Production Journal: Looking for my Babba

When I started writing for a daily newspaper in India four decades ago, the last thing I imagined was that one day I would produce and write a documentary on my father, Aghajani Kashmeri.

What is so special about Babba? Well, other than being my father, of course, 🙂 he was one of the most famous scriptwriters (screenwriter if you wish) of his time in Bollywood – the 1930s, 40s, 50s and 60s. His last movie was Khilona (1970), starring Jeetendra, Sanjeev Kumar, Mumtaz, Durga Khote, Shabnam, and other then famous names. This added to his huge list of hits, those that have run 25 to 50 weeks continuosly in one theatre. It was produced by L.V.Prasad and directed by Chander Vohra and won the Filmfare best movie award for 1970.

But more than that, he had lived a colourful life, documented in an autobiography he wrote in the 1960s, Sahar Honé Tak in Urdu and Subha Honé Tak in Hindi, the book I am at present translating. He was born and brought up in Lucknow, the cultural capital of Northern India, especially when it comes to the language of Bollywood films, Hindustani (mostly Urdu and some Hindi). In that respect, Lucknow and its environs have gifted some of the finest writers and poets to grace Bollywood.

To borrow from “Bollywood,” a remarkable anthropological history of the Indian cinema by Tejaswini Ganti, “It is hard to imagine film songs or dialogues without the vocabulary, metaphors, and idioms derived from Urdu language and literature. Words for love (pyar, ishq, mohabbat), heart (dil), law (kanoon), justice (insaaf), honour (izzat), duty (farz), blood (khoon), emotion (jazbaat), crime (jurm), and wealth (daulat) – all central concepts in Hindi cinema – are from Urdu’s Persian and Arabic-derived vocabulary.”

In 1991, as the adjoining news clipping from Midday proclaims, he packed up his golden pen and paper and follow his wife to the White North, Canada, to be with us. It was my mother’s idea to move to Canada, and he complied. I am glad he did, because it was in those seven or so tumultuous years that I discovered my father, The real Aghajani Kashmeri I hope to discover while producing the doc.

The opening paragraph of this news item, published on March 8, 1991, reads: “In the autumn of his life, the veteran screenplay writer, Agha Jani Kashmeri, plans to leave the country of his birth, the land that saw him rise to dizzying heights as the premier script writer of the Golden age of Indian cinema.

“In his eighties now, as he sat packing for his imminent departure to Canada, Kashmiri spoke at length about his career that spanned four decades and saw him rubbing shoulders with cinema greats like Himanshu Rai, Mehboob Khan, S. Mukherjee, among others.” (His name is variously spelled in movies and news stories as Aghajani Kashmeri, Aghajani Kashmiri, Agha Jani Kashmeri, Agha Jani Kashmiri! You find this discrepancy in his on screen movie credits. Go figure! 🙂 )

In Toronto, Aghajani soon discovered a coterie of fans, who had followed his writing, his movies, and his poetry. He found admirers at the Urdu Society of Canada, and was honoured at several of its functions. He made some very close friends, who were attracted to him because of his literary past, his knowledge of Urdu literature and his humour. You will meet some of them in our documentary.

While multicultural Canada gave Babba the opportunity to live comfortably and without total cultural alienation, was all this enough for a Bollywood icon from yesteryear? Again, we hope to answer this question for you. After all, he was the product of a fiery and creative past, in the throes of old age and an environment in which the local cigarette seller and barber did not speak the language which had helped him achieve immense fame and fortune.

I often wondered what was going through his mind when he remembered the cigarette seller at the bottom of Cumballa Hill Road in Bombay. The bidiwallah would compliment him on his dialogues in movies such as Muhhé Jeené Do, or Junglee, Yeh Rastey Hain Pyar Ké, Love in Simla, etc. etc. etc. Or for that matter, the commotion on our street when luminaries from Bollywood visited or came for a party to our flat that looked out at the Arabian Sea. Or the barbers at Preciouis, the hair salon just beside the bidiwallah, most of them from around Lucknow in the State of Uttar Pradesh, who were constantly bombarding him with poetry and story ideas for his movie scripts. I gather a few of them are still around, rather old of course.  We’ll find out if the old codgers have any memories that we can digitize. Preciouis is still there in the same spot next to the bidiwallah.)

But he did find a coterie of fans in his last and final abode, Toronto. And there was some low scale applause. We’ll show you some clips from a couple of TV appearances in Toronto. We hope to show you stills from his movies going back to the 1930s (he started off as an actor before realizing that he was not “hero” material), personal photographs from our family album and those of Bollywood glitterati from yesterday, posters of films that he wrote (and some in which he acted).

Aghajani Kashmeri contemplates

Aghajani Kashmeri at his Keki Court apartment in Bombay

We start shooting the documentary in September 2010 in Toronto and in Mississauga, before doing some more research and then heading out to Lucknow and Bombay (now Mumbai). We’ll keep you posted of each significant step in my journey to retrace Babba’s footsteps, from Lucknow to Bombay to Canada. On this journey, a pilgrimage if you like, I am hoping to come face-to-face with the real Aghajani Kashmeri.

Stay tuned!

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2 thoughts on “Production Journal: Looking for my Babba

  1. Yes, Bill, that is a younger me. That is when I covered the Mideast and Islamic Affairs for Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper. That interview was in Baghdad, Iraq, during the Iran-Iraq war and was part of a Globe series called INSIDE THE PLO. It was also among the first few major interviews with Yasser Arafat in the Western World.

  2. Good story about your Dad, Kash, but I am writing to ask about one of the photos in the header at the top of your home page. Is that a younger you interviewing Yasser Arafat? Sure looks like him.

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