In 1989, Muzaffar Ali was half-way through with his dream project Zooni, a film based on the life of 16th century Kashmiri poet-queen Habba Khatoon. Actors Dimple Kapadia and Vinod Khanna had been cast in the lead roles. After Umrao Jaan (1981) and Anjuman (1986), Urdu poet Shahryar and music composer Khayyam had teamed up again for a Muzaffar Ali film. American fashion designer Mary McFadden had been flown in to design the costumes. It was expected to be another classic in the making. The project, however, came to an abrupt halt because of insurgency in Kashmir, where the film was being shot. It was during this time when his grand enterprise was falling to pieces to never be revived again that Ali found solace in the poetry of Sufi mystics.
“So many debts, so many problems. It was one of the worst times of my life,” says the film-maker, best known for his cinematic adaptation of Mirza Hadi Ruswa’s novel Umrao Jaan Ada. “In Kashmir, I discovered Sufi mysticism and poetry that remains unchanged through the vicissitudes of time. It gave me a lot of strength in that turmoil,” he says.
At his scenic farmhouse in Gurgaon, the erstwhile prince of Kotwara, 72, is busy preparing for the 12th edition of Jahan-e-Khusrau, the World Sufi Music festival, that he started in 2001. Piles of invitations, posters and other such material are neatly stacked in one corner of the sitting room. Book racks line each wall except for the glass ones through which natural light pours in. There is absolute silence except for the intermittent twittering of birds. Ali, who has put together several anthologies on Sufism, including one on the Sufi saints of Punjab, is talking about Baba Farid.
“He was the main spirit behind Sufism in Punjab and has been the binding factor between the two Punjabs. He also inspired Baba Nanak. I thought I’ll dedicate this edition of the festival to him. So most of my singers this year are also from the state,” he says.
Noted Punjabi artistes Hans Raj Hans, Daler Mehndi and Satinder Sartaaj will be performing at the three-day festival this year, along with Delhi-based Deveshi Sahgal, Sonam Kalra and Ustad Iqbal Ahmad Khan. The international artists include Ani Choying Drolma (a Buddhist nun and musician from Nepal) and the Viuna Music Ensemble from Iran.
Over the years, the festival has brought together Sufi singers and musicians from different parts of India and the world. Pakistani Sufi singer Abida Parveen, classical singer Shafqat Ali Khan and Indian artistes such as Shubha Mudga and Sukhwinder Singh, have been part of the event. Ali, who is the director and curator, says for every edition, he searches for and presents at least 12 new Sufi poems that people have not heard before. “This year I’ve chosen a lot of compositions, which are like Baba Farid’s — poems of submission and surrender in love. I also sit with the artistes during rehearsals and become a receptacle for their performance.”
The once-annual festival, which started in the memory of poet Amir Khusrau, is now making a comeback in Delhi after two years. It began, says Ali, with his desire to serve the rich legacy of Sufism that he found in abundance in the Capital.
“Khusrau’s vibrations in this soil are pretty strong. When I came to Delhi I was in a state of waiting. I didn’t know how I was going to complete Zooni. That’s when I found in Delhi a certain kind of softness that came from these saints. I decided to serve that rich legacy. I made two films on Amir Khusrau and around 7-8 films on Sufism,” he says.
Ali’s revival of traditional handicrafts in the Kotwara province, which led to the setting up of his couture label Kotwara was also, he says, a manifestation of that inspiration. “Making craft is a spiritual act. A person applies himself to a medium through his needle or a chisle and creates beauty. During that process, he is a highly spiritual entity who has a connection with the maker and his own skills.”
Bollywood’s pop version of Sufi poetry finds many takers and over the years has popularised many verses of mystic saints (be it Amir Khusrau, Bulleh Shah or Baba Farid). Though Ali believes the compositions must be kept “above commercialism”, he is glad that in whatever form, at least the ideas are going to the people and “softening hearts”.
“The biggest problem in the world today is hardening of hearts. People are taking very strong sectarian stances, which is not good for India’s philosophy,” he says.
Despite his forays into several artistic fields (Ali’s a painter, fashion designer, skill developer, handicrafts revivalist, Sufi music festival curator. He made his debut with Gaman, which Faiz Ahmed Faiz had famously called “a poem in visuals”), he is still best remembered for the iconic film starring Rekha and Farooq Sheikh. Does Umrao Jaan’s overshadowing of all his other work bother him? “Not really,” says Ali. “Maybe if I had made Zooni…abh jo ho jata aur nahi hua, woh toh sabh kahaniya alaag hai. Jo hum kar sakte hai hum kar rahe hai. Aadmi toh mehnaat kar sakta hai. Aur bhi bahut sey khawab hai…”
Ali plans to set up a film training institute someday. “I want to impart the sensitivity and talent that makes me what I am. And there is no better way of doing it than to have a school where you can interact with young people. Maybe I’ll learn more from them. To have that kind of an opportunity is also very soul satisfying,” he says.
If he were to remake Zooni today, who would he like to cast as Habba Khatoon and Yusuf Shah? “Among the young actors today I like Alia Bhatt,” he says. “There are lots of Yusufs around.”
In conversation with Muzaffar Ali
What: Jahan-e-Khusrau, a Sufi music festival
When: 6.30 pm, March 25-26
Where: Arab ki Sarai, Humayun’s Tomb
Nearest metro station: Jangpura
For passes please call Sahitya Kala Parishad: 011-26512411