The Day Father Left

Barely had I finished tea when mother called to make one for my father. I knew she had been in wait for me to enter the kitchen to return my own cup but my problem is the matter wouldn’t end with making tea, it would have to be fed too. What use is the attendant then who should be here anytime now?

I made a cup and brought it to the living room. That’s where over the years father had come to settle down, instead of the bedroom deeper inside, in order to be centred in this 2-bedroom apartment which was in any case his own to live in as he wanted, where he wanted. My wife and I had moved in taking the second bedroom near the front door after retirement from Pune. I had since bought myself a place in Gurgaon but needed to stay on in order to look after father. Mother didn’t live here. She had actually been on a visit from Sonepat where she lived but had continued—now for a whole month—seeing his condition. Earlier father would resist sleeping in the same room but was now beyond such considerations. The divan opposite was her bed.

“Put it there,” she said and began to get up. “He’s been awake for a while and tea will do him good.”

Father lay eyes-closed; unresponsive but listening, breathing heavily but alert to cooperate as asked. Lately he had developed chest congestion in the mornings and warm tea eased it up, as it would anyone.

“Papaji?” I called out loud as though he were in the other room. “I’ve brought you some tea. This’ll do you good.”

“Surendar has brought you tea,” mother was even louder. “Here, take some.”

She blew over a spoonful, felt it with finger and poured it into his mouth. Instant cough is what I had feared and instant cough is what came. You’ve got to get pretty physical in such situations and that’s what I am not good at when it comes to father. Especially father. My sole achievement of staying both these years looking after him was to ensure that day or night he was never without an attendant. This relieving boy had to be tightened. You can’t blame the world on Delhi buses.

“You sit here first Mummyji and raise his head, I’ll pour tea.”

Mother handed me the spoon and sat.

“And Papaji, first hold it all in your mouth, then swallow from the side, OK? Here…” Saying this I tilted his head away from me and poured. He responded and eased the liquid inside without choking. My father always had good muscle control and we have always had this kind of ‘reasoned’ understanding between us, him and me. There was no further crisis.

“Perfect,” I said relieved. “It’s this congestion that you can’t cough out but don’t worry. I have seen a machine in Apollo where they can easily suck out the phlegm. Today is Sunday but I’ll call Jain tomorrow and get them to bring it first thing in the morning.”

Tea did its job and father went to sleep.

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I wasn’t sure what I heard was right. ““What?” I asked to make sure.

This was the attendant boy just slipped into my room, saying father was not moving and if I could come over and see. He had been ten minutes into duty, this boy, doing his regular sponging, changing and cleaning up, and then this. My mother was in the same room but he hadn’t told her. “What happened?” she asked as we entered.

Father lay on his side facing the wall. The boy had just finished shaving, even the foam had not been fully wiped from the face. “Papaji? Papaji?” I tried to play the man of the moment, not knowing any better. Should I touch, shake? What if he suddenly woke up? Checking pulse seemed the safest contact, which I made. Simultaneously I tried to judge against dark background if the body was rising and falling in breathing, howsoever faint. Both negative. In fact the wrist felt cold. Already?

“When did you notice?” I asked the boy as my mother began to do her own inspection. She was ashen faced I saw in passing but no tears, no hysterics. If she cries it’s not my mother. (It’s probably me.) My mother is strong.

Luckily I got Dr Jain on the first attempt. Playing safe or instinctively professional I don’t know which, he suggested taking him to Apollo. Said he could tell them to send an ambulance urgently although it would easily take half an hour or even more depending upon the traffic. That was neither here nor there; the ball was again back in my court. My mother was clear. “No, not to the hospital any more Surendar,” she said pleading. “He is over and done. He has no breath.” A large part of me felt the same but my concern was not even by mistake to fail him at the last moment. At the very least I wanted a partner in blame if it came to that.

Suddenly the need to be seen to be acting took hold of me. A doctor—even a hack who could tell one way or the other—should have been deciding if my father goes to hospital or stays, not me or my mother. And actually going and grabbing hold of one would be quicker than trying to call blindly. “Hello?” “Yes.” “Wait a minute…” and the rest. I suddenly wanted to be gone from the scene and for once I didn’t have my father’s opinion to lean on. I was on my own.

“I’ll go get a doctor from Sharma Nursing Home down below,” I told my mother. And at the same time decided that I was good to go in half pants. The phone was already in my hand but still took car keys for just in case.

The lift felt slow. Approaching the guards at the gate I wondered if the wastrels should be told. “Banarsi, is there a doctor living in the building?” And before the wily Bihari could begin to think of an excuse, added, “Ask them to go see Papaji, he’s unconscious. I’m going to the Sharma Nursing Home to get somebody.” “Haan, dekhta hoon sir. Sunday hai, koi to hoga,” said the quick thinking Banarasi beginning to look positive. “It’s Sehgal Nursing Home now sir,” I heard him say after me.

It’s not for nothing that this man has been the chief of security here for decades, I thought.

The newly renovated nursing home next door had a 5-star ambience but its starched receptionist morphed into a regular middle class girl as soon as she heard my story. My greys too seemed to have made an impact on her. She first spoke on the intercom, then, momentarily unsure if she should be doing that, left the counter for a more direct approach. (Much like my own, I thought.) I glanced at the traffic outside. The world was plying quite indifferent to the plight of one of its members.

Suddenly I felt I was wasting time standing there. Satish had to be told, for one. I messaged him and the boy immediately called. It must have been 4.30 in the morning for him and yet… Years ago he used to rise along with the quilt being peeled off him on cold winter mornings for studies.

“Hello!” “Hello!!” he checked in urgency.

For a long while he heard nothing but my silence, then my sobs. Then whatever I had to tell him. But more than Satish’s response I remember the reaction of the young doctor who had meanwhile come and stood waiting. I began to address them both, one through the other.

“No, he is not responding… Well, at 92 years, maybe that’s a coma I don’t know. No, I’m in Sharma Nursing Home as I speak, to take a doctor. Well, to at least see if he needs hospitalisation? There is no point taking the body all the way to Apollo and find…” I was already getting ready for a second round of meltdown. Body?

Satish too is a doctor but at 10 years younger he is almost a son. The Jain that I have been talking about is his batch mate from AIIMS days. He’s been our man Friday for all issues relating to my father’s health.

In fact Satish was here until 3-4 days back and had just returned to England after a week’s stay. As I later learned he told Satwanti when he reached home not to unpack. “I’d likely have to go back again. Sooner rather than later,” he had told her. While leaving for the airport he had hugged Papaji as he sat bent over on the sofa, taken selfies and the rest, and told me, “The way he looks, he could go on like this for months. Or be gone while I am in the taxi.”

The kindly receptionist, the faceless doctor as well as some nursing home staff who had by now begun to linger in the distance stood sympathetic. The situation had played out in the open for everyone to see and nobody was in doubt. They would have had stories to tell that evening when they returned home I’m certain. After crying to an audience my own breathing had stabilised and there was no point pursuing the matter with the doctor any further. My father was for all practical purposes—as had slipped from my own mouth a while ago—a body.

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The word had spread fast and the convergence of the kindred was swift. Seeing that the cremation had to be done before sunset my father had timed it to everybody’s convenience. The farthest relatives had to be coming from Jind and Rohtak so both morning hours and Sunday helped. These were his brothers’ and late sister’s families. So when the crematorium wanted to know the time, I had uncertainly asked them 5-ish, to which they had not objected. So 5 it was and I called and told Deepak, Davinder’s son, 35, to tell everybody. Davinder himself, our second brother, was away in US visiting his elder son. Sister Munni was at the other end of Delhi and my mother had already called her.

Considering that I had no experience of ‘hosting’ such an occasion I didn’t do too badly. The moment father was given up I experienced a surprise release. He no longer needed to be attended to, looked after, meal to meal, need to need. As such the attendant boy was the first to fall irrelevant; he just fell idle. Rather than have him come another day, I rounded off his amount to a generous high and paid up in warm gratitude. He had served us well. The buses in Delhi are a pain and there is no denying that. He would also of course let the other boy know.

After this all I had to do was to be there along with my mother and be met, hugged and embraced as needed. Instinctive smile at meeting old relatives was to be checked but soon that was no problem. I knew a white kurta-pajama was bound to be needed and rather than have somebody fuss about it, I had quietly driven to the nearby Fabindia complex and got his size. Shroud cloth? I didn’t know where and how much and what else came with it, so I left it for others to get. A priest? Was one needed? I didn’t know.

But with the relatives gradually arriving the entire scene was soon on the autopilot.

Everybody came and eased themselves among mourners until someone joined to guide them to uncover and show my father’s face. The body had been brought down from the bed and covered with his used bed sheet. Was my camera charged? I went to my room and checked. It was. But would it be all right to go about with a camera in this situation? Is it done?

Unsure, I first clicked pictures of how my own room looked. The unmade bed, newspaper spread, the remotes, open laptop, a mosquito repellent tube, a calendar on the wall, a patch of sunlight.

My life was from now on going to change in major ways.

I walked through the mourners and headed towards my father. On the way I flipped open the viewfinder and twisted it facing up so I could see the image sitting on the floor. Nostrils raised, mouth open, unshaven bristles on the chin, eyes in half-open slits. Surprisingly the skin was already shining and hanging loose from peaks like on mummies. As a boy I had known those bristles on my cheeks.

Nobody objected, nor disapproved. How else would my brothers get to see what everybody is seeing? How will I remember this day myself later on if ever I wanted to? (Perhaps the same reason extends to why I am writing this piece too.)

I took two or three angles before covering the face back again. Then retraced my steps back to the door through which I had entered, for a long shot. It took two or three of those to cover the entire group. My mother sat on her divan just as she had been sitting that whole morning. In one corner I spotted Sanjay Jain sitting on the floor like a complete nobody. That was the famous consultant from Apollo hospital who you queued up to see, whose time was big money and whose word was often final. Not knowing anyone else the soft-spoken doctor stayed by my side the rest of the evening substituting for Satish. This was no time to ask him if he still had his father; Satish had lost his just that morning.

One custom that I was hoping would somehow get bypassed in the general melee didn’t after all get bypassed and I was called over. Simultaneously other guests, particularly ladies, began to drift to the other room. I was to give a bath to my father and dress him in new clothes. Lying as before the body was being bared as I reached and a mug of water brought. So it was to be a ritual bath rather than an elaborate thing alone in the bathroom. That was a relief. Already a number of others had started the process, wetting their hands in the mug and splashing water all over the body. I too put in my hand in water and patted on my father’s chest. Trimmed as he used to wear his dense growth of hair, it had a matted feel as if on grass. Soon enough, even before the towel was brought in and water soaked, the new kurta was being drawn over the two arms and pulled down along the body, unbuttoning the top button at the last moment so the neck could pass. I kept fumbling through the process as though in participation, refraining all the time from looking at the face and elsewhere as the body kept falling limp.

When father was finally brought out of the house, it was in surprising urgency and caused a collective heave and sudden commotion. But again the body was rested in front of the lift, this time for ladies to pay their last respects. Tradition forbids women to attend cremation although I can’t say I haven’t seen any attending. As my mother’s walker was heard, in anticipation I took a long position on the staircase going to the terrace. Held by numerous hands and swaying side to side, mother was guided towards the head but instead she broke down and reached towards the feet. I clicked two pictures in quick succession before my own choke up swelled and subsided.

For the last leg of his journey on the planet, my father had just me for company. The hearse that Lodhi Road crematorium had sent was small—a Maruti Omni—and it couldn’t take a third body beside my father’s and mine. Which was just as well. The evening sun, rich in symbolism and good for photography, went flickering over his papery white cover, intermittently lighting up the otherwise dark cabin. Leaving our gates, we first went along the overhead metro line for a while, then stopped at the busy LSR college traffic junction. When we resumed, it was straight along the length of the park where my father had for years been taking long walks (more I know from loneliness than alleged reasons of health). Even now through the blur of trees I could see a group of oldies chatting away on distant benches—one even guffawing—doing the same.

When the crematorium had asked us our choice of the mode of cremation, I had tried to play the progressive ecologist but was again overruled by my mother’s pleading. Log fire felt kinder to her than electric current. So cremation by fire it was and they began to arrange logs of wood over the body as soon as it was laid on the assigned platform. Everybody chipped in, young with heavy work and the elderly through gesture. It took us quite a while—and strategy—to pile up a huge heap of wood over the body. Amazing that it should take such a lot of fuel to consume human body. And time too, for the ashes would be fit to collect only next morning.

When it was all over, somebody handed me a flame. I passed my camera to Dr Jain who was ready in anticipation. Amidst murmurs of promptings I brought the flame under a part of the log that was wet with ghee and had lots of ventilation around. Others took over from there and lit up the pyre all around.

Once the fire had caught on there was nothing left for us to do except stand and experience the moment.

Returning, I was surprised that I felt light and free like I had never felt in years.

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This was on May 1, 2011. Since then our mother has left too. That was last year on September 10, 2016. 

Please check out my new blog…

Having followed Surendar Chawdhary Times for over 3-4 years, I do hope you would enjoy another offering from the same stable.

Professor Satyajit Ray /Surendar Chawdhary’s books on Ray films [professorsatyajitray.wordpress.com]

This is my platform for discussing Satyajit Ray’s art and craft for the benefit of film students and practicing filmmakers. Starting from the new year there are already 4 posts afloat for your perusal…

Introduction describes the circumstances under which I have started the blog while the rest three pertain to my first book: on Pather Panchali. The most recent post titled Book PP /A Necklace drops in the Indian Pond was on 24th January while the next one titled Book PP /Structure of a Ray film is due on 31st January. Hoping to maintain a weekly schedule of posts every Sunday, the entire Pather Panchali book should be out by the middle of May. Thereafter would begin Aparajito and Apur Sansar to complete the Apu trilogy….

As I said, enjoy!

PS: I’m not terribly suave at using the social media to spread the word but would be most grateful if any of my readers can do that for me.

Continuities & Whores

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The first film exercise you do in a film school is for some reason universally called Continuity. That’s a breaking-in of sorts for everybody. For the first time you get to hold the mirror to yourself. You play multiple roles in each other’s “film”, see the rushes hooting in a community projection, then go solo to edit your precious to another tight schedule. Everybody is curious how everybody else’s cutie is shaping. You seek and offer true or false compliments.

