Budhwar Peth, Chandamama, Dharmyug, Dilip Kumar, Film Institute of India, Illstrated Weekly of India, Jagat Murari, Jhaansi Ki Rani, KL Sehgal, Prabhat Studio, Ramesh Paul, Sarita, Sohrab Modi, Wisdom Tree
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.