By Ali Peter John
I joined “Screen” in the year 1973 with a great deal of reluctance. I was happy with my 100 Rupees job as an assistant to my Guru, K.A Abbas which I sometimes got and sometimes had to wait for months but I didn’t mind because working with him was the world for me. It was while I was with him that I met some of the greatest figures in every language and also the likes of Raj Kapoor and Balraj Shahani. He was the first to tell me about how his criticism of a film made by V. Shantaram had made Shantaram so angry that he challenged Abbas to make his own film and that is how he had started his own film making company, ‘Naya Sansar’.
This was only when Abbas told me that I would have no future working with him as an assistant but I had joined him only after he recommended me to the editor, Mr. SS Pillai. Seeing that I was a good poet, which had nothing to do with the job in ‘Screen’. Still Mr. Pillai, however, took an instant liking for me and offered me a job and I kept him waiting for four months and he waited without giving the job to anyone else. His family had to threaten me that if I didn’t join on January 2 1973, he would certainly give the job to someone else. I joined only with the hope that he would throw me out in 15 days and I would get some money. But he took me on for a staggering salary of rupees 450 a month which made me so rich that I went back home from Andheri station in a Taxi every evening and my entire village was surprised to see the change in my lifestyle…
Mr. Pillai, however, was the only man who stood by me while all the others who were much more senior to me were continuously conspiring to get me out, branding me as a communist and a rebel only because they knew I was a disciple of Abbas. The Chief Reporter made it a point to give me some of the toughest assignments which I succeeded in facing and surprised all of them.
One morning, he called me and with a sly smile on his face said, “Ali, you have to take an interview of V. Shantaram tomorrow morning at 11am sharp in his office”. I didn’t say a word and accepted his challenge ones again. I had to rush to the peak hours traffic both in the bus I took to the station and the horrible rush I had to face in the train and then take a Taxi to reach Rajkamal Kala Mandir which was Shantaram’s resident and his studio which was considered to be one of the best in Asia.
I was led to his cabin as they were all told about my grand arrival. The first thing that caught my attention was a pair of love birds in a cage which I was told was made of pure gold. I walked in to see a man sitting on what looked like a throne and the way he was dressed all in white with a fur cap which strengthened my belief in his being some kind of an emperor of the past. He first looked at his wristwatch which was all gold and said, “Young man, you are one minute late”. Before I could sit, he asked me a very strange question, “Are you sure you are the same man sent to me by Mr. Kuntakar? Are you sure you would be able to interview me?” and before I could say anything, he called up Mr. Kuntakar and made sure that I was the right man.
He started talking and hardly had I asked him the first question, he asked me, “Why are you not talking notes? Why have you not brought a tape-recorder?” I told him that he should be assured that I would quote him exactly the way he spoke and with all the facts and figures intact. He said, “I have met many big journalists, but you seem to be a very strange man.”
For the next one and a half hour, he talked and I talked and I got the full story of his extraordinary life. He was Vankudre Shantaram who was the son of a farmer somewhere in Kolapur, but he was interested in theatre and what he called ‘Moving Images’ by which he meant films. He told me how he had started out as a collie in different units carrying camera and other heavy equipment from one location to another and how he had slowly learnt the basics of filmmaking. He together with some of his colleagues had started ‘Prabhat Studios ’in Kolapur, but they had differences and he came away to Bombay, where he built his own studio in an area called ‘Lalbagh’ which was mostly known as a Mill area. Soon there were Mills all around and the splendid ‘Rajkmal Studio’ standing in all its glory.
In this studio where he made some of his classics like “Padosi, Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baaje, Sehra, Boond Jo Ban Gayee Moti, Do Ankhen Barah Haath, Pinjra, and many others. Every film he made was recognised national and international. The man who had never been to school could now speak perfect English and could mingle around with film legends from all over the world.
He had his own ways of functioning whether it was while shooting or whether it was dealing with the administration of the office. He was the first to start a register which had to be signed by every star and spot boy at 8 in the morning when they were up when the big bell rang. He always believed in reading and practice.
