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Evenings with Nadira

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Nadira in her prime

The building set the tone for the meeting – a strong structure, beautifully detailed, gone to seed, the corridors dank and smelly. But the apartment itself was clean and comfy, decorated with exquisite period pieces.

Meeting Nadira was much the same. Clad in a shapeless housedress, her hair pulled back tightly in a bun, and no make-up, she was nowhere near the svelte, slinky man-eater we had come to associate her with from her roles.

But the moment she clasped your hand, you knew that she was still the same tempered steel, so known to us from her many famous films.

Her tongue was still razor sharp too, and she would take no nonsense whether it was from the press or from the local plumber who was there to fix a leaking tap.

She mistook my initial attempts at smalltalk for diffidence. “Look, dear,: she said. “If you want to ask any daring questions, go ahead. Don’t be afraid!”

I didn’t have the heart to tell her that the editor who had commissioned me to write the article, Dinesh Raheja, a veteran film journalist and then editor of Movie magazine, had just wanted a piece on stars in their twilight years, and not a tell-all rip-off.

And yet for all that, she was very vulnerable. In between our conversation, while talking about how she spent her time then – this was sometime in 1988, when she had not worked in about four years, the last time being Ramesh Sippy’s ‘Saagar’ – she suddenly broke down and said, “Do you know I buried my last living blood relation, my aunt, on the 27th of September?It was a terrible feeling. Today I have nobody.”

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As Nadira was when I first met her

The loneliness was palpable, and the agony searing. She lived all alone in her apartment near Kemps Corner, in south Mumbai, with her 70-year-old housekeeper and caretaker Maria, surrounded by her books, artefacts and memories.

And yet, she didn’t make much of her loneliness. “I’ve lived with pain,” she said simply. “Of course here in the film industry (the word Bollywood hadn’t been coined then) everything is exaggerated. When you become famous they make so much of you that it’s suffocating. They don’t let you breathe. And then, one day suddenly everything is taken away and you are left with nothing! So naturally stars feel their loneliness more.”

Though the words and tears flowed freely, in retrospect I feel that Nadira was mourning the lost opportunities more than wallowing in self-pity. She’d never realised her full potential in an industry that couldn’t make up its mind about what to do with her talent. She’d been slotted in vampish roles when, after her debut in Mehboob Khan’s ‘Aan’, she chose to play Maya in Raj Kapoor’s ‘Shree 420’. “I couldn’t be bothered, dear,” she said when I asked her why she didn’t pursue better roles in the wake of her early success. “They asked me to hire a secretary or manager, but I didn’t want any of that. I wanted to live my life my way, not follow someone’s dictates. I don’t regret it at all.”

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Gossiping with character actress Shammi and Nargis (at extreme right), probably at a show of ‘Shree 420′. The man in the middle is character actor Anwar Hussain, Nargis’ brother.

I didn’t know it then, but her real name was Florence Ezekiel, and born to Jewish parents. She’d been married to a writer who’d migrated to Pakistan after the partition, I heard much later, or so said an old film distributor at Naaz Cinema Building in Tardeo, Mumbai. It  was then the nerve centre of the Bombay film industry – most deals were made or broken there, and he was a storehouse of industry lore. He also said she’d been married a second time, very briefly, only to be cheated again by a gold-digger.

It was apparent even at my first meeting that Nadira was an easy touch. She didn’t think twice before revealing whatever was on her mind; she didn’t feel the need to hide anything. Lonely, she most certainly was, but it was for companionship – she wanted to discuss books, her biggest weakness, and then, films, a distant second. When she was alone, her drink gave her company – vodka poured over freshly squeezed sweet lime. Maria was ordered to get me a glass as soon as we’d settled down. Within the next couple of hours we’d downed more than a couple of tots, – I had to secretly signal Maria to make mine plain lime juice after that. Round and jolly, Maria nodded silently, shaking with mirth. I could see why they got on so well.

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The spitfire in ‘Shree 420’ was to typecast her forever

I never did write that story for Dinesh. I was quite shaken emotionally, and was afraid I would put too much of myself into it. At least that’s what I told him. I realise now that I just didn’t want to expose Nadira to the pity that the article would have aroused.

When Dinesh told her that I’d been upset after the meeting, she wanted to send me flowers. Those days I didn’t even have a telephone connection, nor an office address (I was between jobs then) so I can’t claim to having received flowers from Nadira. But the next time I passed her apartment building, I dropped in on her and was received with much warmth.

