My father began his career in films with Mala Sinha and Abhi Bhattacharya. Abhi Bhattacharya was a very nice man: in fact, a thorough gentleman. He had an interesting trait. He had the ability to fall asleep anytime, almost anywhere and under any circumstances. Once dad observed that Bhattacharya wanted to take a nap but could not find a pillow; finding a brick instead, he just went ahead and laid his head on the brick and instantly fell asleep. Dad shared a warm relationship with him and they acted together in a number of films.
Who was dad’s idol? The one and only Ashok Kumar—his co-actor in most of his films. He held Ashok Kumar in high esteem long before he became a film actor himself. Dad was thrilled when he was introduced to Ashok Kumar. He came home and told mum—much like a star struck teenager—“You know who I met today?—Ashok Kumar”. So what was it about Ashok Kumar he liked the most? It was Ashok Kumar’s insistence on working towards the betterment of the scene and the film as a whole. He always focused on the scene and not just his own performance. He neither worried about his co-actor stealing the scene nor was he intent on doing so himself. Ashok Kumar went beyond the script and improvised a lot, often discussing the scene with his co-actors. If I were asked to choose one film featuring the two of them (dad and Ashok Kumar) I would unhesitatingly choose “Oonche Log”. I rate their scenes together in this film very highly.
Sometimes however, a sudden improvisation by a co-actor can put an actor in a spot. My father found himself in such a spot during the making of “Farrar”. Like “Kohraa” and “Bees Saal Baad”, “Farrar” was also produced by music director Hemant Kumar. A not-so-interesting suspense thriller, it had a new lead pair in Anil Chatterjee and Shabnam. While Shabnam was earlier seen in supporting roles in Hindi films, Anil Chatterjee was a well known name in Bengali cinema. In “Farrar” dad was a villain named Shyam and Balraj Sahani was a detective. There was a scene were Sahani interrogates dad. According to the script, the detective—during the interrogation—-was supposed to show a cigarette lighter to Shyam and say, “This is your lighter, it has the letter ‘S’ engraved on it.” Shyam, denying that it was his lighter, was supposed to take out a match box from his pocket and say, “I always use a match box.” During the actual take Sahani suddenly decided to go beyond the script and very casually removed the match box from dad’s pocket and lit his pipe and kept it aside. Dad was a little taken aback but he recovered quickly. When Sahani questioned him about the lighter dad looked at his empty pocket with a confused expression and said, “I always use a match box” and then looked up with a smile on his face and said, “But you took my match box.” Thus a humdrum interrogation scene became a little interesting although the two of them hadn’t discussed the subsequent improvisation. I guess it helped that both of them were stage actors.
If I were asked to choose some of my favourite films from the approximate fifty odd films that he acted in, I would prefer to talk about the role and more specifically some scenes. Films like “Sujata”, “Anupama” and “Gumnaam” are very popular and therefore discussed and written about; but there are many films which were not so successful and some successful but lost in the passage of time. Though there are many such scenes for the moment I would like to touch upon four films. To begin with there was the siver jubilee hit “Aan Milo Sajna” featuring the then reigning superstar Rajesh Khanna and Asha Parekh. I saw a different dad in this film. He played Asha Parekh’s father. Though he had the usual serious scenes, there were some scenes with some light-hearted banter between dad and Asha Parekh, and also between dad and Rajesh Khanna which I liked very much. He refers to his daughter’s lover—Rajesh—as ‘Something Something’—this dialogue became quite popular and after the film’s release wherever he went people would say, “Hey see ‘Something Something’ is going”. My mother says dad liked to play such roles—roles with both a touch of seriousness as well as light heartedness—seriocomic roles. Incidentally, “Aan Milo Sajna” was directed by the late Mukul Dutt, a successful lyrics writer in Bengali cinema. He was married to actress Chand Usmani.
Another film and another scene, well this is with a very talented newcomer with whom dad was quite impressed and who was not so BIG then, it was pre-”Zanjeer” after all; I am referring to the Big B—Amitabh Bachchan. The film was “Ek Nazar” and the scene was a confrontation scene between father (my father) and son (Amitabh Bachchan). Their interaction in this scene has been embedded in my memory.
“Nirmaan”, directed by Ravi Tandon (Raveena Tandon’s father), is another film which is etched in my memory—no not the film as a whole, but this particular scene between Rehman and dad. I rate this as one of dad’s finest performances. He very effectively brought out the sense of shock at having been betrayed by his trusted friend Rehman. Interestingly as I was going through the film I noticed Veeru Devgan’s name—Ajay Devgan’s father—in the credits under the title fight composition. This in turn reminded me of the compliment that fight composer Shetty paid dad. He told dad, “You do your fight scenes pretty well, I will compose a wonderful fight scene for you.” However that was not to be.
In the sixties around the same time as “Anupama” and “Gumnaam” dad was also doing “Devar” (directed by Mohan Sehgal). Interestingly “Anupama” and “Devar” more or less had the same cast: Dharmendra, Sharmila Tagore, Shashikala, Deven Verma, Durga Khote and my father were common to both films. It was based on a Bengali novel ‘Naa’. However the film departed a great deal from the novel. My father, who played Sharmila Tagore’s brother in the film, had to deliver a rather long dialogue in a scene with Dharmendra. It was a monologue and I found his dialogue delivery excellent with all the right intonations. My mum says he used to rehearse the dialogues at home.
