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String & celluloid salute to slice of history

One learnt the tricks of the ad film trade in Calcutta, the other finds inspiration in Bengali verse.

Film-maker Zafar Hai and sitar player Ustad Nishat Khan breezed through town after giving the city a glimpse of their work at the centenary celebrations of the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, Mumbai, held at the Taj Bengal on Monday evening. Khan’s recital started the evening’s proceedings, with guests including Ratan Tata, followed by the premiere of a film on the historic hotel, The Taj of Apollo Bunder, directed by Hai.

The director of documentaries, ad and feature films started his career at J. Walter Thompson in Calcutta. “I was hired by Subhas Ghosal, and I spent four years here learning the trade,” recalls the salt-and-pepper haired Hai, who still nurses a “soft corner” for the city.

Making a film about the Taj Mahal hotel was also an emotional experience for the man who had “a great deal to do with the Taj” personally. “My office, which I shared with Ismail Merchant, in Mumbai, used to be just behind the Taj Mahal Palace. Whenever we had a meeting with a large number of people we would shift to the hotel,” smiles Hai, who directed The Perfect Murder, a Merchant Ivory production.

The 50-minute film was commissioned by the Taj group, but Hai is clear that it is not promotional material. “History happened there,” he says. From Jinnah to Gandhi, Sarojini Naidu to the Nehrus, the landmark which predates the Gateway of India has seen many important guests and much action.

“Twenty years of research by historians Charles Allen and Sharada Dwivedi, went into the manuscript, which was initially meant for a book,” explains Ravi Dubey, senior vice-president, corporate affairs, for the Indian Hotels Company Ltd.

Roshan Seth, who wrote the script, is the “voice” of the film, speaking as the walls of the 100-year-old establishment that was converted to a hospital during World War I.

Khan opened with a “personal tribute” to the hotel on Monday evening. More performances in Calcutta would be welcome to the eighth successor to the Etawa gharana, who collaborated with vocalist Rashid Khan last year. The Royal Opera House in Brussels witnessed his interpretation of Tagore and Neruda’s work blend with the sitar, a concert he would “love to bring to Calcutta”.

Khan, who has received a United Nations award for “dedication and humanity”, has also recently been appointed to the music faculty of a major US university. “I wish to make classical music more accessible to the contemporary listener,” says the musician.

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