Archive for the ‘Films’ Category

For years, as Nigeria reeled under economic crisis, its film industry haemorrhaged. That is when Bollywood entered the scene and kindled Nollywood. Sonia Sarkar reports on the vibrant Nigerian film industry and its India connect

actor Stephanie Linus;

Kenneth Nnebue, who helped make the first video film;When Shashi Kapoor died last year, Nigerian film websites paid moving tributes to him. And why not? Generations of Nigerians had grown up watching his films. In the news website, Daily Trust, the obituary by Gambo Dori read: “Whenever I watch films produced from Kano-Kaduna axis I clearly see the enactment of the motions of Shashi Kapoor and the like. Many productions particularly the soyayya (love story) films are heavily indebted to the golden era of the Indian cinema.”

The West African republic, the continent’s most populous and prosperous nation, may have a thriving 1,500-films-a-year industry – worth $3.3 billion – today, but it wasn’t like this always.

In the early 1920s and 30s, Syrian and Lebanese entrepreneurs built chains of open-air cinema houses across Nigerian cities. People made a beeline to watch Chinese and Hollywood movies even though they were far removed from African society and culture. And then, in the 1960s, Indian cinema entered the Nigerian market.

Lebanese businessmen decided to import Bollywood films. They were cheaper than American ones and made better business sense. Indian hits such as Mother India, Bombay to Goa, The Burning Train, Deewarbecame wildly popular with Nigerian cine-goers.

“How much we recounted Amitabh Bachchan hanging from trains and fighting the bad guy as a policeman,” says Nigerian director and screenwriter Femi Odugbemi.

Nigerians of that generation even coined nicknames for their favourite Bollywood stars in the local Hausa language. Dharmendra was ” sarkin karfi” or king of strength, Rishi Kapoor, “mace”, meaning woman, and the name for Sanjay Dutt was ” dan daba mai lasin” or hooligan with a licence. This trend continued right through the 1980s.

Over time, Nigerians also came to be exposed to indigenous films such as Ossie Davis’s Kongi’s Harvest (1970), Ola Balogun’s A Deusa Negra (1978) and Orun Mooru (1982), but the oil doom and flailing economy across Africa meant local filmmakers couldn’t afford to keep up their efforts.

The Nigerian film industry in its present form was born in the 1990s. In 1992, a Lagos-based VHS tape and electronic gadgets’ merchant, Kenneth Nnebue, sponsored the shooting of a video film titled Living in Bondage. Shot on a budget of $12,000, it defined the path for the new industry that came to be known as Nollywood.

The video boom, apart from powering a sleeping industry, was also crucial socially. It kept Nigerian youth away from drugs and alcohol.

“The Nigerian film industry is formed around the digital cinema technology. It started out as a straight-to-video process but has now settled into mostly working with advanced digital imaging technologies. Most films are shot with professional digital cinema cameras and very few are on celluloid,” says Odugbemi.

But the Bollywood connect persists.

Celebrated Nigerian actor Stephanie Okereke Linus, who has starred in films such as Dry, Boonville Redemption and Through The Glass, tells The Telegraph in an email that during her growing up years, cinema meant nothing but Bollywood. She says, “I have vivid memories of dancing to the songs. Bollywood was one of the biggest influences that spurred my interest in acting.”

Incidentally, when Akon sang Chammak Challo to SRK’s Ra.One in 2011, it was said that singing a Hindi song came easy to the American singer as he had spent his childhood years in Senegal – another west African country – where Bollywood was venerated.

Films in Nollywood are made in English, Yoruba, Hausa and Igbo, among other Nigerian languages, often borrow plots, styles and music from Bollywood cinema and rework them in local settings. Among them, Hausa-language films from northern Nigeria (the Kano-Kaduna area referred to by Gambo Dori) made in Kannywood – the sub-film industry within Nollywood – are most influenced by Bollywood music. Elements of Bollywood in terms of storytelling and plot were also seen in Yoruba-language movies such as Ola Balogun’s Ajani Ogun (1976) and Adeyemi Afolayan’s Kadara (1980).

Says Femi Odugbemi whose Gidi Blues (2016), travelled to many international festivals, “The strength and narrative style of Indian cinema inspires many films in Nigeria, especially in the northern cities.” He adds, “The biggest inspiration for Nollywood has been the strength of cultural assertion in Bollywood films.”

In “Bollywood comes to Nigeria”, Professor of Anthropology at Columbia University Brian Larkin, writes, “After Maine Pyar Kiya was released, one friend told me it was his favourite movie: ‘I liked the film’ he said, ‘because it taught me about the world’… The style of the movies and plots deal with the problem of how to modernise while preserving traditional values – not usually a narrative theme in a Jean-Claude Van Damme or Steven Spielberg movie.”

What Nigerian actor-director-producer Kunle Afolayan says, builds on Larkin’s friend’s sentiment. Says Afolayan, “The USP of Nollywood is to create Cinema Verite [truthful cinema]. Films that are true to who we are and reflect our culture around the world.”

The new films out of Nollywood are slices of African life and culture. For example, Tunde Kelani’s Thunderbolt focuses on the disunity among Africans, sexual politics in Nigerian society and conflict between modernity and African traditions. Daniel Oriahi’s Taxi Driver: Oko Ashewo is a dark comedy thriller about Lagos at night. The industry has experimented with themes such as occult, prostitution and child abuse. Social issues such as the kidnapping of Chibok girls by Boko Haram militants and Ebola also featured in films such as The Missing Girls (2015) and 93 Days (2016), respectively. And Chukwuma Osakwe’s J.U.D.E. hinted at the racial discrimination Africans face in India.

Osakwe, who learnt acting at the Mohali-based Mad Arts, the late Jaspal Bhatti’s film school, says, “In the film, a young Nigerian advertising professional is shown travelling from Lagos to Chandigarh to chase his dream of filmmaking. He faces hurdles but doesn’t give up.”

Nollywood is now the world’s second largest film industry in terms of number of films produced every year after Bollywood, and the third largest in terms of revenues, after Hollywood and Bollywood. If it had at some point drawn inspiration from Bollywood, it is now looking to collaborate with it.

