It was a relief to know that India still applauds celebrities other than Bollywood stars. A jam-packed hall at Mehboob Studios in Bandra, Mumbai, last Sunday morning, which gave a thunderous welcome to Arvind Kejriwal, was heartening proof that India is still charged and passionate about people and events far removed from the film industry.
A bit of a paradox, though, that this literary fest which drew huge crowds for a wide range of celebs, from Vikram Seth’s exquisitely well-spoken mother Leila to an erudite and delightful Ramachandra Guha, was hosted at a filmi venue like Mehboob Studios.
But as the three-day long date with authors and speakers progressed, it became clear that even this event was inextricably linked with the film industry. It began with the over-hyped Suketu Mehta who still rides on the fame of Maximum City, his book on Mumbai. The only important speaker to use the ‘eff’ word twice in his keynote address, every introduction to him (and chunks of his book too) emphasised his association with filmmaker Vidhu Vinod Chopra. Suketu collaborated on Mission Kashmir with Chopra and I don’t know if that really is a qualification to wear with pride since the muddled MK was not one of Vidhu’s best films. So one presumes that any Bollywood connection, whatever its merit, looks impressive on a resume and must be flogged ad nauseam.
It was, therefore, wonderful that Kejriwal could get people out of their beds on a Sunday morning without a filmland association to prop him up. As Arnab Goswami, the TV channel head with the over-excited, high-decibel voice (wonder if a sedate BBC would ever hire any of our dramatic TV anchors) put it, the crowds would have come even at 4.30am to hear Kejriwal. The wily, newly-minted politician struck the right opening note when he questioned why the front row seats were reserved for VIPs when the crowds had come to meet an aam aadmi. Lusty cheers were earned on the spot.
But the cinematic element crept in everywhere else. From Mira Nair who has turned the best-selling The Reluctant Fundamentalist into a film (watch out for this one, the promo looked promising) and Chetan Bhagat whose association with 3 Idiots (based on his Five Point Someone) exceeds the speed at which his books sell, films were never far behind.
When the three-day literary fest wound up on a high with Gulzar in conversation with Nasreen Munni Kabir (who has authored 12 books on cinema) and the spotlight lingered on an elegant Waheeda Rehman who had come to hear him, it seemed the perfect end to a mix of what ultimately was a books and cinema carnival.
By the way, here’s something that didn’t come out in Gulzar’s conversation and, in fact, has never come out anywhere. The only time Gulzar directed Waheeda was in a film called Namkeen which co-starred Shabana Azmi. The film had actually begun with Rekha in it. But one day, when a journalist had dropped in to meet Waheeda, the whimsical Re stomped out in a huff. She was in one of her off-with-their-heads phases with journos and had stayed put in her room, refusing to come out until Gulzar had evicted the inoffensive journalist from the set.
When Gulzar requested Waheeda to ask her guest to leave, the senior actress was put in a spot. But she stood her ground, and asked Gulzar how she could ask someone she had invited over, to leave. You won’t believe what Gulzar did that day. He took Waheeda’s side and evicted Rekha from the film instead of the journalist. He replaced Rekha with Shabana.
Looking at the benign poet-writer and the dainty, sari-clad actress with well-maintained silver hair, you wouldn’t have associated them with such grit. But in an industry that has always suffered from the sickening please-your-star-at-any-cost syndrome, in a world where even a Yash Chopra was known to kowtow to his stars, Gulzar and Waheeda were refreshingly principled. A poet who dares to write from the heart is one kind of man. A poet who has the guts to take a tough decision against a saleable star is practically unknown. Gulzar, a Bimal Roy discovery, is a rare man indeed.
Bharathi S. Pradhan is editor, The Film Street Journal