In my days continuities were indeed shot on film. A 200 feet roll of 35mm B&W actual celluloid footage, with a separate optical sound track—optical, not yet magnetic, mind you! Naturally everything passed through the laboratory. You paced up and down like an anxious father as your shots were being ‘delivered’ inside. You prayed power didn’t fail you in mid-bath. Eventually all kinds of surprises awaited everybody at the end. Killer subjects often got lost, bad scripts turned up looking rather good; successful films were directly ‘taali-maar’ while intellectuals had to threaten you with Eisenstein or Bazin under the wisdom tree—or around late-night drinks. Actors were the most clueless in all this. What was there to discuss, they openly wondered, if they were lost as overexposed, out-of-focus, or shot in unflattering angles? Their long cultivated directors often turned out to be butchers.

A Nepali batch mate of ours, actor Timilsinha pursued no such designs and decided just to be available—smiling—as picked. Or even allotted. He ended up part-picked part-allotted in Vishu’s continuity and was grateful for being there as one in a crowd of 6 characters over a total of 90 seconds on the big screen. He went hugely sentimental for his first ever ‘break’ and even cried. One evening after the great festival of continuity screenings was over, four of us found ourselves loafing around Laxmi Road when I suddenly sensed Timilsinha had steered us there on purpose. He wanted to treat his ‘first’ director to an evening with prostitutes while indulging Nirad and I as future investments!

Both Nirad and I were stumped. Our first concern was that we didn’t want to be thought as unmanly. Rather there was this compelling ‘academic’ consideration to ever-widen our range of experiences as successful directors. But wasn’t this ‘input’ coming along a little too early in the syllabus? When it became clear that the Director and Actor actually meant business, we decided to tag along and go until really, really uncomfortable. As matters proceeded, it became a competition between Nirad and I to outlast each other. We were both burning with curiosity about what went on behind those bars and here was an opportunity flung right into our laps without even asking.

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Laxmi Road to Pune is like Chandni Chowk to Delhi. A central marketplace with busy shops on front and godown cum residential units in a network of lanes at the back. And everything dipped in history! Its entire 3-4 kilometres length is sectioned off as this or that ‘peth’—market—and is named after the day of week that the bazar specialising in those commodities would be active. If that be so, I wonder what went for Pune’s brothel district to be called Budhwar Peth, the Wednesday Market.

Timilsinha led us expertly from lane to lane, stopping under dark patches and disappearing inside cutout gates, then returning disappointed to finally find his favourite hole. Smile. Paan and cigarette shops were well lit and festival like atmosphere could be heard above. I stole glances to check out beauties on the balconies but met with too many head on return gazes for comfort. Banter between women and passing men was crude to the limit. With ears turning hot I braved on, as did Nirad with his usual, but put on, nonchalance.

“It’s actually like Pyasa, yaar,” said Nirad. When I made no comment, he laughed nudging. “Jinhe naaz hai Hind par bo kahaan hain, bhai!” I for my part heard nothing but his Oriya accent.

We went up a dark narrow staircase. Two flights of it and we were already on the main working floor. We walked past half-open doors on both sides along a longish corridor where undeterred by visitors plain business of living was being practiced. An occasional stove hissed under a small cooking, a child sat babysitting a howling newcomer; I even remember a small boy doing his homework. Nothing but general commotion led you unguided towards an anteroom of sorts where the view suddenly opened up. This is where you chose your girl and slipped behind curtains. Nirad and I weren’t going to go beyond this point.

The first thing that caught my attention here was the presence of an elderly woman and her welcoming smile. Here she was, suddenly, strikingly fair unlike most others and motherly like none. Her presence was not threatening in any way; rather you felt encouraged, less guilty, indeed legitimised. She sat on a large four-poster in the middle of the room from where she conducted everybody and everything. There was a bench against one wall and a row of chairs against another for those waiting. Nirad and I took independent chairs; wooden, no plastic yet.

That woman could be a real ‘danger’ for the undecided lot, I later thought in admiration. All your inhibitions could dissolve in her presence. But Nirad and I were safe. Monumental clumsiness arising out of unmistakable virginity was our defence and when Timilsinha and Vishu explained we weren’t ‘going in’, the girls backed off. Otherwise they had begun to come and play a teasing comb against our locks.

Vishu had already chosen a girl called Tara—when, where, how, I have no idea till this day. Word went in for her as soon as we reached. And a minute later when Tara appeared, that was another shocker. Such a beautiful girl! She had just serviced a client and had stepped out, businesslike, looking for the next. She was still patting her sari around a beautiful navel as a spent commoner passed her by and headed dripping-embarrassed, first for an unseen pouring tap behind a screen and then for the staircase. I discovered the continuously pouring tap as well as its purpose at the same time.

Vishu went checking out Tara as she led him inside. Dressed in a loose unbuttoned kurta, he wiped his young intellectual beard with the assurance of a seasoned player before they disappeared behind the curtain.

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Unlike the vamps of the Hindi film brothels, the girls had actually left us quite alone. I can’t deny feeling a tad neglected. It was as though we had ceased to exist for them. Had we ended up overdoing our no-no bit?

I wondered if Timilsinha and Vishu had already picked up Nirodh somewhere outside or were the girls supposed to provide that? We didn’t know condoms then; French-leather was more the hush-hush term to use among the educated classes. But Nirodh—Nirad was indeed teased as Nirodh during ragging and for a while later—had come as the government’s highly publicised (and subsidised) family planning ‘rubber’ that was a true leveller of masses and classes. Even children knew what it was: I know why such and such was born, Prof Romesh Paul of screenplay writing had once told us imitating a child; that’s because his mother forgot to eat Nirodh! Syphilis and gonorrhoea were the ultimate horror diseases from ‘dirty’ sex; some high-end scholars had just ‘diagnosed’ that Sarat Chandra’s Devdas had died of nothing else but syphilis. HIV and AIDS and Hepatitis A, B or C were decades into the future.

At one point all eyes turned towards the entrance where a slim, tall, white haired and white handlebar moustachioed man (he was also dressed in white kurta-pajama) made an appearance. The girls knew him and turned away. The motherly madam greeted him but with a glint in the eyes and no sign of embarrassment—as though trying to assert a biological point—the old man kept going head-high. He knew his way. That was the most civilised approach to the whole thing I ever saw in my entire life. He might have come to a public toilet—again, Sulabh was still a dream in a certain Mr Bindeshwar’s head—or going to a barber, for that matter.

Madam’s pale fairness reminded me of Mr Bendre of our film laboratory. Given their nature of work, both were under-exposed to the sun. As we entered, the place had looked like an assembly of maidservants but only until the younger lot began to appear. Seeing Tara so beautiful I thought if somebody teased her on a crowded bus he could expect to be thrashed but here…she was available to do what you like with her, man! Women ran the place at all visible levels and I wondered if there was a Sir—or more likely sirs—behind all this, for just in case. If I read the atmospherics right, the brothel seemed more about lactating motherhood than beauties waiting to be fertilised. The girls looked appealing as working women and not as ‘masla-kuchla’ of Sahir’s Pyasa. Who would want to spend time with a doormat?

So much fuss around a mere watering hole, I thought somewhat dismayed. Only if hygiene could be ensured…

How long were they going to take inside? Who might come out first? How long is considered normal? On a whim I went momentarily inwards and checked. For the life of me I couldn’t produce a self-respecting erection in that ‘household’ of women where everything was open and the whole thing closed. But how come in my hostel room a mere thought of a girl could pass me through the whole spectrum of emotions right through to the royal-regal mess? Was I normal? If in my heart of hearts I felt more comfortable eve-teasing than eve-loving, wasn’t it my north Indian culture to blame? Can these things be reversed?

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Timilsinha was the first to finish and come out. Yes, smiling. He mixed around among girls, then came and sat with Madam at the four-poster. I could see from his gestures that he was telling her of the special occasion and of his special man Vishu inside. He was beaming, his day was made. He even waved at us.

Just then we heard signs of turbulence in the deep interiors. A woman began to shout. Turned out it was none other than Tara who came bad-mouthing Vishu, who followed her in an absolutely foul mood. “She doesn’t even undress and wants to rush with everything,” Vishu said, looking every bit short-changed. Timilsinha jumped to his feet and tried to pacify him but the intellectual was inconsolable. “She wouldn’t even let me in,” he complained. “Just eased me outside with her hand!”

“Show the film role to your mother or to your sister!” Tara was on a completely different tangent. “Says he’ll make me a heroine, saala Raj Kapoor ki aulad!”

Tables had suddenly turned. For the first time I felt overcome with real hot flushes. In one stroke all four of us had been dragged through mud right and proper. I didn’t know which way to look, what to do. Was it time for the sirs to make their appearance and take charge of the situation? Was it going to be Hindi-film like?

But Madam didn’t for a moment lose her composure. She let the two of them have a full play of their positions on the pretext of speaking with other girls; then turned to Vishu. “Next time she’ll make up for today, sir. Do come again and you’ll go back pleased. There are many other girls you’ll like even more than Tara. Sometimes they are busy. Everybody has been coming for Tara these last few days and we can’t turn people away, you understand.” Interestingly, she didn’t say take another girl and go back in. It was known, understood and acknowledged on all sides that once having been inside, the man had been spent for the evening.

We wanted to clear out as soon as possible. But Madam made sure we parted as friends. She even got up from the four-poster and put her hand on Vishu’s shoulders. If that wasn’t going to be enough, she was going to go ahead and give him a breast to suckle. No hard feelings.

After walking through a long tunnel of echoing footsteps—our own—we first descended one flight of dark wooden stairs and then the second. It was 1969 and moon landing was the buzz of the times. Stepping on the street in the open air and among people, I felt as though we had descended on moon.

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Based on this experience I wrote a short script in the mid-70s. Art Director Prabhakar Diwakar and I made a ‘research’ visit to Budhwar Peth and built an authentic set in Studio No 1. Girish Karnad, then FTII Director, even chaired the production conference but Acting Course students for whom this was to be a special vehicle backed out at the last moment. The film was never made.

Budhwar Peth has fascinated the Institute students down the years. Of all the FTII films with brothel as backdrop, closest to the real thing in my opinion was one of Shilpi Dasgupta’s studio exercises in early 2000s. A poetic treatment rather than realistic, the 35 mm, black and white, 3 minute exercise, shot with a heavy camera on a floating trolley, showed dozens of women whirling from room to room in sways of natural feminine charm until one of them is impaled by a very ordinary looking man for a closer scrutiny.

That after all is the essence of a brothel at its core.

By comparison my laboured realistic film would have had no chance whatsoever against Shilpi’s poetry. If ever I get to find that script, I’d share it here. Purely for academics’ sake.

Admission to the Great Gateway of Cinema

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Leaving my luggage in a hotel room next to the railway station, I came down securing the key in my pocket. This was 1968, my first time so far away from home, all by myself. “Film Institute of India?” I called out to a passing auto rickshaw. He stopped and looked nonplussed, then took the slip from my hand. “Is it Prabhat studio—?” Another driver came along and a brief exchange in Marathi settled the issue. Both were supposed to be the same place.

The rain washed Poona was just coming to life. We kept crossing a small river, which seemed to be running right through the city. After a while we left the river and entered a rather exclusive looking residential colony with bungalows on both sides and lots of greenery. Deccan Gymkhana, the rickshaw driver informed me. I was impressed. We stopped in front of large iron gates under a high concrete gateway. A long running board atop announced this was indeed the place that I had come for all the way from Delhi. “Ask for Prabhat studio next time and it would be easier,” said the rickshaw driver as he left. “Nobody knows the place by this fancy name.” A rather new and clean rickshaw I thought.

I took the side gate and was allowed further past the road barrier upon showing my interview letter. Arriving a day ahead I just wanted to get familiar with the place, I explained, and the officious guard was accommodating. The view inside was captivating. A canopy of ancient majestic trees lined a straight wide road at the end of which were signs of activity.

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As I proceeded the view opened up to a distinguished looking little cottage with flower beds on the left and a large building topped with long corrugated slopes for the roof to the right. There were smaller buildings with similar tops behind this and a road from them came and joined the main road in front of the cottage. At the junction was a small mango tree with an informal round platform at the base inviting you to sit. Which I did.

The building with corrugated slopes had to be a studio and it was. A number of ancient creepers covered its huge flat sidewall with leaves, sparing only the giant size folding gates at the bottom. Along the main road were rows and rows of doors on the ground level as well as above—those above were hidden behind a long running old style railing over which ran a neat channel to collect rainwater from the slopes above. The main road continued straight for a while, then rose and disappeared into another stretch of thick greenery. The doors below, with nameplates on and the karamcharis going in and out, were the offices. The way everybody approached the cottage to the left indicated it had to be the principal’s office. Which it was; I could read Jagat Murari from the distance and remembered the name from the prospectus. A black board stood reclining against the studio wall and one or two boys, lost like myself, were checking out the pasted notices. So I wasn’t the only one nursing illusions that I was good enough to join films. I found my roll number in the schedule and learnt that the interviews were going to be held in the principal’s office. I decided not to venture any further and returned under the mango tree absorbing the ambience.

Deservedly, this was the famous Wisdom Tree of our later years.

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How do you dress up for a Film Institute interview? Casual wear could easily be mistaken for lax discipline, tie and suit for being unduly glamour struck. Carrying your certificates may appear over-academic and walking bare handed insolent. Having contemplated on the issue ever since the interview letter came and anxious to be ready for all eventualities, I had lugged the whole range of choices along. But the recce trip changed everything and had me get into a plain—and safe—kurta-pajama. My testimonials and the creative stuff however remained too bulky for a shoulder bag and I was forced to use the classy leather briefcase, which was originally intended to go with the tie and suit option.

But next day everybody looked odd in whatever they wore. There were only two girls and no doubt having faced the same dilemmas had resolved to represent the Indian womanhood, one wearing salwar-kameez and the other a sari. In a way, given the range of variety among candidates, the ‘dress factor’ should have cancelled itself out but then who knows what the interview board was looking for? Just before the strike of 10, a row of men appeared on the main road. The faculty, somebody whispered. Nervously we all stood up as they turned their steps towards the principal’s cottage, climbed the short veranda and entered the room as a peon proudly held the door open. One professor caught everybody’s attention. He had bushy eye brows (which he kept twirling), had a very fair complexion and wore a fur cap. With a cigarette dangling loosely from the lips and walking like a chimpanzee, he was also the one to respond generously to our presence and greetings. This was the colorful Ramesh Paul we later learnt, the professor of Screenplay Writing.

As soon as the first candidate came out, all of us surrounded him. He had been in for a pretty long time but seemed quite relaxed for that. Nothing, he said laughing, they just wanted to know why films and why not medicine? I said I was interested in arts. In that case they said why not theatre? Because through cinema I can communicate with a large number of people, I said. What kind of films would you like to make? Why not entertainment films, why boring art films? I said I wanted to make socially conscious films and serve the society. Which is your favorite film; who is your favorite director?

