Lucknow boy Kushal Srivastava calls 1999 a year to remember. Fresh out of school, he had made it to the Indian Air Force as a non-commissioned officer and was waiting for his joining letter when the Kargil War broke out in May. It left the lanky teenager on tenterhooks. The ensuing months saw the reluctant newsie (as he calls himself) glued to his television set, 24×7. He keenly followed the war updates from Kargil and Drass way more than keeping a tab on the runs scored by the Men in Blue at the seventh edition of the ICC Cricket World Cup in England. “The Kargil War against Pakistan had overridden my love for cricket, and it remains like that to date. Cricket reminds me of that war. Sitting many miles away from the war front in my home, I remember how it felt so personal. I would cringe every time a soldier was martyred in Kargil; the fatalities in LoC were devastating because it felt like losing one of my own to the enemy,” he recounts.
The only good thing that he remembers of that year is how Pakistan collapsed to a meagre 132 in the final, leading to an eight-wicket win for Australia in the World Cup, and how this loss at the Lord’s matched its fate on the war front in Kargil, this time at the hands of Indian soldiers. Every year since 1999, July 26, the day the Kargil war ended, is celebrated as the Vijay Diwas. Srivastava, who went on to join IAF on December 23, 1999, served in the logistics department till 2006 and landed on the cinematic horizon with his directorial debut Vodka Diaries, featuring Kay Kay Menon, Mandira Bedi and Raima Sen, followed by his production debut The Job in 2018. Still an Airman at heart, he had something up his sleeve to commemorate the 21st anniversary of Kargil War. Days later, on the eve of the Independence Day, he went on to announce his next film, Golden Arrows; Rashmi Sharma of Pink fame is producing the film.
On the occasion of the 88th anniversary of the Indian Air Force Day, we caught up with Srivastava, who took us down the memory lane, reminiscing his good old days in the air force, besides giving us a sneak-peek into his upcoming project.
Q1. What are your memories of this day?
A. It is the most important day of the year for me, and means more than my birthday, even though I am not in the service anymore. During my seven years there, I was a part of the Air Force Day Parade at Palam Air Base on three occasions. And every year, since 2006, I have made it a point to be there as a spectator. It gives me unbridled joy. During those days, my fellow air warriors would perform funny plays, and I used to direct them. This year, I am working on my next that is my, a soldier’s tribute to the two greats of IAF – former Air Chief Marshal Birender Singh Dhanoa, and fighter pilot Squadron Leader Ajay Ahuja – who was martyred in the Kargil War. They are my real-life heroes.
Q2. How did you get into films?
A. Films were always on my radar, but I was more enamoured by the craft of filmmaking. I was barely 11 when my uncle Raju Srivastava took me along to N Chandra’s film set in Mumbai. I saw a shot being canned for the first time in my life, and that image stayed on with me for years. And even though I was serving in IAF, in the heart of hearts, I knew my real calling was filmmaking. I started as an assistant director. My first film as AD was A Flat featuring Jimmy Shergill, under Anjum Rizvi Productions. I assisted JP Dutta, and also Anurag Basu. I directed Kaafir, my first short film at MET College, Mumbai, which bagged the Best Short film award. The real learning happened under filmmaker JP Dutta; he is my film school who taught me the ethics of filmmaking. He always used to tell that there should be honesty and integrity in your work, which is missing in most of the masala films that hit the theatres on Fridays these days. So now I’m not too fond of half of the movies made by our film industry. The journey since then has been quite eventful and interesting, and I have also realised that every obstacle is a challenge. One should stay focused and keep working towards one’s goal.
Q3. Your next cinematic outing, Golden Arrows, seems like a big-ticket project. Tell us more about the subject.
A. Golden Arrows is a war film about a squadron then led by Wing Commander Dhanoa. The film is dedicated to Sqn Ldr Ahuja. It displays the glory and the courage of our fighter pilots during the most challenging air war ever fought. Yes, production-wise, it’s a big-budget film with a large canvas. That’s the requirement of the subject.
Q4. How did you zero-in on this subject?
A. Fighter jets have always fascinated me. Those dragons are the most amazing things in the world. Going back on the subject, Golden Arrows was raised on October 1, 1951, in Ambala and was based in Bathinda during the Kargil War. Living up to their motto, Arise Forever, they flew in the most challenging and highest terrains in the world, where flying and bombing was impossible by any air force in the world.
When a co-pilot had to eject amidst the war, Sqn Ldr Ahuja decided to go beyond the call of duty to ‘Never leave his wingman behind’, but while doing so, he was hit by Stinger Missile and had to lay down his life. He was awarded the Vir Chakra for his bravery.
The primary role of Golden Arrows was to do photo recce. But when Dhanoa, a trained fighter pilot, lost Ahuja, he converted his aircraft to a bombing one. He set a new benchmark in the world by going for maximum bombing missions in the war and leading India to victory, hence making Golden Arrows the most decorated squadron in the IAF during the war.
Dhanoa later became the Chief of the Indian Air Force and was behind another successful operation, the Balakot strikes. As Chief of Air Force, Dhanoa paid tributes to Sqn Ldr Ahuja and other martyrs of Kargil War by flying a ‘missing man’ formation in a Mig-21. The newly inducted Rafale aircraft is a part of the resurrected Golden Arrows.
The heroism of ACM Dhanoa, the sacrifice of Sqn Ldr Ahuja and the camaraderie of Golden Arrows is unprecedented. Kargil was the toughest air war ever fought in the world, we as Indians should be proud of it, but instead, most of us are unaware of it. Hence, this is my tribute to the air warriors, albeit on the big screen.
Q5. What is that one factor from the life of the former ACM Dhanoa that stood out for you?
A. He is an initiator and a risk-taker and forges his unique path, aims high, and reaches his destination come what may. He is a living example of how luck favours the brave.
