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A Coolie Who Rose To Build His Own Empire (Remembering Dr.V.Shantaram On His Death Anniversary)

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-ALI PETER JOHN

I had some idea of his formidable personality and I knew all about his great films,but I never had the oppurtunity of seeing him or meeting him. I was a cub reporter in ‘Screen’ and was assigned to interview small-time actors and filmmakers for cover birthdays,weddings and funerals. I was therefore surprise when my chief reporter,Mr R.M.Kumtakar one morning told me that I would have to interview Dr V.Shantaram.

The interview was fixed for 11 am the next morning and I had to be in his office at 11 sharp as he was known for his punctuality.

I literally rushed and ran to reach Rajkamal Studios in Lalbagh. I was led to Dr Shantarams office and the first thing that struck me was a cage with lovebirds in it,the cage I was later told was made of pure gold. I walked into his office to see him sitting like an emperor and the first thing he said after looking at his gold wristwatch was’young man,you are 1 minute late’. I tried to tell him how difficult it was to reach anywhere during the rush hours in a city like Bombay,but he made me feel comfortable and after asking for two cups of tea which came in silver cups, he started  telling the story of his life.

He was telling me how he used to carry cameras and other equipment on his shoulders from studio to studio in Kolhapur and how he had started producing films. I saw him looking at me from time to time and he finally said what I felt he wanted to say. He said,’young man, you dont carry a taperecorder,you are not even taking notes,then how will you remember everything I say. I only told him that I would not give him any reasons to complain or regret talking to me.

We talked for more than two hours,he came to see me off,but still had a look of disbelief on his face.

I wrote out the article which was published in one full page and forgot all about it. I was having lunch in my canteen when Mr Kumtakar came panting to me and said,’dimag kharab(that is how he always addressed me) Shantaramji ka phone hai’. I told him I was having lunch and asked him to tell Shantaram to call me later. Mr Kumtakar was pulling his hair and going mad with me till I followed him to our office. Till then,I was under the impression that Shamtaram was the driver of my friend and it was he who was calling me. I took the call and the voice on the other side said,’ good afternoon Mr Ali, I am Shantaram. I dont know how to thank you for writing such a wonderful article. I want you to come again and have tea with me and please explain how you remembered everything I said” I mumnled a few words and told him whatever I did was all that I knew. He laughed aloud and that was the beginning of an unusual bond between us. That was also the beginning of my many many talks and chats with some of the greatest legends.

We were having a party for the film industry at the Express Tower and it was the first time that Mr Ramnath Goenka the founder of Indian Express attended any party. I was standing in the crowd in the foyer where the guests alighted from their cars and approached the lift. I could see the huge and posh car of Dr Shantaram approaching the foyer. And hardly had he stepped out of his car when he spotted me and called out “Mr Ali,have you forgotten me? Come and meet me, I have wanted to see you for a long time’. He embraced me as if we were long lost friends and I dont know why at that moment I remembered my mother  who I felt would have been emotionally thrilled to see her son in such great company.

We kept meeting on different important  occasions and not once did he show me any signs of being the Dr V.Shantaram he was. One such occasion was when his autobiography in Marathi, ‘Shantarama ‘was released at his own plaza cinema and I vividly remember how Jeetendra who was shooting several shifts in a day all over the south made it a point to attend the function in time. How could he not after all Dr Shantaram had given him the name Jeetendra,given him his first oppirtunity to work as an extra in his film”Sehra’ and then had cast him as the hero off ‘geet gaya pattharon mein’ with his daughter Rajyashri as his leading lady ?

I was once walking on the pavement outside the three theaterrs Oscar Amber and Minor in Andheri,when I saw a blue ship – like vehicle coming and standing close to me. I was beyond words and any idea that it was the great Dr Shantaram in the car. I cant to this day imagine how an 84 yr old man could see me on that pavement, recognise me,wish me and offer me a lift in his car.

One other occassion I can never forget is the afternoon when Prince Charles visited his studio and had seen glimpses of his films and how on his way out , he had asked Dr Shantaram if all the women standing in a gallery dressed in colourful clothes were his wives and Dr Shantaram who had three wives smiled like a naughty boy and had said,’ only three,not all’ .

At 85 he was still very active and energetic and went on a walk around his studio every eveninh and would pick up even the tinyest peck of dirt and how his son Kiran would follow him without saying a word and who had once told me , ‘dekho lalbagh ka dada  ja raha hai’. It was at this ripe old age that he had launched a new film called ‘Jhaanjaar’ with Padmini Kolhapure and his grandson Sushant Ray and had short a few reels of it.

One evening, he fell in his bathroom and was admitted to the Bombay Hospital from where he never came back alive.

His funeral at the Sion electric crematorium was attended by a large crowd of people which included all the big stars,ministers and others and the last, to reach the crematorium was Rajesh Khanna..

Today,after so many years Rajkamal Studio is just a skeleton of what it was and the only memories of Dr Shantaran are two of his cars and his office decorated with photographs of his films and from his persinal album..

And in one corner stands the memorial built in honour of him.

This is life and I hope some of my great friends of today realise and know this truth which can help them in living better and more meaningful lives.