This time we talked about loneliness, and she told me she didn’t feel lonely in the sense that she needed somebody beside her. “I would certainly like someone who understands me and accepts me for who I am,” she said. She paused, listening to her own words, and smiled with irony. “Like, who wouldn’t, right?” It was morning but that didn’t stop the vodka-laced sweet limes. Strangely, there was never a moment when she was drunk. The drink only appeared to make her more clear-headed and lucid.

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One of her better roles in Kamal Amrohi’s ‘Pakeezah’, which was also Meena Kumari’s swan-song

There were moments when her vulnerability slipped through. Once she looked at herself and said, “I am so dark.” Which was absurd; she was a hundred shades lighter than any light-skinned person I knew. When I protested, she drew her head up in the imperious gesture so familiar to her fans. “That’s because you haven’t seen my mother, dear,” she said. “She was so fair! She used to call me her black duckling!”

Did her childhood have anything to do with why she pursued unhealthy relationships? Having been a Psychology major, I thought I knew it all, but when I hesitatingly mentioned it, she gave me a pitying look. “No, dear, that’s not it at all. I had no such trauma; though we had little money I was very happy as a child.”

Later, she elaborated why she found it hard to have steady relationships.

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“I am wary of new relationships,” she explained. “I am tired of being exploited. The problem with me is that I only see the virtues in a person at first. Then I shower that  person with gifts so that I can possess him quickly. He takes it as my weakness, not kindness, and takes advantage of me. Then I see through the person, and lose interest.”

All through this half-morbid self-analysis, Nadira kept flitting between other subjects, her razor-sharp wit providing some much needed relief.

With Nadira, as with other faded stars, it was a constant battle between the image she wanted to project and the person she really was. One instant she would claim with icy calm: “I am not suicidal or praying for death. I can’t do social work and it is too late now to adopt a child. I am not a recluse, but I don’t want to get involved anymore.”

And then the next moment, she would add: “Sometimes I do stretch out, but I don’t want to be a burden to others. I do have a few friends who would give their left arm for me, but they are all so far away…. You know, sometimes I buy myself a pair of shoes, or socks or handkerchiefs. It’s silly, I know, but it’s nice…”

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Illusions are a star’s best friends, but Nadira was past all that. “What is left in me for people to come to me with an ulterior motive?” she laughed once while we were talking. “I only have my intellect to give!”

But the need for somebody to love, to care for, was still there. “I am not playing lonely,” she stated simply. “It’s a physical loneliness. Someone to care for you, to get tea for. That’s what I miss; a partner in life.”

She spoke bravely of living as a fight, as much against loneliness as anything else. And in the next instant she broke down, saying, “I’ve surrendered; who do I fight? The walls?”

And then just as suddenly her mood lightened as we spoke of Sundays and holidays. “Monday, Tuesday, what does it matter? Every day is Sunday for me! She laughed. “My only communication with the world is my morning walk, when I meet others and say, hello, letting them know I am still alive!”

Work was her only remedy, but there was predictably not much of that. “Of course, I am lucky that I’ve always got something when I needed it,” she said. “Just the other day I got Rs.5,000 for dubbing for a film. Of course, I need the money, but I need the work more. You know, my dear fried David (the late character actor), who was like a father to me, always told me never to ask for work. But I’ve even done that. I was born with talent, but who’s using it? I am not that gone after 40 years in films to act as an extra!”

Between alternating bouts of joy and sorrow, Nadira came across as a much stronger person than she would have me believe. One day she called me to say that she was being presented an award by some organisation that night. “I am so excited about tonight, and so frightened,” she said. “I’ve received so many awards, but still… I am going to go alone, proudly, maybe in a taxi. I am very self-sufficient. And worst comes to worst, I’ll walk back home.” And that’s exactly what she did that night. She dazzled them all, and came back resplendent and glowing in that aftermath of that warmth.

Nadira was a survivor. And that’s the greatest compliment one could have paid her. My only regret is that I didn’t when I had the chance.

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An encounter with Smita Patil

Smita Patil and Raj Babbar in 'Angaaray'
Smita Patil and Raj Babbar in ‘Angaaray’

“How exciting!” squealed an old pal when she came to know – we were meeting after many years – that I was a film journalist. “You must be meeting all the film stars! What fun!” I didn’t make much of her reaction as she’s always been a bubbly, effervescent person. But when I got similar reactions from more seriously inclined friends of mine, I realized that most people view the film industry – what is now known as Bollywood – as a fun place, where there is no hard work involved.