Q6. How significant were your personal experiences in the making of this film?
A. The heroic but not-so-known story of the Kargil War had been simmering within me for all these 21 years. It flows in my blood. I have lived it. It was just a matter of time, and I am quite excited to see this dream come true. It is for the first time in the world that an ex-soldier will make a war film.
Q7. How difficult or easy is it to make a war film during the current situation?
A. If you are honest, then nothing else matters. What matters is whether you are giving your 100% in the given situation, and then rest everything else will follow.
Q8. What is the learning from the recent releases – Gunjan Saxena, Uri, Avrodh – that came in handy while prepping for Golden Arrows?
A. Kargil War, as we know, was high-altitude warfare. Both sides fought it on mountainous terrain. But what is untold is how IAF’s operation Safed Sagar was instrumental in winning the war. It was for the first time that IAF had air power at the height of 32,000 feet.
Golden Arrows was a photo-reconnaissance squadron of IAF, then led by Wing Commander Dhanoa and Sqn Ldr Ahuja. Technically, reconnaissance in force is a means of obtaining information on the enemy’s disposition, and for probing enemy defenses for gaps. In a layman’s language, the Airmen fly and click the pictures of the enemy. Then they provide the exact location of the enemy to the bombers and the Army. In the Kargil War, they helped identify the Pakistani troops and Mujahideens, and bomb enemy locations.
Also, Golden Arrows doesn’t have a reference point. We have not produced any air force war film in India yet. Commercially, they may be good films, but as an insider, I could only see what mistakes I have to avoid.
Q9. How much does Mr Dutta’s filmmaking style influence your cinematic sensibilities, especially when it comes to war dramas?
A. He has a knack for bringing out the humane part of the war, and that’s Mr Dutta’s innate and effortless talent. I have always admired his attention to details and how he deals with human emotions in his films. Most of his films have been multi-starrers, but he is known for giving equal weightage to each character. You will never feel that character X was in any way less than character Y or Z. I strive to imbibe that quality in my films. I hope I succeed.
Q10. What is behind the scene action that is currently on?
A. As we speak, casting director Mukesh Chabbra is busy finalising the details. It requires a lot of meticulous planning. It is a two-hero film, so we need to two male leads to essay the roles of ACM Dhanoa and Sqn Ldr Ahuja. Meanwhile, the remaining work is also in progress. The film will go on the floors later this year, and we are aiming for a 2021 release.
Q11. What filmmaking lessons did you gather while making Vodka Diaries that you think will help you in upping the game while directing this one?
A. Vodka Diaries was like an exam. It was conceived purely out of my love for thrillers. The script was written keeping in mind, Kay Kay Menon. Once, he was on board, rest everything fell into place. It was a complicated subject, and that’s the reason why I went for it. I like challenges, maybe that’s something I have imbibed from my stint with IAF. The film helped me prove my mettle. Now I find it easier to convince people.
(The article was first published here: https://www.apotpourriofvestiges.com/2020/10/fighter-jets-have-always-fascinated-me.html)
“All I knew about my culture was Sindhi kadhi,” pronounces celebrity hairstylist and filmmaker in her documentary Sindhustan and on that note, she sets the tone of a poignant tale spread over the last few decades before and after partition to retrace her Sindhi roots. The ubiquitous flavour of vegetable-rich kadhi makes Sindhustan a delectable watch as it meanders through the lanes and bylanes of Sindhis’ memories, whose quintessential identity is synonymous with their kadhi that’s like no other.
The kadhi also becomes the documentary’s access point; Bhavnani’s aunt Kamla Thakur’s kitchen conversation and verses by the renowned 18th-century Sufi poet Shah Abdul Latif becomes a crucial cinematic tool for the filmmaker. The unobtrusive camera captures her cooking, from start to finish, and the tedious kadhi-making process serves as a metaphor for Sindhis in general and Bhavnani in particular. It manages to create a steady simmer in the storyline, from the moment her aunt places tur dal in a cooker on the stove to painstakingly following the rigours, till it is ready to be served on a carefully laid out table filled with other Sindhi delicacies. The brilliant move not only adds a rich flavour to her storytelling, but the shots, panning in and out the kitchen, and shifting focus on the lives and times of other Sindhis, then and now, takes the story forward. “Food is something big for us, and so it made sense to weave the story around it. Kadhi is my favourite, and it was my only choice because it is also our identity in a way. Also, so many stories happen in the kitchen and around the fire, so it was my best bet,” tells Bhavnani.
The entire process of making a Sindhi kadhi takes about three hours, and Thakur, a chef herself, gives us a sneak-peek into the Sindhi household and tells us how Sindhi kadhi is different from other kadhis in the course of the filming. “It is made from toor daal. We boil it with tomatoes in a cooker, then seave and use the soup, cooking it on slow fire much like a mithai. It is nutritious as we put lots of vegetables in it,” says Thakur.
Another thing that stands out in Bhavnani’s maiden project is the story that her legs carry – the fusion of two dying art forms, one from Sindh and another one from Bihar in the tattoos; while her feet reflect her rootlessness with an image of fish on each to show how the waves have given them a sense of fleeting sand, lashing it with memories, time and again. The use of alta (red liquid dye) to decorate her feet and fingers is another fusion of culture that Bhavnani has used to her advantage in the documentary, and the ease with which she has used ink to tell the story of the largest migration of a culture in history is truly commendable .
“My one leg has motifs from Ajrak, a predominantly Sindhi art form. Here the cloth was first washed in a solution of water and ajrak berries. It was then steamed and stamped with wooden blocks injected with dyes. The printed cloth was then dipped in a solution of indigo and washed in water so that colours came out sparkingly bright. The other leg reflects the popular Madhubani art form from Bihar. The only common thing between the two cultures is fish. It is predominant in Madhubani paintings and also in ours because it is believed that our presiding deity Jhulelal rode a fish,” she recounts. The beauty of this amalgamation in her passion project makes Sindhustan a mini piece of art in itself.
