Sunday, December 24, 2006

Love At First Sight: First Meetings of Bollywood

Hindi films are nothing if not for the legends surrounding most of them. All the stars, all the movies, all the locations would have come to a naught if you did not have that hanger-on who claimed to have been exactly there when it all happened.
I think one of the greatest heroes of Bollywood is the guy who stopped Amitabh from boarding that train to Allahabad after his 12th flop. For good measure, he also introduced him to Prakash Mehra who was looking for an actor to star in a film called Zanjeer.
There was no such guy?
What rubbish? In fact, that guy was featured in a scene of Rangeela, where he recounted this story.
That guy was Neeraj Vohra? That guy was played by Neeraj Vohra. He actually exists. No, really!

Of the billions of legends around the millions of stars, the most interesting ones are about the first meetings of stars. There is an element of suspense & drama around these meetings. Thanks to our congenital predisposition to astrology, there is something inherently attractive about a chance meeting between two Masters of the Universe.
The what-ifs are too scary... Imagine if Gulzar and R D had never met! Aaaarrrrgggghhhh...

Guru Dutt & Dev Anand
Dev Anand was this employee in the Indian Postal Services. During the war, he worked as a censor - where he read hundreds of letters daily to edit out passages that were unwanted by the government. He used to do this boring job by day, get completely taken by the fan letters the filmstars used to get, dreamt of getting some letters like that for himself and stayed in a chawl nearby.
One day, his dhobi returned his laundry in which there was a shirt which was not his. Same size but definitely not the same sartorial elegance Dev was used to. On enquiring, the dhobi speculated that the shirt could belong to this other fellow, who was working on odd jobs at Prabhat Talkies. To get a little dope on the film industry, Dev decided to take the shirt back to the owner himself. And became so thick with Gurudutt Shivshankar Padukone that very soon, the most famous pact of Hindi cinema was made... if Dev produced a film, Guru would direct it. If Guru produced one, Dev would star in it.
For the record - Dev kept his part of the bargain with Baazi. Guru reneged.
Now, we can only wish that he had not!

Balraj Sahni & Johnny Walker
Badruddin Jamaluddin Qazi was a conductor with the Dadar depot of BEST. His standard routine consisted of entertaining passengers while handing the tickets. A stammering lover proposing to his girlfriend for Mr Braganza. An out-of-tune singer doing a ghazal for Mrs Apte. A drunkard getting harangued by his wife for Mr Sahni. Balraj Sahni, that is.
(Those who are amazed by Arshad Warsi's Mercedes would be even more amazed to realise Balraj Sahni travelled to studios by bus. Taxi if it was the first week of the month. And police jeep when he had been arrested for his anti-establishment plays!)
Balraj Sahni was working on a script for a picture called Baazi (see above) - most parts of which were filled except for one of a comedian. He was impressed enough by Badru's antics to fix up an appointment for him with the director, Guru Dutt.
On the day of the meeting, Badru staggered in the room completely drunk, proceeded to fall over furniture and almost kissed the studio receptionist, Miss Lobo. Only when the director was about to call the police did he own up to the fact that he was acting. Over-acting, actually! Thanks to his drunken turn, when the time came to decide a screen name (B. J Qazi is not what screen legends are called!), Guru Dutt unilaterally decided to infringe on the copyright of world's most famous Scotch whisky brand.
And for generations after that, Indians thought that Johnny Walker does drunken roles so well that they named a whisky after him!

