Rajesh Khanna and Asha Parekh in a still from the runaway 1971 hit Kati Patang. The story, of a young woman pretending to be someone she isn’t, was written by Gulshan Nanda.
Rajesh Khanna and Asha Parekh in a still from the runaway 1971 hit Kati Patang. The story, of a young woman pretending to be someone she isn’t, was written by Gulshan Nanda.

Remembering Gulshan Nanda, forgotten author of affairs to remember

The best-selling novelist was Bollywood’s go-to storyteller in the 1960s. He wrote family dramas shot through with suspense. The films live on, but what a pity so few even know his name.
UPDATED ON JAN 16, 2021 10:13 AM IST

This month, 50 years ago, the film Kati Patang was released in theatres and became a big hit. It starred Rajesh Khanna (by then Hindi cinema’s breakout star), had blockbuster music by RD Burman and was directed by the veteran Shakti Samanta. But few people remember the story and screenplay writer — Gulshan Nanda.

For readers who’ve never heard of him, Nanda was a phenomenally popular writer of “pocket books”, the cheaply printed and low-priced Hindi novels that sold in staggering numbers at bookstalls, railway stations, bus depots and lending libraries in the 1960s and ’70s.

Kati Patang was based on a book of the same name published in early 1970 (though Nanda’s novel itself was based on a 1948 book I Married A Dead Man, by American crime writer William Irish.)

If authors like Surender Mohan Pathak and Om Prakash Sharma were the pulp kings of the crime novel, Nanda was the badshah of the “social” novel, which had love, romance, drama, family relationships, but also, often, mystery and suspense. What made Nanda different was the fact that he was also one of the top story and scriptwriters of Bollywood in the ’60s and ’70s.

He’d written 51 books by the time of his death in 1985, at the age of 57, but most of them are unavailable today. I wanted to revisit the story this month. I found the movie on Amazon Prime but I located the book (that too, only an ebook, I would have wanted the paperback; they had luscious illustrated covers, the handiwork of unknown artists) with great difficulty.

I read the book and it was as if I was watching a film. It brimmed over with familiar Hindi-film situations: at one point it is the hero’s birthday and he has a party at the Rainbow Club. And at the insistence of his guests, he even sings a song! (In the film this is the gorgeous Kishore Kumar number Pyaar Deewana Hota Hai Mastana Hota Hai).

The dialogue often seemed straight out of a Hindi movie of the time too: “Us din maine gustakhi kar di thi. Maine ek pativrata stree ki aradhana ko parakhne ki koshish ki thi.”

For readers who haven’t seen Kati Patang, it is a tense drama about a young woman (Anju in the novel and Madhavi in the film, the latter played by Asha Parekh) pretending to be the widowed daughter-in-law of a wealthy family, and terrified of her lie being found out. Especially after she falls in love with a forest ranger called Shekhar (Rajesh Khanna), who turns out to be the man she had abandoned on their wedding day (neither of them had seen each other).

This is the incident that triggers the subsequent chain of catastrophic events, setting the stage for the real drama to unfold. These events occur at the beginning of the story and move at breakneck speed: Asha Parekh runs away on her wedding day to be with the man she loves (Prem Chopra), only to find that he’s with another woman. She runs back home to find that the baraat has left her house and her uncle (her guardian) is dead.

She runs away again, this time to the railway station, where she meets an old friend, Poonam, who is now a widow with a baby. Poonam is on her way to her sasural for the first time. No one in her in-laws’ home has ever seen her. Then, the train the two girls are travelling in has an accident and Poonam dies, but only after extracting a promise that Asha Parekh will pretend to be her. And finally, as if this avalanche of calamities wasn’t enough, the taxi driver taking Asha Parekh to Poonam’s in-laws’ home tries to abduct her and she’s rescued by Shekhar! Phew.

My difficulty in locating Kati Patang the novel was only part of the problem. Barring a stray article or two, it is almost impossible to get any information about Nanda on the internet either. I called up his son Rahul Nanda, who, along with his brother Himanshu, is a leading publicity and marketing professional in Bollywood today. Rahul filled me in with many details about his father’s life and work.

Nanda was born in 1929, grew up in Quetta (now in Pakistan), but came to Delhi before Partition. Rahul says that even as a boy, his father used to sit and write stories in a Quetta graveyard, the only place where he could find peace and quiet.

In Delhi, he began working as an optician but continued to write stories, in Urdu. According to his contemporary, Surender Mohan Pathak, Nanda’s first few books were published by Ashok Pocket Books and sold so well, they were constantly in print. Pathak says he was the biggest writer of the pocket-book trade.

In his autobiography, Na Bairi Na Koi Begana, Pathak recalls his admiration for Nanda and his first meeting with him at a publisher’s house in old Delhi. “I was in class 11 when I read his [Nanda’s] novel Ghat ka Pathar,” he writes, saying the he felt he wasn’t reading a novel but watching a film (clearly a common reaction among readers!).

Pathak quickly borrowed another novel, Jalti Chattan, from the lending library and after that, whatever other books of Nanda’s he could find. Which is why he was so delighted to finally meet the man. Nanda was already living in Bombay and had four or five hit films to his name. Pathak was silent witness to the negotiations with the publisher over Nanda’s next book. The deal was finally fixed at 20,000. (Pathak himself didn’t get more than 200 at the time, but he notes that Nanda didn’t seem too happy with the sum. He’d clearly expected more). Sweets were nonetheless ordered from Ghantewala, for the traditional mooh meetha karna.