The pain and trauma of those who lived and survived the painful partition echoes louder in each person’s account. Their sense of longing and belonging and connection with the land of their origin – Sindh – where they or their ancestors once lived tugs at the audience’s heartstrings.
Sindhustan is a must watch if you are a Sindhi because it has high nostalgic value.
It is even more important to watch Sindhustan if you are a non-Sindhi because it is a ready reckoner to understand a community that has been dispossessed and displaced but still retains its enterprising, industrious, zealous, benevolent and cosmopolitan nature transcending barriers of castes, race and religion.
Thakur is the go-to person for Bhavnani for food, and she loves to feast on her “Teevan, Sai Bhaji, Seyal Beeh Patata, and, of course, Kadhi on Sundays.” Also, don’t forget to feast on Sindhi kadhi that Thakur’s French neighbours in Paris referred as the water of gods. Bon appétit!
(Text by Shillpi A Singh; pictures from Sindhustan; the film is streaming on https://www.moviesaints.com/movie/sindhustan; it is also the official selection at the upcoming Wench Film Festival https://wenchfilms.com/)
Filmmaker Arati Kadav’s sci-fi short film 55 km/sec starring Richa Chadha and Mrinal Dutt on Disney+Hotstar is a poignant retelling of the year that was for most of us. It is set against a meteor attack and covers the last few minutes before the end comes calling for the two protagonists and all others who inhabit the planet, and it gets over with a bang.
At a deeper level, it is an ingenious attempt to look back at the year when the mighty Coronavirus hit the entire world, and a few of our own — relatives, friends, acquaintances — and lakhs of unknown people around the globe became hapless victims of COVID, much like the meteor — Celestine — moving at a speed of 55 km/sec that was about to hit the planet at 3 pm on that fateful day, wiping all traces of life and living out of it.
The writing on the walls only adds to the fright factor with the planes zip, zap, zooming in the clear blue sky adding to the woes. The flight service to another safe place is available only to a chosen few. There’s no escape from the impending doom for most of the people as the TV anchors announce, giving hope that they will be together, uninterrupted, with their viewers till end. The deserted streets and quiet supermarket are reminiscent of the times that all of us lived and survived in the early part of the year gone by, so the shots and settings are relatable, as are the video and phone calls. The VVIPs had been safely escorted to a safe haven as the voiceover announced; a few lucky ones had found a place in the underground bunkers of dubious construction quality while others who couldn’t make it to the lottery system were in the queue, waiting for the inevitable end. The government had sent the animal kingdom’s embryos to outer space to save the species from extinction. Just as life seemed slipping away, minute by minute, a bunch of college buddies get together on a video call to bide away time and prepare for the strike of the meteor, together, talking, laughing, and bantering. There is a twist in the tale when the boy Suraj (Mrinal Dutt) confesses his love for Shrishti (Richa Chadha) over the video call, and out of the blue. Perhaps the morbid fear of the end makes him say what he would have otherwise never said. She tells him about the greeting card with hearts that he had received from an anonymous sender back then was actually from her; he finds it lying in one of the cartons and it fuels the spark in his heart. He keeps asking her, “are you alone?” till the voice on the other end, blanks out and with that, his hope of togetherness too. The names of the protagonists are metaphorical.
The entire film was remotely shot during the COVID-19 lockdown, and the cast and crew deserve a big round of applause for adapting to the new normal in filmmaking with perfect ease. Their seamless coordination, the frugality of the means and minimalism in the filmmaking approach make Kadav’s effort commendable. The subtle subtext and the deftness with which she handles her subject — questioning the human existence with a lot of empathy — leaves us shocked and awed, in equal measure, at her clever attempt. Her sci-fi gives an out of the world experience that unfolds in a little more than 20 minutes but keeps you gasping till the big thud announces that it is all over, and the blank screen gives way to the credit roll. It’s an escape from the mundane world to the unknown, unheard, unseen and unexplored, and is undoubtedly worth a watch. ~ Shillpi A Singh
Ten years after making her directorial debut with Firaaq, actor Nandita Das is ready with her next on the life and times of revolutionary Urdu writer Sadaat Hasan Manto. Starring Nawazuddin Siddiqui in the titular role with Rasika Dugal as his wife Safia, the biopic is set in India and Pakistan and focuses on the period between 1945 and 1949; it is woven around five of Manto’s stories. In an exclusive piece, she talks about Manto, her fascination with his life and work, her Manto-esque father, and why Manto is still relevant today’s times.
Introduction to Manto
I first read Manto when I was in college. A few years later, I bought the complete original works in a collection called Dastavez, in Devanagari. I was struck by his simple yet profound narratives and the way he insightfully captured the people, politics and times he lived in. He wrote as he saw, as he felt, without dilution, and with a rare sensitivity and empathy for his characters.
For years, I thought of making a film based on his short stories, even before I made my directorial debut, Firaaq. In 2012, when I delved deeper into his essays, they helped the idea expand beyond his stories. Today I feel equipped, both emotionally and creatively, to tell this story that so needs to be told.
What drew me to the story of Manto was his free spirit and courage to stand up against orthodoxy of all kinds. He was irreverent and had an irrepressible desire to poke a finger in the eye of the establishment, often with sharp humor. As I plunged deeper into Manto’s life, I wondered why he seemed so familiar. Soon I realized that it felt like I was reading about my father, an artist. He too is intuitively unconventional, a misunderstood misfit, and whose bluntness is not too different from my protagonist.
Resonance with Manto:
It is his fearlessness and a deep concern for the human condition that I have always felt most deeply connected to. No part of human existence remained untouched or taboo for him. For him, the only identity that mattered was that of being a human. Manto’s faith in the redemptive power of the written word, through the hardest times, resonates with my own passion to tell stories. In some mystical way, I feel I am part of that hopeful legacy! Through him, I feel I am able to kindle my own conviction for a more liberal and compassionate world. I feel there is a Mantoiyat, in all of us – the part that wants to be free-spirited and outspoken.
