THE WAY IT WAS: Tryst with Bollywood
Syed Abid Ali
Jaddan Bai called out to her daughter Kaneez to come in. I remember that she wore her hair in a ponytail and was dressed in a frock - she looked attractive and fresh. I was told that she was joining the film industry under the name of Nargis
My mother’s first cousin, Tanvir Naqvi, was a poet who had carved out a niche for himself in Bollywood in the early forties. He was much sought after as a songwriter. During this period, my parents also lived in Bombay and I invariably spent my summer holidays with them.
In June 1944 Tanvir sent me a message asking me to bring along Mohammed Rafi on my next trip to Bombay. Rafi was then a young and upcoming singer who often performed for my maternal grandfather along with his mentor, All Bakhsh Zahur, in our ancestral haveli in Lahore’s Kucha Faqir Khana. Rafi’s family managed a men’s salon in nearby Noor Mohalla.
In early July Rafi, chaperoned by his family friend, Hameed who later became his manager, came to Bombay with me. Tanvir Naqvi introduced him to some leading film producers such as AR Kardar, Mahbub and actor-director Nazeer.
If I remember correctly, Rafi got his break in Nazeer’s Laila Majnu starring Nazeer and his wife Swaran Lata. He sang the song Ja raha hai carvan, yeh zindagi ka carvan, which became an instant hit. Tanvir Naqvi wrote the lyrics of the song. Mohammed Rafi never looked back after that. He went on to sing for Kardar’s Swami, Mahbub’s Anmol Ghadi etc. He hit the pinnacle of fame with Shaukat Hussain Rizvi’s Jugnu — he sang the memorable duet with Nur Jehan Yahaan badla wafa ka baywafai kay siva kya hai.
In Bombay, we lived in one portion of a sprawling bungalow which we shared with Roshan Ara Begum and Chaudhry Mohammed Husain her husband who was a police officer. I slept alone on our side of the thinly partitioned verandah. On the other side, Roshan Ara Begum did her daily Riaz with the first rays of the sun. I always woke up with her first alaap.
Soon after his arrival in Bombay, Rafi performed at our house on the birthday of my younger sister. Roshan Ara Begum, walked in when he started singing, and was captivated. When my mother introduced Rafi to her, she said that the ‘young man with the golden voice was destined to go far in life.’
Tanvir Naqvi, a bachelor, lived in a spacious apartment which he shared from time to time with youngsters who came to Bombay, aspiring to make it in Bollywood. Music Director Rafiq Ghaznavi, director/script writer Zia Sarhady, actors Masud, Wasti and Romesh and singer/composer Khan Mastana lived in the same vicinity and were frequent visitors at his place.
Once when I dropped one evening, I saw Amin Malik, a fresh arrival in search of a job, preparing a concoction with green leaves, almonds, pistachios and Misri. Once the drink had been prepared, it was offered to everyone present except me. Rafiq Ghaznavi said that the ‘sweet poison was not meant for raw youngsters like me’.
As the evening progressed, so did the shenanigans. Rafiq Ghaznavi with a small stick in hand directed an imaginary choir while Khan Mastana repeatedly sang the same song. Amin Malik performed gymnastic — at one point in the evening he stood upside down against the wall. Wasti indulged in endless mimicry, Tanvir kept on crying and Zia Sarhady walked out suddenly after being uncharacteristically boisterous. We learnt later that he had roamed the streets aimlessly the entire night.
Whenever I was in Bombay, I visited different film studios with Tanvir Naqvi and another relative, Munawar H. Kasim, a film director. He was my uncle by marriage. I was fascinated by filmmaking. Thus I came in contact with many film personalities such as film star-cum-singer Khurshid, comedians Gope, Charlie and Ghori and the new comers Dilip Kumar and Rai Kapoor.
What proved a real boon was the prohibition introduced by Morarji Desai the excise minister in the provincial Congress Government. (He later became the Indian prime minister). Bollywood was the hardest hit by prohibition.
