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.
Mumbai, June 20, 2021: The human species thinks in metaphors and learns through stories, said American writer Mary Catherine Bateson, and Mumbai-based septuagenarian adman Jameel Gulrays couldn’t agree more with her. After spending more than five decades in the advertising world, working on popular brands, and teaching the nuances of this profession as a faculty member at leading institutions, Gulrays turned a new leaf and dedicated himself to work on his passion project – Katha Kathan. It was kindled by his earnest desire to preserve Urdu, and other Indian languages, promote and popularise them so that these aren’t reduced to mere dialects but live on to tell tales and regale the younger generations. He, along with his band of storytellers, has been pursuing the idea zealously since then.
He was born with a silver spoon to Abid Gulrays in Bombay (as Mumbai was known then) on November 5, 1949. His father was multitalented – satirist, poet, and columnist par excellence – who also wrote songs for Hindi films in the 40s and 50s. Reminiscing his lyricist father, he says, “Surajmukhi released in 1950 had two memorable songs – suniye huzoor husn ka charcha na kijiye and husn ka guroor hai ye buri baat hai. The latter sung by Lata Mangeshkar was a blazing hit.” His father has 20 songs and ghazals to his credit as a lyricist.
At one point time, Abid Sahab was also associated with the newspaper, Inquilab. His satirical poems titled Baatein were a popular feature of the newspaper. He wrote these poems daily under the pseudonym, Cigarette Baaz. He also wrote a column, Tazyane, and it was so popular among the readers that many of them bought the newspaper just to read his piece. He used the pseudonym Phool Phenk, which came from Gulraiz. He wrote many columns under different names. He moved on from Inqilab to edit Mosavvir following a tiff with the management at the newspaper. Babu Rao Patel owned the publication Mosavvir, a popular film magazine, and at one point in time, it was edited by none other than Saadat Hasan Manto.
“I still fondly remember what he told me in my growing-up years, though I lost him quite early on at eight, these lessons have become the guiding principles of my life. He used to tell me that ‘should anyone move one step towards you, you should take ten steps forward and meet him/ her. If someone takes one step away, you move 10 miles away’. He always urged me to do my job without expecting anything in return, as expectations always hurt. Another invaluable lesson was around money. It is inconsequential, so don’t give importance to it; it can’t buy happiness.”
But destiny had other plans. Gulrays’ father was fond of horse racing, and in one such race, he lost his entire fortune. He couldn’t cope with the humungous loss, and unable to bear it, he passed away soon after. It was the beginning of a long period of misery for the family. They were forced to move out of their plush bungalow in Mahim and settle in the predominantly Muslim locality, Bhendi Bazaar. The little boy was just eight then. Due to financial constraints, he was enrolled in an Urdu medium school – Bandra Urdu High School (now Bandra Urdu High School & Junior College Of Science, Commerce and MCVC). “In hindsight, I think, it was all a part of God’s plan. I loved reading Urdu and Persian literature during my early years in school and college, and these stories stayed on with me forever. Perhaps, I was destined to take on the arduous job of saving the language and its literature one day,” he says, with a deep sense of satisfaction.
Ad-ding on to life
The loss of the breadwinner took a toll on his mother. She couldn’t live for long in penury, fell ill, and eventually passed away. “Her death shattered me completely as she was my biggest pillar of strength,” he says with moist eyes. His voice chokes on the mere mention of his parents, both of whom he lost early on in life.
He was eighteen and barely in the first year of college then, but he had to fend for himself and also look after his family that included two younger brothers. He desperately started looking for a job to make ends meet. Circumstances forced him to leave his place in Bhendi Bazaar and relocate to a far-off suburb Malvani. “The nearest station was Naigaon, and I had to walk for an hour to take a local train. It was an underdeveloped area then, and hardly any buses used to ply there. Come rain or hail, I had no choice but to keep marching on, both literally and metaphorically,” he says.
Advertising legend Ayaz Peerbhoy, who was his father’s friend, came forward to help and hired him for his agency. The remuneration was meagre, but it was something he badly needed, and he gladly took up this offer. In those days, the advertising world was dominated by English-speaking people, and anyone who didn’t know the language had little or no chance of survival. His ability not to give up came in handy and has stood him in good stead throughout. He not only learned English but mastered it. Later in his life, he set up an advertising agency and had the top-notch brand as his clients, and gave some memorable advertising campaigns in his five-decade-long career.
A new chapter
He is an avid reader, and loves to spend hours immersed in the world of words. The library at his house in Khar, Mumbai, has an enviable collection of Urdu literature. One day, while sitting in his room, immersed in one of Manto’s stories, it dawned upon him that after his demise, his treasure trove will be in a shambles. “A raddi wala (ragpicker) will come and collect these books and sell it to a kabadi wala (junk dealer), who will sell it to vendors. Manto will be served on a plate of bhelpuri, Chugtai will be wrapped in paan, and Krishan Chander will be wrapped on vada pavs,” he rued. The thought shook him no end, and he decided to tell those tales, some well-known, others not so known, and many of them unheard, unread, and unknown, for the benefit of the younger generation. His passion for preserving Urdu and other Indian languages and the earnest desire to promote and popularise them for the younger generation led him to pursue the idea zealously.
