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Siraj Syed


Siraj Syed is the India Correspondent for FilmFestivals.com and a member of FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics. He is a Film Festival Correspondent since 1976, Film-critic since 1969 and a Feature-writer since 1970. He is also an acting and dialogue coach. 

 

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IFFI 51, 51: My ‘golden peacock’ moment and the denial of recognition to IFFI Veterans

IFFI 51, 51: My ‘golden peacock’ moment and the denial of recognition to IFFI Veterans

It’s not the real thing, only a memento. Nevertheless it is not the lesser for me, in terms of value.

How did I come about getting a replica of the much coveted Golden Peacock, which is the main prize at the International Film Festival of India? I was not part of any film shown at IFFI, nor had I contributed in any way, other than writing 51 articles on IFFI 51, attending some 30 film shows, a few press conferences and the opening and closing events. My campaign to bring some recognition and honour to veterans who have attended 41-50 IFFIs and/or been film critics for 41-50 years has been consistently ignored by the powers that be, who accepted the proposal publicly, at a press conference in 2019. But more of that later.

One of the films chosen as attribute to actresses Nimmi and Kum Kum was Basant Bahar. It was scheduled to be shown at Maquinez Palace II, in anticipation of a very small audience, for the film is now close to 70 years old and was made in black and white. This was a right decision. I booked my ticket for the show, easily available, keen to see my Baby Bajee on screen, in one of her films that I had missed, being a little child when it was released. Moreover, I had heard its songs dozens of times, and each one was a gem. I wanted to see Nimmi, who I called Baby Bajee because others called her Baby and she called my mother as mother, in her prime. Bajee is Urdu for elder sister.

We were very close to Syed Ali Raza, who was a writer-director, and hailed from our home-town of Bareilly, in Uttar Pradesh. His father and my father were like relatives, and often discussed the poetry of Mirza Asadullah Khan ‘Ghalib’, the most eminent 19th century Persian-Urdu poet who Razabhai’s father revered. Once, my father wrote a ghazal in the style and rhythm pattern of Ghalib and gave it to Razabhai’s father to read, who was stunned, and complimented my Dad no end on being another Ghalib.

Razabhai was extremely fond of me, and aware that I had taken part in may school plays and won prizes every time. When he decided to turn director, in late 1957 or early 1958, he needed a young boy to play a central role in the film, Ghunghat Ke Pat Khol, which starred Sunil Dutt and Nimmi. Apparently, the chosen kid could not deliver, or backed out last minute. Desperate to have the muhurt at the scheduled time on a Sunday morning, he called my home and requested my family to send me as replacement. I was having my breakfast, when I was literally dragged to a taxi and rushed to the faraway Andheri studio in a taxi. All of six-seven years old, I was highly upset at the disruption of my breakfast and my much awaited Sunday school holiday. Once there, I was told to memorise some lines, given a village boy’s dress and sent to the make-up room, where Baby Naaz, the top child star of her time, who was playing my elder sister, gave me one look and remarked, “Mummy, look who have they brought to play my brother.”  The comment hurt badly. I decided to give in, after much persuasion, partly due to Naaz’s rude remark, and agreed to act.

To give the clap for the muhurt shot, Razabhai had invited Mehboob Khan, the stalwart film-maker, for whom he had written dialogue in a few films. Mother India had been released, and Mehboob was the toast of the nation. Nimmi was dressed in bridal costume, while I do not remember seeing Sunil Dutt. After the muhurt shot, I was told to run across a patch of land and go up to Naaz, who was playing my sister, asking her for some money to buy a kite. But what was this? The road was littered with stones, some even pointed. I put my foot down, or, rather, refused to put my foot down, because I was asked to run barefoot. Not used to being barefoot at all, I was afraid I would hurt my feet badly if I ran over those stones. I demanded shoes. But villagers do not wear shoes. At least in 1958, hardly any village boy could be seen wearing shoes. Slippers? Maybe! So an assistant was sent to go and buy rustic looking slippers of my size, which he managed to find in a faraway shop, most other shops being closed on Sunday. The shot was unduly delayed.

