Right to left, Kapoor sahib, PK Nair and SC at the end of a Film Appreciation Course in Kurukshetra University in 1985
[Continued from Part (2)]
…His son would sometimes join us, laughing and joking in his breezy way, “Sir, I have been telling phapaji, let’s produce a film. I’ll be the hero, you can be villain…”
I managed to get him to play a partition-refugee from Pakistan in Vidhwans, a diploma film that I directed for a Bangla Deshi cinematography student, Anwar Hossain. He did a commendable job but more as a gesture of help for a friend than anything else. It must again be thanks to pushing by friends—plus an assured remuneration this time—that he enlisted himself for a small ‘speaking’ role for Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi. The film had a run of shooting in Pune and since it may otherwise too be of interest to the reader, let me recall the event in some detail.
Gandhi (1983) was a co-production with National Film Development Corporation and the ministry assigned one of our colleagues from the television wing, A Pratap, to monitor the shooting. But this was merely a formality. Given the history of sensitivities regarding portrayal of father of the nation, the project had already been cleared by Mrs Gandhi and the script vetted by Satyajit Ray. In Pune, the mega unit stayed and operated from then the city’s only 5-star facility, Hotel Blue Diamond. Telephones then being notoriously unreliable, the visitors had been given special access to using walkie-talkies. On one of his visits to the campus, A Pratap showed us his wireless set, boasting how he could be contacted only by a select top of the production team and “of course” by Richard Attenborough.
The South Africa episode in which Kapoor sahib appears was shot in the Fergusson College amphitheater and its playgrounds. For Puneites, the film’s international star cast was largely unknown faces and crowd control therefore was minimal. Playing an Indian associate of Gandhi, Amrish Puri was merely noticed as he went socializing with other actors. The foreign technicians simply spread out working amongst the extras and bystanders and merged most effortlessly. Ben Kingsley stood center-stage as young Gandhi in a jacket and tie, while dressed in a loose, crumpled kurta and floppy hat, Richard Attenborough circulated humouring every one as though everything was on autopilot. Which, given that crowd of specialists, it indeed was.
About a hundred extras had been engaged, variously dressed—a local rental agency for theatre productions provided costumes—and seated as audience listening to Gandhi and other eminent citizens who were on the stage. Kapoor was playing a turbaned Bohra businessman and sat among the commoners. Shots went progressively closer to Kapoor until he finally stood up excited and spoke his rebel rousing lines drawing spontaneous applause from the 3-tiered assembly. Later the scene shifted to the playgrounds just outside the hall and the government pass-burning scene was shot. Here again Kapoor was identified as he is in the finished film.
To me the hands-on style of directing extras in the amphitheater has remained a memorable performance by our own Kamal Swaroop, then a recent pass-out. He was the assistant director and standing on the stage communicated with the seated assembly in his trademark rustic, but most apt and effective, style:
“Gandhiji ney kuch panga kiya hai aur goron ki kacchi hui hai. Lekin public Gandhiji ke saath hai… Aisa scene hai.” (Gandhiji has created some trouble and the whites are cut up. But the public is with Gandhiji. That’s the scene.) Modifications were whispered to him as necessary and he translated.
I don’t think we in the Direction faculty can ever be blamed for teaching Kamal Swaroop such an uncomplicated lesson in all his three years that I learnt from him on directing extras on that one single day. I still remember the lesson!
One day I heard Kapoor sahib and John discuss an office loan that was available against purchase of a car. The manner of both suggested that it should be a smart deal and soon both purchased second hand cars, John an Ambassador and Kapoor sahib a Standard Herald. Being one Dean and the other Registrar, both took turns with the Institute drivers—“Mohammad-aan brothers” as Kapoor sahib would refer to them in Urdu—to get them to teach driving. One by one then, both were seen bringing their cars to the office travelling a distance of, well, about 200 yards from their homes, which were in staff quarters just across the road from the Institute. But it has to be to the credit of both my colleagues—or was it the Institute work force deployed in strength?—that no accident was ever reported while crossing the road.
One day Kapoor sahib invited some of us for a ride. To me the invitation came at the head of an extended, touching preface. “Chawdhary sahib, when we came to Delhi after partition, we had nothing but shirts on our bare backs. Father was long dead and mother brought up four of us brothers in a room allotted in Pahar Ganj near the New Delhi railway station. The place wasn’t as central as it is today and life was one long struggle but I can tell you from experience, never under-estimate a refugee! A refugee has four hands, not two like everybody else. Forever against the wall and constantly under attack, he can defend himself with all fours. I gave tuitions and that’s where I met my wife Swarna. I was working as a clerk in such and such ministry when I got selected for National School of Drama. From there followed employment with Song and Drama Division and now FTII. From nothing, I today pass off as Assistant Professor of Film Acting of the great Film and Television Institute of whole India!
“In our times a person is said to have arrived if he has a car. Even if a second or third hand, I have one parked outside just now. And although I have to think ten times before putting in petrol, it actually runs. So you tell me, Sir, what use is a car if you can’t go to Deccan with friends and enjoy a cup of coffee? Please be my guest for an evening of ayyashi in Deccan today!”
I sat in the rear with two other colleagues while John took the passenger seat in front. After making a lot of song and dance Kapoor finally took his place at the wheel and started the car. Then availing of the gentle slope we rolled down towards the main gate and eventually turned left for Deccan Gymkhana. Revising his own driving lessons, John kept muttering helping words.