Director Odugbemi talks about the professionalism of Bollywood and the strength of its infrastructure and value-chain globally as the ambitions of Nollywood in the foreseeable future.

US-based journalist Emily Witt is more prescriptive. In an email to The Telegraph, she says, “Nigeria could also benefit from learning how Bollywood has maintained a thriving cinema-going culture while possibly facing some of the same infrastructural challenges, and how to bring cinema not only to middle class audiences but to lower-income populations as well.”

An average Nollywood film with a budget of around $50,000 is shot in three to four weeks. There has been a universal complaint about the quality and standards of these films but some have made their mark internationally. Films such as The Wedding Party (2016), Taxi Driver: Oko Ashewo (2015), 30 Days in Atlanta (2014) and Thunderbolt (2000) were showcased in various film festivals including the Toronto International Film festival. Afolayan’s October 1 and Robert Peter’s 30 Days in Atlanta have found international audience on Netflix too. African digital content start-ups are also giving a financial boost to the industry.

According to Nigerian filmmakers, after oil and agriculture, Nollywood is one of the thriving industries, creating over a million jobs every year.

In 2015, India’s acting high commissioner to Nigeria, Kaisar Alam, said the commission would facilitate collaboration between Nollywood and Bollywood. Lagos-based film regulatory consultant Obiora Chukwumba says, “Alam’s vision of collaboration reflects some of the desires in Nollywood. Authorities within Nollywood have severally reached out to platforms within Bollywood for sharing knowledge.”

Once again in 2015, when the former managing director of the Nigerian Film Corporation, Danjuma Wurim Dadu, visited the 46th International Film Festival of India in Goa, he urged Indian filmmakers to shoot in Nigeria and co-produce films with Nollywood. Not long ago, the Nigerian government provided a grant to the film industry to send about 300 actors and producers to Bollywood for technical training.

Last year, Indian film financers participated at the Creative Industries Summit in Lagos to examine the Nigerian film market. And more recently, Linus participated in the Global Entrepreneurship Summit at Hyderabad, where she discussed a few joint projects with a leading Indian media magnate.

Anthropology professor Larkin points out that the Nigerian audience is not happy with the contemporary “westernised content” of Hindi films. The general sentiment that pervades is that it is against the Indian traditional societal values they were exposed to in the Hindi films of the past. But none of this has come in the way of the evolving partnership. Nollywood sure knows how to leverage Bollywood’s strengths.

‘I have created a dot. That’s my corner’

Back in those days when television was a one-channel wonder, a man called Pavan Malhotra was quite a heart-throb. It transpires that in the era of multi-channel television, he still has a huge fan following, going by the number of people who landed up for a Pavan Malhotra retrospective in the capital recently. But that’s not surprising, for the man who is best remembered as Hari – the humble hard-working youth who ran a small shop for repairing bicycles in the television serial Nukkad – has reinvented himself. The 57-year-old actor who became a television star with his role in shows that included Circus and Zameen Aasmaan and later acted in films such as Saeed Mirza’s Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro and Buddhadeb Dasgupta’s Bagh Bahadur has been appearing in regional cinema of late. He starred in the Telugu film Aithe and in two Punjabi films, Punjab 1984and Eh Janam Tumhare Lekhe. On the sidelines of the retrospective Unmasking Pavan, he talked to Sonia Sarkar about his journey. Extracts:

Q: What are your future projects?

A: I am currently shooting for Rustom with Akshay Kumar, produced by Neeraj Pandey and directed by Tinu Desai. I am also doing a film with Sanjay Puran Singh Chauhan, the maker of the 2010 film Lahore, which will be released in the next few months.

Q: Tell us about your journey from theatre to television to films.

A: While I was studying in Class X, in Manav Sthali School in Delhi, a friend took me to Feisal Alkazi’s Ruchika Theatre during the summer vacations. I got a role as part of a crowd in the play Tughlaq . Then Feisal started giving me roles in various plays. But I mostly didn’t know what was going on. It took me a while to understand serious political subjects such as Marxism. Somebody had then jokingly said that Karl and Marx were two brothers – and I believed him. In another Hindi play, Father, I played the role of an orderly. I didn’t even know the meaning of the word. I knew nothing – but slowly I learnt. That was also when I got some backstage roles in programmes on Doordarshan.

Then one day, I got a call from a friend who said that the production team of Gandhi needed a wardrobe assistant. When they were shooting in Delhi, I worked with them. Then the crew moved to Mumbai and asked me to move with them. Soon thereafter, my theatre friends, Ravi Baswani and Sudhir Mishra, asked me to work as a production assistant for the filmJaane Bhi Do Yaaro (1983). It was around that time that I got the role of Hari in Saeed Mirza’s Nukkad . Then came cinema with Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro.

Q: Did you – like many others – have to struggle in your initial days in Mumbai?

A: I can tell you 500 stories of struggle but I would never like to romanticise my story. If you change your city and you don’t have a permanent job, you should be ready for a struggle. When I was living in Delhi with my father, he made me sweep the floor of his office too. He used to say that if I didn’t learn this, I wouldn’t learn anything in life. He had also told me that if I wanted to work, I had to learn to keep my ego aside. I survived in Mumbai because of this lesson.

  • Always different: Pavan Malhotra in Bhaag Milkha Bhaag

Q: Are your films watched only by one section of people?

A: Many years ago, Doordarshan was, one evening, showing Satyajit Ray’s Jalsaghar . I was watching it in my living room. I turned around and saw my house help watching it too with a lot of interest. So, basically, one has to tell a good story. I think most of my films had a good story – so people liked them.

Q: Every role of yours in every film – from Salim Langde … and Bagh Bahadur to Dilli 6 and Bhaag Milkha Bhaag – is different. How do you manage to play different characters without casting the shadow of one over the other?

A: I work on the body language and voice of the character. And it is a conscious decision to play a different character in each film because the characters remain alive in the mind of the audience even if the actor is forgotten.

