The ground floor exhibition halls of the Taj Palace Hotel in Delhi are packed with soon-to-be brides dressed in glitzy outfits, their mothers and mothers-in-law to-be trailing behind them, sifting through the trousseaux on display at one of the many bridal shows recently held in the Capital.
A tall man, dressed casually in jeans and shirt, with a flowing mane of white hair and closely-cropped beard, walks in with a flourish. Camera shutters whir and journalists rush to him with questions. He smiles warmly for the cameras, answers a few questions and respectfully leaves.
I rush up to him with a request for an interview. "Sure, let’s sit somewhere where we can at least hear each other," Muzaffar Ali says with a smile. Then he pauses for a while, his dreamy eyes behind his spectacles searching for his wife and design partner Meera Ali. "I will be over there if you need me," he tells her softly before guiding me out. Ground zero
He’s perhaps most famously known for two things: making the film Umrao Jaan (1981) and creating the elegant couture label Kotwara. But 69-year-old Muzaffar Ali is a man who plays many parts.
He has an acute sensibility towards art, culture and beauty. Born into an aristocratic family, he is the erstwhile prince of Kotwara, a province in Awadh, and was brought up steeped in the rich culture of the region.
"For me, being part of a culture, being rooted to it, being impacted by the problems of the region where I come from, the whole cultural metamorphosis that was taking place as I was gaining consciousness, that somehow became a very important part of who I was to become later in life," he says.
He did a B.Sc. from Aligarh Muslim University where he also discovered the works of revolutionary poets like Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Rahi Masoom Raza. After that he went to Calcutta and joined an advertising firm chaired by filmmaker Satyajit Ray.
"I could see his life, his work and I was enamoured by the fact that he was a thinker, a dreamer and he would indulge in his passion using film as a medium," says Ali. "His style of filmmaking may not have rubbed off on me, but his way of looking at life definitely impacted me. If I had not met him, I wouldn’t have had that little shift in my outlook."
Thereafter, when he moved to Bombay to work with Air India as ground staff, he became increasingly aware of the hybrid lives lived by people who migrated to that city from other parts of the country.
"They were far away from the cultures of their native regions and much further removed from any kind of art that could come out of that culture," he says.
That’s what formed the context of his debut film Gaman in 1978, starring Farooq Shaikh and Smita Patil in lead roles, which Faiz saab called "a poem in visuals".
Three years later, Ali directed, produced and co-wrote the film that was to become a classic in the years to come – Umrao Jaan. Although it received critical acclaim and several awards, it remained just an average earner at the box office. His later films, Aagaman (1982) and Anjuman (1986) met with a similar fate.
Was his style of filmmaking too refined for Bollywoood? “I think I have no connect with Bollywood, I don’t understand the industry at all,” he says. “I just understand things my own way. It’s difficult for me to equate myself to anything that Bollywood does. Perhaps I just fell very short of their expectations.”
Undeterred, Ali set forth to make Zooni in 1988. Although the film remained incomplete, fashion happened to him during the making of this film. “At that time, all the big fashion designers you know now were in their infancy. Some – like Suneet Verma – even worked as assistants to the American fashion designer Mary McFadden, for the film.
The magnum opus
Umrao Jaan (1981)
When Mary went to Kotwara, she said it could be a haven for craft,” he says. “I had worked on the costumes for Umrao Jaan. I wasn’t well versed with the nitty-gritties of fashion then, I just had a sense of styling and palette. But when I managed to make women look so beautiful in the film, I thought why not do it in real life as well. Fashion was a natural, organic step forward for me.”
Sugarcane farming is the mainstay of the people of Kotwara, but it hasn’t bettered their lives all these years. “In a way, after Zooni got held up, I felt that Kotwara was my calling. I could empower my people through craft,” Ali says.
The incomplete dream
The period film, starring Dimple Kapadia and Vinod Khanna, was based in Kashmir and was hailed as the dream project of the then Chief Minister Dr Farooq Abdullah. It was based on the folklore surrounding the 16th century Kashmiri poetess Habba Khatoon, known to her people as Zooni. "But the production was stalled because the problems in the Valley had escalated. Thereafter, funds became an issue. But the dream to complete it is still alive," says Ali.
He brought a few people from Lucknow who were experts in the craft of chikankari and began training people in Kotwara. “Suddenly, the whole village was queuing up to learn the craft. It started spreading like wildfire,” he says. Being an artist, he would sketch designs and give them to the artisans there to fashion into outfits. “I could think out of the box for them,” he adds. Kotwara, the label, was born.
“Kotwara, for me, is a different world of fashion,” says Ali. “The biggest problem with fashion in India is that people have lost their identity in the rush to adopt the latest trends and styles. Go to Lucknow and you will feel ki arre yeh toh koi bhi sheher ho sakta hai.
Go to Jaipur and barring some of the authentic colours that you still see there, people are all in jeans and could be from anywhere. My people, through fashion, are real people. They are not overdressed or out of place… there is a certain element of deliberate design.”
It is this deliberate, understated elegance that translates into his creations on the ramp as well as on the screen. His comeback film Raqs, which has now been renamed Jaanisaar, starring newcomers Imran Abbas Naqvi and Pernia Qureshi, is set during the revolt of 1857 and is a period romance between an Anglicised raja and a courtesan.
Also read: Imran Abbas Naqvi, the dude from Karachi
It took him 20 years to stage his comeback, but Ali seems content with the time he spent away from filmmaking. “After Zooni was stalled, I was deeply disturbed and I deliberately withdrew myself from Bollywood. I went and settled in Lucknow and made several short films and serials in Kotwara. I also kept working on several scripts but none of them materialised; I now have a script bank of sorts.”
During this time, he also got involved with Jahan-e-Khusrau , an annual three-day Sufi music festival, held in Delhi, Jaipur and Lucknow. “I have been organising the festival for 14 years now. I think Amir Khusrau was a big integrating factor for our society, a pioneer of composite culture. I thought it was important that Sufi poetry with messages of peace and compassion be taken to the world,” he says.
Jaanisaar, he says, came about now because it was easy to make, being set in Lucknow and shot extensively in Kotwara.
Naqvi, an actor from Pakistan who made his Bollywood debut with the recent release Creature 3D, is all praise for him and the film. “Muzaffar saab is an artist - he knows how to paint, how to write, how to design clothes. He is art personified,” he had said in a July 19 interview with HT Brunch. “The film has an ethereal feel – the wardrobe has the authenticity of the era, the lighting is all candlelight… it’s just magical, only the way Muzaffar saab can make it.”
The come back
Raqs renamed Jaanisaar (2015)
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From HT Brunch, October 5
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