LUCKNOW, INDIA – The residents of Wazir Gunj, an old ‘mohalla’ or neighbourhood, rose up to lend a helping hand in the digital rebirth of the late Bollywood scriptwriter, Aghajani Kashmeri. And it was quite an experience, talking to the children and grandchildren of the friends my Babba played with. (SEE SLIDESHOW BELOW AND LISTEN TO THE MELODIOUS VOICE OF LUCKNOW’S LEGENDARY GHAZAL SINGER, THE LATE BEGUM AKHTAR)
After all, he was one of their own, who rose to capture the No. 1 spot in the world’s largest movie industry as a screenplay, dialogue and storywriter. And here we were, myself, Howard Bernstein (my co-producer and co-writer), his wife Lani Selick (our director), Tony Wannamaker (the director of photography), assisted by Samal Prashant from New Delhi, recreating the early life of Babba.
He was born at 9 Wazir Gunj. The original home still stands, an open courtyard surrounded by living quarters, a terrace up top running all the way around. All the houses connect to each other through the terrace. You could in fact, jump from one terrace to another and make your way around the old mohalla. Babba did, he writes in his autobiography, Sahar Honé Tak.
SLIDESHOW OF THE LUCKNOW SHOOTING
On one occasion, as a youngster, he and some friends found an opening in the roof of a nearby home from where they peeped at a newlywed couple enjoying their first night. Babba told me years later that he never forgot the nuptial conversation! And would reproduce those dialogues in one of his movies, with crfitics acclaiming the scene as one of the most realistic pieces of scriptwriting.
But our reason for shooting part of the documentary in Lucknow was more than such titillating anecdotes. We wanted to explore several issues. Lucknow was known as the cultural capital of Bollywood and even India for that matter. Lucknow has given to Bollywood more than its share of screenwriters and lyricists. There is a local saying that a common man on the streets of Lucknow speaks more fluent Hindustani than a PhD.
In the days when Babba was growing up in Lucknow, every mohalla would have a poetry session at least once a week. Lucknow’s best-known poets would attend these. And so would Babba. In fact, at the tender age of 14, he was selected as a student poet by none other than Arzoo Lucknowi, one of the best known Urdu poets of his time. It was at gatherings such as these that he learned his language, his poetry and his literature. He dropped out of school without finishing Grade 9 – he did not get to the final exam so that he could be with Arzoo at one such poetry session.
We invited some literary luminaries for a traditional Lucknowi lunch at the old palace (Iqbal Manzil Palace) of a scion of the Rajas of Mehmoodabad, Rajkumar Mohammad Amir Naqui Khan. There was also a ghazal singer Shanney Naqui playing on a harmonium and singing. He has performed at several U.S. universities, including Harvard and Princeton. After listening to his singing of the poetry of Arzoo and listening to the conversation, I began to understand why Babba had naturally acquired mastery over the Urdu language.
What was as heavenly as the poetry, was the authentic traditional lunch. We had chicken, and the meat tasted naturally fruity. The Raja told me that the hens had been fed pomegranate and other fruit seeds rather than the ordinary feed. You can imagine the natural taste of the meat. Writes a scholar for the UP Department of Tourism: “The Prince is a celebrated connoisseur of Mughal cuisine and the kitchen of Iqbal palace ‘Bawarchi Khana’ was known for its unique dinners. The guests palate would often be put to test into deciphering as to what was being served. To revive the old traditionally served food, the present Rajkumar Mohhamad Amir Naqui Khan Proposes to host tourists for a cultural evening followed by a Mughlai cusine.”
In the documentary, you will see a Babba look-alike wearing a flowing kurta and a dupalli topi. Yes, that is me playing my daddy. Meeting two producers who offered Babba three hundred rupees to run away to Rangoon and be the hero of a film. His Bollywood career began over a cold drink and Rs.300. Babba went around to say goodbye to his childhood friends, one of whom tied a religious amulet to his arm. He said goodbye to his ancestors at their tombs in the family mosque, and then took a train to Calcutta, riding to the railway station on an ikka – a one-horse carriage.
Among those who greets Babba and bids him goodbye outside the famous picture gallery of the Nawabs of Oudh is Nawabzada Saeed Ali Khan, son of Nawabzada Abid Ali Khan… a descendant from the long line of this royal family. Dressed in the traditional angharkha he makes for an impressive royal stepping out from yesterday in today’s digital age. We interviewed him atop the Bada Imambada, famous for its labrynth Bhul Bhulainyan (Countless Memory Lapses). His family controls the Hussainabad Trust, which manages many of these religious monuments.
You will love listening to Noorul Hassan, one of Babba’s descendents, describing all of this and more to our camera in an interview. And that to in the courtyard of the family home where Babba was growing up. This segment brings to life the sights and sounds of Babba’s beloved Lucknow as narrated by him in his autobiography, which we plan to play in the background. His autobiography, Sahar Hone Tak, was published in Urdu and Hindi (Subha Hone Tak) in the late 1960s and was acclaimed as a “frank” piece of writing in which he literally told all (which didn’t sit too well with my mother). But honesty was one of his hallmarks, as the well known actor Shammi Kapoor would tell us in Mumbai.
“He was too honest in fact,” said Shammiji. “One of the reasons he did not accumulate as much wealth as he should have!” The autobiography is my next project — I have finished translating it into English, the first draft, and will return to it in 2011. With the translation, I would like to release a CD featuring Babba himself reading it out in a voice that producers and directors often used at the outset of their movie to introduce it. (Humayun, Ghazal, Yeh Rastey Hain Pyar Ke, and several others.)
Some people tell me that the opening of all of Mehboob Production films, showing the sickle and hammer and a voice that says: Muddaee lakh bura chahey to kya hota hai, Wahee hota hai jo manzoorey khuda hota hai! (Let your enemy curse you to his heart’s desire / In the end it all rests with the immortal sire!)
Lucknow has left me with scores of vivid memories — it is a memorable city where pedestrians and cycle richshaws and scooters play out a mad dance amid scores of historical buildings and gardens and ruins and mosques that are still used today as they were hundreds of years ago. The home where Babba grew up is still there, his grand nephews live there. A few minutes away through the alleyways is the family mosque where I can trace my lineage back several generations. The most difficult part of all this? Keeping calm and not bursting into tears as I played my dad, riding an emotional roller coaster that came very close to pushing me off the edge. Farewell Lucknow, the city of Nawabs and poets and India’s best-known cuisine.