After the shot, I over-heard a conversation between Mehboob and Razabhai, during which Mehboob expressed his desire to cast me as Son of India, his next film that had a young boy in the titular role. He said he had tried out hundreds of candidates, but had rejected them all. Seeing me do my bit on this set, he felt I was just right. But Razabhai insisted that he would allow me to work in Son of India only after Ghunghat Ke Pat Khol was completed, as, even working in one film, would seriously affect my education. I might mention here that I was a class-topper. Moreover, Razabhai was keen to get credit for introducing me, a credit that would be overshadowed by the indomitable Mehboob Khan. Mehboob often took years to complete a film, and if I started working in Son of India too, it would mean the end of my education. Mehboob was visibly disappointed.

In a strange and unfortunate (for my film career) development, Mehboob Khan settled on Sajid Khan, who had played young Birju in Mother India, but Ghunghat Ke Pat Khol was never completed. I am unaware of the reasons, but I do know that it not did not progress beyond the first shooting schedule. So, I did not get a chance to work with Nimmi on screen. But the cordial relations continued. We visited each other’s homes (Nimmi had a bungalow named Summit on Worli Hill) and met on festivals too. Till then, Nimmi and Razabhai were not officially married, which formality was performed a little later.

Due to extremely tragic circumstances and a moral stand taken by my father, we were forced to vacate our huge flat opposite the prime Girgaum Chowpatty beach in, 1962. With nowhere to go, we found a saviour in the shape of Ali Raza, who gave us a room in his three-bedroom flat at Sankli Street, in Byculla, since he spent most of his days at Worli, and only his two nieces and his father lived at Sankli Street. Still extremely keen on launching me as an actor, he wrote a script called Ram Mohammed D’Souza, about an orphan boy who is raised by three men, of differing faiths. But once again, he failed to get it on the floor. A film was made later, on the same subject, and titled Nanha Farishta. Ram Mohammed D’Souza was published as a book, in Urdu and Hindi. Meanwhile, Razabhai’s writing career was blooming, while Nimmi, the star of films like Amar and Aan, gave up acting altogether, after Pooja Ke Phool, Akash Deep and Mere Mehboob, except for a commitment to complete Love and God, the K. Asif take on the immemorial legend of Laila Majnu.

Decades later, I was asked by my guru and mentor Ameen Sayani to interview Nimmi for a radio programme. I went to Juhu, where she then lived, after selling off her Worli property, with Razabhai. Razabhai had since passed away. In my career, I had already recorded hundreds of interviews, but on that day, things went wrong. There was no headphone or earphone around and I could not monitor the recording. After she had spoken for some time, I stopped to check whether all was ok. It was not. Nothing had been recorded. This ruffled Nimmi, and she said that she would not continue the interview. I would have to come another day, better prepared. She was already 80 years old, and maybe not too well. The interview never happened.

Earlier this year, shortly after the onset of the pandemic, I was informed that Nimmi had passed away after brief hospitalisation, but not due to Covid 19 Coronavirus. Because of lockdown and curfew, I could not attend her burial, which took place in the same graveyard where Ali Raza, both my parents and my brother are buried. This saddened me no end. Cut to January 2021 and Maquinez Palace II. The Deputy Director of IFFI, Ms. Tanu Rai, and the officials were present to honour the two personalities to whom tributes were being paid through the screening of the film Basant Bahar. Obviously, both Nimmi and Kum Kum were no more, and they would be represented by some relative. Nobody had turned-up till the scheduled show timing. Tanu asked the show to be delayed by a few minutes, as she was expecting someone. Ten minutes later, nobody had arrived. Then a thought came to me that I could speak a few words about Nimmi, if nobody showed-up, and I approached Tanu.

