I wish I could find words to describe the first day of shooting a documentary on my late father’s life. When I look back at the weekend of September 25 and 26, 2010, it went by so quickly, so quickly in fact that I had no time to be nostalgic or emotional. I didn’t even have time to cry.
Without giving away too much, because I would like you all to see my father’s documentary when we complete it next March, the moment that stays with me was at my father’s grave. We were filming a sequence with Murtaza Amarshi, his two sons and his young daughter. Murtaza is the owner of the fabulous fountain pen shop, with the most gorgeous collection of writing instruments, papers, note books, and everything classic and nice that you can think of in Toronto’s (stock) Exchange Tower. It is called The Sleuth & The Statesman.
In brief, here is his story (you will see the real thing in the documentary): in 1998, just after my father died and his grave was still fresh at the York Cemetery in the North end of Toronto, a dad with his three children stumbled upon the newly placed tombstone on Aghajani’s grave. The title on the tombstone read: Bombay Movie Legend.
Murtaza stopped his children, read the epitaph and began telling them about early Bollywood, and the contribution made by the Urdu language to the movie industry. Urdu is mostly spoken by Muslims because it is largely derived from Persian (Farsi) and from some Sanskrit. He began talking to children about the contributions made to early Bollywood films by writers and poets such as Aghajani Kashmeri who grew up in and around Lucknow and contributed greatly to the development of the Indian cinema.
Twelve years later he and his children were back at Babba’s grave, recounting for our cameras their first meeting with the celebrated screenwriter. They prayed for his soul the same as they did in 1998. They all bent down and touched the tombstone with their hands as they prayed. Only this time, they were armed with a beautiful bouquet of flowers.
Then it was my turn, to take their place by the grave with my own bouquet of flowers and talk to Babba even as I talked to the camera. It was a strange feeling. Lord knows how many times I accompanied him to studios in Bombay, watching as he trained young actors such as Joy Mukherji, Saira Banu, Sadhna and others in the finer points of delivering his dialogue in Hindustani (the language that combines the finest of Urdu and Hindi). And here I was improvising by his grave side.
Our director, Lani Selick, loved my first take, but for precaution wanted me to do a couple more. In my final take, I almost burst out laughing as I thought of my father sitting up there somewhere looking down and saying: “Good God, he spent days and weeks and months with me at film studios, watching me train actors, and here he is by my grave doing three takes for a simple stand up!”
But I exaggerate. He was more patient than that and would have fully understood filming techniques. After all, this movie is about him and his life, and I’m sure he would like the best, regardless of how many takes I had to do.
But there were more emotional scenes on day number two, beginning outside The Heritage Nursing Home On Queen
St., East in Toronto, where Aghajani stayed after a lengthy surgery for colon cancer, that left him debilitated. I walked from outside the nursing home to his favorite local Indian restaurant, a pub called Stratengers. After he passed away, the owner of Stratengers, Dharam, had a quotation from Babba on the front cover of his menu. (In those days, the Indian section of the pub was called The Indian Maharajah.)
“What makes the food here is so special is that Dharam uses a tomato base, instead of onions, for all of his curries. The result is a sweeter more wholesome sauce, bringing the flavor of each spice to the peak of perfection. The unique blend of spices and the method of preparation reminds me of my mother’s cooking. The curries here are the best in town!” (Aghajani Kashmeri, movie director/screenplay writer… Hindi movies)
This sequence involved Tariq Bari Shaikh, a very special friend of Babba’s, and a successful businessman in Toronto who at one time was even involved in the construction of the CN Tower. He had decided to adopt Aghajani as his father and visited Babba almost every day. His interview with me still rings in my ears. I wish I could tell you about it, but it will have a greater impact when you see it on film. You will also see interviews with two original members of the Urdu Society of Canada, Col. Anwar Ahmed and Ameer Saulat Jafri. Babba presided over several meetings of the Society.
The weekend culminated with an even more emotional sequence. Babba’s favorite walk was along the boardwalk in the Beaches area of Toronto, nearby the nursing home. I had to put on an Indian kurta and re-create that for the benefit of the camera, using a walker that Babba had been reduced to after the debilitating surgery for colon cancer. I did several retakes of the scene, including one on soft sand closer to the lake, and this last one especially gave me for the first time the feel for how he must’ve felt as he plodded his way with a walker that would invariably slow down as the wheels of the walker got caught in the grooves and ridges of the sidewalk nearby the nursing home. The same as it did for me on the soft sand.
My thanks to my coproducer Howard Bernstein and cameraman Tawny Wanamaker for their patience in tolerating this novice with an emotional chip on his shoulder.
We next head to India in November, to Lucknow, more specifically the neighborhood called Wazirganj, where Babba grew up, and then the glamorous Bollywood, in an effort to retrace the footsteps of a young man ran away from home to join the movies and soon rose to become the number one screenwriter of his day.
Stay tuned… or CLICK ME for team bios