Nanda’s peak as a novelist came with Jheel Ke Us Paar in 1971 (made into a film of the same name in 1973, starring Dharmendra and Mumtaz) for which he received an undisclosed sum from the publisher, Hind Pocket Books. In an unprecedented publicity blitz, the novel was promoted on billboards and radio spots. The print run was said to be 5 lakh, though Pathak says it was probably a more modest 3 lakh (still a colossal figure for those days).

According to Rahul, his father was invited to Bombay by actor-producer-director Guru Dutt, who wanted to buy the rights to his novel Pathar ke Honth, and was willing to pay 50,000. Nanda had already sold the rights to producer LV Prasad (who eventually made it into the much-acclaimed film Khilona, in 1970).

Once in Bombay, Nanda began living as a paying guest on Marine Drive. He plunged into the film industry as a story-screenplay writer, and met with great success. But by the end of the ’70s, he was losing his touch. Rahul puts it down to prolonged ill health. Between bi-weekly trips to Breach Candy Hospital for dialysis, “he lost conviction in himself and his writing,” Rahul says.

There was another factor at play too. The scriptwriting duo Salim Khan and Javed Akhtar had their first blockbuster, Zanjeer, in 1973, unleashing a new kind of hero upon the industry. The brooding persona of Amitabh Bachchan, with his simmering rage and unsmiling exterior, completely swamped Nanda’s social stories and “family movies”. Nanda’s time was over.

His fictional world invariably had characters, particularly women, who flailed helplessly against cruel twists of fate. They were victims of unfortunate, life-changing circumstances beyond their control. Often they were separated from their loved ones, or compelled to keep grave secrets from them.

The first film based on a Nanda novel was Phoolon ki Sej starring Manoj Kumar and Vyjanthimala (1964; the novel was titled Andhere Chirag). Nirmal and Karuna fall in love and have sex on a stormy evening. Nirmal is then suddenly transferred to Shillong. He scribbles his address on a piece of paper, asking Karuna to write to him. Karuna loses the scrap of paper, discovers she’s pregnant and spends fruitless years looking for him. When they meet again, circumstances force her to keep the birth of their child a secret.

Pholon ki Sej was followed by more than two dozen films based on his novels. The best of them included films like Yash Chopra’s massive hit Daag (1973, based on the novel Maili Chandni), where (once again!) a series of calamitous events befalls the lead pair (Sharmila Tagore and Rajesh Khanna). They fall in love, get married, but there is a rape attempt on Sonia. Sunil fights the molester and kills him by accident, is arrested by the police and sentenced to death. The police van in which he is travelling falls down a mountain and catches fire. Sunil is presumed dead. Sonia is pregnant and runs away… eventually the two come face to face. But by then Sunil, a fugitive from the law, is married to another woman in whose house Sonia lives and works.

Yash Chopra’s direction, the snowy locations of Himachal Pradesh, lilting music (Laxmikant-Payrelal) and the presence of a star (Khanna) at the peak of his powers, make Daag convincing and riveting.

Nanda explored other themes too, like reincarnation (Neel Kamal, 1968, based on a novel of the same name; Mehbooba, 1976, based on his novel Sisakte Saaz). Identical twins showed up in the 1971 film Sharmeelee which had the good sister/bad sister trope. But in keeping with Nanda’s penchant for a twist in the tale, it included a rather forced espionage angle in the end. (Even a film like Ajnabee, 1974 — basically about the vicissitudes of the married life of Rajesh Khanna and Zeenat Aman — had a murder and courtroom drama at the end). For a while, the belief in Bollywood was that if the story was by Gulshan Nanda, it was sure to be a hit.

But though they might have done well, there were some films where the stories seem routine and uninspired. They worked because of the presence of top stars and excellent music — such as Pathar ke Sanam (1967), based on the novel Sanvli Raat or the 1966 Sawan ki Ghata (directed by the usually reliable Shakti Samanta), which opens, characteristically with a car tumbling down a mountain, and is set amidst a backdrop of picturesque tea gardens.

Despite his success, Rahul says Nanda always smarted at the fact that he was never acknowledged as anything more than a pulp writer. He felt his status as a bestselling author went against him.

Rahul’s considered view is that Nanda’s popularity came from the fact that he wrote about young people, about sex, about taboo topics at a time when no one else did. His books were frowned upon by older people; they were like a guilty pleasure for youngsters. One of his early novels, Gaylord, written in the late ’50s, is about Delhi’s high society, seen through the eyes of a Connaught Place sex worker.

Kalankini is the story of a young woman raped by her guardian every night, even as he plays the father figure in public during the day. She falls in love with a photographer and the “father” gets them married, but then begins to blackmail her. In the end, she shoots him dead. Nanda’s last, incomplete book, was about a father and son who fall in love with the same girl.

Rahul adds that the other winning element of his father’s novels was their high emotion, the single most defining feature of Hindi films of the time. Perhaps that’s why he was such an ideal fit for Bollywood.

Nanda wrote commercial fiction suited to his audience and his time. His novels were probably the equivalent of today’s airport bestsellers, airplane and vacation reads. It’s just that then they were read on train and bus journeys, and on lazy afternoons when there was nothing much to do except listen to the radio (and in later years, watch a little TV in the evenings).

Because his films travelled so well to the big screen, it often appeared was as if Nanda was writing with a movie in mind. He may have yearned to be taken seriously by the Hindi literary world, but being a bestselling novelist whose stories were made into hit films of their time is not a bad legacy either.

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