My father is very Manto-esque:
My father Jatin Das is an artist and at a person level I feel he is very Manto-esque. In the sense that though an artist he has never really been part of the artist’s market group, as art has also sadly become a commodity. Like Manto, he has also never really been driven by money. He is very outspoken and somewhat a misfit. I’m very close to my father and when I come across struggles of someone who is so honest and wants to speak up all the time. Somewhere I feel that the film on Manto has the power of making a difference. That’s why I want to do films.
This is something that I feel so passionate about because it is a story that I really want to tell. I feel Manto had this feeling that writing and literature have that power of making a difference. That’s why he continued writing even when he was financially in a bad shape and became an alcoholic, especially when he was in Lahore. But he had a belief that his writing can contribute to some kind of change – not that he has ever said it but at a subconscious level he believed it. I think there is a resonance there as well.
Favourite works and why:
When I first read Manto in college, I was struck by his simple yet profound narratives. As for my favourite Manto work, there are many, so please don’t ask me to choose! To name a few, Dus Rupiya, 100 Watt Bulb, Hatak, Khushiya, Khol Do and many more – each one is powerful in its own way. His essays and sketches about people are equally poignant and sharp.
Manto once said, “Why would I undress a society that is already naked? It is true I make no attempt to cover it, but that’s not my job…my job is to write with a white chalk so that I can draw attention to the blackness of the board.” Manto wrote as he saw, as he felt, without dilution.
Relevance of Manto today:
The deeper I delve into this project, the more convinced I am about the relevance of Manto in these times. Not much has changed… almost 70 years later and we are still grappling with issues of freedom of expression and struggles of identity. Even today our identities lie inextricably linked to caste, class and religion as opposed to seeing the universality of human experience. I know he would have had lots to say about the times we live in. It is no surprise that so much is being written about Manto and that many theatre groups are often performing his plays and essays. He was relevant then and will sadly continue to be relevant for a long time to come.
Struggle for freedom of expression:
Manto never perceived himself to be an activist. He in fact says that ‘as much as Gandhi has to do with films I had to do with politics’. He didn’t feel that he was political and yet he was actually extremely political in all his writings. According to him, what political meant was to understand why things happen the way they happen. In today’s times, we can see this all around – censorship, people who are self-censoring to avoid trouble or moral policing where some group decides that something is hurting their sentiments.
And that is what Manto fought against. He was tried for obscenity six times – three times by the British government and three times by the Pakistani government, just because he wrote about the sex workers. There are a lot of interesting essays. We also have scenes in the film showing the way people attacked him saying that what he wrote was obscene and pornographic and how he defended literature, as his writing was not meant to titillate somebody. His writing tried to understand and empathize with people who are on the margins of society. It was about those people who nobody wants to write about. In fact he also says that if you can’t bear my stories it is only because we live in unbearable times. The stories only reflected what happened in society. So I think it is relevant not just in our South Asian sub-continent but also around the world. Artists, writers, freethinkers, rationalists are all being attacked in some form or the other and are being silenced. Any society grows and develops when you have people speaking up the truth and thinking differently. And if you silence them then what hope do we have?
On Manto being labeled a mainstream or an art film:
I do not like to label films as mainstream or art. And at the end, this film is an artistic expression. Manto was a great writer, and his story will reach out to millions because I think it is very relevant to our times, for multiple reasons. We are still grappling with issues like freedom of expression and struggles of identity. Also we don’t know many of our own writers, artists, scientists, and through them the history of our country and times they lived in. I think people in our country and globally, will connect to the story, as at the end of it all, it is a human story of struggle and courage and the will to speak out and be your own self – something we all struggle with.
(This interview was first published in Air Vistara’s inflight magazine, Vistara, in April 2018)
Abhiroop Basu’s short film Laali is the story of a lonely laundryman played by Pankaj Tripathi. His shop overlooking a busy street in Kolkata is the quietest place because he lives there with his loneliness, nostalgia and truckloads of memories of lost love.
He has a searing pain in his neck, and can’t move it much, but his sweet and docile companion – the clay dancing doll – sits prettily on the shelf above his bed, and moves its neck at the slightest nudge, sometimes with affection and at times in affirmation.
The rickety radio-cum-tape recorder gives him company 24×7 by incessantly playing songs to soothe his lonely heart, and the bootlegger slips in a bottle every night to help him gulp his melancholy.
The late-night radio show anchored by RJ Laali reminds him that neither time stays the same always nor everyone is fortunate enough to get love in life. The other Laali stuck in his head, heart and on the ceiling above the bed, only adds to his insidious sadness. Still unlike these two characters, the man remains the unnamed protagonist of Laali.
The flurry of customers, who come to give him clothes for ironing, and collect it from him with nonchalance after a couple of days, are his only human contact. When he is not ironing clothes, he is lost in his thoughts gazing at the view outside his shop.
The red velvet gown that comes hidden in a pile of clothes one day adds a hue of happiness in his monochromatic existence and breaks the monotony of his quotidian life. He tries looking for the owner but fails. Thinking that it is unclaimed, he decides to keep it with him.
He treats the red dress as a guest and welcomes its presence with warmth hospitality. He showers his affection at the red gown, makes it sit like a princess on a chair, and even sleeps next to it wearing a sherwani that someone had given for ironing the other day.
The next morning, a lady in blue sari (Ekavali Khanna) comes to claim it; the rude conversation wakes up the man from his sweet dream, and he reluctantly hands over the red gown to her. She snatches it and leaves away in a black car. Her fleeting appearance gives the much-needed twist to this simple tale.