Another 2-3 candidates and we got a fair idea of the run of things, so that by the time my turn came—well after lunch I remember—I was saturated with questions as well as the ‘right’ answers. All I remember of my interview is that Jagat Murari kept returning with newer and newer questions after other board members had had their say. I frankly told them that I had no experience of theatre, nor brought any of my fluke photographs fearing technical questions from the board, which I wouldn’t know. All nerves by the time Jagat Murari squeaked his standard, “Thank you,” I barely managed to collect my sketches from all around the table and withdrew without fainting. I had no idea how I had done, nor really bothered. It was a huge relief to be through with the ordeal.

The prospectus had said that results were to be sent to us by post. Then word came that all lists were to be put up together after cinematography, sound and editing interviews three days later. But the list was put up the same evening and to my utter surprise my name was on it. Someone who saw it came back and told me. After the initial surge of excitement was over, I went to the notice board. I still remember Jagat Murari’s signature on a sparse, small font typed list announcing 12 names as selected and 2 wait-listed. My name I noticed had for once been spelt correctly but sadly the Indian womanhood had found no representation in the 1968 batch of Film Direction.

There was still some time before the day got over and I saw some of us following a light boy towards the studio gate. I too joined them on an impulse. The sight and smells of a film studio were familiar to me from our Bombay visit a good 10 years back. Here too as in Bombay two-three naked bulbs hanging high above provided a dim light for the dark hollow and bamboo scaffoldings suspended by long ropes—catwalks—supported large lights clamped over two or three small sets in the middle. A massive hulk of a camera trolley stood prominent and idle; instinctively we assembled around it. A little demonstration followed and some of us made bold to try out multiple movements of its arm by operating different wheels. Although we were mostly an assembly of rejects—or perhaps because of that reason—everybody listened to the light boy’s lecture with great seriousness. Most of the equipment as well as its handlers, the light boys, had continued from Prabhat days and both seemed to enjoy a comfort level in each other’s company. Even otherwise the legacy of that historic institution was evident all over the place.

Most of us had our train reservations for the next day and were therefore keen on visiting the city the same evening. Having come so far, let’s at least go back qualified as Pune returned, everybody joked. I too joined the Delhi group just in case I was refused permission to join. Who knows what kept or cut the nose of our distinguished family back home in Sonepat?

Returning steps along Prabhat Road we came to a prominent wooden bridge on the river—Lakdi Pul—as street lights were coming on. Then enjoying the cool breeze over the river we crossed to the other side and took a busy market road, which was to lead us straight towards the railway station where like me everybody had taken rooms. This was Laxmi Road, the main spine of the old city and an equivalent of Delhi’s Chandni Chowk as we soon found. Pooling our knowledge of things Maharashtrian, we purchased chivra packets and mango barfi to carry home. Halfway down we passed through a residential section of Laxmi Road where celebrations seemed to be on. Dressed in traditional Maharashtrian saris women were busy making white powder designs in front of their doors. Unknown to us at the time we were most innocently passing through Poona’s red light district, Budhwar Peth.

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Returning from Poona I didn’t have to change at Delhi for my hometown. Another hour on the same Jhelum Express—but rather late—brought you to Sonepat. Carrying my heavy trunk and constantly changing hands, I reached home past mid-night. My mother opened the door and went back to sleep.

Next day I told her I had been selected. Busy starting the hearth in the courtyard she didn’t show much reaction. I don’t remember my brothers’ or sister’s reaction either. Being the eldest I was the one supposed to be looking for a career while they still had some years to go from one class to the next. My father was a upper-middle rung government official in Haryana and was at the time posted elsewhere. He would visit us off and on between his extensive tours. For my entrance exams in Delhi he wasn’t even told—I just took money from my mother and returned the same day. But for the interview in faraway Poona, I had to ask him. “Well, Poona is a good city. If nothing else it would be an experience to visit the place at the very least,” he said, never trusting my ability, nor luck. Now I had to wait for a week before he was home to give him the news. After all those failures—army, medical college, business of all kinds (from cement to poultry farm; but just in thought, not action)—what would be his response for this shady career?

When my father came I had to tell him everything all over again. But this time he listened. That it’s a 3-year course; no, not acting but direction. That I do not know what exactly direction is but among the rest it asks for the highest qualification, graduation; for acting minimum qualification is just matriculation, and that too could be relaxed for girls.

“And what happens after three years?”

“I can probably direct a film,” I said.

“Of course but where will you get the money from?”

“I don’t know; just where others get it from? Bombay?” I said looking for his reaction, then added, “I can start with low budget films?”

“How low is that?” My father was already thinking of raising the money.

“I don’t know,” I said. “I will figure it out in Bombay.”

After dinner he broached the subject again and gave his favorite example of Sohrab Modi’s misadventure with Jhansi Ki Rani. That after being successful for years, he had put in all his money in that film and lost everything. I hadn’t ever seen the film but knew that next he would talk about KL Sehgal and company, which he did. “Moreover, if it was such a good institute,” he concluded, “sons and daughters of film stars would pack in from next door Bombay. If you got selected without any sifarish, looks like there is no demand for it.”

But next day before leaving he asked me to go and ask my grandfather. That was a shocker. Grandfather? Why subject me to the gruff old terror when he could have refused me on his own, I fumed after him. In those days we couldn’t ‘shoot’ whys to elders the way our children routinely did to us in later years.

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Certain of the outcome but suspecting that I had for once managed to do something of significance, I headed out for my first ever independent visit to my village. That’s where grandfather had settled down after a career as doctor in the army. “If nothing else, it would be an experience to make it on my own to that remote, back of the beyond location,” I said, much like my father had said for Poona about a month back.

Another silver lining to visiting the village was the prospect of meeting uncle Pratap. My father’s youngest brother and our great favourite as children, this was an uncle who could eat a heap of green chillies as though munching on carrots, cut roti-malai sandwiches with a pair of scissors and pass them off as cream crackers to us, and take us shopping to Chandni Chowk in our very own village square. He got us marbles by the fistfuls and saved empty matchboxes to make long, long trains. He even knew how films are made: the actor lifts his foot an inch, click, another inch, click and when you play all those clicks together… Uncle would certainly approve of my joining films and maybe even intervene on my behalf. Elders thought of him as a wastrel but he was our star. By them, he could do nothing right; for us he could do no wrong.

The thought continued even as I took the train. On our visits as school children, uncle Pratap would materialise huffing and puffing even before the train stopped. It was a wayside railway station and much against our wish to be left to do it ourselves, Davinder and I would be hauled via the aerial route and stood on the ground. My father would then help our veiled, overdressed mother (and perhaps by now carrying our infant sister) climb down those vertical steps. Somewhere in the middle of that procedure the engine whistle rang out in the distance and uncle would quickly go up and down, and transfer all our bundles—usually half a dozen—next to us. Everything accounted for and with the train already moving behind him, he would turn to us and break into a big smile. What would Dhanana be without this uncle!

But that wasn’t all. Our stuff would next be loaded in the waiting bullock cart, which carried special winter cushioning sent by my grandmother. I dreaded the moment my mother climbed in from the rear since the two-wheel cart would dangerously lift up and get even only with her settling down next to us. Why couldn’t they make it on four wheels, I passionately failed to understand. After this I had only the pull of bullocks to fear, which whenever it came was always sudden and powerful. My father and uncle, of course, did the manly thing by walking short cuts and meeting us at home.

Today I had done the manly thing by walking all the way and arriving home unannounced. Surprisingly it wasn’t difficult; nor was the distance for that matter great, just about 5-6 kilometres.

My puny grandmother confronted me with the first setback of my visit right away. Uncle Pratap had been sent to another village on an errand and he wouldn’t be back until my departure the next day! So it was going it to be a pure, balm-less, unmitigated disaster, I told myself. “Films? And you aren’t even ashamed to go and join those bhands!?” I braced myself to face my always-angry grandfather entirely on my own. It was too late to return.

Grandma also told me that grandfather would be sitting presiding at his usual adda five houses away where I should go and report. Obediently I showed up as asked and promptly began to touch all the feet that came my way. “Darya’s son, Darya’s son,” everybody said and ruined my hair completely out of their Dev Anand puff. Literally blessing in disguise I thought since that way I’d be less offensive when eventually I faced grandfather.

Which happened soon afterwards in the lane.

“So, what brings you sudden out of the blue?” Grandfather asked me rather fondly as we walked, with me trailing.

I muttered my lines emphasising Poona and the government status of the Institute. Poona for some reason brought the best response among the army people, I knew.

After a while I heard a grunt from grandfather. And then, the calamity.

“Films are a growing medium…” Pause. “Go in god’s name and join.”

What was that!? Who spoke those lines? And in English? Was this for real? I looked around the street. In the long shadows of the afternoon, houses were closed and there weren’t even the customary children picking dung… Or some cattle drifting along… Or an occasional woman with pitchers on the head and a long veil drawn over her timeless rustic face.

Much against my wildest dreams—and without even a witness to vouch for—my grandfather had spoken. He had actually asked me to go ahead and join films!

I should have known better. Grandpa was a widely travelled man; he had even been to Shanghai with the Indian forces during a certain war that nobody seemed to know or bother about; we had a tent-size fawn-colour woollen blanket that he had got us from there. My father had a sharp-focus, sepia-toned portrait of him (with a dandy hat on) taken in a Hongkong studio. Whenever he visited us in Delhi, he walked down to Nai Sadak in Chandni Chowk a good 5 miles each way and collected over days two things for taking back home, a supply of medicines for his patients and recent issues of Dharmyug, Illustrated Weekly of India and Sarita, along with, oddly, the only children magazine of the times, the legendary Chandamama. Whenever my father went to the village, he carried with him a selection of newspapers saved over a period. But somehow nobody ever heard him discuss anything with anybody and everything, therefore, had remained hidden behind that angry, short-tempered, unsmiling countenance held aloft a heavy, stooping 6 feet frame.

So, film was a medium, I understood that day, not just saneema as I had been thinking all along! And a growing one at that! Even before joining the Institute I had learnt my first lessons on the cinema standing in the dusty street of my remote village. And years before that in the same village, to be sure, was that other lecture—lecture-demonstration I should say—that uncle Pratap had delivered to Davinder and me in his inimitable style: Dilip Kumar lifts his foot an inch, click…

With these precious ‘inputs’—FTII students’ favourite expression during strikes in later years—I wasn’t a complete dumbo when eventually I repeated the same train journey and reached Poona with my iron trunk and sundries. This time I even knew how to ask the rickshaw to take me to the Film Institute of India.

Roti Dal in St Petersburg

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Pages from my Helsinki Diary (May 13 to 30, 2004)

May 25

After a whole day of the conducted tour through St Petersburg, we returned to our Hotel Moscow towards the evening. [This was a 2-night break that the teachers and administrators from CILECT member schools were taking after a weeklong conference in Helsinki. St Petersburg is just a 4-5 hour train ride from Finland’s capital city.]

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In front of one of the many water bodies of the city

Tripurari Sharan with late Prof Wofgang Langsfeld

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Picture 4 is Tripurari Sharan with late Prof Wolfgang Langsfeld of the Munich Film school in front of the Hermitage Museum and 5 inside the museum showing some of Picasso’s pottery and porcelain

Although both of us were very tired, boss Tripurari Sharan was ‘horny’ for Indian food. So picking up on his investigations from the previous night and reading the city map, once again we came out of the hotel and stopped in front of a door within the same compound. It turned out that this inconspicuous door was entry to an underground tube station!

Stepping inside we spotted a booking window among a cluster of stalls and tried to enquire what the system was. The woman, seething with bad temper and furiously knitting, dismissed us in chaste Russian. Then, even as we were recovering, somebody tugged at my sleeves. This was an old beggar looking directly into the eyes—begging is really a menace in today’s Russia. Wholly disgusted, I asked Sharan sahib to just forget the whole thing and withdraw to our familiar half-kilometre corridor restaurant in the massive Hotel Moscow. But showing extreme restraint and patience, Sharan decided to make another attempt at the window. Handing in a 20-rouble note, this time he just gestured for two tickets and waited. It worked. He got back some change and two plastic coins. These it turned out were the single use tickets on the city network in any direction and for whatever distance.

Joining others we proceeded along a short passage, generally approaching some kind of a mechanism issuing a deep hum. Across a row of wicket gates, everybody dropped their coins in a slot machine to gain entry and we did the same. Once inside, an elaborate escalator system began to take us down. Others were coming up on the other side. Looked like this was going to be a longish descent and we waited patiently. But gradually it came to notice that the end of the tunnel was receding as you went. After a while, anxious not to be conspicuous and making it as casual as possible, I turned round to look back. Even the end we had left behind had disappeared into infinity. I had heard stories of the Moscow underground being really deep and indeed able to accommodate thousands in the event of a nuclear attack—I hadn’t had occasion to use it last year while there—but had no idea that St Petersburg too had been similarly modelled. This was the deepest escalator tunnel that I have ever been inside. In fact people rode it in the manner of public transport, ready with books to read, couples engrossed in domestic talk, some even sitting on the steps to catch a nap. [The real explanation came years later in the US from a Russian settler. It was owing to its vast water bodies that St Petersburg underground had to be dug so deep!]

Finally we stepped off the escalator and came to what should normally have been the platform but another surprise awaited us here. This was neither a platform, nor indeed any kind of a hall but just one long subway of sorts! Where are the trains to be had from, further down somewhere? Just then one was heard approaching. Loud and rattling. But it didn’t seem to have any effect on the waiting crowds. When it stopped, its doors seemed to slide open, but to no apparent effect on anyone. Then followed another wave of doors sliding open. These opened along one side of the length of the subway, getting us a peep at regular intervals directly into the compartments! Yellow light inside the train set against the white florescent of the platform provided for a clear visual separation. So, it wasn’t after all an open platform where you could see the trains come and leave, but a closed one blocking off everything except a safe access directly into the train. How on earth do you commit suicide here in case you felt a sudden urge?

After we sat in our direction of the train, the two sets of doors slid close and the train started. The usual plate over the doors listing stations and the common European practice of announcing them on the public address system was limited help to us because of the strange Russian alphabet. But vigilant as ever, Sharan had taken care to remember the pronunciation, plus we kept scrupulous count—ours was the fourth station to get down as per direction given by the Indian restaurant the night before. Thus, eventually after a longish ride in a rather fast and noisy train when we got down, no one among the silent brooding, staring, reading, romancing or dozing Russians would have guessed that we were complete strangers to their language and had only about 20 minutes back discovered this fascinating world of their underground.