Q: After Salim , underworld dons contacted you…

A: One day, when I was standing with my scooter at a petrol station near Centaur Hotel in Mumbai, a man came up to me and said that Haji Mastan loved my acting. He asked me to call him. I didn’t. Again one day, someone came to my house to ask if I would like to visit Dawood Ibrahim in Dubai. He would make it easy for me in Bollywood. But I told him that I didn’t need a shortcut to success.

Q: How do you feel when you see your college junior Shah Rukh Khan, who acted with you in the television series, Circus , and is now a superstar?

A: I feel that it is important to talk to oneself and ask, “Do you want to do this? Are you enjoying this?” I feel in this whole film industry collage, I have created a dot. That’s my corner.

If I think that Shah Rukh has a bungalow and I should have one too, there will be no end to my desires. I will start eyeing someone’s island. It’s not possible to get everything in life.

Q: Television series were real during your time…

A: People have often told me, why can’t we make Nukkad again? I tell them, even if we make it, you will not watch it. These days, television works on advertising and advertising has nothing to do with content. It has to do with eyeballs.

Q: Recently, comedian Kiku Sharda was arrested for imitating Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh. As an artiste, do you believe freedom of speech and expression is being compromised?

A: There are – and have been – problems in society. But we have to fix these problems. One has to keep fighting for the freedom of expression.

More than three decades after he made his mark in the Hindi film industry, actor Shekhar Suman continues his love affair with theatre. He tells Sonia Sarkar that he ‘got away with blue murder’, poking fun at politicians in television talk shows without worrying about a backlash — something he believes he can’t do now.

The audience was ecstatic. And many in the Delhi auditorium were surprised as well. Shekhar Suman – largely known for his comic acts – had enacted the role of the lyricist-poet, Sahir Ludhianvi, with such sensitivity that it had brought the spectators to their feet.

Actors need to reinvent themselves occasionally, but Suman seems to have turned it into an art. More than three decades after he made his mark in the Hindi film industry with Girish Karnad’s Utsav, his performance in Saif Hyder Hasan’s play Ek Mulaqaat – the story of Sahir’s love affair with the Punjabi writer, Amrita Pritam – turned the arc lights back on the man who started his career with theatre.

“This is my best work in the career span of 35 years,” Suman, 53, says. “I strongly feel that I was destined to play Sahir. Every time I heard his shayari, I thought he had written it for me, expressing my emotions.”

He put his heart into the role, carefully studying the life of the poet. He went to the Satish Chander Dhawan Government College for Boys in Ludhiana, where Sahir studied. He pored over photographs of Sahir, trying to pick up gestures from the old snapshots. He heard a rare recording, and sought to master his way of speaking.

“I walked down the corridors of his college with some books in my hand and imagined that I was Sahir,” Suman says, and then starts to recite one of his most famous lines – ” Zindagi sirf mohabbat nahin, kuchh aur bhi hai (life is not just about love; there is something more).”

Suman has been concentrating on theatre for a while now. Eight years ago, he acted in actor-director Makarand Deshpande’s Detective Maurya, and, in 2000, he worked with director Om Katare in Woh Tum Hi Ho.

But then theatre has been his passion for long. The history graduate from Delhi’s Ramjas College took to the stage soon after he’d earned a diploma in acting from Delhi’s Shri Ram Centre for Art and Culture in 1979. He has acted in more than 20 plays with well-known theatre directors such as Badal Sircar, Bansi Kaul and Rajinder Nath.

“Theatre is my umbilical cord. The bond is always there,” he stresses. On his table right now, he adds, are the scripts of some 10 plays.

It has also given him back his place in the sun as a serious actor, a trait that was first noticed nationally with the period film Utsav in 1984.

Getting a break in Bollywood wasn’t very difficult, he recalls. The yesteryear character actress Shammi had offered him a role in a film while he was still doing theatre. The film was never released, but through her he met Shashi Kapoor, who was then producing Utsav. Suman was selected for the role of Charudutt, a married Brahmin merchant in love with the courtesan, Vasantasena.

Since he was a newcomer, Suman says that he had to be vetted by almost everybody associated with the film, including Rekha, who played Vasantasena.

“The day Rekha came to check me out, I felt like a newlywed bride waiting for the bridegroom to come and approve of her,” he laughs.

But while Suman was applauded for his performance, he could never create the same magic on the silver screen again. He acted in 16 films – including the steamy Anubhav (1986) and the Madhuri Dixit hit Tridev (1989) – but remained largely unnoticed.

“I was not happy with the way my career was moving,” he reveals. But, he adds, he could not be choosy about the roles he was being offered. He was married (to Delhi girl Alka) and had two sons – Ayush, who had a heart ailment, and Adhyayan, who is now an actor. “I needed a lot of money for Ayush’s treatment. I didn’t have the luxury to choose my roles,” he says.

That was when he reinvented himself again – and this time by moving to television. Suman’s luck turned with the 1993 series Reporter, where he played an investigative journalist, and became an instant hit with the comedy series Dekh Bhai Dekh.

“The two roles were diametrically opposite to each other but were equally popular. I realised that I could play different characters at the same time.”

He made people laugh, but there was tragedy unfurling at home. Ayush died in 1997 when his career in television was scaling new heights. With the advent of satellite television, there were soaps galore – and he acted in several series including Amar Prem, Hera Pheri and Andaz.

But Suman is remembered most for anchoring Movers and Shakers, the first talk show of its kind on Indian television, in 1997. Some said then that he had copied American comedian Jay Leno, but Suman shrugs off the criticism. “I didn’t even know who Jay Leno was then,” he says.

The satirical show gathered eyeballs as Suman took potshots at prominent newsmakers, from actors and musicians to politicians. “I discovered that I had this ability to talk incessantly,” says Suman, who grabbed a Rs 35-crore contract for three years for the show.

He amassed fans with his flawless mimicry of former Bihar chief minister Lalu Prasad and of former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. “I got away with blue murder,” says Suman, who later starred in several other similar talk shows such as Simply Shekhar, Still Moving Still Shaking and Tedhi Baat Shekhar Ke Saath.