Soon after this drama, a wedding procession moves past his shop, and the man who is sitting inside dressed as a groom himself is way too shocked at the turn of events and keeps blankly staring at the joyous crowd.
The metaphor extends in the last scene that pans out with a long shot of the wedding procession. It shows the groom missing from the white horse, which, in a way, poignantly captures the loneliness of the migrant man, who lives in Kolkata all by himself and stays that way till the end. The voice of RJ Laali once again proclaims the irony of time and love, and this man’s experience with the red gown mirrors it to a T.
The highlight of Laali is the story of a man, and explores the shades of his loneliness in the context of a red gown; dialogues are bare minimum but crisp.
The sound design is another highlight. The sublime sounds stand out in the screenplay, and the film’s sound script plays out like perfume, present and yet invisible; one needs to absorb its beauty as it plays out quietly.
The lead actor carries the weight of the entire story on his shoulders, and does a wonderful job of playing a 40 something migrant man from Bihar settled in Kolkata; his measured performance reminded me of actor Manoj Bajpayee’s portrayal of loneliness in Devashish Makhija’s Bhonsle. These two actors are masters of melancholy. They say a lot more when they say nothing and it is the heaviness of silence that adds a lot of weight to their performances, and pulls you in their reel world.
The detailing in each scene is appreciable.
The play of light and dark via camerawork and tight shots in the cramped space add another element to director Abhiroop Basu’s storytelling.
It is a sweet and simple story, meticulously executed and well-told. It is playing at the ongoing Dharamshala International Film Festival till November 4.
Here’s the link: https://online.diff.co.in/film/laali/
Actor Pankaj Tripathi can breathe life into reel characters of all shades and hues, lengths, language, and genres with his measured and nuanced approach. He manages to woo the audience with power-packed performance, warm their hearts with his simplicity, and win them over with his humility. In real life, he often uses the same methods to indulge in his culinary skills. And once in a while, he likes to be footloose and fancy-free. In a freewheeling conversation with Shillpi A Singh he opens up about his indulgences.
“I sincerely believe that travel is for everyone, just that it may mean something different for each one of us. But one reason remains the same — our desire to experience new things. Here I must confess that I always yearned to become an actor because I wanted to travel the world. And it was my love for travel that made me move out from Belsand, a nondescript village in Bihar, first to Patna, Delhi and then Mumbai. Or I can say that one passion of mine fuelled another, and here I am. I love to see new places, taste new flavours, learn new cultures, meet new people, and enrich my life with all these small joys that come along.
Thankfully, my job allows me to be footloose and fancy-free, and I couldn’t ask for more. In all these years, I have had the pleasure of seeing all the places across the globe that I secretly wished to visit one day. Benjamin Disraeli famously said that like all great travellers, I have seen more than I remember, and remember more than I have seen. I couldn’t agree more with him. At times, I travel for business, and in between my hectic work schedule, I try and steal a few days to travel for pleasure too. And those moments spend with my family on holiday are enough to keep me on my toes till I get another opportunity to sneak out and enjoy. I got a taste of the English summer, and its beautiful countryside this year as a significant portion of my film, 83, was shot in the United Kingdom. It was an unforgettable experience. My family — wife Mridula and daughter Aashi — shares my passion for exploring new places, and that I would say is a great advantage.
The English getaway sounds like an exotic vacay, but trust me, I enjoy visiting far-off, and unseen cities, towns and even villages across India as well. The experience brings forth something that I can never discover otherwise. I get to know how other people live, eat and cook. It widens my learning horizon. So I earnestly look forward to packing my bags and heading to some faraway place to gather knowledge from people I stumble upon during my journey and stay. That remains a significant takeaway for me. But some places remain my all-time favourite like Leh and Ladakh, villages in and around Jaisalmer, Jodhpur, and Bikaner in Rajasthan, villages of Himachal Pradesh, and Kerala. It has been long since I visited Jaisalmer Fort, popularly known as Sonar Quila, or wandered aimlessly in Kuldhara village in Jaisalmer, or enjoyed a taste of rural life in Sam village, also in Jaisalmer. Other offbeat destinations in Himachal Pradesh that remain memorable for an awesome vacay are Tirthan Valley in the Kullu district where Tirthan river meanders along, and Jibhi, a scenic, unpretentious and old Himalayan village in the Banjar Valley. I choose to visit them over and over again because they are still pristine and breathtakingly beautiful. They soothe my frayed nerves and provide solace to my soul, and leave me refreshed and rejuvenated to carry on with the humdrum affairs of my life with greater vigour.
The other best part of travelling remains food. Once we were on our way to Jodhpur from Jaisalmer, and there was an eatery in sight. I asked my cab driver if we were going to stop for food? I could eat a horse, I told him. He said, “we will stop at a good one, some kilometres away.” But I spotted a hut that doubled up as a makeshift roadside eatery catering to the rural populace and asked him to stop the car. He was reluctant though saying we might not like the traditional Rajasthani food served there. I somehow had my way and went inside. The woman manning the Dhaba said that she had bajre ki roti and Kair Sangri for us, but if we could wait, she would prepare mirchi ki sabji too. Well, I was already salivating at the mere mention of these delicacies. The woman quickly went to her farm, plucked some green chillies, cooked the yummiest chilly curry that I have ever had in my life, dipped hot bajre ki rotis in ghee and served a meal in no time. It was way above our humble expectations, and perhaps the taste still lingers on in my mouth as I write about that meal at a roadside eatery many moons ago.
Such is the power of food that we eat. It conjures memories, often good ones that flash before your eyes as you think about what your mother cooking for you or anything that you once relished. For me, it is of the food cooked by my Ma, served with dollops of love and care, and the satiated look on my face and one of satisfaction on Ma’s after I polished my plate. I fondly remember the grinding of raw spices — cumin, coriander, turmeric, chilly — in sil-batta back at home that lent food its distinct taste, especially coriander leaf chutney. Long before entering the house, one could figure out that chutney had been prepared at home. Such was its aroma. I still prefer to go the traditional way and not much in favour of readymade spices or those ground in mixers for my cooking.