Smita Patel

Fun? I don’t know. Is it fun to literally run around for weeks together to get Kimi Katkar – the 80s equivalent of Katrina Kaif – to pose for a few pictures? Is it exciting to chase Mithun Chakraborty – who was then touted as waning superstar Amitabh Bachchan’s replacement – from one end of Bombay as it was then known – to the other, and even to another city to get his jaded views on life?

It’s not my idea of fun, though the very first star I was told to interview had me uncharacteristically excited. While the then reigning box-office goddess Sridevi would not have made much of a difference to my blasé attitude, the darling of the arty crowd, Smita Patil, did. The image I had of her was intelligent and not patently filmi. Smita Patil was one star I’d been dying to meet.

It was not a regular star interview, just a part of a general story I was assigned to do. With some trepidation, and more anticipation, I zipped to Holy Spirit Hospital, at Andheri in suburban Mumbai, where she was shooting for a film called ‘Angaarey’ (Flames) – earlier telephone calls and a visit to her apartment in suburban Bandra had proved futile.

When I reached the hospital, the film’s shooting had already been halted for lunch. There was no sign of Smita Patil. Still not aware of the power of the Press, I enquired discreetly among the spot boys – the lowest in the rung of film hierarchy. ‘She’s gone for lunch,’ came the disinterested reply. And then he looked at me suspiciously, asking who I was. On being told that I was a reporter, he showed some enthusiasm. “Raj Babbar (Smita’s then boyfriend) is shooting nearby,” he said, a malicious glint in his eyes. “She’s lunching there….”

Directors Aruna Raje and Vikas Desai (then married) show Naseeruddin Shah and Smita Patil how to do it on the sets of 'Situm' - a film that was never released theatrically.
Directors Aruna Raje and Vikas Desai (then married) show Naseeruddin Shah and Smita Patil how to do it on the sets of ‘Situm’ – a film that was never released theatrically.

Oh. I was taken aback. The man was obviously waiting for an equally enthusiastic response. But all I did was inanely ask him when she was expected back. “Who know?” he muttered in disgust, and turned away perhaps despairing for my journalistic abilities.

I hung around with a group of ‘junior artistes’ as extras are euphemistically called in Bollywood, listening to their bawdy talk in disbelief. I had heard stories of the film industry but reality was something else altogether. But as I discovered later, that particular group of extras were an exception.

Finally, Smita Patil turned up at half past three – a good two hours after the promised hour, an assistant director told me. There were no drum rolls; I couldn’t imagine this small boned petite lady in a hot pink saree and even pinker pan cake make-up was the one that made my heart go pitty-pat on the silver screen. That was the first time I became aware of how perfectly ordinary people can be blown up larger than life on the large screen.

I didn’t have the courage to approach her immediately, so I hung around. She and her hairdresser disappeared into a room nearby that had been allotted as make-up room. The director, a rank newcomer called Rajesh Sethi – rumoured to be  involved with actress Farha, now better known as Tabu’s elder sister – was tired of waiting. After 15 minutes he sent an assistant to fetch Smita. “Five minutes,” called out a high-pitched voice. The assistant went back. Ten minutes passed, and Sethi sent the assistant up again. “Madam, the shot is ready.” he said respectfully. Again came the call, “Five minutes.”

The cast of Shyam Benegal's second film 'Nishant': Naseer and Smita sitting on the ground fool around. Shabana Azmi, Amrish Puri, Mohan Ghokale and Anant Nag (in cap) with Benegal on extreme left. Missing: Girish Karnad.
The cast of Shyam Benegal’s second film ‘Nishant’: Naseer and Smita sitting on the ground fool around. Shabana Azmi, Amrish Puri, Mohan Ghokale and Anant Nag (in cap) with Benegal on extreme left. Missing: Girish Karnad.

A full 15 minutes later, a harassed Sethi had a sharp word with the assistant who protested inaudibly. After all, assistants are paid (hopefully) to take shit from their bosses. This time, when the assistant nervously clutching a sheet of dialogues, knocked and went through his routine, a glacial Smita Patil came out and said bitingly, “I told you I’ll be ready in five minutes!” The flustered assistant could only stammer, “Director saab, director saab….” Smita Patil killed him with one imperious look, and strode onto the set.