His undying love for stories that gave birth to Katha Kathan, a virtual repository of gems from Indian languages, relayed through his online social media channels on YouTube and Soundcloud – and relived through his offline storytelling sessions, a regular feature before the lockdown.
To start with, he started recording masterpieces from Urdu literature and releasing them on his YouTube channel. “One day, people might not be able to read these tales as they would no longer know the script. If these pieces are recorded and preserved, they would still be able to listen to them, whenever and wherever, and this, in a way, will preserve the treasure trove of stories for posterity,” he recounts. Initially, Gulrays thought of focussing only on Urdu literature, but once he exchanged the idea with others, he realised that the fate of other Indian languages is no different, so he widened his scope and included other “gems” of Indian literature, and featured stories in vernacular languages too.
Katha Kathan was started in 2015, and to date, he has recorded more than two thousand stories for his online platforms. It is a passion project funded by his selfless desire, and in all these six years, he has made humungous investments in terms of his money, time and energy, without taking a penny from any outsider. The growth and reach of the Katha Kathan project are purely organic, be it the views or the subscribers. The numbers only show the depth of his involvement and the widespread reach of his movement to keep Urdu and other Indian languages alive.
His honest endeavours have been suitably rewarded, and the former adman is now known as a connoisseur of the Urdu language, and his quintessential storytelling has won him many ardent fans and followers, and they range from celebrities to ordinary people. His popularity cuts across geographical, social, and linguistic barriers. People across the globe closely follow his work. Renowned actor Naseeruddin Shah has joined hands with him and is a regular in all Katha Kathan events. It is their shared love for Urdu that has kindled their camaraderie and friendship.
Sharing an anecdote, he says, “It so happened that I was recording Ismat Apa’s stories and releasing them on my YouTube channel, one after the other. I noticed that someone called Naseeruddin Shah would invariably comment and praise my work on these uploads. At first, I thought this must be some imposter. Why would someone of Naseeruddin Shah’s stature stop by at my YouTube channel, appreciate my work and care to comment? I wondered.” After the fifth story, he received a message that he (Naseeruddin) is coming to Delhi and would like to meet Gulrays. The actor thought that Gulrays is Delhi-based. Gulrays informed him that he lives in Mumbai, and they met, discussed the stories; Shah staged those as “Aurat, Aurat, Aurat,” and it was well-received by the audience. The actor, in his magnanimity, mentioned Gulrays’ name and his contribution in every interview that he gave after his play’s astounding success. “I sometimes wonder how come a genuine soul like him still exists in this world. He never declined his invite to any Katha Kathan show,” he says. Today, the actor is relearning Urdu, and calls Gulrays whenever he comes across a difficult word or sentence. Their relationship is based on mutual respect for each other’s work. “I have also benefited immensely from this partnership, and Naseeruddin Shah has always obliged my request for the interviews. Karwan-e-Mohabbat, with which I am associated, has gained a lot from these interviews,” he says.
Minding the language
These days, filmmaker Vishal Bharadwaj and his singer wife Rekha Bharadwaj are taking lessons in Ghalib from the connoisseur of the Urdu language. “There are two interesting anecdotes about Ghalib. One is that “if it wasn’t for many of Ghalib’s “shrah” (explanation of Ghalib by many scholars), he would have been very easy to understand. And the second one is that Ghalib is perhaps the only poet in the world whose work, if you can’t decipher, gives you double the pleasure,” says Gulrays. He thinks that if one has to understand Ghalib, one has to view his poetry through the prism of mysticism. “Ghalib himself declares in one of his couplets that he would have been considered a “Sufi” if it wasn’t for his drinking habits. Jameel insists that an effort to understand Ghalib must be made in this direction if we truly want to decipher his work,” he adds. One of his explanations has impressed Gulzar so much that he has expressed his desire to meet him.
Katha Kathan celebrates the works of Rabindranath Tagore, Premchand, Sahir Ludhianvi, Krishen Chander, Ismat Chugtai, and many others, but the celebrated and controversial writer Manto remains Gulrays’ all-time favorite. “Manto continues to be misunderstood despite finding new admirers decades after his death because most people haven’t really read his work in totality. They read six or eight of his stories and dub him an obscene or a dark writer. He is neither, and there is a lot of it that needs to be explored to understand Manto’s body of work better,” he adds.