The actor believes that there is no place today for programmes such as Movers and Shakers, where he could poke fun at leaders without worrying about a backlash. “I wonder how long I would have survived if I was doing a show like Movers and Shakers today,” he says.

Suman adds that he feels “suffocated” when he sees acts of violence around him. “In the last year and a half, the country has become unlivable. It is asphyxiating. You are being told what to wear, what to eat, what to say. I can see that Hindu terrorism is rearing its head,” he says.

He is critical of those who have been questioning writers, artistes, scientists, academics and others who have been returning state awards to protest against what they call a climate of intolerance.

“It is important to understand that these intellectuals are trying to convey that the atrocities have reached a horrifying level. Instead of listening to their voice, it is strange that the government is asking them why they didn’t return awards earlier.”

His remarks come as a surprise because in 2014, before Narendra Modi came to power, Suman was willing to campaign for him. “I admired Modi till all these things happened,” he clarifies. “As a leader, he has to take the flak. He cannot absolve himself of all this by saying that he’s not doing it. He has to handle his men.”

There are rumours that he is angry with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) because it didn’t allow him to campaign for it before the Bihar Assembly polls. “These talks happen casually,” he replies.

His relationship with political players in his home state seems a bit ambiguous. He doesn’t think that Bihar has seen development in the last many decades. “Four flyovers and a revolving restaurant in Patna’s Gandhi Maidan cannot define Bihar’s development,” says Suman, whose mother, Usha, was a homemaker, and father, Phani Bhushan Prasad, a surgeon who retired as director-general of health services in Bihar.

But he is quick to add that the outgoing and would-be chief minister, Nitish Kumar, improved standards of education and roads in the state. “But his biggest mistake is that he has joined hands with Lalu,” Suman feels.

In 2009, when Suman was contemplating a career in politics, Nitish Kumar had urged him to join his Janata Dal (United) party. “I liked Nitish and knew that I would win if I had joined him. But the Congress had approached me earlier. I had grown up with Congress ideology, so couldn’t say no to them,” he says.

He contested from the Patna Sahib parliamentary seat and lost miserably to fellow actor and BJP leader Shatrughan Sinha.

Relations between the two Bihari babus soured as a result of the contest. “It was the biggest mistake of my life – first to contest the elections and, second, to fight against Shatrughan Sinha.”

Suman talks about the past and present candidly, sitting comfortably in his 20th floor apartment in Oberoi Sky Gardens in Mumbai’s Lokhandwala area. Dressed in a body-hugging yellow tee and a pair of black trousers, he looks a lot younger than his age. I spot his gym, and ask him about his six-pack abs and image makeover. There were rumours that he’d undergone a hair transplant and had botox injected into his skin to do away with wrinkles when he appeared in a self-produced music video with the 20-year-old model, Bruna Abdullah, in 2008.

“Why should I go for cosmetic surgery? Eventually, nothing will last. I have a 27-year-old son. Why should I be worried about looking old,” he retorts.

“This is not what you should ask. As a journalist, you should ask other questions,” he says, giving me a few instant tips on good journalism.

Clearly, the man who made his name poking fun at others is not open to answering uncomfortable questions about himself.

But, then, he did say these were intolerant times.

The verses of the Quran follow me from every corner of the house as I walk up to Adnan Sami’s living room in his sprawling duplex apartment at Lokhandwala in Mumbai. “This is the background music of the house,” the composer-cum-singer says. “I like to greet anyone who comes to my house with a lot of positivity and peace. Also, I want the house to be blessed with the verses of God.”

Sami, 45, needs the blessings. His Bollywood debut – the song Bhar do jholi which he sang for Salman Khan’s new release Bajrangi Bhaijaan – has kicked up a storm. Reports say that the music label EMI Pakistan, which holds the rights to the song sung by the Sabri Brothers of Pakistan, has sent a legal notice to Sami, Khan and the music company, T-Series, for using the song in the film.

But Sami denies having received a legal notice. “Music director Pritam along with the filmmakers have made it clear that this qawwali has been inspired by and recreated from an old folk qawwali,” he says.

The controversy, he adds, is uncalled for. “Pakistanis want to create problems because I am involved in it. They just look for bahanaas (excuses) to irk me.”

Indeed, sections of Pakistanis have often created problems for Sami. In 2013, he was attacked when he recorded an azaan (Call to Prayer).

“Many raised objections saying that only the muezzins of mosques were authorised to sing it. I told them, if I can sing much better than the muezzins, I will do it,” an agitated Sami says.

The controversies hurt him because his father, Arshad Sami Khan, was from Pakistan, while his mother, Naureen, was from Jammu. Khan served as a diplomat in 14 countries and was close to former Pakistani President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.

“As a kid, I used to play with Pinky (Benazir Bhutto),” he says. In his living room, there is a framed photograph of Benazir with a signed message.

Sami’s father, who was the aide-de-comp (A.D.C.) to three Presidents, wrote a book titled, “Three Presidents and an Aide – Life, Power and Politics,” which was published in India and was released by former Indian Prime Minister IK Gujral in 2008.

“Pakistan was too scared to publish it,” Sami says.

Since his father was posted in different countries, Sami was studying in a boarding school in Rugby in United Kingdom. Then he studied Journalism & Political Science from the University of London and later completed LLB degree from the prestigious Kings College in London.

Sami’s father introduced him to jazz and Hindustani classical music. He introduced him to ‘Raag Durga’ and ‘Raag Darbaari’ too. Sami was introduced to various music instruments at an early age of five and he began to learn the santoor from Pandit Shivkumar Sharma while he used to visit India during his school vacations and adapted it to the piano. He is the first musician to play Indian classical music on the keyboard. He also got the title of the fastest man on the keyboard.

Sami’s younger brother, Junaid Sami Khan, is a businessman in Houston in the US but Sami was always inclined to music. His family’s wide circle of friends brought him in touch with musicians from Bollywood. While he was living in London, he met music director R.D. Burman and singer Asha Bhonsle, who were visiting the city for a concert.