Roads in those days were about a quarter as crowded as they are today. One by one we cleared all 3-4 traffic signals and came to a successful halt in front of Suresh Kalmadi’s Poona Coffee House. Here we got down admiring Kapoor sahib’s car as well as his driving skills.
Somehow I recall nothing of the treat itself—what we drank, ate, where we sat in the restaurant etc.—but remember everything of what happened afterwards. In fact that may well be the reason the incident has stayed with me all these years.
Kapoor sahib’s Standard Herald being a two-door sedan, you had to queue up before getting in and we did all that after stepping out of the restaurant. Thereafter, barely had he taken the driver’s seat and was preparing to insert the ignition key when we heard a complicated rattle of a bicycle falling at the back. All heads turned to look and we saw an embarrassed cyclist recovering from a clumsy heap on the other side of the road.
Kapoor sahib was the first to speak. Raising the ignition key high in the air, he said, “Yaar, maine to abhi start bhi nahin ki hai! Aap sab log gavah hain!” Then as we caught the connection, “Dekhna zara Mathur sahib, peeche koi aur to ghar se ladke nahin aya!” (But I haven’t even started the engine, all of you are my witnesses! Please turn round and check, Mathur sahib, if somebody else too hasn’t had a quarrel at home!)
One morning on reaching office we learnt that Kapoor sahib had complained of chest pain and had been taken to the hospital the night before. Amidst a sense of alarm we booked an Institute vehicle and drove down to Ruby Hall. This was a classy Pune hospital where the Institute employees were entitled for cashless treatment. FTII must have been a good paymaster, for the hospital readily took you in. I once spent a whole week just undergoing tests and while leaving when I wanted to know what was wrong with me, looking famously stoned, Dr Grant just said, “I don’t know.” In fact, Jagat Murari was said to check in even for drawing sympathy of striking students! As strategy.
Having found a parking place we walked through all kinds of vehicles and came to the reception. Kapoor sahib was fine and had been kept under observation while tests were being conducted. Relieved, we traversed long silent corridors and stopped in front of a room.
Being attended to by a nurse, Kapoor sahib was sitting on the bed and saw us over her shoulder. Everything was in starched white: the nurse’s uniform, his bed linen as well as his own full sleeve khadi kurta. He looked like a model patient as though in a film. (All he didn’t have was a cross of Band Aid under the lock of hair!) Not sure if all could visit in one go, about 6-7 of us filed in one after another looking suitably serious and found various perches to sit on. But soon the situation eased up and we began to laugh and talk.
Boasting about the hospital facilities and eager to demonstrate, Kapoor sahib reached for the bed switch. An attendant showed up and was asked to send tea. Soon a busybody canteen boy entered and stood by restless. Still high on projecting and amidst suitable pauses and grunts, Kapoor sahib addressed the boy in his regular Delhi Urdu bass:
“Bhai, hamare daftar ke saathi hamari mijaaz pursi ke liye aaye hain. To… chai pilao.” (Boy, our colleagues from the office have come to enquire about our health. So, let’s have tea.)
In puncturing contrast, the boy shot back blunt and brief in Marathi, “Kitti paije?” (How many cups?)
For a moment Kapoor sahib went on the back foot but recovered the very next: “Er… sabhi ek-ek le lenge!” (We’d perhaps all take one each?)
It took a light-footed, ever-helpful Mathur sahib to step in and resolve the standoff by doing a quick head count and giving the boy the figure that he was looking for.
Years later when it came to the real thing, sadly, there was no such comedy. In fact, by the time I learnt of it, not only had he lost his sense of humour, but all sense. His son Atul called me to say that Kapoor sahib had suffered some kind of a stroke and had been on life support for 10 days. Again he was in Ruby Hall, but this time in the Intensive care unit, horizontal.
The hospital had by now added floors upon floors of new blocks in the same limited space. There were more cars (and more tightly parked) to wade through before reaching the reception. The place looked classier and much more expensive. Did the family have matching resources for an uncertain wait out?
Atul stepped out of the same lift that I was waiting to take and joined me back four floors to show the way. There were a number of people waiting morose in a hall. Kapoor sahib’s extended family had arrived from Delhi and knowing me as close to their elder, each one began to tell me details. I was at the most expecting only a glimpse of the patient through glass porthole but they took turns muttering to the staff and led me in.
Once again this was a single room, this time even cleaner white; only the jumble of tubes running between equipment and Kapoor sahib were in bright colors. By comparison he looked untidy and out of place, as though badly in need of a make up man. Unshaven, eyes closed and somewhat spent. Breathing was pronounced; the bellows audible, chest going up and down.
Wife Swarna had gone 3-4 years before—I had attended her funeral—and his stolid loudmouth mother had left even earlier. Only children and their new families were here, as were his brothers, three or four of them from Delhi. And now they all looked at me scrutinizing every move as I stepped closer towards him. Were they waiting for the same miracle that I was waiting for too?
For this crucial once, Kapoor sahib wasn’t interested. It was as though at the end of Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood, an arrow had finally found its way through Macbeth’s shrieking throat and silenced it for the remainder of his time.
Driving back home I felt a strange sense of satisfaction for our sleeping friend. He was a pensioner—among the last of the Institute employees before the scheme was wound up—and the state was looking after him well. Atul told me he had done the necessary paper work and CGHS was going to foot the entire bill.
Later I found myself describing his hospital room as one like in a Hollywood film.
Kapoor sahib at my daughter Sonia’s marriage in 2003