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A student’s sketch of their favourite teacher

…It was over one of these trips that I once met the easy-going Siddharth Kak travelling to Delhi before his Surabhi days.

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Coming from Delhi’s ‘babu’ culture, Kapoor sahib enjoyed ordering chaprasis. For the professors’ wing, the office had allotted one shared peon who was asked to report to him. The two could often be heard arguing his attendance and casual leave records with great passion. At peaks Kapoor sahib would issue threats to “spoil” his CR, the dreaded confidential report, and stunned silence of the peon’s ‘hurt’ could be heard for miles. Then would follow days and weeks of softening of attitudes and patch-up efforts on both sides. I truly believe that it has to be thanks to the likes of him that chaprasis could go back home having earned their salary and sleep with a clear conscience. Of course no CR ever got to be spoiled. In fact I know of no promotion that was ever stopped for want of the strongest of a positive entry in that haloed service record.

Years later when John, Kapoor and I shifted to more comfortable office rooms (also closer to the seat of power) at the side entry to the L-shaped TV building, my room was opposite his. Acting course had by then closed, Roshan Taneja left and he was a one man adjunct department to Film Direction. No longer with active teaching responsibilities, he would sit collapsed on a sofa chair with a call bell and telephone instrument handy and accomplish minor wonders with the help of his loyal chaprasi Nitke. Using all three—bell, phone and Nitke—he would coordinate with Banerjee and Mahesh Tavre, both then working in the graphic section, and get made volumes after hardbound volumes of sophisticated diagrams and flow charts to his own design specification that he called “workbooks series” on film appreciation. Of course they never got to be used beyond decorations in his book shelves, but pointing to them he often won arguments with unsuspecting adversaries. On a rare occasion when he made it to get up from the sofa, with some glee I would remind him of his chaprasi. “Eh kaam te aapehi karna payega, Chawdhary sahib!” he would retort continuing to rise. (This errand will have to be attended to personally, Sir!) Needless to say he was then headed for the toilet.

Given the very same administrator’s skills, Kapoor sahib landed award of brief tenures of the post of the Institute’s Registrar on a number of occasions. From all accounts these would be the most employee-friendly periods in the office. Whereupon with great relish he would refer to himself after a senior political figure from Nehru days who was many times similarly called upon to hold temporary charge as country’s prime minister. “Having been thrice-Gulzarilal Nanda,” he would start, and then go on to say whatever he was saying.

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One big charm of working in the Institute in those early days was on account of its all-India character. After all we had travelled 24 hours by a superfast train from Delhi to reach Pune and that was arriving at just halfway point of this large country. Those coming from the southern tip or eastern corners had likewise travelled similar or even longer distances. Step out of the Institute and within minutes you were in the heart of centuries-deep, fiercely proud Marathi culture. In Europe all this would be ‘abroad’ and that is exactly how it felt being in the Institute in those days.

The resulting cross-cultural scramble threw up some memorable coinages at which Kapoor sahib was a pro. On a straight face he would describe the popular local munch farsan as a ‘mixture’ collected by a roving maidservant from various households. Reading from a Marathi billboard, he would pronounce “blouse pisses” for a sale of blouse pieces and “bed shits” for the intended bed sheets. Bahadur sahib was another North Indian wit who, fresh from teaching a film appreciation course in Chennai, would warn you not to form ready impression of people down South on the basis of what they wore. “A dark, sweaty, wiry, lungi-clad man would keep ‘sir-ring’ you throughout coffee break; turns out he was the Collector of the district!” Considering the number of Keralites that PK Nair had gathered in his National Film Archive, (he faced demonstrations for that, one led by Pramod Mahajan as he was cutting his political teeth), it felt as though nobody might have been left in that tiny state, half of them having gone to Dubai and the other half come to Pune!

But the last word in this exercise has to be handed to the inimitable Gulshan Kapoor. I once dropped in in his Registrar’s office for a cup of ‘dip-dip’ tea. Looking at some files, he was livid with anger. I gathered that in a battle of wits, a South Indian clique of employees had upstaged the office, at the end of which he came out in a poor light. With nostrils flaring and voice lowered, he confided in me, “Chawdhary sahib, blood may be thicker than water, but let me tell you this: Sāmbhar is the thickest!”