He recalls that he was playing the keyboard at a friend’s house, where Burman and Bhonsle were present, and surprised the musician. “He couldn’t believe that I was playing the keyboard. So I played for him again,” Sami says. “You’ll be a composer one day,” Bhonsle told him.

And that happened. His first formal album titled, “The One &Only,” was an Indian classical album on the piano accompanied by tabla maestro Zakir Hussain was released in 1989 and his first vocal solo album “Raag Time” was released in 1991.

It was such a coincidence that Bhonsle sang for Pakistani movie, Sargam, for which he composed music in 1991. But then the film censor board of Pakistan did not allow the release of the film because an Indian singer did the playback. So the songs were re-recorded with a Pakistani singer, Hadiqa Kiyani. But he teamed up with Bhonsle a decade later and released a collection of love songs in an album titled, ‘Kabhi to Nazar Milao’ in India.

But it was during the shooting of ‘Sargam’, where Sami was also the lead actor, he met his first wife, Pakistani actress Zeba Bakhtiyar, who was paired with him. But ironically, his Pakistani connections have never worked. So this marriage didn’t work either.

“Within two years, we fell apart,” says Sami, who feels that his failed relationships helped him to compose superhit romantic numbers such as “Bheegi Bheegi raaton mein” and “Tera chehara jab nazar aayein.”

He was not allowed to meet their son, Azaan, for 10 years. But now they are in touch, and Azaan is even following in the footsteps of his father, having composed a song for the 2010 release Bumm Bumm Bole.

Sami stresses that he has the capacity to face pain. “I believe in the philosophy of turning the other cheek,” he says, pointing to his right cheek – once remarkably chubby, now even more remarkably chiselled.
I take the liberty to tell him that I liked him more in his earlier avatar. He laughs.

But Sami has gone through many failed relationships. In 2001, he married an Arab, Sabah Galadari but this marriage too ended in a divorce, a year-and-a-half later. He remarried her in 2008, only to divorce her for the second time in 2009. But a case of domestic violence was lodged against him by her.

She also claimed this 5.3 crore house, where we are sitting now, was being gifted to her by him and filed a legal suit. But ironically, the house has now been confiscated by the Enforcement Directorate on the ground that Sami cannot buy a house because he is a Pakistani. “I have put an appeal before the ED. Till the final verdict is out, I am allowed to stay here,” he says.

Sami was a Pakistani passport holder, but surrendered his passport in May. He had twice applied for Indian citizenship and been rejected. He has now applied for it again. “I have been staying in India for so many years. It’s my home now,” Sami, born on the Indian Independence Day, August 15 in 1969, says.

Sami talks incessantly. Some of his answers are 15 minute-long. I often interrupt him and nudge him to answer the next question.

As we talk, Sami, dressed in a black T’shirt with the image of Beethoven imprinted on it and a pair of blue jeans, gets up to get his pack of cigarettes. I notice, a collage of photographs with Amitabh Bachchan, Pandit Jasraj, Zakir Hussain adorn the walls of his living room. Besides the platinum records of Michael Jackson’s Thriller and the handwritten manuscript of Rudwig Von Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, framed posters of the epic ‘Ben-Hur,’ romantic drama, ‘Casablanca’ and the science fiction, ‘Matrix’ along with the miniature celluloid reels of the films are also part of his classy collection.

He comes back with a pack of Marlboro and lights up one cigarette. He wears a platinum bracelet embedded with semi precious jewels including his birthstone, Peridot. A Rolex watch adorns his slim wrist.

“I have many Rolex watches but this is precious. This was a gift from my father,” he says while keeping the cigarette in between his fingers.

The fact that he lost 167 kilos over four-and-a-half years is known to anybody who has followed Sami. But he holds that he was not an obese child. “I was very active. I used to play rugby, polo, tennis and cricket in school. It was only in the 1990s, when I used to live just opposite Harrods in London, that I started putting on weight. I used to have my breakfast there every day,” says Sami, who now weighs 75 kilos.

His father nudged him towards losing weight. Once, in a London hotel room in 2007, after a doctor had warned him that his organs would pack up, his father voiced his worries. “I don’t want to face the pain of having to bury you,” his father said.

That was the turning point. Sami went to a nutritionist in Houston, where his father lived, and followed a strict diet. “I was on a high protein diet: no bread, no rice, no sugar, no alcohol. I could eat a horse, as long as it was barbequed or steamed,” he laughs.

After the weight loss, he met his current wife Roya Faryabi, who was a telecommunications engineer in Germany. “She was visiting Mumbai on a project. We met through common friends and clicked,” he says as Roya walks in to say hello.

It’s time to wrap up the conversation. Before I leave, he shows me a piano, one of the five he owns, in his bedroom. “Sometimes, I make music in my sleep. So I get up, put on my headphone and compose it on the piano,” he says. There’s music in every room, and, clearly, through day and night.

( A shorter version of the story is published in The Telegraph, July 19, 2015. The link:
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Hansal Mehta, who’s just won the National Award for the best director for his film Shahid, has finally got recognition after 15 years in filmmaking. Now busy in the post-production work of his next film City Lights, Mehta directed Shahid because he was intrigued by the story of Shahid Azmi. Azmi was a lawyer who was gunned down in his chamber in a Mumbai suburb in 2010, two years after he took up the case of 26/11 co-accused Fahim Ansari. Mehta, who worked as a software engineer in Australia before getting into cinema, feels vindicated that his hard work has paid off. The director of Jayate (1999), Dil Pe Mat Le Yaar (2000), Dus Kahaniyaan (2007) and Woodstock Villa (2008) tells SONIA SARKAR that he was inspired by Azmi’s life. Excerpts:

Q:How does it feel to get a National Award?

A:I believe everything happens at the right time. I am glad that I got the award for Shahid. I may not have been this happy if I had won it for some other film. This award certainly inspires me to direct more fearless films. I have decided that I will do only things that come straight from the heart. It has to be something that reflects my concerns.

Q:Why did you want to make a film based on the life of Shahid Azmi?