Once over ground, we had more Russian and Russians to deal with. Sharan prefers first to work through observation rather than ask anyone. We were on a shopping street and reading the restaurant’s address from a printed brochure we carried, he tried to match the number with one written on the shops. The pattern broke off just after a hundred metres. Then he tried to follow other codes but was bounced back each time. What had worked so beautifully for us in Paris, seemed here to constantly block. Annoyed he gave up and began to ask. Just for the mistake of opening our mouths, we found the Russians would smother us with a barrage of passionate Russian. Finally we put out the printed address to them and kept shut. Again, that worked. After some gestures and signalling, we were on the track. At a turn, all of a sudden Sharan remarked that women tell you better than men and immediately stopped two women to ask confirmation of our route. The young ladies turned out to be bright and playful and in an exaggerated display of fun and frolic on both sides, the foursome of us then ‘talked’ at the street corner. No, we were not taking a bus but planned to walk, we mimed. Walk!?, they expressed surprise. Yes, we made why-not faces. The women exchanged looks and while one smiled, the other mimed footsteps with two fingers and kept ‘walking’ them in the air for a long, long time. Both then exploded into a laughter and wishing us luck, walked on.

That turned out to be the five-kilometre walk I referred to at the beginning of this day’s account. Running parallel to the market place where we had emerged from the underground, this was a straight wide road through a residential area all the way. Walking by itself was fun. No traffic, no crowds, no pollution; just some cross roads, at which you had to wait to let an occasional vehicle pass. The countdown on house numbers was slow but unbroken—except for a stretch where a park came in between. We saw a life-size statue of Lenin in front of a compound and wondered what that building might be. From time to time Sharan would reassure himself through stopping and showing me the map but I worried more about reaching the restaurant before it closed. Finally we sighted a neon sign over a lone door on the pavement and homed in. That was the Indian restaurant. And it was still open.

Owned by an Indian expatriate, who had business interests here and in Helsinki, the place was managed by a young Punjabi. We were the only customers at that late hour. The manager (he was the one Sharan sahib had spoken to the night before) took the order—subzi, dal and tandoori rotis; and not to forget piaz and hari mirch—and a Russian girl served us, first bringing munches and papads while food was being prepared. Craving for a pure Indian meal in the closest possible home ambience, we didn’t want any kind of drinks to ‘dim’ the experience. “No, not wine either,” we told a somewhat disappointed waitress.

Energised by good food, I was game for returning the same way as we came but Sharan sahib decided that that would be too much. The manager stopped us a passing taxi on the road just outside, settled the fare at 120 roubles and we started. By now it was dark and the traffic was rather thin. For a long time we kept going without speaking, clearing blinking yellow signals, crossing an occasional public transport bus—surprisingly St Petersburg doesn’t have trams; at least I didn’t notice any—and turning on wipers now and then to clear a brief run of drizzle. Then at one point we joined the great expanse of the river and kept driving along it in the wide open. After a while a doubt arose in my mind. We should be going towards Hotel Moscow along that route but equally we could be going in the opposite direction! The driver was a thick set middle-aged man and looked—well, who could tell? The restaurant manager as we started had mentioned he had noted the registration number, but when? On what? He wasn’t carrying anything to write with or to write on! But sitting beside the driver Sharan appeared nonchalant and absorbed in the scenery. So was I going hyper, I wondered.

Just then Sharan spoke up. In Hindi. Are you too thinking what I am thinking Chawdhary sahib, he asked? We couldn’t have come all this far following our palates, could we? Behind the cool exterior, he too had been having the same apprehensions as me. But there was hardly anything we could do, we decided, except maintain our cool and stay on the lookout for surer signs of danger. A while later, at the end of a long curve of the vast river—which reminded me of Marine Drive—a familiar skyline came into view. It wasn’t quite the Hotel Moscow but we finally knew we weren’t being taken for a ride.

As I put my weary head on the pillow that night, I wondered if the taxi driver ever got a hang of our fears. I think he did. The entirely universal scene needed no sub-titles. Nothing of our exchange could have been lost on him, translation or no translation, I think.

“Yeh Hai Bombay Meri Jaan”

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Had it not been for my autograph book, I wouldn’t remember the dates of our first visit to the magical city. I was 13 and my brother 10 when father decided to take mom and us for a holiday to the celebrated capital city of film stars. Siblings at 7 and 4 were found too small to register anything and were left behind in the care of grandmother.

Now, Bombay was not Bombay if it wasn’t far. But how far is far? “We’ll start at 7 in the morning,” said my father reading from his much used copy of the railway time table, “and continue the whole day, sleep the night in the train, get up in the morning, then continue the whole of that day until it was night, sleep that second night again in the running train and reach Bombay in the morning.” The idea of sleeping in the train had left Davinder and I open-mouthed and wide-eyed. Years later we discovered that my father had decided to take the slowest train to gain us—and him—that night travel experience twice over.

The night before our journey, two peons (along with a couple of inspectors) were dispatched to the Old Delhi Railway Station, one to buy tickets from the counter as soon as it opened and the other to occupy window seats while the train was still in the yard. Counting one berth as equivalent of four seats, my father had thought that a sleeper berth would cost four times the normal fare and dismissed the idea as horrendously wasteful. My mother too had woken up early that day to cook a mountain of food for our entire feed on the way. Even here, my father had the inside story: On winter nights waiters spat on the plates and wiped them clean rather than put their hands in cold water to wash. So home food is any day cleaner. Davinder and I resignedly understood that it was also cheaper.

Finally as day broke for the second time in a very tired train, we were in a new world. The landscape was wet and lush green and the railway stations, named this or that Road, were sparse and clean. Darkish locals wore turbans and caps and life seemed contented and peaceful. After a long tunnel (when to my great relief I remember that lights were turned on in the train) stations began to come quicker and more crowded. Women wore flowers, girls skirts and heels—Anglo-Indians, we understood from films (or “Englaundians!” as my favourite uncle would call them)—and men wore jackets and hats like Johnny Walker. Blunt-nosed local trains appeared, either zipping past or running parallel on the next track so we could see inside them. Sometimes they overtook us, sometimes we did. My father pointed to the arched bows on top of them, which he explained went drawing electricity from the cables running overhead. I was surprised they made such racket; electric trains I had thought were silent. But no mistaking, we were in Bombay.

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From a large sprawling station—must have been Victoria Terminus—we took a taxi for Khar. (It took us the whole visit to get used to such odd names for localities: Dadar, Ghatkopar, Bori Bundar, even one called Chinchpokli.) Khar is where we were staying with a friend of my father’s. But it wasn’t like sharing beds with them as we were used to with relatives. We had a room to ourselves with an attached latrine-bathroom. Every morning the servant brought us a sumptuous breakfast of tea and toast-sandwiches (with plentiful ketchup) after which we set out on our own on full-loaded stomachs, today to this place, tomorrow to that. Every morning my father’s friend dropped in—as always, they were extra courteous to my father, his friends; they were particularly admiring of his being honest and teetotaller, in spite of being an Excise Officer of Delhi—and suggested places to go. We never met his family and were happier for that. It would be a shame having to bridge the mismatch between them so rich and generous and us so utterly uncouth and miserly.

My impression of the Bombay of those days is of clean, washed surroundings and overcast, drizzly skies; of general orderliness with an air of civility. And custard apples, which we saw hanging from every other bush. Our own bungalow had them and next morning they came with breakfast! We discovered the fruit together as a family; sweeter than sugar! And the Parsis. My father’s friend informed him, and he us, that it’s a small community in which everybody is rich. You wouldn’t find them anywhere except Bombay, they don’t marry outside their community and if somebody begins to slide, the rest of them pull him up. After this Davinder and I decided whatever statues we saw in marble, in fancy headgear and well done were of Parsis. I don’t think there were too many of Shivaji’s statues in Bombay in those days. My mother, however, got stuck (and remained stuck) over the way local women wore saris. “Look at them, splitting buttocks! Shameless!” she said of the strand pulled between the legs and tucked in at the back. Today I wonder what she would say about men wearing lungis if we had gone further down to Madras. All of them Ravan-like dark, all with moustaches curling inwards over the lips and their gesture of folding up those white lungis as though getting ready for a street fight! It was for reasons such as these I think that Bombay remained the farthest we went as a family even though Madras would have given us an extra night in the train and Trivendrum even perhaps a fourth.

We took a red double-decker bus right on the first day—they tended to be rather new and well maintained, those buses—and climbed to occupy seats closest to the front. Surprisingly not everybody preferred to sit on the upper deck. Next day we took the local train, rattle and all, and started with marvelling at the way people waited on the platform without creating a ruckus. Also its horn as it approached sounded classy, closer as it was to cars than the shriek of a steam engine. They gathered speed quicker and weren’t too crowded. I was particularly struck by their overhead rotating fans that looked like a gyroscope. Did the fan power the gyroscope or gyroscope the fan, I kept wondering, looking at the dancing fans. Some of the places we visited were Chowpatty (not so much for its famous chaat but the sea front which was a new experience, even for father), Tarapore Aquarium, with strange kind of fishes slithering behind glass panels (what if somebody threw a stone at the glass, Davinder and I secretly wondered, rather hoped, in fact wished; then saw the guard!), Gateway of India and Taj, with a row of horse drawn phaetons parked in front (in Delhi we had seen only Rashtrapati using an elaborate one on 26th January), Hanging Gardens (where nothing was hanging but shootings took place—we recognised a high point overseeing a curve of the ocean) and the lonesome Pali Hill (where film stars lived!). Davinder tells me we also took a boat ride to Elephanta caves but I have no memory of that.

During our visit hoardings of V Shantaram’s Navrang and Guru Dutt’s Kaagaz Ke Phool dominated the cityscape. Navrang shouted from the housetops that it was in colour and showed Sandhya carrying a dozen or so pitchers on the head that jutted out of the main board, while Kaagaz Ke Phool sought to cast its magic in emphatic, brooding black and white. Guru Dutt’s close up wearing his familiar wrinkles over the forehead and a twisted smile underneath occupied 3/4th of the space but it was Waheeda Rehman’s tall, slim (and may I whisper sexy) figure that received 3/4th of popular attention—it certainly did mine. Both were art films according to my father’s friend, both expensive to make and both failures at the box office. Still we could hardly leave Bombay without seeing a film and after some discussion settled for a pricey brand new theatre called Maratha Mandir, Pride of Maharashtra. Taking our host’s advice, we had actually gone to experience the theatre’s rare genuine Cinemascope projection and Guru Dutt’s masterpiece came as a bonus. I couldn’t understand the fuss about that wall-to-wall stretch of the screen.

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It was towards the end of our stay that we got to hit the great studio trail. This was going to be the peak of our entire visit and that’s for when we had got our autograph books!

I don’t remember the specific studios that we visited but they fell in two categories: lively, compact, city bound ones within easy distances of each other and a larger but dead one in a jungle outside Bombay, which was a newly started government facility called Film City. Stars resented having to go such great distances and therefore the City wasn’t picking up, our host told my father and he us. At each studio that we got to visit, we showed the security guards a letter from my father’s friend, then waited among 20-25 others on the side until called out and given a pass to enter. During the wait, all eyes were fixed on the entering or exiting cars, everybody hoping to catch a glimpse of a passing star. Once Davinder pretended (even later insisted) he saw one but he was bullshitting as usual. He had done the same at Pali Hill. Nobody had passed there or here and we didn’t see anybody.

Inside the premises people went about their business as though they took film stars for breakfast. No one seemed enamoured of them. What luck to be working in films, we thought. Another thing common to all studios was the sight of red-faced men and women walking about or sitting in groups. Make up, Davinder and I exchanged silent notes. And extras, waiting outside the shooting floor on call, we deduced. But why were they wearing orange clothes? I was proud to crack this ‘technical’ issue on my own, which even Filmfare had been silent on: This had to be for reasons of black and white photography where white may register as too bright as it did in newsreels. 10 years later I got the fact confirmed in a discreet aside with the genial Prof KPR Nair of cinematography after one of his early classes with us in the Film Institute.

Finally while entering a shooting floor through a cut out gate, we recognised an old moustachioed man sitting alone. Davinder and I returned and walked past him again. Niranjan Sharma, told a studio hand. “Yes, he is a character actor,” he confirmed. Somewhat dismayed, both of us agreed that Mr Sharma was friendlier on the screen than sitting cold like that. But we still queued up to take his autograph. He filled up a whole page without looking at us even once. Our first autograph!

Others that we collected over the next few days were Rajendra Kumar, Nanda (turning those days from Baby to Kumari), a certain Prabhu Dayal (he used to play second lead as a well-meaning rejected lover, a latter day Sujit Kumar of sorts), Kamini Kadam (more a Marathi actress than Hindi), the cute but a mere 4-footer Ameeta (Tumsa Nahin Dekha, arched eyebrows and all)…. and of course the 2-ton Tun Tun! Fatso Tun Tun was a real delight: She just drew a large circle on our pages and wrote her name in two halves, those were her autographs! When the books came to us and we smiled, she responded with her trademark finger-between-teeth girlie giggle. We had to give it to her; Tun Tun was the same, on screen as well as off it. Our day was made.

One actor that we missed seeing by a whisker was Dev Anand. Somebody thought he was shooting on one of the floors and directed us there but it turned out that he had just left. I however remember the incident for entirely different reasons. For the first time I became aware of the difference between how studio hands in Bombay referred to their stars and we the louts from Delhi did. While for us he was Devanand does this, Devanand does that, the Bombay workers referred to him in genuine respect as Dev Saheb. Twice or thrice that afternoon I got a bloody nose on that account before the fact sank in my head. Nobody ever used that expression in north India. Much, much later I understood that both sides were after all speaking from two different worlds. The production staff knew the man as a senior professional, while we had nothing else to go by but the characters he played on the screen.

Rajendra Kumar and Nanda, on the day we entered their studio floor through another cut out gate, were shooting for a film called Amar Rahe Ye Pyaar. Except the stars, the atmosphere on the set was no different from how it was years later when we shot our dialogue films in the Film Institute. They were sitting on folding chairs, a fan turned in their direction, as lighting was going on on a basic set with a large studio camera—Mitchell NC or BNC, I now know—presiding. We saw no hangers on, nobody fussing over the two of them. Nanda sat rather demure and bashful as Rajendra Kumar, a mischievous smiling playing on his lips, was whispering something to her. Was he being vulgar? Poor Nanda, my sympathies instantly went gushing for her. We recognised two others on the same set and waylaid them. Prabhu Dayal, who besides playing a role was also directing this film and comedian Radha Krishan who was for the first time trying his luck as producer with this film. Two years later when we went to watch the film in Delhi, we were surprised to see it open with Radha Krishan’s garlanded portrait. The man had died of a heart attack during its making.