I found it interesting when he told me about how he had thought of making, “Do Ankhen Barah Haath” with Dilip Kumar and in late zone and how when on the day the shooting was still to start, Dilip Kumar did not report in time and how he a non-actor decided to play the role himself. Both the roles in the film are memorable in the history of Indian cinema. He also told me about how he had discovered young actors like Jeetendra, Mumtaz and his own wife Jayashree and the daughter Rajshree. He was proud about his going to London to do his film – Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baaje, film in Technicolor.
By the time he had finished he told me the entire story of his life, including his personal life and his having 3 wives, many children and grandchildren.
Was all set to leave when the emperor in white stood up and came forward from his throne and shook my hands and said, “I have never spoken to any journalist like this before, but how will you remember all that we have spoken about films in two hours?” I left his questions unanswered and left with a feeling of achievement.
It was Friday and ‘Screen’ was out in the market and believe me I had forgotten that I had written a full page article on Annasaheb as he was known in the industry. I was having my lunch in the office canteen when Mr. Kuntakar came running to me saying, “Ali, Arrey Dimaag Kharab (that’s the name he has given me for being a rebel) Santaram ka phone hai, Santaram ka phone hai.” I did not pay any attention to what he was a saying and continued to nibbling at my oily papad when he came and forcibly took me with him. Till then I was under the impression that it was my driver-friend Shantaram who was calling and thought that he could always call me again. But when I picked up the phone, I was astounded, it was the emperor in white who was on the line and for the next 10 minutes he kept praising me for the way I wrote English, for my memory and for the emotions I had expressed. I could have called it the end of my career that afternoon, but his words of encouragement only kept me going and still does 40 years latter…
A few weeks later, we had a grand party for entire industry with bigwigs. I was again put to the test when Mr. Kuntakar who was a close friend of Shantaram asked me to invite him to the party. I knew that he never believed in having party or attending them. But I made an attempt and spoke to the great man and he only asked me, “Where do you want me to come and at what time? I will be there. You are my friend, I will come” and he came and made me feel important. When he said that he was there only because of me.
Some more days passed and I was walking alone on a road near Andheri station and I saw a ship-like car coming and standing close to me. The car which had the emblem of Rajkamal had him seating in the back seat and he was calling out to me. He had lost his way to the set studios where he had to attend a very crucial meeting of the industry leaders. I tried to explain the way but he asked me to get into his car and we drove to the studio what an evening is was for me!
A month later I was invited to the Rajkamal Studios when Price Charles was on his first visit to Bombay and wanted to see the film studio and the Rajkamal studio was the chosen one. Shantaram who was an emperor himself made royal arrangements to welcome Prince Charles. He had a special screening of glimpses of all the films he had made and the Prince asked him, if he had really made all these films and he said, “Who else can make such films at such great risks?” The Prince was astounded.
Shantaram took the Prince around the studios and Padmini Kolhapure who was shooting on the floors made front page splashes in almost every newspaper in the country when she kissed the Prince. Shantaram later introduced several stars to the Prince and stopped when he reached Shammi Kapoor and told the Prince, you are a Prince, but this man is our Prince of dancing. There have been many dancers but not one like Shammi Kapoor.” And Shammi touched his feet in the glare of hundreds of photographers from all over India and Great Britain.
He was 86 and was shooting for a new film starring Padmini Kolhapure and his grandson Sushant Ray. It was while he was shooting that he had a fall in the bathroom and was rushed to the Bombay hospital from where he never returned. His last wish was that he should be dressed up in just the way he used to when he was alive, with his fur cap and his glasses intact. He also wanted to be cremated at the only electric crematory in Bombay those days in Sion. The funeral procession from Rajkamal to Sion was a site the rest of stars on earth or the sky could envy.
There is only a memento in his name at the Rajkamal studio. Most of the floors have been sold by his son Kiran Shantaram and have been turned into apartments. There are only two floors left and no big film maker wants to shoot there and the floors are only used to shoot serials and add films. What a sad end to a glorious era!
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