Malavika’s Mumbaistan: A Candle for Sajid Khan
The Boy from a Mumbai slum who’d achieved international fame, at a time when in India, air travel, especially foreign air travel was rare; technology and communications were primitive and the adage East is East and West is West was more than a truism
Consider the wonder of it: a boy spawned in the rough and tumble of a Mumbai slum, more than seven decades ago, who’d caught the eye of a legendary producer-director of Hindi cinema, debuting in his Academy Award-nominated movie at the tender age of six; a boy who’d gone on to become a teenager who’d starred in a successful Hollywood film and TV series, which had made him the heartthrob of millions of young girls across the world and feature on the cover of international teen magazines, date a string of beautiful women and rub shoulders with showbiz power elites across two continents.
A young man who’d achieved this, at a time when in India, air travel especially international air travel was rare, technology and communications were primitive and the adage East is East and West is West was more than a truism.
An era way before the advent of social media and the internet, public relations, image makers and spinmeisters; when India had lain behind a miasma of mystery and myth, cocooned in its pre-lib ideology.
Anyone who has watched Mehboob Khan’s iconic ‘Mother India ‘will tell you of the scene where actor Sajid Khan, who died a few weeks ago, at the age of 71, after a long and valiant battle with cancer and was laid to rest at the Kayamkulam Town Juma Masjid in Kerala, had made an indelible mark, in the role of Birju (as a young Sunil Dutt) and had stolen the show from an assemblage of much older and more celebrated actors.
The blockbuster movie, starring Nargis as the epitome of Indian womanhood, had gone on to become a cultural classic and regarded as one of the most revered Indian films ever.
The success of Mother India had inspired Mehboob Khan to direct ‘Son of India’ with Sajid in the lead a few years later. Unfortunately it had not fared well at the box office and was to be the legendary producer director’s last offering; a few years later, Sajid had left for LA where he had costarred in the highly successful 1962 Hollywood production Maya and a television series of the same name on NBC which had resulted in the actor’s incandescent but brief international “teen idol” status.
It had been a meteoric rise and Sajid ‘s fall had been just as swift: After a short lived Hollywood career, he’d found success in the early Seventies, in of all places- the Philippines - starring in a string of romantic comedies. But all his attempts to return and rehabilitate his career In India, were not successful and none of his films between 1972 to 1983 found box office approval. In fact Sajid’s career in showbiz, which had begun when he was all of six years old, had ended in 1974; which means that by the time he was 23, Sajid Khan, the boy from the slums of Mumbai, who had conquered peaks of fortune that few would dare to dream of -was a young man with a brilliant future behind him.
However, even more extraordinary than Sajid’s professional successes was the story of his personal life. For here was a man, born into poverty and anonymity, who’d had the fortune of being adopted not once, not twice, but no less three times, by a series of extraordinarily powerful and rich couples from across the world. First as a young toddler, by Mehboob Khan and his wife Sardar Akhtar, who took him into their heart and home; then, in his teens by a leading Hollywood producer and his wife, as their surrogate son during his stint in LA; and finally, when he was in his late twenties, by no less than the grande dame of Mumbai society herself, the uber glamorous Sunita Pitamber, daughter of the country’s most eminent gynaecologists (whose client list had included Sophia Loren and Indira Gandhi), and her suave blue chip husband, the celebrated golfer and corporate honcho and scion of a princely family from Nepal, Raj Kumar Pitamber.
To comprehend the wonder of Sajid’s rags to riches story, consider where life had taken him. The Pitamber’s inhabited a fairytale- like mansion, replete with towers and turrets, in one of south Mumbai’s poshest neighbourhoods.
The bungalow had been purchased from Salman Rushdie’s father when the latter had migrated to Pakistan and the residence has featured prominently in Rushdie’s Booker prize -winning ode to Mumbai ‘Midnight’s Children.’
Suffice to say that the house was the centre of some of India’s most glamorous soirees. Within teak- lined rooms crammed with priceless pieces of art silver and tapestry and at tables groaning under the weight of crystal platters filled to the brim with Norwegian Salmon, Iranian caviar and bottles of Dom Perignon, the party appeared to never end. The best and the brightest from across the world had sparkled: everyone, from dashing young tycoons from the city’s most blue chip business houses, celebrated authors, lissome Parisian models, Middle Eastern sheikhs, European princesses and society grandees, socialites and savants, had assembled in the Pitamber drawing room, in what appeared to be a revolving door of endless fame and wealth and glamour.
But as everyone knows, all parties have to end. Perhaps his dazzling early successes- from the slums of Mumbai- into the homes and hearts of Bollywood and Hollywood’s royalty, had not prepared Sajid for the professional failure he faced in his later years. Because even as he lay in this lap of seemingly endless luxury, love and attention, the actor often appeared an embittered and lost soul, his natural charisma often giving way to bouts of bitterness and a black humour that belied his surroundings.
The irony is that for the outside world he appeared to be a man who’d been Life’s blue-eyed boy, someone who’d been favoured by destiny herself and therefore someone expected to be grateful for his good fortune; but who knows what frustrations and demons he must have harboured within? After all, who is to say if experiencing early and brief success is any better than having not experienced it at all?
His middle years had seen Sajid moving to Jaipur and switching career paths, to the production and export of handicrafts; his marriage to a pretty lady from London and the birth of a son seemed to provide some much needed stability , but it had not lasted long and a few years later he had remarried, this time a lady from Kerala, with whom he’d settled into a quiet life in a Bandra apartment, bed ridden and ailing. After the death of his parents, his celebrated south Mumbai mansion became embroiled in litigation.
The last time I’d met him was at his bedside at the Breach Candy hospital, almost a decade ago, the vivacious six-year-old of Mother India; the dashing international teen idol of a million school girl hearts and the centre of attention at a string of sparkling soirees, was long gone. He’d looked emaciated, tired and old -a shadow of his former self.
When the news of Sajid Khan’s passing came last fortnight, there were few who could provide me with more details.
Would there be a memorial in Mumbai, where I could pay my tributes to the man who’d once been a virtual prince of the city? I asked his close friends.
No, nothing in Mumbai, I was informed; those who’d want to, could pay their respects at the masjid in Kerala.
Intrigued by how his passing could be so muted, last week when I happened to run into an old friend of Sajid’s, an actor who’d inhabited the same gilded circles as he had, I asked if he’d heard about his passing.
The actor had looked genuinely stricken. “Sajid passed away? Last fortnight? That’s so sad!” he said. And then he shook his head: “In fact, I thought he’d died many years ago.” And the tragedy of Sajid Khan’s life, was that this was perhaps true.