If shooting “THE GOLDEN PEN — Following the Footsteps of a Bollywood Scriptwriter” in the city of Lucknow was like a romp through fantasyland, filming in Mumbai was like stepping back in time, despite the vibrancy of a metropolis that I and everyone I know still call Bombay.
As we walked up Cumballa Hill Road, the street where Babba, my father, moved to after he wrote hit after hit, and rented a flat in a building called Keki Court, it did not seem like anything had changed.
The tiny cigarette shop at the foot of the Lane was still there and I could have sworn that the bidiwala had aged chronologically backwards. But no, it was his son Suresh.
The only difference: with globalism and liberalization of trade, Lucky Strike and Marlborough could now be purchased at more reasonable prices. Talk of marketing death with panache.
In the nooks and crannies where I played marbles and fought pitched battles, a strange silence prevailed, almost as if all the children had disappeared, followed the pied piper to a distant shore.
As we filmed in the nooks and crannies of the street, strangely enough, no crowds assembled. But then why should they? None of us resembled a matinee idol from Bollywood. So there was this white man from somewhere in the West, walking up and down with a large camera, filming the strangest things. But it wasn’t Bollywood. Not even from yesteryear.
That Bollywood was in the one-room flat piled to the ceiling with books on movies and newspapers that had seen better times. This was the home of Rafique Baghdadi, a veteran Mumbai journalist and a specialist in movies and Bollywood. He is also the convenor of the film group of the Mumbai Press Club, showing a film every week and introducing its genre before its screening.
To meet the Bollywood of yesteryear we paid a visit to Ameen Sayani, whose sonorous voice still echoes in the minds of hundreds of millions of Indians and Indian expats. After all his Binaca Geet Mala (hit parade) could make or break a movie.
He was our neighbour on Cumballa Hill Road, living in Parvez Mansion across from us, in a building that is now a 30 odd storey skyscraper lying vacant as its ownership dispute goes through the Mumbai courts, a process that on average takes up to 20 years! Babba would be on his show often, explaining the intricacies of Urdu poetry and giving his take on the latest heroine to make Bollywood.
“He had an eye for beauty, there would be a twinkle in his eyes every time he saw a pretty young woman. No wonder he wrote such fabulous romantic dialogues’, said Ameen Bhai as I called him.
We filmed Joy Mukherji (Mukherjee), one of many actors chosen and trained by Aghajani. He recalled how nervous he was in his first movie, Love in Simla, produced by his father Sashadar or simply S. Mukherji. “After he taught me, I found acting so simple and enjoyed it, when getting an award I told in front of the whole film industry: Aghajani was my guru, he taught me to talk, walk, act… I wish he was here to listen to me. But he is no more.”
Shammi Kapoor, one of the famous trio of brothers, and the man who made the call “yahoo” famous across the land in India’s first Technicolor film Junglee. It was written of course by one of his favourite writers, Aghajani, a man, as he put it with a big smile, with whom he finished many a bottle of Dimple scotch, and then listened intently as Aghajani recited love poetry in Urdu. The language of Bollywood, even though people refer to Bollywood flicks as “Hindi movies,” is a mix between Urdu and Hindi, actually mostly Urdu because of its sweetness and extravagance in the affairs of the heart and its quick turn of phrase.
Listen to anthropologist Tejaswini Ganti, in his highly entertaining and instructive book on Bollywood since its early inception, whose tome is a must for anybody hoping to understand the largest movie industry in the world. (“Bollywood: A Guidebook to Indian Cinema” by Tejaswini Ganti, publishers Routledge, 2001.)
While Urdu is a language that originated and is spoken in northern India – the present-day state of Uttar Pradesh – it became the official language of Pakistan. Due to the political tensions between India and Pakistan and the association of Urdu with Muslims, a process that the British initiated in the nineteenth century, Urdu literature and scholarship in India suffered from official neglect as resources were poured into developing and spreading a highly Sanskritized Hindi. Hindi films however continued to be made in Hindustani and many prominent Urdu poets worked as lyricists within the Bombay film industry. 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), honor (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.
So what were the real and early days of Bollywood like? The thousands who fled their homes, their towns and villages and cities, in search of the becoming the next matinee idol? In search of an excitement that brought with it artistic achievement and fame, and of course money? An actress named Nimmi was our entry into that part of Bollywood history. She was a star in the 1950s, with movies such as Amar, Mela, Mere Mehboob, Deedar, Bhai Bhai and the super hits Udan Katola and Barsaat.
She also happens to be my bhabi, married to my first cousin and Aghajani’s nephew, Ali Raza. Babba established him by involving him as a co-writer in Andaz, a super hit with Dilip Kumar and Raj Kapoor. She spoke to us about the trials and tribulations of making it in early Bollywood and of the artistic talents, mostly picked up in the cultural hodgepodge that was Lucknow.
There is SO MUCH footage from these interviews that we could not use and I am hoping to include this raw footage in a special DVD edition of our documentary. I am sure this will be of interest to fans, Bollywood enthusiasts, researchers, amateur historians and writers alike.
NEXT STEP: The completed version of THE GOLDEN PEN, its launch date, stations across Canada where it will be aired, its availability and our plans for distributing this worldwide.