Malavika’s Mumbaistan: On Jackie’s Farm
A few years ago, I received the following mail in my inbox: “Such a nice piece on Ms Selvaraj and bee farming today. I am working on indigenous seed banks and bee farming and would love to know more about her methods.”
Now, receiving mail from readers about a day’s column is not unusual for a city hack. Neither is the fact that someone could be interested in the rarified subject of bee farming. No, what was surprising was the name at the end of the mail. The sender was Jackie Shroff, star of over four decades and 220 films and winner of four Filmfare Awards among other accolades.
To understand why it is so unusual to receive an email from an actor on a subject that has nothing to do with his own stardom, one needs to understand a little about how things stack up in the film industry. For the past two decades or so, Bollywood has occupied a huge chunk of public imagination, which many feel is disproportionate to its true worth; and at the very thin edge of its pinnacle, reside its stars — two-dozen-and-a-half or so of men and women, whose every moment is spent under the spotlight of intense adulation, often bordering on worship.
Unsurprisingly, as a consequence, most stars (with a few notable exceptions) have a rather exaggerated notion of themselves and their importance, believing that the world turns around their axis. In this scenario, Shroff is not only a star but a legend, in addition to being father to one of the hottest young stars of Bollywood.
So, what was he doing writing to a columnist about her report on bee farming, in such an easy, un-starry manner?
The answer to that is the kind of person Shroff is. As he likes to tell it, he grew up in a Mumbai chawl (it matters not that it was located at Malabar Hill, adjoining the Governor’s Bungalow), the son of humble and loving parents, a young man, roiled in the flavours and piquancies of Mumbai’s gullies and streets. In fact, sightings of Shroff loafing outside the Jehangir Art Gallery or Nepean Sea Road’s Pastry Palace in his characteristic bandanna and open shirt, knotted stylishly at the waist, were a familiar leitmotif of Mumbai’s Swinging Seventies.
In many ways you could say Shroff’s life unfolded on Mumbai’s streets. It was at a bus stop at Rampart Row where ad executive Ashok Kurien remembers spotting him and calling him for his first audition that eventually led to his modelling career and then his film break. Photographer Pradeep Chandra, who shot Shroff’s first magazine photo spread, recalls walking with him to his then fiancé Ayesha Shroff’s home at the end of Nepean Sea Road, to borrow something to wear for it. “Jackie hasn’t changed at all,” he says, “We don’t meet often. But when we do, it’s like the old days.”
In fact, instances of Shroff’s kindness, decency and humility abound in an industry where few have nice things to say about others, behind their backs.
A young relative who did a stint as an AD on one of Shroff’s multi-starrers vouches that from the entire star cast, Shroff stood out for his camaraderie and kindness towards the junior crew. A few years ago, a news report spoke of how faced with a traffic calamity, unmindful of his status, Shroff had jumped out of his car to help others. Leading film critic Rajeev Masand recalls an evening at a glittering soiree at London’s Dorchester, where he observed queues of fans approaching Shroff for selfies. “Encouraged by his kind manner they took further liberties making him speak to their friends and family on FaceTime, but he never got crabby or irritable. I can’t imagine any other movie star obliging a fan in that way,” says Masand.
My own observations of Shroff have been similar. Running in to him on Mumbai’s endless carousel of parties and premieres, one got the distinct impression that here was a man of depth and wisdom, one who was a breed apart from his contemporaries. And I’d always make a mental note to someday spend more time getting to know him better. Though of course, given the frantic assembly line rush of our pre-pandemic lives, I also knew that such a day might never come…
It was the slow pace enforced by the pandemic and curiously once again his response to a column I’d written, that changed all that.
Reaching out about a nostalgic piece I’d penned last month, Shroff had texted the simple words: “I miss old Bombay.”
“Me too,” I’d responded, and what followed was an invitation for a day’s visit to his farm, on the outskirts of Pune, where he’d spent most of the past year when not shooting or visiting Ayesha and his kids.
Nestled between the rolling grasslands of Lonavala and Pune and built in the shape of Shiva’s crescent moon (all curves and undulations to encourage the free flow of wind and energy), a visit to Shroff’s farm is intrinsic to understanding who the man is, away from the arc lights and grease paint.
Here, basking in Nature’s glory, surrounded by his beloved fruits, herbs, vegetable and medicinal plants, collected painstakingly over the years, Shroff pursues his nascent passion for the earth and sustainable, healthy living. When he’s not working barefoot on the field alongside local farm hands, to the accompaniment of their favourite radio music, he’s scouring the internet to learn more about the subject. Currently his interests are piqued by Vandana Shiva’s ideas on food sovereignty, biodiversity and bioethics; Japanese farmer Masanobu Fukuoka’s sustainable practices; and the information superhighway conducted by fungi deep within the earth. At Shroff’s farm, practices like permaculture, water harvesting , organic farming and bee keeping are not fashionable catch phrases, but part of the daily routine.
And it is here that you are gently afforded a glimpse into Shroff’s soul, not so much through his words, because at the best of times he is a taciturn man, but through his long silences, which he interrupts occasionally to point out a rare bird’s song or a gathering breeze or with periodic reminders to you to breathe deeper, sit straighter and walk taller…
Even his living quarters at his farm tell the story of who Shroff really is. Comfortable but certainly not luxurious, his room is filled with the memorabilia of all that sustains his expansive, life-affirming spirit: A handwritten note from Dev Anand about their “spiritual connect”; a cherished photograph of the time his idols Waheeda Rehman and Asha Parekh had visited; and occupying a place of pride, a sepia-tinged framed photograph of the beloved chawl he grew up in at Walkeshwar.
“You see,” Shroff says simply, “While growing up, though I hung out with the kids of the drivers and cooks of the neighbourhood during the day, in the evenings, thanks to modelling and films, I would get invited to the drawing rooms of their employers. You learn a lot about life like that…”
Prod him a little more about what makes him so different and grounded and humane, and you won’t get more than a shrug. “If everyone thought responsibly about the next generation and planted more trees and was gentler to Mother Earth and her children and practiced sustainable living, the world would be a much better place...” he mumbles.
See what I mean about Shroff being a man of depth and wisdom, one who is a breed apart from his contemporaries?