Our family business managed the officer’s messes for the British armed forces. Tanvir Naqvi asked me to request my father, a teetotaller himself, for some ‘supplies’. I reluctantly mentioned the matter to my father. He immediately ordered the bar manager to give me a crate, charged to his own account. He told me that it was a gift for my mamoon and that he could have half a crate every fortnight if he was willing to pay for it.
Tanvir lost no time narrating the incident to all his friends. And I suddenly became a hit with the Bollywood crowd. It was due to this incident that Rafiq Ghaznavi asked me to the famous Poona races. Ghaznavi drove me to Poona in his convertible Singer. I still remember that the drive was extremely scenic and that he sang continuously. Unfortunately, he lost heavily at the races and on our way back I sat next to a morose Rafiq Ghaznavi who hummed one sad tune after another, without saying a single word.
Once I also went to Poona with Tanvir. We travelled by train. When the train reached our destination, Tanvir was lost in thought, smoking a cigarette. He was oblivious to his surroundings. I gently touched his arm and told him that we had arrived at Poona. He got up in a flurry, promptly threw his hat out of the window and put the burning cigarette on his head.
Tanvir lived on the third floor of an apartment building called Gulshan Mahal. One evening, while we were standing in the balcony, an old man beckoned him from the front lawns below. He went down immediately and I saw him have a word with the old man, before returning to the balcony. Then he beckoned the old man to come up. The old man did and knocked at the door. Tanvir quietly told him ‘Baba maaf karo’ and closed the door. However, the next minute he sent his servant down with a ten rupee note for the beggar.
I still remember the time I was standing alone in the balcony and saw him get out of a taxi. I shouted to catch his attention. He looked up, returned the greetings and promptly shook hands with a stranger standing on the pavement!
Actor Romesh who came from Nairobi (his real name was Lateef) and had become famous for his performance in Mahbub’s Pukar was a frequent visitor to Gulshan Mahal. One day he invited me to accompany him to Jaddan Bai’s apartment at Marine Drive. We were welcomed heartily and were served a sumptuous tea.
Jaddan Bai called out to her daughter Kaneez to come in. I remember that she wore her hair in a ponytail and was dressed in a frock — she looked attractive and fresh. I was told that she was joining the film industry under the name of Nargis.
After we left, Romesh impishly told me that he had arranged the meeting at Jaddan Bai’s behest, who was looking for a match for her daughter.
I still remember the day when the legendary actor-cum-producer-director, Prithvi Raj called on my father. He was accompanied by his young son, Raj Kapoor. Prithvi Raj had heard my father, Syed Asghar Nizami, a known poet of his day; recite his verses at an All India Mushaira in Bombay. Prithvi Raj had been impressed and had come over to ask him to write the songs for his film as well as his theatre productions. My father politely declined and suggested that he approach Tanvir Naqvi who was better suited for the assignment as he had become famous with the song Awaz day kahan hai.
I enjoyed my tryst with Bollywood. But what I enjoyed even more was when I returned to Lahore and became the centre of attraction for my college mates, eager for the latest gossip about film personalities. However, all this ended with the partition in 1947.
A number of the film personalities migrated to Pakistan. Tanvir Naqvi and many of his friends including Shaukat Hussain Rizvi and Nur Jehan settled in Lahore and began the uphill task of building the film industry in the new country. I tried to keep in touch with Tanvir’s friends.
While I was working for the Tourism department at Karachi, I roped in Zia Sarhady to make half a dozen documentary films on Pakistan’s tourist attractions. My wife and I were regular visitors at Yousaf Bhaimian’s who had married Irshad apa (Khurshid). I came across Rafiq Ghaznavi frequently at artist Nagi’s house. Madam Nur Jehan became a close family friend, especially after her elder sister, Eidan Begum, married Tanvir Naqvi. More about Madam some other time.
This is the last of a four part series by Syed Abid Ali, former Director General Public Relations, Punjab, Secretary General PNCA and Chairman of the Old Ravians Association