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Piecing together details of my father’s conduct over that Bombay visit I am tempted to believe that he somehow wanted me sucked into films. He had little faith in my abilities but unknown to me he did think I was good looking and kept nudging me to ‘straighten up’ and not be shy when approaching film stars.

“Don’t just shove that book to them but also smartly stay on and talk,” he said. “That’s how you get roles in films.”

I was horrified at the thought. “But what if I am selected?” I barely managed to blurt out.

“Just look at him,” father addressed my mother in disbelief. “As if they are all waiting for him!” Then he turned to me, “If you are selected, stay on! What else?”

“No-o-o!” The idea was horrendous to me. We had come on a holiday and there was no way I was going to be left behind!

Not for the first time, my father wrote me off with disgust.

But certainly films fascinated me on my own. There was a grace about that curtain parting and revealing the white rectangle. (Was it manual or somebody pressing a button? And if it was the button, was it done twice, starting and finishing, or just once?) I loved that beam of light coming from behind and filling the screen. (Was it the porthole that allowed just the right rectangle of light through, blocking out the rest?) Some invitation cards that my father received had the same proportions and similar rounded corners and I used their blank side to endlessly fantasise about the magical film screen.

Later when I came by a magnifying glass, I found it had much more to offer than just burning paper. If correctly held in front of the wall, it could form an upside down image of what was in front of it. Which was unraveling the secret of the still camera. Came the definition of persistence of vision and I could understand how ingeniously the principle had been used both in a movie camera as well as the projector. My spine tingled when I learnt of the early practice of a camera being used for shooting, processing and also projecting films.

What however took me a long, long time to grasp was the cut. In many ways the question was framed during this Bombay visit but it remained unanswered until 10 years later when I joined the Film Institute of India.

The one scene that we stayed on to watch was with Niranjan Sharma, now back to being cheerful and kindly, sitting at a the head of a dining table as family members sat around eating. A chirpy little girl said something and everybody laughed. A young girl then got up excusing herself to go to college and left.

The actors kept speaking their lines on their own as the lighting kept being switched on and off to somebody’s command. The camera also was wheeled in a number of times into the action. (How I wished I could be allowed to take just a peep through ‘his majesty’!) And this went on for such a long time that even Davinder and I felt thoroughly bored and were happy to walk away. Was one or the other actor muffing lines, expressions? Were they stuck with faulty equipment? Was it a particularly difficult scene?

I went to see the film when it came to Delhi. The dining table scene came and went just as they had been doing it. So what had been all that big fuss about? The answer came to me years later when I joined the FTII. That’s when I discovered the cut—first the cut itself and then over the years its technical and aesthetic dimensions.

In a way, language of cinema is all about and around the cut. Watching shooting in Bombay I had assumed that the cut is a function of the film camera. That that expensive gadget automatically chooses details of the scene which are likely to be missed out in a wider view. It was a major disappointment to learn that a film camera is nothing but a ‘mindless’ recording machine. It is just a still camera with a sewing machine kind of mechanism attached; which pulls the film, holds it in place while a frame is exposed and pulls it again for the next frame, all very quickly.

So how is the cut then made? My eyes remained wide open when we were told in the editing class that a cut is a physical splice made between two strips of film, two separate shots. Camera doesn’t make them, the editor does. First using a pair of scissors (!), then scraping one end with a shaving blade (!!), then applying watery ‘cement’ from a used nail polish bottle (!!!), and finally bringing the two ends quickly together in a cast iron splicer! Just how crude can you get?

I could not sleep that night; my mind kept going over a faint twitch that a misaligned splicer might cause as the cut went in front of the projection gate.

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Professor Satish Bahadur, One and the Only

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It’s 30 years since Professor Bahadur left the Institute and 5 years, at the age of 85, the world. I was lucky to have enjoyed his best teaching years as a student and later as a junior colleague and close confidante, right until both his as well as my own superannuation and even beyond. For us, his students, the very idea of cinema is inseparable from the persona of Professor Satish Bahadur.

Taking a long look at his life and times, it would not be an exaggeration to call him the pitamah of the Film Appreciation. We had known criticism before but learnt of film appreciation only upon coming to the Institute. Since then criticism looks like faultfinding while appreciation is a positive, generous and altogether constructive activity. I’m quite certain that the designation Professor of Film Appreciation was coined with Bahadur sahib’s unique personality in mind and should have been discontinued when he retired. Others after him—and I intend no disrespect to individuals; they are all friends—have worn the shoe really very loose. If today all the Film Appreciation courses in the country, first conceived and started by him, were to pay a copyright fee for the title alone, then Bhabiji would be a rich lady. (Not that she needs any of that.)

Having honed his skills on masters like Ray, DeSica, Kurosawa and Bergman, the coming of Indian New Wave early in his career posed Bahadur sahib a great moral dilemma. All the makers were either his students or friends and he couldn’t decide what public posture to take upon them as bad filmmakers. The might and machinery of the government of India backed the Wave and far too many careers were at stake to allow one adverse opinion to succeed. Soon all of them began to give him a royal ignore: a cute smile followed by silence. The message was clear: If you weren’t body and soul with the Wave, you would be declared as out of tune with the times. A fatwa or sorts. Even Ray’s image (at least in India) was seriously dented after he wrote an article criticizing the New Wave. Personally I have been witness to Mani Kaul making faces as Prof Bahadur turned to put down Uski Roti’s plot details on the black board and Bahadur sahib’s acidic remark when Kumar Shahani’s second film Tarang, almost given up by NFDC and everybody else as bad loan for 12 years, got a release of additional funds. “Having now to complete this film, Kumar has lost his chance of being a martyr!” he said.

Although I shared his excitement for Satyajit Ray in full, in later years even I had my differences with Prof Bahadur and we discussed and debated them endlessly. Whereas other FTII students had only a 3-year slice of the man limited to their student years, mine went to over 40 years. It’s impossible for any one to sustain the admiration of a growing young man for that long; even children can and do feel suffocated and begin to challenge their parents. To me doubts began to arise in relation to his catchy coinage somewhere in the late 70s, “Film criticism is the obverse of filmmaking.” In the same vein albeit jokingly he would say, “Looks like Ray consulted me shot by shot as he made Pather Panchali!” In my experience approaching filmmaking through analysis and criticism is like asking a centipede to stop and understand how he manages his hundred legs in order to walk. That to me is the end of the centipede’s career in walking. There is a strong component of the instinctive and intuitive in the practice of arts that is beyond analysis. The greatest moments in the Cinema are best savoured whole. Analysing them is undermining them.

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I would like to reproduce two independent extracts from my book The Pather Panchali of Satyajit Ray in one of which I recall my fondness for Prof Bahadur’s classes as a student and another in which I deal with my reservations about his method of analysis in later years.
DSC_0060In our second year we were required to do a detailed study of a feature film of our choice. My impression is that Professor Satish Bahadur sweet-talked us into asking for Ray’s Aparajito (Pather Panchali we were already saturated with in first year) and the reason became apparent as our weekly sessions advanced—not only was he himself discovering the film along with us but also his method of analysis at the same time. Those were the best sessions we had at the Institute. 

“Ramien!” Professor Bahadur would call out the projectionist from in front of the Classroom Theatre screen, and then with a flourish of hand entirely his own, “Start!”

“Yessir!” and the lights would go off. Just as Ramien could hear us through the projection portholes (the sound proof glass removed for the purpose), so also could we hear him activate the 35mm Westrex in a deft little sequence of operations, and afterwards the projector noise all through the reel as well! “That’s alright, it’ll help you keep a distance from the film,” Professor Bahadur would coolly say and proceed with whatever he had to tell us or ask, mostly ask.

“Ramien! Let’s see the same reel again, this time in half lights.” Again the reel would be shown with half the teasing lights of the CRT kept on. “Can you switch off the sound track this time, Ramien?” And next, “Let’s try keeping the picture out of focus so we’ll be able to see the graphics. And also the sound a little low because I want to keep talking, OK?”  

“Yessir!” “Yessir!” and “Yessir!”

Needless to say that all the fun of those classes went to the genial, efficient and ever-smiling Mr Ramien projecting the reels (often just one in a 3-hour session), while we the 3-4 survivors from a class of fourteen were supposed to be studying.

“But that’s it!” Professor Bahadur would repeatedly conclude. “Design-making is what good cinema seems to be all about. And that’s what I want you to see. Look for motifs. Look for them in picture as well as in sound. And in editing as well—.” Often some of us wondered if we hadn’t ended up seeing much more than the filmmaker ever intended. “I can agree with you for any other filmmaker but not Satyajit Ray,” suddenly a charming Professor Bahadur would go very firm. “I tell you, just nothing escapes this man!”

Today after dealing with “this man” for forty years, I have come across no evidence to the contrary. 

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Grappling with problems of structuring a film, we at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) were raised on the notion that Pather Panchali was a film cast in a three-act mould. Our professor Satish Bahadur laboured us through repeated screenings of single reels of the film in half lights, followed by chalking dense diagrams on the black board, and even handing us take-home cyclostyled sheets afterwards—this was much before photocopying came along—showing how not just the whole film but its successive break ups too followed a pattern of threes. That each of the three acts had three sub-acts and each of the three in turn had three sub-sub-acts and so on. Having arrived at the smallest unit, Satish Bahadur would then go on to demonstrate how very logically each unit relayed the story before passing the baton to the next. Given Bahadur’s charming manner and sheer determination—in admiration of Ray, he had even named his son after the Apu trilogy’s hero—we were impressed, and stayed impressed in the underlying belief that a great film cannot but be structured in great complexity. That inverted tree structure came to represent to us the essence and abiding achievement of great cinema leaving everything else as second or third or fourth in importance.

Luckily—and our stars be thanked for that—Satish Bahadur also once got to put his model to Satyajit Ray himself. By Bahadur’s own account, Ray patiently heard him out and fully agreed with him on the end objectives, but pointed out that his method of arriving there was different. After years of reflection on that pithy comment I like to think that Ray was underscoring the generic difference between a maker’s approach and a critic’s. That you cannot synthesize a film using the same tools and sensibilities as those for analyzing one. (And certainly those dogmatic limits of sub-divisions can only work from the Film Studies’ end—those guys live in a different world I’m convinced—never from the filmmaker’s.) But not being a filmmaker and banking heavily on Sergie Eisenstein’s famous 5-act structure essay for his Battleship Potemkin, professor Bahadur was happy to take Ray’s response as a compliment and kept going as before. In his later years he even expanded his list and brought a variety of other films—Rashomon, Throne of Blood, Bicycle Thieves, Wild Strawberries, even Hiroshima Mon Amour—to fit his 3 or 5-act model regardless of the diverse personalities of the makers and their working conditions and methods. In organized academics, it’s amazing how a well-meaning teacher can sometimes end up blocking clear view rather than facilitating it.

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Hard words those for a piece such as this but I’m afraid they are in the book. Have been for the last 3-4 years.

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I should like to conclude with a note of personal regret in relation to Prof Bahadur’s career. Working in the system that he was, he was singularly unlucky with formal honours and awards. I think it was chiefly because he wrote very little. In fact whatever he wrote, was mostly extracted out of him by dedicated well-wishers and friends. The only book he could write after a life long declared intention to do so was a laboured slim volume on Apu trilogy coauthored and cajoled out of him by Dr Shyamala Vanarase. However I am grateful the hard copy came out posthumously because he would have been heart broken to see it. The book is neither well produced nor does it do full justice to his vast scholarship, which at the very least was liberally interspersed with humour. “I’m a teacher and not so much a writer,” he often despaired. “Writing is another discipline.” It’s in cases like his that you miss the availability of recoding devices such as iPhones, so that we could today sample a flavour of his live classes.

But equally it has to be a reflection of our times that a performing teacher is not recognised unless he also publishes by the kilos. The American dictum, “Publish or perish”, has seeped in too deep in the system to allow for exceptions such as him. Committees seem afraid of being challenged in the courts and publications serve as a necessary threat of proof—but mostly only that, threat—that the man was deserving of the awards.

It’s the awards that failed to match up to the brilliance of Professor Satish Bahadur I think.

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Prof Bahadur’s famous, “invisible” rolling of cigarettes (even during lectures) as he kept speaking to you…

Jaya Bhaduri Bachchan

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I first saw Jaya—not met, just saw—even before we had joined the Institute.

Having a choice of two specializations to offer and not knowing what the rest of them involved, I had applied for Acting and Direction. In Acting I saw great riches and beautiful heroines, while Direction promised artistic authority and beautiful heroines.

For Acting course, the interview was held closer home in New Delhi’s Ravindra Bhavan. And there she was, Jaya, on its lush green lawns in the distance—it wasn’t then the clutter of buildings that it is today—a fairy in white, accompanied by some down-to-earths in dhoti and kurta. The rest of the crowd was mostly boys, clowns and jokers as far as I was concerned. Acting required you to be just matriculate in those days, something that could be even further relaxed for girls, but only Jaya and another girl Rashmi Sharma finally made it. Rashmi later married batchmate Anil Dhavan. David Dhavan joined Editing much later.

My grandmother would describe Jaya’s ‘untouched by hand’ quality as unwrapped from layers of paper! Seeing her made me wish we would both be selected but only she was; Jagat Murari asked me what else I had applied for and advised that I take that up more seriously. Apparently the scene that I had written for my performance that same afternoon had impressed him.

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Acting course, it turned out, was an Institute within an Institute. Roshan Taneja ran it as a fiefdom. A bald Yoga teacher came from outside and one Asha Chandra—perhaps a pass-out from an earlier batch; routinely cast as a street whore in student exercises but a very fine woman—assisted him day to day. Asrani, whom years later Mani Kaul came calling by his full name from Jaipur, Gobardhan Asrani, was another assistant who went about as a self-appointed, compulsive comic, spreading cheer and laughter in the group. Roshan Taneja was a short stocky man with receding forehead, curly hair, thick theatre voice but very few words. For some strange reasons, which we never found out, he stayed perpetually hidden behind dark glasses. He was Jagat Murari’s favorite and was never seen with the rest of the teachers except when they all headed towards Murari’s office for faculty meetings.