I can still see his eyes rolling and he looking very desperate to hit back. Which of course once the anger passed, he never did.

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After office I would often leave my scooter behind (or even wheel it along) and walk down with Kapoor sahib to his house in the newly constructed staff quarters just across the road from the main gate. Gurcharan Channi and Sudhir Tandon, either or both, (or even some other easy-going friends like Mathur sahib,) would join on the way. “Chawdhary sahib, sham ka waqk, shikast ka waqt hota hai!” he would say somewhat morose. (Chawdhary sahib, evening time is the time of defeat!) Even if it didn’t always feel that way, the expression never failed to charm for its chaste Urdu and philosophical ring.

At home, he would ask for tea and proceed inside to change while we would take bolsters on a well-worn, off-white carpet in a tastefully done Indian style baithak. This was at last his larger, two-bedroom official “entitlement”, with an anteroom as dining area.

Usually one or the other subject would be raised and over thick Punjabi tea and less-sugar Marie biscuits—““Oye Bibi, roz roz, ohi kutta biscuit?” (Oh my wife, the same dog biscuits every day?)—it would promptly be given a scholarly spin. Film and theatre, adaptation, folk vis-à-vis popular art, Bollywood, Kurosawa, Fellini, De Sica, Ray, Ghatak—lesser filmmakers, I’m afraid, would be talked about more in jeer than in praise. Ray’s Shatranj Ke Khiladi was a common favorite that we kept coming back to, for adaptation as well as its history vis-à-vis fiction dimension. “Yatha raja, tatha praja!” (As the king, so the public!) Kapoor sahib would delight in reciting the opening lines of the Premchand original, “Zamana Wajid Ali Shah ka tha…” (Those were the times of Wajid Ali Shah…) and then go on to enumerate ways in which Ray had portrayed this key line of the short story in his masterpiece. “This one is a film, not for the public but for filmmakers!” he would conclude again and again and we would agree.

If we decided to sit longer, naturally, drinks would be called for. Not wishing to strain our hosts, one of us would go and shop the essentials from Deccan Gymkhana but dinner—spicy dal-chawal, roti-subzi, with slices of onion and green chilly—usually ended up being served from Mrs Kapoor’s kitchen. After the initial, celebratory cheer of the drinking session wore off, most talk would find its way to the presiding question of the times: Are Marxists really the future of the world as they claim or have they got it horribly wrong? If it’s a bipolar world as everybody says it is, Soviets are after all one of the two poles. They are the ones who sent Laika and Yuri Gagarin in space ahead of Americans. If, on a rare occasion, capitalism ever got to have the upper hand, somebody would cite an ominous prediction of an old-timer Marxist academic—a self-proclaimed freedom-fighter to boot—one Dr Vinayak Purohit, who after retirement had shifted from Bombay and circulated in the Institute. “After World War I, Russia went red,” thundered Dr Purohit. “After WW II half the world did the same. And come WW III and you would see the whole world go red!” Spoken with the confidence of that khadi-wearing, English speaking personality, Purohit’s red would seem like a spurt of blood to me. The thought gave me sleepless nights.

Doubtless, there were times when Kapoor sahib tended to take unfair advantage of his booming voice but equally, and most gamely, he could be shouted down without causing any offence. He was no Marxist but his would usually be wise words spoken in support of the underdog.

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But for all his thoughts and words, Kapoor sahib—much like myself—was lazy in the bones. He would forever complain but simply not move to act. Given his prestigious designation, crisp voice, impeccable diction and Pathan looks, he could have easily bagged acting assignments in Bollywood but I suspect nerves would always get the better of him. Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayan was a traffic-stopper serial of the period and as the weekly episodes inched (and slowly millimeter-ed) closer to the climax, some of us suggested to him to pitch for Ravana’s role. But he was far too easy-going for the rough and tumble of a professional actor’s routine. 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…”

[Continued]

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