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Forgotten face of hills

Satyajit Ray’s Sikkim may have finally been screened after 39 years but an even older documentary, made on neighbouring Darjeeling, has still not been screened here 50 years after being shot.

The film, made by German director Paul Zils, starred a Salt Lake resident, then aged 11. But sadly he never got to see the film either. “We shot it in 1961. A friend of Zils was our family friend and he recommended my name for the role,” says HA Block’s Mihir Mukherjee, now a retired marketing executive.

Mukherjee’s father was against his son getting into films and only agreed because Zils then had a big reputation. He was well-known as a German with a fascination for making films on India. He had founded the Indian Documentary Producers’ Association and even directed a commercial film starring Dev Anand and Geeta Bali called Zalzala, based on Tagore’s Char Adhyay, in 1951.

Mukherjee was allowed to go for the shoot which took place in a tea plantation in Darjeeling during his Puja holidays in 1961, chaperoned by his brother, who was then in his 20s. The film was about a family that lived in a tea estate and the challenges they faced when the father lost his job there and they had to move to the city. The story is told from the perspective of the son, played by Mukherjee.

He remembers being shot playing with grasshoppers in the estates, feeding and riding horses. “During one shot, a horse stepped on my foot but I dared not shout in pain as Eastman colour film reel was very expensive then and I did not want the reel to go waste. I withstood the pain for around 10 minutes and yelled out once Zils said “cut”. When he realised what had happened he carried me to the doctor and later gifted me a kukhri that he had bought from Kashmir for my bravery.

Zils, says Mukherjee, would only speak in English and rely much on his cameraman Vaikunth (who had canned films like Seeta Aur Geeta, Aandhi and Parichay) to explain the scenes to actors in Hindi.

Mukherjee also got to meet pioneering climber Sherpa Tenzing Norgay. “We shot at Norgay’s house, where he had at least 40 Pekingese dogs. There was no scene with the two of us together so I don’t remember much of him. But he was hospitable.”

The film’s crew had stayed at Mount Everest Hotel in Darjeeling and Mukherjee’s fellow guests there were Satyajit Ray, shooting Kanchanjangha, and Shammi Kapoor, shooting Professor.

But once the shoot ended Zils and the crew disappeared, without Mukherjee ever getting to see how it turned out. “I believe the film was titled A tea plantation in Darjeeling and screened at a film festival in Germany but it didn’t get theatrical release in Calcutta,” he says. “My father did not care much for the film but it was my mother’s dying wish to have been able to watch her son on screen once.”

With 50 years having passed since the release of the film, Mukherjee is trying desperately to get hold of a print or a DVD. “My son has emailed several film institutes in Germany but they are asking for proof that I worked in A tea plantation in Darjeeling. All documents are lost now, these pictures and an autograph are all I have,” he says sadly, holding out three tiny black and white snaps clicked 50 years ago and an autographed picture of Zils.

He also mentions how valuable such a documentary would be to the people of Bengal, to have the Darjeeling of 50 years ago on celluloid. “It was so clean then. We had shot on Anderson Bridge near Dooars, which collapsed in 1968, while Hotel Mount Everest, where we stayed, was burnt down in riots in 1984.”