While travelling, I often prefer local food, be it in India or abroad. Food in any part of the world has its history, as old and as unique as our civilisations. I advise people to eat food slowly and chew it properly to get a clear understanding of the ingredients and the processes used in cooking that food.
Also, not many know that I was, at one point in time, a professional cook at a top-notch hotel in Patna. As a trainee there, I was made to peel vegetables for a week, and in reasonable amounts — 30 kg of onions, 50 kg of boiled potatoes, and 500 eggs in a day. There was no respite. It was a test of my patience and a way to check suitability for the job. Thankfully, I fared well.
I also remember having some of the best meals in the hotel kitchen. Many wouldn’t know, but the kitchen prepares two sets of food, one for the guests, and another one for its staff. There were 52 of us in the kitchen. Daily, the staff used to prepare 10-12 different types of meals for themselves. Like others, our gang of four too used to do cook food in a hurry with no or minimal cutting of vegetables, and use of a few spices and but still we had the yummiest food in those days. Those were the good, old days.
Back in Mumbai, I am always on the lookout for the vegetables that we get in our part of world — nenua (sponge gourd), arbi (colocasia), ole (yam), etc. These are the rare ones to find as there are few takers for them. My all-time comfort food remains litti-chokha, sattu ka paratha, makai-sattu (corn-roasted gram) powder, and chawal-teesi (rice and roasted flaxseed powder).
In the parting, I would say that cooking is an art, akin to acting where one has to use imagination and attention in abundance. One has to use ingredients in the right proportion and use them creatively. Similarly in acting, if one overdoes it or leaves it undone by even one per cent, then it shows. Like when we buy okra, we prepare a mental map of how we intend to cook it, whether it would be a dry preparation or a gravy one. In acting too, we visualise the role mostly according to the script and to some extent on imagination and instinct, and then enact the same onscreen.
By the way, don’t be surprised if you hear that I have opened a restaurant serving Purvanchali food.
Shillpi A Singh
The crisp white kurta that he wears on a pair of white trousers (and not pyjamas) adorn his poetic frame; coincidentally the all-white dressing happens to be his best identifiable style statement. Strands of silver hair, neatly combed in the side parting on his head are nothing but wisdom-highlights. He prefers not to dye them because “colour black is reserved for the ink that he uses to pen down his thoughts”. Twinkle and sparkle hide behind the spectacled frame perched on his long nose, and a childlike smile makes a fleeting appearance on his face. His ageless heart that is younger than the youngest writer of our time defies the wrinkles on his visage and a mind that works overtime “kyunki fitoor dimag ke khatam nahin hote”. His wide mouth that hides below his neatly trimmed white moustache moves to utter a verse or two in quick interval, before one can blink an eye, and even then, one can’t miss the words that soothe and heal a weary heart. He speaks and pauses in equal measure. His words intoxicate and awaken at times, amuse with wit and wisdom, and above all provide solace and take one aboard a beautiful world of words that is his abode. Yes, that’s poet, lyricist, novelist, and filmmaker Gulzar for you and me.
At 86, he is audacious enough to dare age to do the unthinkable, “ae umr, agar dum hai to kar de itni si khata, bachpan toh cheen liya, bachpana cheen kar bata”. Well, it is the age that concedes defeat, even without saying a word, humbly leaving him to let thoughts dance to his words, and weave magic in his every written word, and leave the readers spellbound.
And though Gulzar reads a lot on a daily basis that is akin to riyaaz, he writes only when he is ready to shape his thoughts. “It is like a pot of water that has been simmering on the stove for a while, but only when it has reaches a boiling point that the plate covering it starts shaking, giving way to the steam to sneak out in full force. That is what writing is for me. It is an outlet to express my pent-up thoughts. But I don’t write daily,” he says.
Having authored umpteen books with short stories being his favourite form, Two, his debut novel in English examines the status of refugees after the Partition while Footprints on Zero Line brings together a collection of his finest writings – fiction, non-fiction and poems – on the subject; the launch of both books coincided with 70 years of the Partition in 2017. “Two was originally written in Urdu. But then, it included many words and phrases in Punjabi, Saraiki and other dialects spoken in that area of Punjab which became Pakistan after Partition,” said Gulzar, who was born in Dina in Pakistan as Sampoorna Singh Kalra in 1934, and went on to translate his work himself. “You may not find ‘perfect’ or ‘proper’ English in it, but you will find stories of refugees, and how life planted them all over the world,” noted the octogenarian talking about his first attempt at a longer work of fiction and whose friends Sukrita Paul Kumar and Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri had tried their hands at translation before he took over. Former diplomat-turned-politician Pavan K Varma, who has translated many of Gulzar’s works, writes in the book’s preface, “Two is a poem because the imagery reads like one; it is a screenplay because each episode is like a picture unfolding before your eyes, and it is a novel because it tells a story in a format that is neither a poem nor a screenplay.” Translated by author and translator Rakhshanda Jalil, Footprints on Zero Line, he said, “I had the advantage of reading the works of other writers on Partition. I had gone through the pain and suffering that Partition wreaked in many lives, including mine. I used to have these nightmares for many years when I used to wake up at night with the horrors of all that I had seen during those days. The writing is an expression of that suffering. The partition does not stop at the events of 1947 but continues to affect our lives to this day. The riots that take place even today are reminders of that past.”
His first film Mere Apne in 1971 starring Vinod Khanna and Shatrughan Sinha in lead roles highlighted the agony of unemployment and loneliness when he penned, Koi hota jisko apna hum apna kah lete yaaron. “Every medium has its own ways of conveying the message. Cinema is visual literature. As a lover of literature, I love traversing through the literary lanes for the songs in my films. The lyrics are another form of saying something relevant to our times, with a dash of humour, and a liberal dose of sarcasm. The means of expression are nothing else but words. I am fond of this form of expression,” said Gulzar.