He indeed worked quite hard because for him it was a labour of love. This is exemplified by what a journalist (Lachiram Choudhary) wrote about him in the Hindi film magazine Madhuri soon after dad passed away. Choudhary, from what he writes, apparently knew dad from his Nagpur days. He wrote about dad’s devotion to his work and gave the following example: All India Radio was to broadcast a play ‘Narmada’—this was while he was still in Nagpur—the play was a 100 minute play in which dad was doing a cameo, rehearsals for the play were going on for fifteen days and Choudhary writes that although dad’s role was small he took a 15-day leave from work to rehearse for the play. Yes indeed to the casual onlooker it would be deep devotion to his craft, but my mum says that he definitely did not enjoy his clerical job; it was just a means to an end. Therefore if he was given a choice of rehearsing for a play or going to the office, obviously the rehearsals won hands down.
Through Choudhary’s tribute to dad I was able to get an idea of how much people who came in touch with him loved him. He wrote (since I am translating from Hindi some of the emotion maybe lost in translation) that he (Choudhary) had got a break in a radio play. Plays in those days were not recorded but broadcast live. Since this was Choudhary’s first play he was nervous, he writes—‘the moment it was my turn to deliver the dialogue my hand which was holding the script began to shake. Suddenly I felt a hand on my shoulder; the touch was soothing and encouraging. I can still feel the warmth and affection of that touch.’ Choudhary was obviously referring to dad’s touch. I too have memories of how dad was eager to help anybody and everybody—be it a person looking for a break in the industry or someone in need of financial help he was always ready to help; it was a different matter however that he sometimes got taken for a ride. My mother points out that there is nothing extraordinary about this as many people help the less fortunate, but what is commendable is what he did as a newcomer. He had just come to Bombay and had begun work on “Apradhi Kaun.” He was travelling by bus when the bus met with an accident. My father noticed that the fault lay not with the bus driver but with the driver of the car which had come in its way, and to further add insult to injury the car driver was berating the bus driver. Seeing this injustice dad decided to testify in favour of the bus driver. The other passengers advised my father against doing so and getting trapped into making the rounds of the police station and probably the courts. He ignored their advice and saved the bus driver from losing his job. The bus driver was overwhelmed.
Some memories indeed are enduring and sweet; my brother for instance continues to recall his visit to the sets of “Kohraa” (dad wanted him to see the scene where the car drowns) and the Sheesh Mahal set of “Mughal-E-Azam”. The Sheesh Mahal set was thrown open to the public—for a price of course, you had to purchase a ticket—after the film’s completion.
Besides being a good listener, dad also explained things very well; I think he would have been a good teacher. If I have developed any writing skills, it is thanks to him for when it came to writing essays in English I always rushed to dad. As a child I noticed dad never avoided answering any question and here I would like to share something: I had just seen dad whip Rajendra Kumar black and blue in “Ganwaar”, and I wanted to know whether Rajendra Kumar was hurt. Dad took out his belt and said, “No he was not hurt, I will show you how I did it.” Seeing me a little nervous he assured me, “Don’t worry my child nothing will happen to you.” True, when he struck me with the belt it felt like the touch of a feather. He said that care should be taken to see that the tip of the whip or the belt does not touch the body; it is the tip which hurts.
Dad was a foodie. He loved to experiment with food and my mum, who is a passionate cook, fully supported him. But I know for sure that he did not experiment with one dish which was suggested to him by Sanjeev Kumar, who used to squeeze lime juice on his omelet and once asked dad to try it out, “It tastes real good,” he said. I wonder whether he was right?
In the short time which dad had in this world he acted on stage (he also directed plays), radio, films as well as television. Although he was looking forward to watching his films on TV, he was denied that pleasure for TV came to the city few months after he passed away; but he had the pleasure of acting in the American TV serial Maya, which featured among others Sajid Khan—seen as a child actor in Mehboob Khan’s “Son of India” and “Mother India”.
Dad garnered a lot of goodwill in the industry, which was reflected in the large turnout on his sudden departure. It was definitely a painless and not a lonely exit from this world. Almost everybody from all sections of the industry—a veritable Who’s Who of the industry—descended on our home. Those who could not make it that day came subsequently, but my mother was deeply touched particularly by Balraj Sahani’s gesture. Although Sahani had suddenly lost his daughter (dad was planning to pay him a condolence visit on the day he passed away) and was yet to come to terms with his own loss, he took the trouble of penning a beautifully worded note addressed to my mother and having it hand-delivered to our residence instead of by post.
As I end this post I have to say that, thanks to Memsaabstory I was able to pay this tribute to dad so close to his 82nd birth anniversary and it was a real pleasure interacting with each one of you who commented on my posts.
As I wind up I am reminded of what Harindranath Chattopadhya once told dad. He and dad were chatting and as dad took his leave saying, “Ok Harinda we will meet again,” Harinda replied with a straight face, “If you are a non-vegetarian we will ‘meat’ and if you are a vegetarian we will vegetate,” and walked away leaving dad in splits.
So till we ‘meat’ again on memsaabstory let us not vegetate! Here is a puzzle to keep those brain cells ticking. Who is dad’s co-actor in this photo? I have a feeling it should not be so difficult for you Hindi film buffs.