A: I came across the story of Shahid through newspapers and was intrigued by it. When I started reading about him, I realised that his was not an ordinary life. Shahid chose to take on the system; he was a true whistleblower. My film is on his life — the spirit of his life. The film is an accurate representation of his life but not a factual representation. About 95 per cent of the film is based on his life; five per cent is fictional. But the part relating to Shahid’s life is absolutely accurate. You have to be responsible and sincere to keep the man’s memory intact.

Q:Why did you cast Rajkummar Rao as Shahid?

A:Filmmaker Anurag Kashyap recommended Rajkummar to me. When I saw his work, I told myself: he is the man who can play Shahid. Even in all his past films, he was never just an actor; he was always the character — and that differentiates him from others. I have always worked with new actors. I have always taken challenges, so I was not afraid to cast him. He is one of the finest actors of this generation. I am doubly happy that he too got a National Award for his role.

Q:Often, when one makes a film on a real life character, there are apprehensions of distortions…

A:I started researching about Shahid Azmi soon after he died. I met his mother, brother and colleagues. When I told them I wanted to make a film on him, they never said no. But they said: tell the story as honestly as possible.

Q:Did Azmi’s family help in developing the character?

A:Once Shahid’s mother came for the shoot. She looked at Rajkummar and kept looking at him. She finally said, there is a pen missing from his pocket. Then she put a pen there. She also showed us how Azmi would hold a pen while writing.

Q:Azmi’s story is controversial. Did you face any hurdles while making the film? (The police called Azmi a militant, and he spent five years in jail. Once he was released, he studied law and later fought on behalf of Muslim boys accused of violence. There was some speculation that he had been killed by the police.)

A:The only problem that I faced was in getting finances. Anyone who showed an interest in financing the project would ask: who will play the lead character? Since I had no access to any of the big stars, I didn’t know what to say. I talked to Manoj Bajpayee but the film had to capture the life of Shahid as a 19-year-old boy too. It was not fair to expect Manoj to play that role. Then I met Sunil Bohra (one of the five producers of the film), who told me that he would love to produce it. He called up Anurag Kashyap who too agreed to co-produce the film.

Q:Your association with Kashyap is not new. He was the scriptwriter of your first film Jayate…

A:Jayate was Anurag’s first film too as he began his career as a scriptwriter. Both of us were newbies when we started. He was as enthusiastic then as he is today. We did not work together for long but we were blogging mates.

Q:Because Dil Pe Mat Le Yaar was on migrants who came to work as labourers in Mumbai, Raj Thackeray’s men ransacked your office and blackened your face. You were also made to apologise to MLAs and other party workers. Can you tell us what happened?

A:I don’t want to talk about it.

Q:Shahid is also a controversial subject. Doesn’t it worry you that somebody or the other will take offence?

A:This time I decided that I would not hold back from telling the truth. I will not hold back from fighting for what is right. I will not hold back from making my voice heard. The consequences are something that I will deal with courageously. I will apologise only if I have done something wrong.

Q:After Woodstock Villa in 2008, you stopped making films for four years till you started shooting Shahid. Why was there such a long gap?

A:After Woodstock Villa, I was disillusioned with myself. Perhaps I was not doing enough as a filmmaker. I thought I’d failed on both fronts — professional and personal. I left Mumbai for two years. I spent a lot of time with family — my daughters and wife. There was an urge to do something, to make a film. Then I came across this piece of news about a young lawyer being killed. It was Shahid. I knew, then, that this was the film I had to make.


Actor Biswajit Chatterjee, the Trinamul Congress candidate for the New Delhi constituency, talks to Sonia Sarkar on fighting an electoral battle without chief minister Mamata Banerjee around, and on why his son, actor Prosenjit, should not plunge into politics

There are no retakes here — the fight is for real. Actor Biswajit Chatterjee, who is the Trinamul Congress candidate for the New Delhi constituency, knows that well. So he is getting ready to give his best shot.

“There is no time left, I have to run in my constituency to be able to meet everyone,” he says. “I will try to win,” he smiles.

It’s going to be quite a fight because his rivals are Congress leader Ajay Maken, a two-time MP from the constituency, and BJP spokesperson and lawyer Meenakshi Lekhi.

But Chatterjee, 77, insists he is not intimidated by them. “We all know that there will be just one winner but I am not afraid to fight. In cricket, too, there is just one man of the match. And I will soon learn the tricks of the trade.”

Maken and Lekhi belong to the city. The actor, on the other hand, has spent his life mostly in Mumbai and Calcutta. Wouldn’t he have had a better chance of winning if he had been fielded from Bengal? “When it comes to chances of winning, contesting from Bengal would have been a better option for me,” he admits. “But it was Didi’s decision to field me from Delhi,” he says, referring to Trinamul leader Mamata Banerjee.

Actually, the buzz goes that the party leadership had earlier decided to field him from Delhi South, under the impression that the Bengali-dominated Chittaranjan Park area was a part of the constituency. Later, when the party discovered that CR Park actually came under New Delhi, he was moved. Being a Bengali, it was thought that Chatterjee would vibe well with the Bengali voters.

But he insists he’s there not just for the Bengali electorate. “People in Delhi know me,” he stresses.

The actor has a Trinamul scarf draped around his neck and sports a stone-studded badge with Didi’s photo inscribed on it. He looks like a Trinamul loyalist, but he got to know Banerjee only in 2009 when she was the Union railway minister. He wanted permission to shoot a train sequence for a documentary he had produced and directed on Subhas Bose. “Not only did she give us the permission to shoot at the Sealdah railway station, she also instructed her officials to make us comfortable,” he says.

Since then, he has been quite a loyalist. He campaigned for her party in the 2011 state Assembly elections in Bengal. “I have great admiration for her. She feels strongly for the people of Bengal and gets whatever she wants,” he says, fiddling with his packet of Classic cigarettes.

It’s a cue for him to start listing her achievements. “She revived the Technicians Studio in the Bengali film industry. She brought many artistes and technicians under medical insurance cover. Since I am from the film fraternity, I count these as her achievements,” he says.