Acting students had no common classes with the rest of us; they could only be cast at the end of our three years in diploma films! “But they aren’t ready!” grunted Roshan Taneja assuming troubled looks whenever cornered. And yet they were there, loud and noisy, all over the place. Between classes, they would rush into the canteen and begin to shout expensive orders; then carry plates and glasses to the Wisdom Tree, forcing those sitting there to quietly slink away. In the hostel if you suddenly heard somebody start to shout his gills out in the middle of the night, you knew it wasn’t someone gone crazy but just an acting student voice training!

Prof Bahadur and others had told us that film was director’s medium and accordingly we saw ourselves as potential Rays and Kurosawas and Antonionis and Fellinis—some like Vinay Shukla later on as Robert Bressons and Jean Luc Godards via Mani Kaul and Kumar Shahani. The rest of the unit members were riff-raffs, mere technicians—“My cameraman,” “My editor”—who were to be kept in good humor only so they don’t turn vicious and spoil your masterpieces. But we never quite understood how to relate with the actors. Either they were to be after us or we after them; it couldn’t be an even-handed equation. Gossip magazines laid a lot of emphasis on a certain photogenic quality but the term didn’t seem to apply beyond Bollywood. Was the Bicycle Thieves hero, a bricklayer when deSica picked him up, photogenic? Was the La Strada pair of Anthony Quinn and Giulietta Masina, even though established stars, photogenic? Why, even Charlie Chaplin, for that matter; nobody ever accused him of being photogenic! Wasn’t fitting the character more the consideration for film actors where anybody could qualify? And who decided that if not the director?

So while as self-styled auteurs with allegiance to a certain homegrown New Wave, we went about with our noses in the air expecting the actors to be chasing us, the actors, confirmed photogenic from the fact of their admission but taught nothing about filmmaking, put their faith in acquiring that mysterious quality called stardom. The Institute too helped going to ludicrous lengths in that pursuit, arranging driving and even horse riding lessons for them. You actually saw them taking turns being led on a limp pony around different blocks of the Institute, or, less bizarrely, packed inside a Kulkarni Motaar School Fiat along with a puny—do notice the delectable pun with pony—instructor. Soon they began to disappear over the weekends making ‘contacts’ in Bollywood and then connecting up with them in the only 5-star hotel in town called Hotel Blue Diamond when they came visiting on whatever pretext—location scouting, story/script-listening, famous Poona races, or on just plain escape from Bombay. Raj Kapoor had a farmhouse in the suburbs at Loni and the acting boys and girls vied with each other to be seen as ‘insiders’ there. Some enterprising producers went ahead and signed up acting students immediately upon admission, and even gave them Fiat Padminis to go up and down the Institute main road for two years and starch up as stars by the time they came out.

The bubble burst in 1977. Sadly this was the undoing of the Acting course in that first phase that lasted from 1965 to 1977. (Naseer speaks about the closure in greater detail in his brilliant book And Then One Day: A Memoir.) All the names that you hear are from that period—Subhash Ghai, Jalal Agha, ‘Khamosh!’ Shatrughan Sinha, Dastak girl Rehana Sultan, Zareena Wahab, Suresh Oberoi, comedians Paintal and Asrani and Satish Shah, villain Dangzongpa, NSDites Naseer and Om, Dheeraj Kumar, Kiran Kumar (Deepak Dar of the Institute rolls s/o yester-year villain Jeevan), Raza Murad (s/o character actor Murad); not Amol Palekar, not Faroukh Sheikh, not Smita Patil, but yes, Shabana Azmi, yes, the master lech Shakti Kapoor (he had a different name in the Institute rolls, which I forget) and yes, the doe-eyed Rameshwari; not Gajendra Yudhistir Chauhan, but yes, Mukesh Shaktiman Khanna.

And of course, Jaya.

A real rich haul for Bollywood, come to think of it.

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I recall 2-3 incidents featuring Jaya during her two years in the Institute, 1968 to 1970. The first happened within weeks of our joining.

Since ragging sessions were turning somewhat ugly that year, Jagat Murari thought of an evening of mass introduction to try and bring the nuisance to a close. The event was held in the Main Theatre and all newcomers were required to participate. An Editing student Raghav had signed up to present a Bengali folk dance and came begging me to join the chorus line up at the back. Having recently applied for acting I couldn’t refuse. All I had to do was don a desi costume and join a group at the back to do some simple movements. That Jaya was the main performer was our main incentive not to ditch Raghav at the last moment.

But when our turn came, it was Jaya that ditched everybody. Where was she? As the commotion between the green room and back-stage built, I saw this as nothing but an example of the infamous star tantrums. “Already?” I said to myself in disbelief. But just in time a dazed Jaya materialized from somewhere and all of us scrambled to the stage. After the show and fresh from appreciation and cheers, we cornered Jaya. I had thought she would argue and fight back but to everybody’s surprise, she just broke down. For the first time we realized we were dealing with a girl much younger than ourselves and felt guilty.

Another incident highlighted the same fact from another end. One day as Vinay Shukla and I reached the canteen for breakfast, all tables were talking about a hot film shown in Nair sahib’s archive screening the night before. Titled Helga and from Max Mueller Bhavan, it was a sex education film showing an uninhibited portrayal of human reproduction and sexuality. As the day advanced, everybody converged under the wisdom tree demanding a repeat showing of the film that most had missed. Jagat Murari discussed the issue in a faculty meeting. True, we were exempt from censorship but would it be proper to show a film—a brand new 35mm print, in colour and German!—that showed actual childbirth full frontal and real time on camera?

Finally the faculty first saw the film, with chaprasis in khaki (bossed over by the inimitable Rehman chacha with a cane) guarding the gates and next day Prof Bahadur stood softening the pitch with a charming introduction before the film was unleashed upon a houseful of salivating us. On Murari sahib and Bahadur sahib’s lead, everyone seemed concerned about Jaya. She was given a seat close to the exit and we saw the film with one eye on her. She braved through the build up for quite a long while but eventually walked out well before the waters broke on the screen!

Years later when I met Jaya, she had no memory of Helga. Instead she remembered a stylish leather sling bag that I used to carry about as a student. Which I had all but forgotten!

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It was this little girl persona of Jaya’s—the little sister, whom you instinctively felt like reaching out to protect—that charmed filmmakers to write films on her. Hrishikesh Mukherjee was the first to introduce her in 1971 as a star struck adolescent in Guddi but we felt proud that before that our own Madan Bavaria had cast her a similar age in his diploma film Suman. Hrishida had been a regular visitor to the Institute in those days and it’s unlikely he hadn’t seen Suman. In fact Bavaria wouldn’t spare even passers-by without showing his film!

Suman is about the coming of age of a village girl Suman who bounces about freely all over the neighborhood until chance proximity with a playmate suddenly sends her feeling uncomfortable. Diploma films were given six shifts and 4000 feet of negative in those days, plus the Institute’s famous dark blue TMB to commute. Bavaria shot Suman in the small temple town of Baneshwar an hour from Pune and the unit travelled up and down each day. Every evening we would connect up in the hostel to discuss progress. He had been postponing shooting the climax hoping to find a ‘comfort’ level with Jaya and was growing nervous as days went by. “But she has seen the script, hasn’t she?” I teased him. “Now there you go behaving like a perfect Jat!” he snapped back hurt but not surprised by my insensitivity. “You wouldn’t understand!” But on the last day he wanted me by his side. “Agar koi garbar ho jaye to sambhal lena yaar…”

The scene was set up under a guava tree in the open, where Jaya and her innocent-looking Nepali classmate Timilsinha come running across a field and settle down heaving. Jaya picks up a raw fruit from the ground and pushes him to eat when the boy happens to look to her chest. The dreaded final shot was Jaya’s reaction to Timilsinha’s stare.

Jaya wore a typical Maharashtrian half-sleeve blouse that buttons up in front and the V above the top button was where all eyes were now stuck. How could that be opened a little wider? Or better still, the button undone ‘just casually, you know’? A glum Bavaria went busily between the cameraman (UMN Sharif?) and Jaya a couple of times as though working out his aesthetics; then took courage and implored her in a whisper. I still remember the moment: Jaya looked at him unblinking, abruptly got up and went to the TMB. Five minutes later when she emerged, all hearts sank. The button had opened but the V had narrowed! The shot was somehow gone through and at the end of it she wiped an eye, went back to the TMB and sat quietly on her seat. Soon Bavaria joined her sitting next to her like a culprit. Nobody spoke throughout that hour-long drive back home but we were relieved that the ordeal was over.

Ultimately as it happens the split of dress is of little consequence in that lyrical film. Despite looking like a perfect script-demands-it situation, we had been after a grossly misjudged emphasis little realizing that the point of the story was the girl’s reaction to the gaze, not the showing of her cleavage. Today we can laud Bavaria as being understated but the fact is he had tried otherwise and failed.

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Within months of joining the Institute, some of us paired off. Rashmi Sharma with Anil Dhavan, Indira Agarwal with Raja Chauhan, and yes, Jaya Bhaduri with Bhaskar Choudhury, who was one year her senior in Acting. I was too timid, too small town; very keen to wound but shit scared to strike. Incidentally, I remained that way for a long time to come.

Recalling him after 45 years—phew!—I think Bhaskar had more of a model’s crispness than an actor’s agility. You never saw him laughing in a guffaw, for example; I can’t imagine him running wild, say, from hostel to the main gate, as the more ‘physical’ acting students often did chasing each other. He just wasn’t the type. And lovers back then, unlike in later years when there were more girls and more couples, were not very demonstrative either. We just saw Jaya and Bhaskar always together, almost like siblings: In the canteen, under the wisdom tree, in the screenings. Or even outside, shopping at Dorabjee’s in the Main Street, for example. Once Nirad, Shukla and I saw them come to see a Hollywood film in Alka theatre across the Lakdi Pul. The customary Films Division documentary had just finished and we stepped out for intermission when they entered the porch. (Being tightly knit and short, Hollywood films didn’t have a built-in interval, so a slide used to be inserted after many trailers of ‘forthcoming attractions’, followed by one or two longish Film Division documentaries.) With a cigarette dangling from his lips and eyes screwed, I can still see Bhaskar taking out his valet from the hip pocket and counting cash at the ticket counter as Jaya stood by waiting. We felt relieved when they took the spiral staircase for the balcony; we didn’t want to run into them and be thought as kabaab mein haddi.

Bhaskar and Jaya were together for just under a year and already in that period everybody wondered how the relationship would hold with him soon gone struggling in Calcutta. Another year and both went off our radar, she in Bombay pursuing Guddi and he sticking it out in Calcutta—Bhaskar had too strong an accent for Hindi films. Then we vaguely heard of a son of Allahabad poet Harivanshrai Bachchan come to join Bollywood. With some glee we had learnt (or was it mere wishful thinking?) that the matchstick-thin youth had applied for the Institute’s acting course and was rejected. When he started hanging out with the Institute pals Jaya and Denzongpa, we instantly saw a connection. “Oh, the Institute training from the back door?” we declared maliciously. “But that’s as close as he would ever get to the Institute!” Probably he heard the taunt for he went ahead and ended up as son-in-law of the Institute!

When news first came of their romance, popular Institute sentiment favored Bhaskar. “Given the difference in heights, she would have to wear a 6-inch patla under her feet!” When they announced marriage, the physical mismatch was uppermost in our minds. “How would they… It’s obscene!”

I recall two images from their visits to the Institute during courtship. One when Jaya was the star and he a mere boy friend. I was entering the canteen as I saw and recognized Amitabh coming out from a seedy-leaky corner toilet behind the Editing department. (That Editing department is today the Central Camera store.) Jaya’s retinue was already gone past the wisdom tree and he hurried to catch up with them. The second time round they had Denzongpa with them. Jaya had again gone somewhere on her own, leaving the two of them in front of the CRT when I passed by. Denzongpa introduced me to Amitabh who suddenly struck me as not all that tall after all. The fact that I didn’t wash the handshake and kept holding out my hand to everybody to smell the rest of the day would indicate that Amitabh Bachchan was already a big star in his own right. Soon he would be the mega star and Jaya, the star wife.

Sadly, Bhaskar died of a heart condition within 2-3 years of the Institute. Or was it a road accident? He wasn’t missed.

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Jaya was still at the Institute when Hrishida came to cast her for Guddi. Asrani’s recall of that visit in a recent TV interview is worth a recount. Instructor Asrani was crossing the road in front of the Wisdom Tree when he heard Hrishida call out for him.

They were a whole load of Bengali brigade just arrived in a jeep. Writers Bimal Dutt and DN Mukherjee, actor Kali Banerjee and assistant Gulzar. Asrani who had been chasing Hrishida for good two years for a role at first thought they had come to sign him. “We’ve come to see a girl, Jaya Bhaduri, let’s meet her!” Hrishida ordered. Jaya was sitting in the canteen taking chai with Danny Denzongpa and Anil Dhavan and almost dropped her cup when told of Hrishida asking for her. “Hrishi-kaku! Hrishi-kaku!!” she fled outside and touched his feet. Introductions out of the way, everybody switched to Bengali and started walking towards the wisdom tree. Asrani followed them for some distance, then tried to check with Gulzar if there was something for him in the film too. “Don’t mention me but there is a 2-scene role of a young man who comes from the village looking to be a hero and returns after playing a junior artiste.” After two months came a letter from Hrishida asking Jaya over for audition but Asrani presented himself ahead of her. Guddi was the lucky break for both instructor and the pupil. “Asrani, your name would be Asrani Mukherjee!” Hrishida laughed when the film was a success.

This is Asrani at his self-deprecating best. I don’t think Gulzar had by that time assumed his trademark crisp, lightening-white dress otherwise it would flash through the Institute. Years later when he came again, it was impossible not to notice that crackling, starched glare.

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After the Institute, I lost touch with Jaya for decades. I saw her on the TV or read about her and her films in the papers. Guddi, Uphaar, Koshish, Kora Kaagaz, Zanjeer, Abhiman, Chupke Chupke, Mili, Sholay, Silsila, and after a long hiatus for starting a family Hazaar Chaurasi Ki Ma, Fiza, Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham, Kal Ho Naa Ho came and went. Since after joining the Institute we had stopped seeing Hindi films, we merely noted their Bollywood character from the corner of our eyes and carried on in our own little world. More exciting things were happening in the new wave and repeated setbacks of failed promises of its leaders made us that much more determined to make it work. Pity that eventually the Wave fizzled out without even a proper obituary, even less a recorded history.