Taking a walk down the memory lane, he recounts how his childhood home – his lavish bungalow in Mahim – had a portion of it rented out to Shyam, a popular actor in those days, by his father to tide over the financial crunch. Shyam and Manto were best of friends, and Manto often dropped in to see Shyam. It seems like a connection established by the umbilical cord, and Gulrays holds the prolific writer in high regards. “Why Manto decided to migrate to Pakistan is a question still debated by many. He was miserable there, as some of his letters reveal. Perhaps, he took that decision because of an incident involving his friend Shyam. Riots had hit both sides of the border. Shyam had some relatives in Lahore, and he was anxious about their safety and wellbeing in such troubled times. One day, news came that one of them had been killed, and in an inebriated state, he told Manto that he could kill him one of these days. Regaining his sobriety, he apologised, but Manto was so shaken up that he decided to leave India. The interesting bit is Shyam went to see him off at the dock, where they drank together for the last time,” recounts Gulrays.
Now, in his twilight days, Gulrays could ill afford to bask in the glory days and live off comfortably. Not someone to sit on his laurels, he has been working for the Indian languages and literature because, as he says, “Languages are our homes, and we must protect them.”
He rues how the millennials are losing touch with their mother tongue. “If they don’t prefer to communicate in their mother tongue, eventually they would lose touch and forget to read and write in that language. Once that happens, it would spell the death knell for these languages,” says Gulrays, explaining the real reason behind his passion project – the need to preserve these languages so that they don’t up remain a dialect for future generations.
Gulrays is not just an individual but an institution. So many people claim to love Urdu, but there is no one like him. He remains one among the few sincere and selfless soldiers of the language who has been single-handedly working on this mission, regardless of the bouquet or brickbats that could come his way.
A Baithak of Katha Kathan is a must on the first Saturday of every month. During the pandemic, it has moved to a virtual platform. Earlier, it was held at his home, where stories flowed along with a generous helping of snacks and beverages. These days, he has started using Clubhouse to his advantage and hosts a dramatised storytelling session with Katha Kathan Team at 10.30 pm every Sunday. These virtual sessions see story lovers from across the world in attendance.
Bushra Rahman, an eminent Urdu novelist across the border, once sent a message praising his style. Shah, when asked, ‘why we don’t a Zia Mohyeddin here?’ had once famously quipped, “You haven’t heard of Jameel Gulrays.” Shah’s statement sums up the sentiments of his ardent admirers, who come from across the world, belong to different age groups, and speak different languages. The common thread binding them all is their love for stories in Urdu and other Indian languages. And the tribe is growing every day.
A devoted Urdu lover, he has a team of young volunteers growing under his tutelage at Katha Kathan to keep the love for languages and stories alight. He quotes a couplet of Majrooh Sultanpuri in the parting, and that succinctly sums up his illustrious journey.
It was the first to be conducted at Fortis Hospital in Mulund after the lockdown was announced on March 22, 2020; the harvested lungs, liver and kidneys were sent to four hospitals across Mumbai and the corneas were sent to a local Eye Bank.
Mumbai, December 7, 2020: Mumbai witnessed its 29th cadaveric donation at Fortis Hospital, Mulund on December 2, 2020, when the family of a 56-year-old brain dead patient consented to donate their kin’s lungs, liver, corneas and kidneys. The family’s noble act of giving helped give a new lease of life to four patients with end-stage organ failure; and would enable two people to receive the gift of eyesight. The harvested organs were sent to four hospitals across Mumbai. This donation marked Mumbai’s 29th and Fortis Hospital, Mulund’s first since the lockdown was first implemented in March 2020. The female donor was declared brain dead at Fortis Hospital, Mulund on December 2, 2020, following a Subarachnoid Hemorrhage. The patient, from Badlapur, Thane, had sustained a fall at home, after which she was rushed to Fortis Hospital, Mulund. The family was counselled and informed consent was sought. The donor is survived by her husband, a son and three daughters. Speaking about this feat, Dr S. Narayani, Zonal Director, Fortis Hospitals, Mumbai, says, “It is heartening to see that families are continuing to respond warmly to the cause of organ donation, even during the pandemic, as the fear of the virus looms large. This is a gigantic leap towards helping patients with organ failure, who have had longer time on the waitlist, owing to the pandemic. We express our heartfelt gratitude to the donor family, and to our doctors, nurses, Medical Social Workers and administrative staff who enabled the donation, and subsequent transplants”. According to Dr Bharat Shah, general secretary, Zonal Transplant Coordination Centre (ZTCC), Mumbai, the medical team and transplant coordinator of Fortis team must be congratulated for diagnosing brain-stem death and counselling the family. “All the donated organs were successfully transplanted in four patients with end stage organ failure. This goes on to show that even the recipients are now coming out of fear of COVID pandemic and are willing to go for transplant during this pandemic. There is no need for potential recipients to fear COVID,” he says. The ZTCC has made robust guidelines which are strictly followed by all medical teams. With this, the risk of recipients contracting COVID infection is negligible. Appreciating the kindness of the the family of deceased donor who came forward to save lives of four patients unknown to them, Dr S.K. Mathur, President, ZTCC, Mumbai, says, “If more people start following their example, then slowly the current dependence on live organ donations can be reduced.”