Her critics, he says, only see her “outer” self, which appears tough. “Yes, she doesn’t spare anyone for any wrong they do. But she is also very emotional. She is like anyone’s boudi (sister-in-law) or didi (elder sister) or mashima (aunt). Her softer side is adorable,” he says. “She gets angry only when people cross their limit. If I make a mistake, I would like to be told by her so that I could rectify it.”

We move back to the election in New Delhi, where the Trinamul has hardly any presence. Chatterjee admits that he feels a bit “isolated” in this political battle when the leader is not around. “Didi has to keep coming to Delhi to boost our morale. That would help the party make its mark at the national level,” he feels.

Chatterjee is the latest in a list of stars — actors, singers, theatre people and others — who have been fielded by her in the 2014 elections. The list includes actors Dev, Sandhya Roy and Moon Moon Sen and singers Indranil Sen and Soumitro Ray — all newcomers in the electoral field.

“She must think that we have popularity, so we can fetch votes,” he says, adjusting the white baseball cap on his head. “But for that, we need her to be around.”

Biswajit’s stature — or perhaps it’s naiveté — prompts him to step into areas seasoned politicians would steer clear of. “I have heard that nobody else other than Dev will do well in this election. But my best wishes are for everyone, even for the candidate from Varanasi,” he says wryly.

Speaking of Varanasi, what does he think of the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi?

“I don’t know much about him. But yes, I have heard that he has done a lot for Gujarat,” he replies.

Who, in his opinion, would make a good prime minister? “I am not a political person, how do I know?” he retorts. After being prodded a bit, he opens up. “I would have liked Sardar Patel or Subhas Chandra Bose as a prime minister. But that’s not possible. I don’t think there is anybody in today’s political world who loves the country beyond his or her party.”

But for the present, he is busy planning his campaign. The actor, who sings well, seeks to liven up his meetings with songs from the films that made him famous — including Pukarta chala hoon main and Oh, my love. He also plans to ask some of his cricketer friends — such as Salim Durrani and Kapil Dev — to campaign for him. “They are good friends,” says Chatterjee, who has organised many charity matches.

His son, Prosenjit — a superstar in Bengal — is likely to campaign for him, too. The father and son fell out more than 30 years ago when Chatterjee left his first wife and Prosenjit’s mother, Ratna, to marry Ira. He regrets the fact that he couldn’t keep his family together.

“Bumba (Prosenjit) was around 17 then. He was immature and blamed me for our failed marriage. But he gradually understood that marriages do come apart only when his two marriages failed,” he says.

Now Chatterjee often goes to Calcutta and stays with his son. Like any other father, he advises him. Recently, when there was speculation that the Trinamul Congress was likely to give Prosenjit a ticket, he urged his son not to hang up his boots this soon.

“He is doing amazingly well in cinema. I told him that he should wait for some more years before taking the plunge into politics,” says Chatterjee, who gave his son his first role in 1968 with his home production Chhotto Jigyasha. “Also, he has to be mature enough to counter the unpleasant things that come in politics,” he adds.

Chatterjee is surprisingly fit, though his face looks drawn when he takes off his dark glasses. Yoga and a restricted diet are the secrets of his health, he says. “I eat very simple food,” he says.

Simplicity is a trait that he picked up as a child. Originally from Hooghly’s Uttarpara region, he studied at the Ramkrishna Mission Vidyamandir in Belur. His father, Ranjit Kumar Chatterjee, was a doctor in the Army; so as a child he also travelled to places such as Karachi and Lahore. Later, they moved to Coochbehar where his mother, Smritimoyee, died of brain cancer when he was 13.

He started taking an interest in theatre as a young man, following in the footsteps of a maternal uncle. Soon he had been offered — and had accepted — roles in Bengali films. After his first film, Daak Harkara in 1959, he acted in many other Bengali films, including the national award winning Dada Thakur in 1962.

Bombay beckoned when Guru Dutt offered him a role in Sahib, Bibi aur Ghulam. Chatterjee couldn’t take that up because it meant signing a contract for five years, for which he wasn’t ready. But right then singer Hemant Kumar offered him a role in his production, Bees Saal Baad. Then, of course, there was no looking back. He acted in a series of films including Mere Sanaam, Kohra and Kismet. His last Hindi film was Inth Ka Jawaab Pathhar, which released in 2002.

He runs two production houses now — Biswajit Creations and Prima Films. In 2012, he produced Adorini, where Prosenjit acted with his half-sister Prima. He is now going to feature in a new Bengali film, Sandhya Naamar Aage. But the shooting has been suspended till the elections.

After all, a nail-biting production is opening soon in a theatre near you.


The twinkle in her soft brown eyes – which cameramen for long years have lovingly focused on – is gone. Her smile is there, though, and seeks to hide the trouble that’s beset her.

These seven days have been hard on actress Zarina Wahab. She has been juggling between the courts and locations. Dressed in a white salwar kameez, she has been shooting in Goregaon’s Film City when we meet in between shots. And though she looks elegant, she also looks bone tired.

“I have to play the role of a woman who is just walking out of a mental asylum. I have to look depressed for the role. But the irony is that I don’t have to put on an act,” Wahab, 53, says.

Her son — 21-year-old Suraj Pancholi – was arrested by the Mumbai police on Monday on charges of abetting Bollywood actor Jiah Khan’s suicide on June 5.  His bail plea will be heard on June 21. Since he has been arrested, Wahab has met him only once. “It was the day he was produced in court. He waved out to me,” she says. Her daughter Sana, she adds, has been visiting him.

Khan’s tragic suicide has triggered a war of words. Her mother Rabiya Khan has alleged that Suraj, who is said to have been in a relationship with Jiah, abused her and pushed her to take her life. Rabiya has alleged that Suraj used to get drunk and beat Jiah and had also tried to rape her. The police have claimed that Suraj has confessed to beating her once in Goa eight months ago, following which Khan had tried to slit her wrists.

