kebob vendors, “discussing everything from philosophy to poetry and love.”
He was the second child born to Syedali Hussain Rizavi, a jeweller, and Khursheed, who died of tuburculosis when he was 6. Growing up, he displayed an avid interest in language and writing, and attended many poetry sessions regularly held in Lucknow.
His career began at 19, when a producer told him, “You’re a handsome young man. Do you want to be a hero in the films?”
The next morning, without his father’s approval, he left for Rangoon, Burma, with the producer. Once the film was done, however, he found himself with a rather significant problem: No money. How was he supposed to return home?
The apartment he rented while the film was shot was next to that of a female circus performer who owned a gorilla. One day the gorilla found its way into Mr. Kashmeri’s apartment. His terrified screams attracted the animal’s owner. While she attempted to get the situation under control, he hid behind her, and a romance was born. She got him a circus job as a strongman, but the relationship ended when she pulled him into the lions’ den and, to the delight of hundreds of spectators, he ran out screaming after the first growl. He didn’t stop running until he got to Calcutta.
In 1941, to everyone’s surprise, Mr. Kashmeri married. Most of India was aware that he was having an affair with Suraiyya, one of its most famous actresses, but she was not the bride. His explanation was simple: It wasn’t glamour he was looking for, but a partner with whom to raise children.
His wife, also named Khursheed, proved to be a very strong and politically minded partner who established a team of lawyers and police who rescued abused Muslim mothers and their children. She would go on to become a well-known Bombay social worker.
By the time they were married, Mr. Kashmeri was an established writer. He did write his share of formula movies, which he produced in a couple of months, usually in a hotel room where he paced and chain-smoked while dictating to two assistants. He often badgered producers and directors to improve the quality of scripts, citing his heroes Guy de Maupassant and Honoré de Balzac, as well as the films of Billy Wilder and William Wyler. His pleas usually fell on deaf ears. Still, he made lots of money, finding that two or three screenplays a year gave him enough leisure to dream of becoming India’s Billy Wilder.
His final film came out in 1979, at which point he retired; he had written 22 Silver Jubilee hits (awarded for a movie that ran 25 weeks) and nine Golden Jubilee hits (50 weeks).
In 1991, he and Khursheed arrived in Toronto to be closer to their sons, Zuhair and Sarwar (who lives in New York). Quickly, he gathered a circle of literary friends; after he had an operation to remove cancer in his bowel in 1995, these friends often visited him in the nursing home where he was staying. His wife moved in with him and died there in May of 1996.
He often dreamed of her. Four months before he died, he told Zuhair he had seen her in a dream: “She pointed to a bungalow she was living in, and said, ‘Look how beautiful this is, come and live with me . . . why are you afraid?’ ”
It was a hard time for him. He missed the nuances of his native Urdu, and even though his flirtatious charm landed him two marriage proposals from women at the nursing home, he longed for his wife. Five weeks before he died, he decided it was time. He all but stopped eating and drinking, and died in his bed, watched over by his two sons.
James Macgowan is a frequent contributor to Lives Lived.
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