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4 March 2021

Once Upon A Time

We are not very good at keeping written records. Much of our nation’s history come to us from ‘foreign’ sources, written through an outsider’s perspective. The history of our film industry is no different. Much has been lost in the mists of ages past. Even when we pay tribute to the ‘Golden Period’ of Hindi film industry, we are extremely lax in preserving that period – whether it is the songs or the films. We know next to nothing about the musicians who brought that music alive, for instance, or the background dancers who were such an important part of our films. In many cases, we do not even know their names, nor do we care to. What little has survived is through articles, features and interviews in English film magazines – that too has deteriorated into page after page of glossy photographs interspersed with gossip, innuendo and rumour. Simply put, all gloss, no substance. So, to open Yasir Abbasi’s compilation of Urdu writings by famous film personalities was like gaining access to Aladdin’s Cave.

Bloomsbury
Rs699, 389 pages
ISBN 978-9-3874-5776-8

As Abbasi mentions in the introduction, his interest was piqued after reading a translation of Sa’adat Hasan Manto’s collected writings on his contemporaries in film. It led him to explore the original writings, and then, wonder about Urdu writing on cinema. Having read Urdu film magazines in his childhood and youth, he was puzzled by their seeming non-existence.

The reasons for the decline of Urdu ‘film’ magazines are plenty, not the least of which was that film archives considered them ‘literary’ magazines, while literary circles deemed them ‘film’ magazines and therefore, beneath their lofty consideration. That is because Urdu magazines combined both literary and film writing, with big names like Khwaja Ahmad Abbas and Ismat Chugtai, and guest columns by the great film personalities of the day like Nargis, Dilip Kumar, etc. As Abbasi pithily remarks, “… ilm and film were seemingly incompatible.”

And so, he ventured on a search that soon resembled the labours of Sisyphus, tracing leads to obscure towns and the homes of people he didn’t even know to collate the lost records of those golden days.

Ye Un Dinon ki Baat Hai is divided into three sections – Pen Portraits, Reminiscences and Perspectives. A glance at the index will tell the reader what they are going to read – Meena Kumari by Nargis; Suraiya by Ismat Chugtai; Satyajit Ray by Javed Siddiqui. The Reminiscences section has extremely poignant personal columns by Shyama, Jaidev, Meena Shorey, etc., while Dev Anand, Balraj Sahni, Nasir Hussain and others offer their perspective on cinema.

The piece on Meena Kumari, penned by Nargis as an obituary to the actress who became her friend only in the late 50s, though they worked in the same industry for years, is a stinging commentary on the loneliness of fame. Titled Meena – Maut Mubarak Ho, Nargis writes a scathing condemnation of an industry that took her Manju away from her. Similarly, Shyama’s pen drips with sorrow of a woman pushed into the industry in her childhood, only to be treated as a golden goose by her own parents and other relatives. It’s a stunning glimpse of the exploitation she underwent and her fervent plea to be allowed to be happy. 

Shyama's story is mirrored in Ismat Chugtai’s narration of Suraiya, where she mentions how Suraiya only got a break from the studios if someone died, so she would pray that someone would die every day so she could be free from the confines of the studio. You are left with the lingering sense of the unhappiness and loneliness these women faced behind the glamour and the fame. I reacted viscerally to these pieces; the raw emotion in Meena’s “Baaji, resting is not in my destiny. I will rest just one time” came through the translation and I wondered how much more powerful these words must have sounded in the original.

Then there’s Jaidev who frankly acknowledges Sahir Ludhianvi’s contribution to his career, but also condemns him as being responsible for the death of it. And Javed Siddiqui’s insights into working with Satyajit Ray – a very interesting personal recollection, but even there, Siddiqui remarks on how a renowned Bengali director had snapped sarcastically, “His craving for publicity just doesn’t subside. He freezes every two minutes to enable Nimai Ghosh to click his pictures.”

There’s Johnny Walker's humorous narration of how his marriage with Noor came to be; Kidar Sharma's interesting story of his entry into films, and filming the nude scene with Mehtaab for Chitralekha; Veena’s regressive opinions on women in cinema (that Nargis, Madhubala, Meena Kumari, etc., wouldn’t have achieved what they did without the men in their lives); Meena Shorey’s stunning indictment of Sohrab Modi; Iftekhar’s loving memories of Ashok Kumar and Kishore Kumar; Raja Mehdi Ali Khan’s unwitting expose of Manto’s cruel (in my opinion) sense of humour…

Translating from one language to the other is always a fraught task. Translating from Urdu to English adds a layer of difficulty – as Abbasi himself says, a sentence in Urdu can occupy a whole paragraph without a break. The fact that Urdu words can hold a variety of meanings, nuances and implications is yet another challenge, not to mention the issue of compound words that are so descriptive in Urdu, but just cannot be translated to English without losing their meaning, or worse, sounding extremely artificial. That Abbasi has succeeded in doing so, writing in simple, elegant English that is easily comprehensible yet doesn’t lack the nuances of the original writing is exceedingly remarkable, especially considering that he says at the outset that he’s no writer. 

Ye Un Dinon ki Baat Hai is more than just a collection of tales, however; it is the story of fickle fame; of the greed that cowers behind the glamour; of creative relationships and the clash of egos; of unparalleled grace and unswerving passion. Above all, it’s a much-needed record of ‘Once upon a time’, a retrieval of voices that had been lost to the ages.

What sets the book apart is also the fact that Abbasi has refrained from including prurient or salacious articles there's no gossip in the book. If that's what you're looking for, you will have to look elsewhere. This is a curated collection of personal writings and while certain matters or personalities are alluded to, the original writers themselves seem to have been circumspect about naming them. And Abbasi treats the authors and the material with the respect they deserve.

Adding charm to the book is some fabulous artwork – photographs, film posters, advertisements, letters written by celebrities, and last but not the least stunning portraits of the authors of the articles or the people they wrote about by Abbasi’s wife, Geetika Narang Abbasi. Some articles are bound to be more interesting than others, of course, but the book as a whole is an intimate look at the Hindi film industry from within, and as such, a must-read for anyone interested in films.

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