In 2003 or 4, the Institute decided to revive the Acting course and Jaya was invited as ex-student expert to advise on the contours of the new course. She was now a more settled and mature individual with only traces of her old impulsive streak. She still wanted the actors, for example, to join the course straight from school in order to retain ‘that innocence’ but gamely gave in to the majority view. I had no problem reconnecting with her after so many years. In fact she was easier to deal with now than during the dazzle and bounce of our student days.

My most recent interaction with Jaya was in 2010 when my book on the analysis of Pather Panchali was going to the press. I had fished out two Ray articles from old issues of Filmfare which no one knew about and thought they would go well as appendices at the end of the book. The first titled A New Approach was about how in PP the book Ray saw a potential for both popular as well as good cinema and second Should A Filmmaker Be Original? incorporated within its larger subject of adaptation Ray’s plot division of Bibhutibhushan’s two books PP and Aparajito over the three films of the trilogy. This last one I thought was particularly helpful coming from the man himself since there have been so many confusing versions afloat in the air.

Sandip Ray was happy to learn of the dig and gave a prompt go ahead but Filmfare surprisingly turned out to be an impenetrable jungle. That’s when I thought of Jaya and sent her an SOS. Immediately came a one-line approval from editor Jitesh Pillai that lodged itself right into the heart of my laptop. In gratitude I described Jaya as the first lady of Indian cinema in the preface of my book.

Looking at her life and career—born in an eminent journalist’s family, debut in a Satyajit Ray film, Film Institute, Bollywood stardom, marriage in Harivanshrai Bachchan’s family (duly spiced up with a certain ‘woh’ element), politics, moving in and out of the Gandhi household, more politics—I think Jaya is more a destiny’s child than anything else. She has looked a certain way and that is charming beyond compare.

Truly a star plus.

What Ails the Institute (or Eminence as Career)

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Film Institute of India, as it was then called, started in 1962 and already by 1968 when I joined as a Direction student, Prof Satish Bahadur had collected most of his trademark shorts for teaching: Big City Blues, Wedding, Happy Anniversary, Terminus, Skidoo 23, Incident at the Owl Creek. Calling them text films, he analyzed them for us to smithereens. Followed Glass, Delta Phase One and other Bert Haanstra classics; then Neighbors, Chairy Tale and the rest of Norman McLaren’s. Longest was Satyajit Ray’s Samapti, the only Indian film of the lot, at 50 minutes. Among all these masterpieces—and to my secret admiration—Wedding was a work of students. It was a 20-minutes long diploma film from Moscow’s VGIK and produced under similar parameters as our own.

A pharmacist boy meets a musician girl on the city bus and they get talking. She has a domineering mother and the boy is afraid of her but hopes he can charm her to let them go on a date. One day, formally dressed and holding out a bunch of flowers, he decides to visit the girl’s house and dreams of success. But put to practice things end up horribly wrong. The girl has gotten married the same day and happens to return home with her groom and the guests just then. The boy is devastated but manages to hide in time. When he leaves, it’s with the same sprightly steps and flowers held out the same as before but a beaten, tragic figure.

Over 35 years of my teaching association with the FTII and 10 years since, not a single one of our diploma films measures up to Wedding’s simplicity, charm, tidiness, universal appeal, even profundity—why not?—and a downright killer sting at the end.

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Being a slow poke it took me towards the end of my years in the Institute to realise the enormity of the issue of quality of diploma films. What makes a good film school and how much of its goodness comes from the quality of its films? After Satyajit Ray, was our third world apology sufficient to cover up our inadequacies? Our “New Wave” films (a good number of which were made by ex-students), which we identified with and lent moral support to, were they any better? I had attended a number of film festivals and experienced the embarrassment in the first hand. Then I saw the newspaper coverage of those same festivals and read a different story. Writing for home readership, the Indian reporters portrayed the festival as though spinning around Indian films whereas foreign coverage barely noted our quaint titles and directors and sari-wrapped actresses, all of which helped towards nothing more than projecting the festivals’ international flavour. How can you have an international festival and not have blacks and browns and yellows and turbans and caps and the Chinese and the Mongols? (Chinese those days were not the Chinese they are today.)

Over time I saw a pattern. The whole thing was a game played between three parties, filmmakers, critics and the ministry, defending and justifying one another to the tax-paying public. Filmmakers made films by and large to one or the other art film likeness picked up from festivals, the critics variously praised them as a part of their declared commitment to the Wave and the bureaucrats thickened their files with press cuttings to justify expenditure to the auditors as well as to the political bosses. A mutual admiration society if you will. All three were an inevitable part of the glamorous jamboree to film festivals around the world.

All of which could be forgiven—after all, even if Bill Gates were to spare some crumbs from his table and decide to start a film movement, this would be the way to go—provided the process had thrown up a genuine talent. That sadly didn’t happen. Personalities aplenty but world-class filmmakers, none. After decades of government investment in films, Indian cinema’s undisputed greats have remained Satyajit Ray, Ritwick Ghatak and Guru Dutt. All three predate the Indian New Wave by decades.

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One day sometime in the mid-80s, I saw a blazing red SUV (or was it orange?) parked on the Institute’s main road in front of the Cinematography department. All other cars looked puny and grey by comparison. Turned out it belonged to a successful ex-student of cinematography who had come to hold a workshop with camera students. All day the students passing by kept turning their heads to the car but himself, the young man was a picture of courtesy and humility. He hadn’t forgotten the production staff (light boys in particular), wanted to meet the present occupant of his hostel room and invited students to meet him for work in Bombay after the Institute. You may have your differences on the colour of his car but the man was living every film student’s dream anywhere the world.

Some of us wondered how far he could go in his career. He had already shot half a dozen A grade films and could shoot a dozen or two more. (A la Shyam Benegal, never say no to nothing.) Besides a flat in Bombay, he could buy another get away in Alibagh; then moving sideways, jostle up to the government and line up for a Padma Shree. Could he ever aspire to be a great cameraman? What does it take to be one in any case?

To my mind KK Mahajan is the only one from the Institute who comes closest to acquiring that stature. A very earthy Punjabi, he wasn’t your sophisticate with jargon but a ‘film worker’, who heard you patiently, filtered out wheat from a lot of chaff and gave you a good clean image. Unnoticed by many, KK’s career started exactly when Kodak’s black-and-white stock stopped being available in India but he gave consistently well-exposed stunning black-and-white results using ORWO negative and newly started Hindustan Photo Film’s lowly Indu positive. Above all he was happy to rough it out under low budget conditions that went with the Film Finance Corporation sponsored films.

As it happens, KK did not get associated with one single director but worked with all those leading the New Wave pack and more: Mrinal Sen, Mani Kaul, Kumar Shahani and Basu Chatterjee, (much like Raoul Coutard in relation to the French New Wave.) Cartoonist Mario Miranda was the first to recognise KK’s cult status and made a crisp pencil sketch of him at the camera for an article in Filmfare. No other technician ever again came to receiving such an honour. (That sketch would make a perfect illustration for this piece but I couldn’t find it.) NVK Murthy, our Director at the time, had the great wit and foresight to invite KK to read the convocation address way ahead of his years—such recognition usually comes to people much closer to their expire-by date. And if some gaps remained in KK’s mystique and myth, the man’s alcoholism flew in to seal them shut. “No matter how late the pack up, KK must drink his quota of booze after the shoot. But he would be the first to get up for that sunrise shot the next day.” Which was no doubt true.

But even KK Mahajan, alas, would not be among Cinema’s immortals because there is no film he was associated with that would stand the test of time. In fact, truth be told, they are already bangle material, those films. Bhuvan Shome, Uski Roti, Aashad Ka Ek Din, Sara Aakash and Kumar Shahani’s Maya Darpan…. Should that shock you, don’t just go by your nurtured, ‘cultivated’ impression of these films, try and check them out on the screen afresh. The farther away in time we get from these New Wave films, the smaller they grow.

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Institute’s failure is actually only its student/ex-student directors’ failure. For others, the challenge is limited and many of our boys and girls today are world-class technicians. Light up a given location or set, and pan or tilt smooth, that’s the essentials of camera. Record clearly without the microphone showing in the frame and afterwards level and mix sounds provided by the editor, that’s recording. Edit to a scheme the footage generated during shooting, often just organising it so it makes sense, that’s editing.

But the directors’ call is tricky: First have a story, pant pant pant, then tell it with clarity, more pant pant pant. That’s it. To me all directors working today in the country, Institute or no Institute, are in varying degrees challenged in this key area. Their engaging accounts of difficulties they have had on the way to the screen hoodwink no one. We aren’t interested in their reasons for failure; we would much rather have them succeed, how about that? This subcontinent of humanity called India has been generous to filmmakers. Those who have told stories with clarity and emotional integrity have been rewarded with godhood. Others are mere chaff, a perpetually disgruntled lot, happy to wear the title of a filmmaker and whining their way to maintaining a matching lifestyle…

In the Institute’s context, it’s this disgruntled majority from all courses that has waged strikes down the years. Sub-consciously they are telling the world, these students, that they can’t perform because the Institute is so poorly run. Consciously—and this is interesting—they fight to be able to establish and cement relationship with the ex-students who they eventually see as their foothold in the industry. Filmmaking looked much easier from outside. That story telling could be so difficult can take the students/ex-students their entire careers to realise—and that only if they are lucky. They labor under the impression that anyone with basic intelligence and imagination—like themselves—could write or tell a story impromptu. It looks beneath their dignity to address story telling as an issue, much less to practice the craft through repeated effort. Story is verifiable while mouthing pompous film theory is not. Laffazi is enough to win the battle there, they think.

Before I am attacked with that timeless sheeshe-ke-ghar dialogue from Hindi cinema, let me admit to being a victim of the malaise myself. I recognised the problem in my own case, then saw it as fairly widespread among students in my charge. I began writing screenplays right after graduation, but after months and years of labor—“When is your film happening?” “I’m working on the script”—nothing ever got completed. Then I set that aside and took up another one. At the end of my teaching career I had a large trunk-load of handwritten foolscap ‘raddi’ that should have been about half a dozen scripts. (Now I have given up writing those; I just do pieces such as the present one once in a while.)

So, as a ‘decorated’ double-gold medalist in Direction from one of the earliest batches of the FTII, I count myself as the first culprit as regards the story, with a long queue of who’s who of Indian cinema following…

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However, it’s not as though I didn’t move to address the problem among the students. I did. And got egg on my face.

Syllabus revision has been as frequent as student strikes in the Institute, be it Subhas Ghai’s count of 39 times or Anil Zankar’s 7. In 2000, for once we decided to introduce a real radical change in the syllabus. As senior faculty and both of us ex-students, Prof Mehboob Khan and I led our colleagues to build in a component of student accountability in the course pattern. Not all would go to the next year, we decided; there were 2-3 seats less in 2nd and further 2-3 less in 3rd years (duly ploughing back the saved resources to enrich the remaining exercises both on time and duration.) Those who had to leave after 1st or 2nd years were not to be dumped into the sea but given suitable certification to join the profession at appropriate levels. Having to compete for seats every year was going to ensure application among students. The Academic and Governing Councils approved the new syllabus for implementation.

Interestingly, both current and ex-students jointly challenged the decision in high court even though neither party stood to be affected by the change. They were “fighting for future generations of students,” they said in the court. They lost. As a wit commented at the time, they wanted nothing less than full 3-year multiple entry visas—sure to be extended to 6—for everyone to the Institute campus that everybody loves to love. Admissions were duly made for the new course, students admitted and classes had gone on for three months when Girish Karnad was suddenly made Director of Nehru Centre in London and Vinod Khanna brought in in his place as chairman. Khanna’s brief was already known when he came to the Institute almost riding a galloping horse. To a jam-packed audience in the Main Theatre, he declared that the old course would be brought back and carried on the same chant in his meeting with the faculty afterwards. As on the screen, he was an instant hero among students and ex-students and before anybody could ask him what good cinema was, he was already and happily enshrined among the galaxy of eminent Chairmen of the FTII.

To be sure, the slide down of courses from 3 years to the present going rate of 7 has happened under the watch of the best of national awardee chairmen, none of them Nobel material. Given a suitable selection of clippings from YouTube, Vinod Khanna would not peg much higher than Gajendra Chauhan. Clearly it was a trade off behind closed doors between the ‘eminent’ Girish Karnad and the government to force an overall popular decision—academic procedures and propriety be hanged!—to restore the old course even for the 3 months old batch. Nobody noticed the irony that it was roughly the same time when the country had drawn a blank in the Olympic games and for the umpteenth time pundits were analysing the reasons for such a poor showing by a country of whatever number of millions we were at that time.

Just before the flip-flop I wrote an article for CILECT Review Our Baby-Fresh New Course giving my experience of teaching that new course. I am afraid you’d have to contend with my view of that period if you want to know how it was then, for no other piece on the subject was written at the time. The article is also posted on my blog.

Nirad “Narayan” Mohapatra of Mushir Sahib’s Roll Call

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I first learnt of Nirad Mohapatra’s existence when we returned to the Institute after our first semester break. We had spent three months together in the same class without noticing the quiet Oriya back-benchers—there were a couple of others too—and to everybody’s surprise, Nirad had gone and scored the highest marks in the class. “Intellectuals” Vinay Shukla and I came only second and third. Soon everybody learnt to ignore his heavy accent and began to listen to the man.

I most likely made my first dent on him under much less glorious circumstances. For some reason rice came to be rationed in the hostel mess and I had no problems offering my cups to anybody provided they showed up at the right time. Soon Nirad began to stick around with me. He wasn’t much interested in my homemade Haryana ghee but a full rice meal (and the finger licking that went with it) was simply irresistible to him. I cannot even today eat rice without a thought of the desperation of rice eaters when denied this staple.

For some reason I keep thinking of another incident from our student days. Again one night we were eating in the mess when a rowdy actor came in and suddenly punched a bespectacled student at the back of his head. Nirad saw the act. “His glasses shone in my eyes as they went flying across,” he kept repeating visibly disturbed. We were studying Eisenstein’s Montage at the time and he may well have seen this image as a perfect illustration of one of the types of that dense concept. His vivid testimony drew a suspension order on the bully from Mushir sahib, our Vice Principal and Head of the Direction Department.

Towards the end of our three years we went on a long strike against the acting course students and our principal, Murari sahib, who we thought was siding with them. We called ourselves 100-United Students but the actors singled out four of us for special attention.

Shukla, George, Nirad and me

Shukla, George, Nirad and me, hanging by the Wisdom Tree, 1971

But unknown to anyone the same four had by this time also divided the future of Indian cinema among themselves: Nirad and KG George (“Kullakatil Geverghese” of Mushir sahib’s rolls) were to look after their respective states while Shukla would take charge from Mani Kaul and I, when time came, from a certain Satyajit Ray….