Raj Kapoor & Nargis
Baby Nargis had acted in a few films as a child artiste. She grew up to a raving beauty and acted in a few eminently forgettable ones as well.
During that time, Prithviraj Kapoor's eldest son was getting on everyone's nerves on the sets of a film where he was the clapper boy. (It is a common filmi family tradition to send the new generation kiddos as assistants to sets who could not refuse them. Nasir Hussain sent his nephew Aamir to do the same!) The story was that the clapper boy took more to get ready than the hero!
Anyways, Raj decided that there are better films to be made, cocked a snook at his bosses, used to his father's clout to get financing and even got a script written. To save some money, he decided to act in the lead role himself. By this time, he had screen tested hundreds of the girls for the lead role and did not like any. Just when he was getting really impatient, he happened to see some footage of Nargis and decided that the girl had some magic. An appointment was fixed and young Mr Kapoor went off to meet the girl.
Either Ms Nargis did not know the director's time of arrival or she could not care less, she was busy in the kitchen when the door was knocked. Actually, she was frying some stuff in besan - with her hands wrist-deep in the batter. With no servants around, she ran and opened the door herself. Tousled hair, hands in a mess... but she managed to get suitably impressed by the light-eyed, fair-skinned good looks of Mr Kapoor. And when she used the back of her hand to push back a few strands of hair from her forehead, she smeared a whole lot of besan on to her hair.
Of course I was not standing across the corridor watching the scene unfold. I just watched Bobby like everyone else!

Satyajit Ray & Sharmila Tagore
Ray developed a reputation for giving chances to newcomers right from his first film. He did not really have a choice during Pather Panchali as none of the actors of Bengali cinema then fitted the bill for any of the roles - and more importantly, he did not have the money to pay any of them!
But even his first film - being based on an all-time Bengali classic, attracted enough interest for people to land up with their children for the lead roles. In fact, one gentleman landed up with his daughter (for the role of Apu!) directly from the saloon after cutting the girl's hair to a boy cut! Even the powder and hair bits were there on the girl's neck!
When he was testing actresses for the role of Aparna in Apur Sansar, it turned out to be one long haul with none of the actresses matching the innocence, beauty and sensitivity for the role.
When he heard through a common friend of a fourteen-year old, who was distantly related to Tagore, he was at his wit's end and wanted to refuse but could not do so because of his 'bhadralok' upbringing! His worst fears were confirmed when the girl in question landed up in a short yellow frock and a fringe cut! But something must have come through the English diction, that Ray asked his wife to take the girl inside, tie her hair in a bun using a wig and dress her in a traditional saree.
And that's when Sharmila Tagore became Aparna. At the end of her journey, she went on to become the biggest star of Bollywood.

Ramesh Sippy & Amjad Khan
The offices of Sippy Films had a room - which was ostensibly for their story department. In the year 1972, the story department was all but disbanded as the scion of the company - Ramesh - was always closeted with two Muslim boys of the same age (which was very young, by filmi standards). Salim Khan and Javed Akhtar were given full use of the story room as they were working on a two-line story idea commissioned by Sippy Films. A police officer's family is massacred by a dacoit. To take revenge, the officer takes the help of two small-time crooks. Simple.
Of the four characters mentioned in the two lines, three had already been cast. And as the screen-writer duo worked towards the climax of the screenplay, they realised that the dacoit is turning out to be the most charismatic of the lot. And with two major stars of the day being asked to play the police officer and one of the crooks, the actor to play the dacoit had to match them in style and panache. All major villains of the day were evaluated and rejected for lack of menace. Danny Denzongpa was the front-runner for the role and he was even signed on.
At this point, Satyen Kappu recommended to Salim Khan a young actor, who was acting in a IPTA production with him. Salim saw the actor and asked him to come and meet Ramesh Sippy. And wished him luck in true filmi style... "Yeh role aap ka ho sakta hain. Aapke koshish se ya aapke kismat se."
When the actor walked into the dimly-lit story room, Ramesh Sippy was lying on a mattress on the ground with his back to the door. Hearing a voice, he turned around and looked upto a guy who was medium in build but because of Ramesh's perspective from the floor, looked like a menacing figure who loomed across the entire frame of the door. Ramesh Sippy turned around and met Amjad Khan for the first time.
After that first meeting, Amjad went back and returned in army fatigues, with blackened teeth and a grubby look. Now, Ramesh Sippy met Gabbar Singh for the first time.
The chemistry was strong enough to work around the constellations and the fates conspired to ensure that Danny Denzongpa had to pull out of the film and Amjad Khan stepped in. He walked over the ravines, oozed terror and asked "Kitne aadmi the?"
At last count, over a billion people gave attendance!
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