Wahab will have none of this. “My son is the most well mannered child. I have never seen him abusing anyone,” says Wahab who stresses that her son is a teetotaler.  “Suraj loved her at one point of time. Why would he rape her?”

A doting mother, she stresses that her son is calm and shy. He starts his day at seven, goes to the gym and then to his dancing classes. He had been gearing up for his debut role in a Bollywood film – he was to have been launched with Suniel Shetty’s daughter Aathiya in a remake of Subhash Ghai’s 1983 blockbuster Hero.

“Even before he could start his career, they made a villain out of him. But I know he will emerge a hero,” she says.

Wahab adds that she had not met Jiah Khan, but got to know about their relationship from reports in the media last year. “They met on Facebook. When I asked him about her, he said she was a nice girl, but never talked about her. His focus was on preparing himself as an actor,” she says.

But that came to a sudden halt last week when Rabiya made public a five-page letter allegedly written by Jiah. The letter referred to her traumatic relationship with Suraj. The police are believed to have recovered five love letters from Suraj’s house. According to Wahab, Jiah had no complaints about Suraj in any of those letters.

“I am confident that my son has done nothing that would have provoked Jiah to commit suicide. All I know is that they loved each other a lot at one point of time. But then affairs do go wrong. Haven’t we all gone through phases in our life when we have realised that we were dating the wrong person,” she asks.

Wahab knows about tumultuous relationships. Her own relationship was once the delight of tabloids. Like Jiah, who was older than Suraj — Wahab was 27 and actor Aditya Pancholi 23 when they met on the sets of a video film Kalank Ka Tika. They have been married for 27 years, and Pancholi, who now runs a restaurant, Cafe Lambretta in Goa,  has often been in the news – and mostly for the wrong reasons. He has also been linked with Bollywood actresses.

“I never questioned Nirmal  (Pancholi’s actual name) about his affairs. In fact, he often asked me: why don’t you even spy on me,” Wahab laughs. “I don’t care what he does outside the home. For me, what matters is how he behaves with me at home. And I know my husband cares for me.”

What about the physical abuse that the media whispered about?

“Has anyone seen him beat me,” she asks, her soft nasal voice going a notch higher.

“I earn enough to look after myself. If Nirmal was abusive to me, I would have left him long back. But  yes, Nirmal loses his temper very easily. He shouts for five minutes and then he apologises.”

Aware of his temper — Pancholi got into a fight with members of the media on the day of Jiah’s funeral — she has requested him to stay out of Suraj’s case for the time being.  “I asked him not to be around Suraj now as his aggressive image would do more damage to the case,” says Wahab, who is fondly called “Z” by her friends.

Suraj, who is now in judicial custody, will be home soon, she believes. She doesn’t want to speculate on the case anymore – and is ready to put an end to the interview. But when I mention her days in Rajahmundry in Andhra Pradesh, she smiles.

Her father, she says, was a deputy superintendent in the central excise department, and her mother was a homemaker. Wahab went to the Schade Girls High School – and always dreamt of becoming an actress.

“I used to put a lot of powder on my face and stand in front of the mirror for hours. I wanted to act since my childhood,” she says.

Wahab joined the Film and Television Institute of India after school and was signed up by actor-director-producer Dev Anand for his film Ishq Ishq Ishq. “I went to Dev Saab with my photographs but he refused to see them. He said that he’d seen me in person, and was confident that I would be photogenic. I really didn’t have to struggle at all to make inroads into Bollywood.”

While she was shooting for Ishq Ishq Ishq in 1976, she was offered the role of a village girl opposite Amol Palekar in Rajshri Productions’ Chitchor. A year later, she was in Gulzar’s Gharonda, playing the role of a woman who marries an old man for his wealth so that she can live happily with her penniless lover after his death. Wahab, who was the star of the alternative but mainstream cinema, also went on to act in a great many out-and-out commercial films – including Sawan Ko Aane Do, Ek Aur Ek Gyarah, Chor Police and Dahleez.  She acted in over 50 Hindi films and 22 Malyalam films.

Wahab had a girl next door image. Her dusky complexion and long shiny hair made her look different from the other heroines of her times. Wahab looks much fairer now and she does not like it anymore. “When I was young, I was to bleach my skin every 15 days so that I become fair. Now that I am fair, I think my original complexion was much better,” she laughs.

She also acted in Malyalam films. “I did that to earn quick money, They never shoot for more than 15-20 days, so the producers clear their bills after the shoot is over, unlike Mumbai where bills remain pending for years till the movie is released,” she says. Her first Malyalam film was Madanoslavam with Kamal Haasan in 1978. She’s still involved in Malyalam cinema. A recent film — Adaminte Makan Abu — won four national awards and was India’s official entry to the best foreign language film category in the 2011 Oscar awards.

Wahab continued with her career till 1995, when she took time off to raise her children. She donned the greasepaint again in 2000 with the television series Agni. She has acted in quite a few films in recent times – inlcuding My Name is Khan, Vishwaroopam, Agneepath and Himmatwala. She has just finished shooting for I, Me Aur Main, where she plays John Abraham’s mother. Right now, she is busy shooting for the television series Madhubala, Ek Ishq, Ek Junoon.

“I love acting, so I am happy that I am still getting roles,” she says. Is she being forced to act because she has to run the house?  “I act because that’s the only thing I can do. I enjoy every bit of it,” she replies.”

Apart from acting, she loves Telugu films – especially the funny ones. “Every month, I go to Hyderabad to relax and watch these mindless comedies. That’s the best way to unwind,” she smiles, and then adds, “We will visit Hyderabad once Suraj is out.”

She hopes to entertain her son in style. A good cook, she plans to cook some Hyderabadi biryani for him. “Every time I cook it, I have to try hard to convince him that I have gone easy on the ghee. He is extremely health conscious.”

She will feed Suraj, and hope that the death of a troubled girl in Mumbai will soon be behind them. Wahab says she tried to meet Jiah’s mother last week to console her but Rabiya walked out of the room. Two mothers, with two different stories – but clearly both are hurting.

(A version of the story has been published in The Telegraph on June 16, 2013)