I haven’t seen too many Hindi films recently. Vidhu Vinod Chopra had a special screening of 3 Idiots for Saira (wife Saira Banu) and me. It was an interesting film. I admired the conviction with which the message was conveyed to a whole generation of parents who believe that their children should get into conventional streams of specialised study irrespective of their natural inclinations.
I have seen Rajkumar Hirani’s earlier films, Munnabhai MBBS and Lage Raho Munnabhai. They were entertaining and meaningful. It’s rare for a Hindi film director to have successfully pulled off social satire inherent in the script.
I also enjoyed Jodhaa Akbar. An immaculate film with splendid sets and costumes, it was beautifully photographed and inspiringly directed. It reminded me of Mughal-e-Azam. Only directors like K Asif and Ashutosh Gowarikar, who have the patience, confidence and artistry to reconstruct events and emotional conflicts with sensitivity, can bring such historicals to life. I would count Raj Kumar Hirani and Ashutosh among the contemporary masters of our cinema.
From the current crop of directors, I have enjoyed working with Subhash Ghai, with whom I have done three films — Vidhaata, Karma and Saudagar. He has always been very affectionate and courteous towards me, kept my temperament and predilections in mind while planning a film with me. And while shooting, he gave me ample creative freedom. That is perhaps why our collaborations have been so successful.
Cinema has changed since I did Aan, Azaad, Mughal-e-Azam, Devdas, Ganga Jumna and Madhumati. But the magic of celluloid remains. I would however advise you to see your movies in a theatre.
I know most films are screened on TV now for a wider audience, soon after their theatrical release. But I watch only the news and mega sporting events on TV. I prefer to watch a movie on the big screen. That’s what makes it unforgettable!
I worked in the era of black-and-white movies. But two of my films, Mughal-e-Azam and Naya Daur were colourised. I liked the colour versions, particularly Naya Daur. It looked fresh, as if it had been filmed in this decade. There is nothing wrong with adding colour to black-and-white classics as long as the content can hold the audience of today.
‘All of us who worked during the formative years of Hindi cinema had to tread a difficult path’
I was tagged ‘Tragedy King’ but whenever I attempted comedy, I’ve felt quite at ease. The test is to make sure the audience has a good laugh. Actually, it’s the writer who has the more difficult job since he is the one who creates scenes and comes up with lines that tap the actor’s sense of comedy.
If the writing is brilliant, it is a cakewalk for an actor. The script of Ram Aur Shyam (1967) offered me endless stimulation. Each scene was sharply written to highlight the contrast between the characters and their predicaments.
Meena Kumari who was my co-star in Azaad (1950) and Kohinoor (1960), had a natural flair for comedy and we sailed through our funny moments with few rehearsals. Interestingly, she was called the ‘Tragedy Queen’.
RK, like a brother
Raj Kapoor was like a brother. We had our distinct identities and individual strengths. We were friends even though temperamentally, we were poles apart. Raj was a natural charmer while I have always been shy and reserved. The one thing we shared was our love for good food.
One of my favourite directors was Bimal Roy. Bimalda and I shared a bond of mutual respect and affection that began long before we did Devdas (1955).
He was a soft, kind-hearted gentleman who spoke only when he had to, with precision and clarity. He had endless patience and would repeatedly explain what he needed to his actors and technicians. There were no harsh words or anger when he didn’t get what he wanted.
Devdas to Madhumati
It was this trait that set Bimalda apart from most other Bengalis. He was amused when we pointed this out to him. He later confided to me quietly that the pain he had endured in his personal life, when he had to fend for himself and his mother after his father’s untimely death, had taught him never to inflict pain on anybody.
One reason for accepting Madhumati (1958) was my eagerness to work with Bimalda again. He had a silhouette of Madhumati in mind when we were concluding Devdas and had vaguely mentioned it to me. Later, when he gave me the first narration, along with Ritwik Ghatak, I could sense his confidence in the subject.
There were people who told him it was a risk making a film with metaphysical layers that might be difficult for the viewer to absorb.
But there were others like Hrishida (Hrishikesh Mukherjee), who egged him on to experiment with a genre that offered wonderful cinematic possibilities.
All the three films — Devdas, Madhumati and Yahudi (1958) — that I made under Bimalda’s direction, gave me the pleasure of knowing a man who believed in perfection and hard work as much as I did.
After Devdas, I thought Madhumati would give us some much-needed relief since we would be shooting a sizeable part of it outdoors.
Every evening, after ‘pack-up’, Pran, Johnny Walker, Bimalda, Hrishida and I would relieve the pressures of the day in cheerful conversation and poetic exchanges, while the unit got our dinner ready. Pran and I would joke in Punjabi, Bimalda and Hrishida would respond in Bengali. Next morning, Pran, true to the character of Ugranarayan, would be plotting my death.
One of my finest performances was in Gunga Jumna (1961) that was a home production made to showcase the potential of my brother Nasir Khan. While working on the screenplay, my thoughts kept going back to my boyhood. The locations in Nasik and Igatpuri were replicas of Deolali, where I’d grown up.
We lived in a lovely house with a beautiful garden. The mali (gardener) who did odd jobs like going to the market, stayed with his wife and mother in the outhouse. My mother would often send me across with food she’d cooked or the address of a place he needed to visit to fetch her something.
I’d quietly listen to him chatting with his mother and wife. The UP dialect they spoke, fascinated me. I drew on those memories when sketching some of the characters in Gunga Jumna.
I have never considered any film crucial to the progress of my career. With every film, I discovered my own potential as an actor. Every film added to my understanding of the medium. All of us who worked during the formative years of Hindi cinema had to tread a difficult path. But we worked with the common purpose of taking the film to box-office success. It was rewarding when a gamble like Madhumati worked.
I met David Lean a few times, in the company of my friend Hiten Chowdhury. He offered me Lawrence Of Arabia. But at that juncture, I was content with the success I was enjoying back home and was not inclined to work in an alien environment. David understood and we continued to be in touch for a long time. The role went to Omar Sharif. Any regrets? None. This is my home, my cinema!