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Nirad and I, however, soon returned to the Institute. Our new Vice Principal-cum-HOD Dr Gopal Dutt had been impressed by our grades and offered us teaching positions. Beside a good-looking per lecture fee, we were given two train fares a year from hometown and a hostel room to stay. After years of hardboard sleeping on bunkers, travelling first class coupe was a heady jump. My father used to be given that privilege only upon rare transfers in his state government job.

If Nirad were alive today I’m sure he would agree that our best time in the Institute—or in the profession for that matter—was not as students in the Institute but as instructors. We commanded huge respect on account of our freshly proved merit. Vinod Chopra, “the brag”; Ketan Mehta, “the theatre inflicted”; Saeed Mirza, “the leftist sage” (yes, Saeed was an elder student when we were teachers; I still have one of his answer books assessed at 50/100); Kamal Swaroop, “the nincompoop from the backwaters of the Rajasthan deserts”; Arun Khopkar, “looking naked into women’s eyes as though nobody was watching”; Pankaj Parashar, “the dead-pan wit”; The Mainak Trivedi, “the fluid face wit”; Munir Khan, “the arrogant wit”; Vijay Saxena, “bhaia” and Santlal Balmiki, “begani shaadi mein Abdulla deewana” were the flavor of the times. (Those left out please excuse.) Today’s Jahnu Barua was the grinning Toshiro Mifune of those days; Rajkumar Hirani and David Dhavan just the ever-smiling blokes from Editing. Jahnu could also, without much persuasion, get into his sub-titling act, sending you in splits. His soft lilting piece of French dialogue translated as I’ll-slit-your-throat and a long growl ending with a snappy bark in Japanese was declaration of love. Late into the nights Nirad and I could be guests in any of their rooms (or they into ours) discussing profanities and profundities. Sometimes even actors strayed into the enemy zone: Zareena Wahab once slipped in shortly after Satyadev Dube, after which the good “Pandit” kept addressing her the whole night declaring that Hindi cinema audience heard a film rather than saw it. (Dube was then a dialogue writer.) On another occasion, Suresh Oberoi brought in a starlet (I forget who) to impress upon her that he wasn’t your regular run-around-the-tree actor but a thinking one who circulated and belonged comfortably among directors.

Those were the days when in order to record traffic sounds you booked a vehicle, landed up at the same Good Luck chowk, and came back with the same noise. This was the time when you labored to pour a steady stream of sugar grains on different surfaces of paper to record rain. Or whipped a tightly stretched tin plate to pass for lightening strike. This is when you joked about the farmer-producer’s illiteracy of film production procedures, whom you fooled by saying that a certain continuity mistake would be corrected during re-recording, and who promptly agreed with your solution but cautioned you not to forget to do it. This is when Actors broke rank with their department and wined and dined Editors to give them extra frames of a certain close up against the insistence of spoiler Directors. This was the period when on one of his rare visits Ray had joked asking Khopkar sitting in the second-last row of CRT to speak louder since he couldn’t lip-read him because of his beard, and Ghatak, perhaps on his last visit to the Institute, had snapped asking Ketan to sit properly. “Put your foot down!” he had told an unprepared Ketan Mehta taken quite aback. That’s when in order to buy raw stock you had to apply for an Import Permit at Indian Motion Picture Producers Association in Bombay; when a mere fade on the screen was a huge fuss that needed a special, higher-grade raw stock and an extra generation of processing in the laboratory. Video was then only an occasional news on the pages of the Time magazine and computer age simply science fiction. (KG George was the one who chased Time magazine in the library and updated us on the latest in the wide world.)

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We met some of the most fascinating women of our lives in this period.

Chandita Mukherjee who came with the flourish of a Marxist liberal from London narrating non-veg jokes in the canteen (then in front of the Main Theatre) and dropping ash all over the place. Ajit jokes were just starting and I was a complete stranger to them until Chandita narrated some to me. Stricken by her beauty I invited her to join me to subtitle archive’s print of Monihara and enjoyed her proximity for months. The portly Vijay Saxena’s appeal (“Sexy Saxena!”) on the other hand was her mix of typical housewifely looks from the Hindi heartland—she was in fact one, having joined the Institute just after marriage—and being a woman of great sensitivity and cultural refinement. She also sang beautifully with a papery voice. But her helpless “Bhaiiya, roko, roko!” in the general direction of her cameraman instead of the regular (and brutal) “Cut it!” at the end of a shot may well be a stunner unmatched in the annals of film history, before or since.

In complete contrast to both of them was Rani Burrah of Screenplay Writing. Draped in a default cotton sari and large south Indian bindi, Rani could often be seen crossing over from the canteen to the wisdom tree with a tea-glass in hand and cigarette in the lips. I saw my first beanbag—that’s right, a beanbag—in Rani’s hostel room and was fascinated by this ‘futuristic’ piece of fluid furniture. Both Nirad and I took turns to sink on this seating fad and smoke away rings and homilies. “I think…” “But you know…” “Having said that…” Ever lit like a bulb Rani was friends with everybody and I daresay I have yet to meet a woman of a larger heart and more generous disposition.

And finally Haimanti Bannerjee. Even though not formally a student, Mrs Bannerjee came to the Institute with impeccable credentials: As Prof Bahadur’s research assistant; as one raised in Tagore’s Shantiniketan where her father was a professor; and as Satyajit Ray’s first choice to play Ghare-Bahire’s Bimala. Haimanti had long letters written to her by the maestro discussing the role in detail—I saw them but they were in Bengali—but her in-laws had steadfastly refused permission. Swatilekha Chatterjee who eventually played Bimala is remarkably close to Haimanti in height and built, though a tad older and less attractive. “Five feet and seven and a half inches, aren’t you?” Haimanti mimicked Ray’s deep baritone recalling their first meeting in his house. Pity, I never checked with her if the kiss with Soumitra Chatterjee was already at the time in the script and whether that was her family’s specific objection.

To Haimanti, beside so much more, I owe my initiation into the tenets of Marxism, which then with Gulshan Kapoor and Nirad Mohapatra and Vishnu Mathur and Madan Bavaria we variously tested out in endless discussions against great works of cinema.

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Rani’s father had been in the ICS (at one point Reserve Bank of India’s Governor if I am not mistaken) and she had this spacious 5th floor flat among the iconic old style buildings lining Marine Drive. Placed at a convenient walking distance from Churchgate station, Nirad and I were welcome to its use whenever in Bombay. As darkness descended all kinds of us began to arrive there. Irrespective of whether you took the (large) rattling lift or the (wide) creaking staircase, you somehow always reached huffing and puffing. But that’s when your worries ended, Bombay was left outside and you were home. Dumping your overnighters in one of the inside rooms and after a wash, everyone would assemble in the living room. If a bottle wasn’t already in circulation, it would materialize from one of the bags and Rani would initiate you into the group scattered all over the room. These could be Girish Karnad, Anand Patwardhan or Sai Paranjape, or in later years Om Puri and Kulbhushan Kharbanda. Anybody passing by could answer the phone and either call you or take the message. If you used the phone, you dropped your coins or currency depending upon the services used. Nobody noticed when food came and went. At the peak of haze, goodnights would begin to be exchanged and Rani would withdraw to her room. You made it to whatever place was available on the beds or mattresses spread on the floor. Smooching was in order; I woke up to one beside me in the middle of the night once.

We must have oozed great innocence, Nirad and I, because next morning the ladies would guide us to our destinations—Films Division, IMPPA, Doordarshan, FFC, Film City, Akashwani theatre, Natraj studio and the like—in absurd details, even explaining how to cross roads. It must have been mainly for the ever-forgetful Mohapatra I imagine because I definitely was a crook.

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In Bombay and Pune you were not afraid to speak to a girl, even hold hands in public if she didn’t mind. Freedom and frankness was the name of the game. You spoke in English, not to show off but to really communicate. We picked up slangs, phrases and even straight vocabulary like infection from thin air—hi, hello, yeah, cool, man, dough, bucks, million-dollar-question, go-to-hell, and yes, shit, screw, fuck, fag, joint and the rest. When I first heard somebody say, “My old man will kill me yaar!”, my stomach turned. Equally when Shukla called whisky daaru it felt as though the drink in your glass had been collected from a running drain. But soon I began to see the spirit behind those expressions. “Parlez-vous!” I remember we once kept saying for months from a Godard film for no particular reason.

Speaking of whisky and daaru, Nirad and I were teetotalers when we joined the Institute. But by the time we finished we had been through everything: smoking, drinking and even having a go at ganja and grass if it came our way. It’s all about the width of experience, we told ourselves with genuine conviction, and decided to go as far as our conscience permitted. We were too chicken hearted for hard drugs, or Budhwar Peth for that matter; so we never went there.

Life seemed altogether less hypocritical in these parts; back home in Sonepat if you had no money, you’d go to all kinds of lengths to hide the fact; in Bombay and Pune, that you were broke was almost a fashion statement. We were living the attitudes we saw in European films and the place felt abroad for all practical purposes.

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Both our parents began to press us for marriage more or less simultaneously. We had jobs after all, what else were we waiting for? That we wanted to make films didn’t cut much ice with either party. “Just you say yes,” Nirad’s parents told him once, “and you don’t have to worry about anything else.” Which reminded us of Kodak’s campaign in the early days of photography: “You press the button and we’ll do the rest!” We had a big laugh.

While teaching in the Institute we both made short films, both spending our own money; Nirad a documentary on a Buddhist shrine in Orissa’s Dhauligiri and I a fiction film This is to certify… on cheating in the exams. (Recent news report from Bihar on the subject has its roots in the pre-history!) Encouraged by the success of my diploma film, I showed my rough cut to visiting dignitaries, even to Satyajit Ray. To his credit, the master sat through all thirty minutes of it (and manual reel change) in the old Sound Theatre—he had seen Vilaap at Teheran—but at the end said nothing. Mrinal Sen too on his day said nothing but, true to style, after a lot of talk. Hrishida advised huge trimmings, which I dismissed as coming from old school. In my heart of hearts, however, I knew that my film was a stillborn effort. Being impatient with IMPAA procedures, I had purchased my raw stock in honest black market but developed cold feet when it came to putting together accounts. I simply didn’t know how to regularize the theft. The result was that my three cans kept sitting heavy on my loft, while Nirad went up and down and broke even by selling his one-reeler to Orissa Tourism.

Other Oriya students somehow treated Nirad as a natural mentor; bade bhaisahib of sorts. “Maapatra babu,” they would call him as they intercepted us and then promptly go mutters and murmurs. When a starry-eyed group from Orissa came visiting, Nirad would be asked to address them. Standing informally among the front row seats of the main theatre, we could see his khadi-clad thin frame holding the microphone and go on a non-stop rampage. In the evenings we would split: I would go girl-hunting in front of the Archive hut where students congregated taking multiple rounds of Bhatji’s useless tea while Nirad went to smoking pot with one or the other of the bearded-unwashed-uncouth lot in different hostel rooms. (John Abraham would be a perfect company, had he not graduated two years before us.) That was our entertainment besides screenings and neither of us roommates ever interfered or went probing into the other’s area of interest.

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Nirad was a better, more accepted and more respected teacher than me; all these boys called him guruji and the title sat easy on his bone-thin, smiling personality. But when it came to the regular ‘professorial’ post in the Institute, my grades and awards had counted for more with the UPSC panel in Delhi and I was the one selected. In retrospect, however, I think this was only for the good of Indian cinema—the rejection freed Nirad to make a beautiful film like Maya Mriga. I don’t think I could have matched that film in grace, beauty and sheer artistic integrity, had I been the one chosen to practice and not preach.

After Maya Mriga, his associations with the Institute grew to higher levels as Academic and Governing Council member. But he continued to be available to teach. He specialized in Ozu’s cinema, wrote a pithy little paper on the master which continued to be used in summer Film Appreciation Courses until recently, and used his An Autumn Afternoon to great effect and fan following. “Gulf” ball is what he charmingly called the golf balls in that film and you could sense the whole class momentarily derail each time he referred to the white objects jump about across the famous Ozu cuts in the colorful frame. “Bah! Bah!” Nirad said enjoying the moment. “Ki bolche Mohapatra Babu,” one of us non-Oriya, non-Bengali would always tease him. “Vheri good yaar! Vhorks like music!” he would say.

Another of his favorite sequences from the same film was the last one where after the reluctant elder sister’s marriage, the adolescent brother keeps saying he too now wants to get married, a prospect that would leave his old father further alone. Over this scene the smiling old man has but one word to speak again and again—“Sohoka”, “Sohoka”—as realization dawns upon realization on him of his coming lonesome days. “I see.” “I see”. We too used the same expression whenever faced with I-see moments.

Nirad had always held that same skeletal frame that never knew obesity. So in turning old over the years, he just slowed down in his movements, got a little more forgetful than he always was and, much like myself, lost a front tooth, which he never bothered to replace with a fake.

And then suddenly he was gone. I learnt of it from a vague Facebook posting of his daughter. She kept referring to him as “Baba”, which I searched and found was how his children called him. For a long while the information remained within the family members. Then came a post by one of his students with pictures of his body at the cremation. He had died in a Mumbai hospital after a longish illness that most of us knew nothing about.

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Here are some of Nirad’s memorable one-liners that have somehow remained burnt in memory. Not all of them might be suitable at this juncture but equally without these this account would remain incomplete. Nirad was against all kinds of censorship. (1.) Referring to a famously promiscuous acting course girl in our student days he once joked, “Arre yaar, she has already begun collecting grand prix!” The famed award being one of the most commonly mispronounced and actors in those days not required to be strong on schooling, they were always the most prone to such ridicule. (2.) “Who is this phallic symbol going yaar?” said he on another occasion sometime in 1973-74. This was an evening when we were just heading out from the hostel to the Main Theatre for General Screening, when down the slope ahead of us was going a bare-topped man with freshly-shaven shining blue head and sloping muscular shoulders: Naseeruddin Shah. True, Sigmund Freud being our new fascination we saw symbols everywhere but considering Naseer’s swagger that day, even if the great psychoanalyst hadn’t been there, he would have to be invented. (3.) And after cricket’s lbw, Institute’s SPW! This was much more recent, perhaps in late 80s. That such and such student got out SPW was probably Nirad’s expression for a perfectly lawful but suspicious elimination from the rolls at the hands of the strict Screenplay Writing professor, Saghir Ahmed.

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So you are no more, my friend? Without warning? And again first?

Sohoka… Sohoka…

“Parlez-vous!”