Review: Zikr by Muzaffar Ali
Filmmaker and designer Muzaffar Ali’s autobiography reminisces about his childhood and the journey of his films, and reveals his enduring love for poetry and devotion to Sufism
Learning is an eternal quest, and the path of seeking will hopefully lead the individual to ‘truth’. Guided by this philosophy, Muzaffar Ali is perennially in learning mode. His varied pursuits have ranged from vintage cars, painting and filmmaking to poetry, music, couture, Sufism and social work. In his autobiography, Zikr: In the Light and Shade of Time, the septuagenarian eloquently plays out his journey in a linear fashion.
The book can be divided into three parts. The first comprises chapters in which Ali traces his royal lineage, unlocks his childhood memories of growing up in Kotwara House, Lucknow, reflects on the humanism of his father Raja Syed Sajid Husain Ali and their shared penchant for cars and horses, recalls summer vacations in Nainital, the enduring romance with poetry cultivated at Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), his years as an advertising professional in Calcutta, and the remarkable years in Bombay working with Air India.
Next, he writes about his filmmaking career, reminiscing on the off-camera journey of his films and the cherished associations he formed with his cast and crew. The reader is also offered a glimpse of how his unreleased film Zooni, on the life of Kashmiri poet Habba Khatoon, was affected by the 1989 insurgency in Kashmir. After that setback, Ali found solace in Sufism, which took him into a different realm of ecstasy and opened his inner world to mystical creative dimensions. The last phase of the book eulogises the lives of Sufi saints like Rumi, Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti, Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya and his disciple Amir Khusrau, among others.
Every chapter begins with a verse or couplet of an Urdu luminary such as Mirza Ghalib, Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Asrar-ul-Haq Majaz, Mir Taqi Mir or Bahadur Shah Zafar. The influence of AMU’s culture of poetry on Ali’s outlook can be gauged from the verses that embellish Zikr, especially from the fourth chapter onwards, in which Ali recounts his time at the university. Poetry is such an intrinsic part of Ali’s thinking that every other anecdote invokes the poems of the aforementioned greats or of more modern ones like Rahi Masoom Raza, Shahryar, Javed Kamaal and Makhdoom Mohiuddin.
The author opens up about his weakness for trusting people blindly, which was first pointed out to him by his father. His wife Meera and daughter Sama too continue to caution him about this. This gullibility has made him prone to exploitation on a few occasions. Ali laments having to part with his favourite car, the Isotta Fraschini, which he was tricked into selling to a car dealer. The leftist ideals of his then-wife the politician and activist Subhashini helped him see the meaninglessness of such symbols of ostentatious living. These were ideas that paved the way to his first film, Gaman. But Ali found himself taken for a ride once again when he made a brief foray into politics and contested elections from Lucknow. This time, the oceanic love of Rumi helped him retreat from the muck of caste and communalism.
His compassionate nature has led him to form several long-lasting relationships. He reminisces about the lip-smacking delicacies of his cook Tahir who stayed with him until his death, the cobbler Bharat Waghchawre who, for 20 years created exquisite shoulder bags for Ali’s and Ashrafa Sattar’s brand, Craftsmen of India, the graphic designer Jolly Barua who designed the graphics and posters for his films, Gaman and Anjuman, and the AMU poet Shahryar who became his default lyricist. Ali has extensively used the local artisans and craftsmen of Kotwara and Lucknow for his films and has developed a sustained employment model for them through the initiatives of his couture brand, House of Kotwara.
In Zikr, the reader encounters various figures who have had an impact on Ali at different stages of his life. These include those whom he befriended and personalities from the past whose thoughts or art made an impression on him. The syncretic nature and humanism of former rulers like Emperor Akbar and Nawab Wajid Ali Shah of Awadh are especially mentioned. But it is Rumi who has illuminated his life, and the book is replete with anecdotes, wisdom and poetry related to the mystic with the book’s final chapters containing extensive quotes.
Muzaffar Ali now heads the New Delhi-based Rumi Foundation and has been organising the Annual World Sufi Music Festival, Jahan-e-Khusrau, since 2001. His plans to make an international film on Rumi with acclaimed Italian cinematographer Vittorio Storaro met with casting hurdles. “Working with stars doesn’t allow dreamers like me to dream,” he says. But then, Ali was schooled in the pitfalls of the star system early in his filmmaking career when he approached Amitabh Bachchan to play the lead role in Gaman. Bachchan, who knew him from their time together in Calcutta, had confessed then that he couldn’t risk drifting away from his popular image as a fighter.
Although the world of moving images might not have done complete justice to his potential, the author has been channelling his creativity into painting, music and couture and has also surrendered himself to Sufism. In the end, readers come away with the impression that Muzaffar Ali is like a river with multiple streams flowing into an ocean of beatitude.
Arun AK is an independent journalist. Twitter: @arunusual