I’ve never been known for my timing, so I may be forgiven for stepping up at that point and introducing myself to her. Smita just nodded. “Let me give this shot,” she said and walked away.

I waited anxiously while she rehearsed and went for a take which seemed to go on interminably. When she finally came back after the shot, Smita seemed to have forgotten all about the interview. She went and sat on the ledge – no chairs as they were shooting in the corridor – along with the late veteran actress Dina Pathak, mother of Ratna Patak Shah and Supriya Pathak Kapoor. After hovering around in the background for five minutes, I approached her again tentatively. Her face showed no signs of welcome, but she turned to me civilly enough. I had asked just three brief questions for which she gave me monosyllabic replies, when without a warning she said abruptly, “I don’t want to speak any more.” She turned away to speak to Dina Pathak.

An early picture of Smita

I was nonplussed. I was too raw then to continue probing in the face of such a rebuff. After all, it wasn’t even anything personal that I had been asking her. I hung around for some more time nevertheless, but she did not relent. I finally wrote the piece without any quotes from her. That was the last time I saw her, for though I worked with the magazine for three years, our paths never crossed.

So I never could find out if I had caught her on a bad day, or she didn’t like the way I approached her or whether she just didn’t fancy my bearded countenance. I would have given a lot to find out why we didn’t click. For I realize now that I was infatuated with her, and if the last had been the reason, I would have even shaved off my carefully cultivated beard before meeting her again!

What made Jeetu tick?

When I saw pictures of Jeetendra receiving a Lifetime Achievement honour at the Masala! Awards 2014 in November last year I marveled at the man. He is 73, has acted for more than 40 years, and played the lead in more than 200 films.

There was Sridevi, brass pots and Jeetendra in a wig and moustache all of which made Himmatwala a hit in 1983. It was the second phase of Jeetendra's south films.
There was Sridevi, brass pots and Jeetendra in a wig and moustache all of which made Himmatwala a hit in 1983. It was the second phase of Jeetendra’s south films.

When I first met Jeetendra sometime in 1985 he had already been around for more than two decades. Even then, with the advent of the new generation of heroes like Sunny Deol, Sunjay Dutt, Jackie Shroff and Anil Kapoor, he showed no signs of slowing down, carrying on cavorting on brass pots, or Kashmiri apples, or whatever, with the latest heroine import from the south – Bhanupriya, Vijayashanti, take your pick.

His sheer longevity made him an interesting phenomenon. So, what made him tick? Naive as I was at the time, I decided to find out. ‘I am going to ‘do’ Jeetendra,’ I told my colleagues, using the journalistic phrase with a nonchalance born of a few months experience. We never interviewed stars; we ‘did’ them (in).

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Then there was the Madhavi/Bhanupriya/Vijayasanthi phase in the late 80s. Here, with Mithun Chakravarthy and Bhanupriya at the launch party for ‘Mar Mitenge’, a film that sank without a trace.

There was a marked lack of enthusiasm among them. I was soon to find out why. Jeetendra proved to be deceptively easy to track down. Stars like him never came on the phone, so one found out where he was shooting and landed up on the set, hoping to land an interview with His Highness.

I was lucky that day. When I landed up at Filmcity, Jeetendra was shooting for his own production ‘Aag Aur Shola’. Since they were shooting a fight sequence he was the only star around. So I got speaking to him almost immediately. He proved to be an easy subject, not getting provoked at my impertinent questions (the angle of the article was whether Jeetendra’s new lease of cinematic life riding the wave of films from the south was over).But in the process, I discovered later, he turned out to be lousy copy.

But I thought well of him – if only because he was the first star to be interested enough to enquire into my life. He particularly wanted to know my surname. ‘Your first name is dicey, you know!’ he quipped. For a moment I was foxed, till I realized that what he meant was he couldn’t place where I was from. It could be interpreted as being parochial, but it didn’t seem to matter to him that I was a south Indian.

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And with Leena Chandavarkar in 1970’s Humjoli

I went around singing his praises to all my colleagues. Until the next time I met him at the mahurat of a film, which was a few months after the article had been published. Jeetendra looked through me blankly when I grinned familiarly at him. By the time I recovered and could make an attempt at reviving his memory, Jeetu had disappeared after giving the ‘clap’ (a ritual where a guest star initiates the first shot of the movie).