When she learned of my close association with Nimmi, she asked me to do the needful. Just then, Hadi, a film producer and the son of Kum Kum, who played a supporting role in Basant Bahar, arrived. Nobody came from Nimmi’s side, as I had expected. She had no children and her adopted son had settled abroad a good 40 years ago. Of course, she had her sister’s family, but I could not picture any of them making a trip to Goa just to say a few words. Since Nimmi was the lead actress in Basant Bahar, it was almost obligatory to have someone represent her, or at least say a few words about her. Tanu made a decision and asked Hadi to speak, followed by me. I addressed the sparse audience for less than two minutes and told Tanu that I did not want any memento for my address. Before the film started, a good twenty minutes after the scheduled time, she insisted on giving me the memento. So, here it is.

Coming to IFFI Veterans issue, it is a losing battle, but I continue to fight on. Inspired by BrijBhusan Chaturvedi (known almost exclusively by the acronym BBC), the Indore-based teacher and principal turned journalist, who will be attending his 50th IFFI in November (IFFI 52), I had put a proposal to the authorities that media-persons who have attended more than 25 IFFIs and/or completed 50 years as film journalists, should be honoured given a special place in the festival. At a press conference, the powers that be accepted the proposal, and asked me to submit a list of such persons, which I promptly did. This was at IFFI 50, in November 2019. Since then, I have been stone-walled, with no reply to any of my communications.

What exactly was the recognition and honour I sought, and still seek? First of all, BBC should be honoured at the opening or closing ceremony with a memento and a certificate, since he has attended the maximum number of IFFs. He began with the first-ever IFFI, in 1952, and has missed only two, to the best of his memory. Such dedication and experience is invaluable. Later, all those who had attended 25 festivals and/or completed more than 50 years in film journalism should be given the same honour. Besides, a select committee of such individuals should be included in the organising committee and the selection committee of IFFI’s future editions. Finally, they should be given the same hospitality that is given to other members of such committees.

On a rethink, I have narrowed the selection criteria down to 41-50 IFFIs (up from 25) and/or 50 years in film journalism. The veterans would elect from among themselves the senior-most person as Chairman and the next in line, who has attended festivals numbering closest to 50, as Secretary. Only these two would serve on the two festival Committees, one each, and be given the hospitality, in rotation. This will mean minimal cost to the organisers, and invaluable advice and experience made available to them. Most of the organisers consist of individuals who have not been around for more than five years. So, media-persons who have attended 50 IFFIs would be treasured assets, with deep insights and studied inputs about films and film festivals.

I reckon there isn’t anybody around, except 85 year-old BBC, who will qualify, in IFFI 52, but we will have to find out who are the ones who marked their presence at 41 IFFIs or more. I have clocked 43. Of course, they would have to provide some kind of proof about their participation over the years. There cannot be more than a handful. Festival badges/ID cards and/or copies of articles written would be two solid pieces of evidence. A self-declaration letter would accompany these pieces of evidence, which could be vetted, if necessary, by the Press Information Bureau (PIB), an arm of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Central Government of India, which has been co-ordinating media accreditations, at least from 1976, if not earlier. There were only a handful of festivals held during 1952-1976, with many years between them, and became an annual feature from that time. 1976 was my first IFFI.

IFFI has a budget of around Rs. 10 crores, and the inclusion of the Veterans would cost an infinitesimal fraction of the cost, so cost cannot be the reason for denying the Veterans the privilege they richly deserve. It can only be attributed to the closed door policy that the authorities, who report to the Government of India’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting and the local Goa Government’s Entertainment Society of Goa, who jointly run the festival, under a mutual Memorandum of Understanding.

The only thing that the organisers really want to expand is the number of delegate registrations, which has touched 12,000 in the past. A self-defeating effort, such burgeoning only means more and more disappointed delegates, since the designated auditoria can accommodate only a little over 2,000 viewers. Even with 2,400 delegates at IFFI 51 (a symptom of the Covid 19 Coronavirus), this writer could not get seats for four or five films of his choice. Imagine the scenario with 12,000-15,000 delegates! How does the festival benefit by having thousands of frustrated delegates? Yes, they pay registration fees, which, to be sure, is a small fraction of the organising cost.

Once again, I make a strong case for forming an IFFI Veterans Committee, and once again I hope it gets overdue attention and consideration at the highest echelons of IFFI power. Is anybody listening?

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About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of FilmFestivals.com and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.


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