His wizardry with words reflected in the directorial ventures that followed with some memorable songs, dialogues and screenplay. The last film that he directed was Tabu-Suniel Shetty-starrer Hu Tu Tu. He has restricted himself to writing since then and limited his roles in films to writing songs. “I hadn’t completed my academic education. My family sent me to Bombay after Partition to fend off for the family. I couldn’t complete my studies, and that complex was the reason for my attachment to literature. And it continues till date,” said the poet.
Wordsmith at play
His migration from literature to films happened at the insistence of friends such as filmmaker Bimal Roy and lyricist Shailendra, and he went on to pen his first song Mora Gora Ang Layle for Bandini in 1963. “Bimal Da knew my aptitude. It was he who first told me that he didn’t want me to waste myself slogging hard as a mechanic in the garage. His thoughtfulness touched me. I gained a foothold in films with my work because literature was a staple in films. My initiation into films was on literary grounds, both for the kind of films that I wrote songs for and also the same kind I went on to make later,” he remembered. In his first song, he had used a minute reference to one of Mirza Ghalib’s couplet based on the understanding of the character, situation and also the script. The words “Ek laaj roke paiyya, ek moh kheeje paiyya” were his way of reflecting on Ghalib’s “iman mujhe roke hai jo khinche hai mujhe kufr, kaaba mere pichhe hai kalisa mere aage.”
Talking of the contribution of lyricists that influenced his work over the years, he said, “All my predecessors inspire me. Sahir Ludhianavi’s choice of words is unique like when he wrote pedo ki shakhon pe soyi si chandni. It was romantic. Shailendra’s usage of everyday words in whatever song he wrote was his way to connect with the characters. He knew the medium and subconsciously and consciously, I have learned a lot from him.” There were others too whose work he studied extensively in the course of writing and found that all of them had left a deep imprint on the songs of those times. “On the other hand, I also admire the works of DN Madhok who was the first one to bring the flavor of folk songs in Hindi film songs. Rajendra Kishen’s chup chup baithe ho zaroor koi baat was an extension of a dialogue that moved to a song. Then there is Kedar Sharma who used bird as imagery in more than 50 songs. And then there were likes of Arzoo Lucknawi and Pandit Sudarshan too whose writing is commendable,” he added.
Poetry in motion
He continued his dalliance with literature and gave books and stories a celluloid dimension in his cinematic work. If Parichay was based Raj Kumar Maitra’s Bengali novel Rangeen Uttarain, Aandhi came from Kaali Aandhi by Kamleshwar, Khushboo from Sharat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s Pandit Mashay, and Mausam, which was loosely based on the story Weather from The Judas Tree by A.J. Cronin. He adapted Bard’s Comedy of Errors in Angoor. Gulzar even paid an ode to Urdu poet Mirza Ghalib with a television show starring Naseeruddin Shah and broadcast on Doordarshan in the late Eighties. He directed Tahreer Munshi Premchand Ki based on the novels of Premchand, and wrote lyrics and dialogues for several Doordarshan TV series including Jungle Book and Alice in Wonderland. His Ay Hairathe Aashiqui for Mani Ratnam’s Guru was inspired from Amir Khusro’s Ay Sarbathe Aashiqui while Chaiyya Chaiyya from Dil Se was based on the Sufi folk song, Thaiyya Thaiyya with lyrics by poet Bulleh Shah.
Hooked and booked
Tagore has been an all-time favourite of Gulzar. “I had read his translated work in English during my school days, and the fascination to read the original in Bengali led me to learn the language,” he said with a chuckle. His first tryst with Tagore on the big screen was during the making of Hemen Gupta’s Kabuliwala (1961), based on Tagore’s story. The noted lyricist wrote the song Ganga Aaye Kahan Se, which was set to the tune of an east Bengal bhatyali (boatman) folk composition by Salil Chowdhury. “From there on, my obsession with all things Bengali began to take shape, from the use of melodies to films inspired by Bengali writers and filmmakers, and even marriage to Rakhee, my “bangalan” wife, turned a Sikh writer into a half Bengali,” he quipped.
His most recent musical outing is the non-film album Gulzar in Conversation with Tagore features seven songs based on Hindi translations of poems by Tagore. The indefatigable 86-year-old poet and filmmaker has written the lyrics for compositions by Shantanu Moitra and Shreya Ghoshal, all rendered by the singer Shaan.
In 1991, Gulzar adapted Tagore’s short story Kshudhita Pashan (Hungry Stones) for his film Lekin. Earlier in 2016, Gulzar translated Tagore’s poems in a set of two books, Nindiya Chor and Baghban. Gulzar in Conversation with Tagore is a companion piece to the books.
His reverse migration to literature and writing took place when he realised that he wanted to do a lot more than just making films. “Carrying a film is a 24×7 job. If you are making a film, you cannot do anything else. If I had been only making films, I wouldn’t have written books ever. I have always loved writing and books. It is like going towards a masjid, but stopping at a mehkhana en route, and then walking towards a masjid ,” he quipped, adding that he has no plans of returning to mehkhana because “it was only Ghalib who could take a detour and go to mehkhana again.”
State of mind
The painful first-hand experience of partition has a searing presence in most of his works, and it also reflected in the overbearing narrative of his songs and poems that speak volumes of loneliness as if he doesn’t want to comfort a broken heart but tends to scratch the wounds deeper so that they never heal like when he weaves the imagery of a broken relationship in Mera kuch saaman in Ijaazat. “You think so, but it is not so. Main cigarette toh nahin peeta par har aane wale se bas pooch leta hoon, maachis hai? Bahut kuch hai jise mein phookh dena chahta hoon, par himmat nahin hai. I don’t want to make someone cry, but it is how I am wailing. I am just sharing my suffering. The words don’t speak of anyone’s loneliness but my helplessness. I am expressing the same,” he said. And in between, he keeps returning to Balli Maran in Old Delhi, be it be the intro of TV show Mirza Ghalib or the famous Kajra Re filmed on Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Amitabh Bachchan and Abhishek Bachchan in Bunty aur Babli.