The only explanation I could come up with was that he hadn’t liked the article. At that time I had been still inexperienced enough to think that stars could take a little friendly criticism if it was sufficiently sugarcoated. Later experiences were to prove otherwise.

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Jeetendra’s ‘PT’ exercise style dances were his raison d’etre. Here in Himmatwala.

But Jeetendra’s case was unique. I met him again a few months later for a story on a press cutting service – what passed off for an early version of a media monitoring service (where a PR firm keeps track of all mention of the client in any media). Jeetendra was one of the stars who subscribed to the service. I reminded him of our previous meeting, but it was like talking to a brick wall. Jeetu just did not recall meeting me.

To be fair to him, it is possible that his memory is short. I’ve heard stories of how his directors are wary of giving him long bits of dialogue because of his difficulty in memorizing them.

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Jiving with Meenakshi Sheshadri in ‘Hoshiyar’

One thing that struck me about him during that interview as well as the previous one was his abiding interest in money. He perked up while discussing the finances involved in running the service. He questioned me closely on the mechanics involved and the profits accumulated. Between ourselves we arrived at a yearly profit of Rs 1 lakh (not a sum to be sneezed at those days), and he immediately lost interest. ‘What’s a lakh?’ he asked. ‘It’s nothing, not much of a business.’ I am sure had the profits been higher he would have started such a service himself.

For, money is the abiding passion in Jeetu’s life. Few people outside the industry knew that he was a partner along with his brother-in-law Ramesh Sippy (the film distributor, not the director) in quite a few businesses.

At that point they co-owned the film distribution business, BRA Enterprises, an ice cream franchise, a fast food joint as well a Taj Cake Shop franchise.

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Gulzar tried to give him a different image with films like ‘Parichay’ (with Jaya Bhadhuri, here), and ‘Khushboo’, but unfortunately it didn’t go too far.

Talk of money and Jeetendra’s eyes would light up – just as it did when he spotted a pretty lady on the sets.  He, along with his friends Rishi Kapoor and Raakesh Roshan, formed a clique that was known for its preoccupation with finances. ‘I am sure Jeetendra would be hard put which figures to look at if he were presented with a girl, and the latest collection charts of his films at the same time,’ a fellow journo had once joked.

He was not far off the mark. Girls did appear to be the other major interest in Jeetu’s life. I had noticed it during my first interview with him. The set was that of a dilapidated godown, so we sat outside with Jeetendra going in whenever he was called for a shot.  Even as we started talking, Jeetu broke off mid-sentence. I looked up to see him watching a girl walking across. After the girl passed out of sight, he resumed speaking.

This happened once too often to be a coincidence, and then about the fourth time I caught him at this, he saw that I had noticed. It didn’t seem to bother him any. He merely grinned mischievously. ‘Nice outfit she has on,’ he said.

‘Yeah, I nodded, and then deciding to push it, had added, ‘And it’s well stacked.’ Jeetendra burst out laughing, but didn’t give up eyeing them, at least for the duration of the interview.

Jeetendra and Hema Malini were almost married once. Except that Dharmendra crashed his party, and the rest is history.
Jeetendra and Hema Malini were almost married once. Except that Dharmendra crashed his party, and the rest is history.

I had interviewed him many times after that, and each time it was a new beginning. I could never decide if I had that colourless a personality, or whether it was his subtle way of getting back at me.

Girls and money: as far as I could tell,  these were two of the things that made Jeetendra go. Otherwise he could be quite a boring person. Almost as uninspiring as he was up there on screen!

Discovering an Artist: a Memoir

of shoes 'n ships

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A little over a year ago, he was just a name to me. A name uttered with an impressive degree of awe by the members of the art group I was then a part of.

“Mini, we may get the opportunity to exhibit KGS’s works, you know!” I was told one day at the group meeting. I knew from their hushed tones that this was no ordinary artist we were discussing. “We need to work out the details with The Seagull Foundation for the Arts. You’ll take care of it, won’t you?” I nodded, suitably impressed.

As it hardly seemed the ideal moment to reveal my ignorance, I quietly opened the search engine and typed in ‘K.G. Subramanyan artist India’.

And Alladin’s cave opened.

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Over the next few weeks, I read up as much as I could on him, pored through the images of his works, and listened to everything…

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