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Merging the modern with the traditional: Muzaffar Ali version 2.0

The filmmaker, musician, designer talks about staying relevant and upgrading himself with time

brunch Updated: Jul 15, 2018 00:08 IST
Veenu Singh
Veenu Singh
Hindustan Times
Game of Thrones,Muzaffar Ali,The Crown
Meera and Muzaffar Ali have been married for more than 25 years, and share both a personal relationship and a creative partnership (On Meera: Chanderi and chikan embroidery ensemble, Kotwara; On Muzaffar: Classic hand quilted waistcoat on matka silk, Kotwara)(Hari Nair )

Filmmaker, musician, designer, and craftsperson Muzaffar Ali has mixed feelings about social media. On the one hand, he has to acknowledge that it has added great power to the marketing of any product, from fashion to films. On the other hand, he’s found that sharing details of his designs on social media is like begging plagiarisers to just take his work.

“At this rate, we may soon end up being in a court in Lucknow all the time. Perhaps we should soon plan a fashion show there,” laughs Ali.

The classic and the real

Tradition plays a huge part in all of Ali’s work. The posters of his films on the walls of his home, for instance, are all in classic black and white, from his very first feature film, Gaman (1978), to Aagaman (1982), Anjuman (1986), and the best known of all, Umrao Jaan (1981).

“Sufiism is music of liberation, without the corny distortion of Bollywood that now impacts bhajans, ghazals… everything!” —Muzaffar Ali

Yet, though his creative sensibilities still find expression via pen and paper, Ali is no Luddite. He welcomes change, as long as it comes sensitively. For instance, his daughter, Sama has joined his fashion label, House of Kotwara, adding youth and glamour to their designs (and also the social media presence that keeps sending him to the court in Lucknow). And he has nothing but the best things to say about the changes that Bollywood is seeing just now. For instance, the way we’re less likely these days to find our heroine and hero in Switzerland, and far more likely to discover them in cities and towns that India is very familiar with.

“Realism has become very important for filmmakers today, and that’s why locations like Delhi and Lucknow are finding favour with them,” muses Ali. “One can get wonderful effects in low light with the use of good cameras.”

As locations have changed, so have the stories and the media that they are presented in. “As a filmmaker, I can see that there have been a lot of changes in the industry,” says Ali. “I was in Goa recently for the film festival and was struck by the fact that a lot of films today are based on very strong ideas. The ideas today are more engaging and have much better production values, because there is a global approach towards things. And though this global marketing is the norm abroad, we still have some catching up to do on that front.”

Infectiousness of liberation

He is not quite as thrilled with changes in the world of music, however, especially the obsession with giving a new spin to old songs. Although Ali does agree that tastes and sensibilities differ, pointing to the way composer and singer A. R. Rahman uses voices and instruments to his own tastes which are not the same as most other people’s tastes, he says he himself prefers the traditional approach to music.

“After watching The Crown, I realised the effect global marketing and social media has on things today…” —Muzaffar Ali

“Everybody has their own sense of imagination. For some, music has huge traditions, others want to be experimental. But music is the soul for me, and it might not be easy for me to work with music directors or composers as that would be binding,” he says. “Sufi music is like blending, melting and absorbing everything, and that’s why I prefer working with singers rather than composers.”

The popularity of Sufism among young people today points to the need for synthesis, adds Ali. “Music is global, music is deeply traditional also. There is music of the soul and a lot of it comes from Sufi music as it has abandonment; a sense of oneness and unity,” he explains. “Sufism is a music of synthesis, where the liberation of music is really the essence, without the corny distortion of Bollywood that now impacts bhajans, ghazals, everything. It’s an infectious thing for shaadis and even religious functions.”

The songs of the stories

Ali and his wife and creative partner Meera have been settled just outside Delhi for a few years now, a little beyond Gurgaon. Filmmaking seems to have been put aside for now – his last movie was Jaanisaar in 2015 – but he has been actively involved with other aspects of showbiz through his fashion label Kotwara and also Jahan-e-Khusrau, the World Sufi Music Festival.

Muzaffar Ali and wife Meera share both a creative and personal partnership (Hari Nair )

This year’s edition of Jahan-e-Khusrau in Delhi showcased a ballet called Yamuna Darya Prem Ka, aside from a mix of Sufi music from various maestros. Directed by Ali, the ballet was dedicated to sensitising the world about the ecological damage to our water resources through the moving story of the river Yamuna.

How two creative heads a perfect love marriage make…
  • Meera and Muzaffar Ali have been married for more than 25 years, and share both a personal relationship and a creative partnership. While Meera is a trained architect (she is responsible for their beautiful Kotwara Farms design), she is also a creative force behind the House of Kotwara. Along with Muzaffar, she has worked hard to make the design label a powerful fashion statement that has now ventured into weddings and décor. The two also run Maashra, a fine dining specialty tented restaurant set within their home estate, which presents the royal cuisine of Awadh. But living together and working together can’t be easy, especially when creative differences creep in. What do you do then?
  • He says: “Our relationship is based on space. Meera is an architect while I’m a painter. We are both in our own space. My paintings talk to me; that’s why I don’t sell them. I’m always in some kind of an engagement with them. And she gives me her creative inputs on them.”
  • She says: “If we don’t interact in a creative manner, then it kind of doesn’t work for us. I can be involved and interested in his work and his films in my own capacity. For me, the synergy of being together is far more important, and it doesn’t take away my individuality.”

“I don’t know what we can do to save it, but I know what we can do to feel it,” says Ali. “If you can’t feel anything, why will you save it? Music is the best way to get this point across.”

He’s also just wrapped up a series of short films for the Ministry of Textiles about some of the lesser known textiles that are the real geographical indicators of our country. “I wanted to make them differently, with maximum impact. Music is really the path or the river through which images flow, so different music can tell different stories. That’s why for each film, I had a different soundtrack. For a film on Pochampally, I tried to tell the story of the sari through Kuchipudi, and I used a ghazal in south Indian style for another, and a Shiv Vandana for something else.”

Though Ali doesn’t actually play any musical instruments, he has a whole collection of rhythmic instruments just to make himself happy. “I’m essentially a very tactile person, a craftsman who likes to do things with his heart. Aesthetics as well as ambience or location is very important for me,” he says.

And, back to the point of social media, Muzaffar Ali – who is quite hooked to international series such as Game of Thrones and The Crown – says: “After watching The Crown, I realised the importance and effect that global marketing and social media has on such things today, and how they impact us.”

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From HT Brunch, July 15, 2018

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First Published: Jul 14, 2018 22:39 IST