His poetry can be interpreted in many different ways, sometimes with so many underlying, and overlapping layers, but what stays constant is his incredible ability to match pace with the changing times, and stay relevant. “All literary creation is a dream that the writer/poet lives,” he quips with nonchalance, and what makes him relevant even today is his non-judgmental attitude to change. If he’s written soulful odes to love in Saathiya, penned Goli maar bheje mein in Satya, made the Oscar-winning Jai Ho with AR Rahman, he’s written Beedi jalai le too proving that he can read the pulse of every generation. “How are you going to survive if you don’t know the latest trends in your field of work?” he argued. “One needs to stay abreast with the change that is happening around and also in one’s field of work. It is true for a computer engineer, a photographer and also for a writer. I work like a lumberjack; always looking for new tools.” But what he has tried to stay true is to express complex ideas in the simplest of words.
According to him, the writers should not function as “an independent unit”. “A writer needs to have social consciousness in his writing. It is not a work in isolation but the work should reflect the times of the society because a writer is a piece of history that is taking place during his time. Writing is a reflection of society, so the writer has to be socially responsible. He has to chronicle it with empathy and detachment. It is not just his suffering but that of the entire society. It should reflect on all works of art, be it writing, painting or music,” he said. In Selected Poems, there is a poem about a young man with a nilgai tattoo on his shoulder. This poem concludes in just five lines, with the startling revelation that the youth’s choice of the tattoo was not just whim – in case of a communal clash, someone might see the bovine carved into the shoulder and spare him. Or Mausam Beghar Hone Lage Hai, a poem that he wrote to support the cause of climate change in Nil Madhab Panda’s Kadvi Hawa.
Films, in that respect, have come a long way in reflecting the realities of society, Gulzar believes. He’s happy that there is a new generation of writers and filmmakers telling their own stories, as opposed to adapting literary works.
He calls cinema a full-fledged independent art form in itself that needs to spawn its own literature. “Cinema’s language is imagery. It needs to create its own language and become an author and independent expression and independent creator of its literature. Like there have been many adaptations of Devdas, but its authorship will remain with Sarat Chandra for creating the story,” he argued.
Language of expression
For Gulzar, the staple language of expression remains Urdu. “Yeh kaisa ishq hai Urdu zabaan ka, Yeh kaisa ishq hai Urdu zabaan ka, Mazaa ghulta hai lafzon ka zabaan par, ki jaise paan mein mehenga kimaam ghulta hai,” he said. Talking about his love for Urdu, Gulzar noted that it was the only language that was capable of “turning strangers into friends”.
“I have seen changes in the language for decades now. This is why I don’t like to say that my language is Hindi or Urdu, I call it ‘Hindustani’ because it changes its structure with every city,” he said.
Looking back at the evolution of Urdu over a span of eight centuries, he emphasises on the need to revive the script of the language so that it is not only spoken and heard but also seen more. “Urdu is alive the same way it was earlier and it is alive with the same old strength. Its energy hasn’t reduced. Maybe its aspect is changing. Urdu is an alive language and moving ahead with times. Urdu is heard and spoken but the missing thing is that it is not seen much. There should be work done on Urdu scripts,” he said on why more scripts in Urdu should be written.
The lyricist, who bats in favour of the works of contemporary writers of the language to be included in our curriculum so that it stays alive, said, “Ghalib, Mir and others are classic names in relation to Urdu but the language has moved beyond the 19th century and is still alive. So we should move beyond these names too… There are many other poets who should be taught like the other greats. Faiz Ahmed Faiz should be part of your text today.”
Work in progress
Having realized that children’s literature is a neglected domain that needs attention, he working full-time to fill that gap with the might of his pen. His children’s book Bosky Ka Panchatantra is a collection of stories from the Panchatantra, with Gulzar lending lyrical freshness in the narration. “When she (Bosky, his daughter) was small, I would tell her these stories. These stories have always stayed with me because writing and narrating stories to a child are no less than a challenge,” Gulzar said. “To learn children’s language is a challenging task. As the generation changes, language too changes. This book is also an attempt to bring children closer to the Hindi language,” he added. He has also re-written, translated and adapted for stage popular tales like those of Satyajit Ray’s Goopy Bagha (Gopi Gayen Bagha Bayen) and Pinocchio. His chaddi pehen ke phool khila hai lent a special touch to Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book that was adapted as a TV show. He went on to repeat the feat in many of his works that included Potli Baba Ki, Guchche, Alice In Wonderland, Sindbad Jahazi, and Danu Danasur that ruled Doordarshan in the Nineties. A considerable portion of the songs that he has written in his long career are targeted at children including Humko Mann Ki Shakti Dena in Guddi to Lakdi ki kaathi, kaathi pe ghoda in Masoom that have charmed and warmed many hearts, and he has written songs to tickle young minds, almost effortlessly. Even today, he is busy writing for children’s theatre. “I have been collaborating with theatre director Salim Arif. We recently did an adaptation of Pinocchio where around 200 children did Kathak to a full live orchestra at the recent show in Delhi,” he quipped. But there’s a lot more that he is engaged in. “For the last few years, I’ve been working on a book on the contemporary poetry of India. I’ve translated around 500 poems, of 300 poets from 32 languages of our country. No masters, just contemporary poets. I want to make our poetry young again,” he says that his dream is to celebrate the work of the poet and make it a poem a day.
(This piece has been compiled from his media interviews)