Exclusive: Gulzar on 50 Years of 'Mere Apne' With Vinod Khanna, Meena Kumari
Gulzar speaks on his directorial debut 'Mere Apne' starring Vinod Khanna, Meena Kumari, Shatrughan Sinha
Quite uncannily, the score of 20 films he has directed every year uninterrupted, from Mere Apne in 1971 onwards, mark milestones of an estimable career for the auteur who has established a distinct signature of his own.
His last film, Hu Tu Tu, had a gap of three years after Maachis (1996). Indeed, Gulzar stands out as one of the most tireless directors in the Mumbai film whirligig, who has simultaneously beavered away as a lyricist, poet, story and dialogue writer, author of children’s books, documentarist, voice-over artiste and TV serial-maker.
And nothing has changed about him, from his trademark spotless white kurta-over-trousers (“not pajamas, as you mediawallas keep saying,” he clarifies) to his stubble, which he cleans up after three-or-four days, to prevent it from shaping into a dense beard.
When I tell him, over FaceTime, that he’s looking baby pink-complexioned and animated, he laughs,“That’s because I keep myself occupied, continue with my creativity to the maximum extent I can, during these straitened times.”
Clearly Gulzar, now at 87, hasn’t lost an iota of his lust for life and writing, alternating between compilations of poetry and penning film lyrics. The topic du jour is, of course Mere Apne, his first go as a director, which was premiered at Delhi’s Delite cinema, 50 years ago on September 10, 1971.
Cloistered because of the pandemic at his landmark bungalow 'Boskyana' on Pali Hill, he devotes regular hours to his cluttered desk till the evening. Once he’s done with his regimen on a weekend, he assents to swing back to the golden jubilee year, as it were, of Mere Apne. Here are excerpts, then, from our trip back to the momentous milestone in his oeuvre:
On re-watching Mere Apne, it strikes one as still so relevant, especially in the context of the political conditions today.
Perhaps that observation could be addressed to politicians. The song Haal Chaal Thik Thaak... carries a timeless resonance, I think. At the time of Mere Apne, it alluded to the Bangladesh genocide. The visuals – the posters, the wall graffiti, the protest slogans – were an important aspect of the film’s ambience. Today, it is true of the political situation in Afghanistan, us and way beyond, encompassing the entire world almost. Yes, so Mere Apne continues to be relevant, which unfortunately is not a happy sign.
Take the situation of the farmers who have been canvassing for their rights for over a year. There’s been no solution despite the COVID-19 crisis.
In my life, I’ve witnessed the effects of the Quit India Movement of 1942, the Second World War and the partition of our sub-continent. Obviously, we haven’t learnt our lessons. Any chances of peace, a settled world, would amount to be mere thinking out aloud for a Utopia. It’s now for the contemporary generation to articulate this through films and other mediums of expression.
Why did you retreat from filmmaking?
How can you use the word ‘retreated’? I’ve always expressed myself through literature and film writing. Admittedly there have been phases when there has been mayusi…. disappointments, but always redeemed by that quality which is within all of us, hope.
At the outset, for Mere Apne weren’t you just supposed to translate the original Bengali script of Apanjan directed by Tapan Sinha, who wanted to remake it in Hindi?
That’s correct. Tapanda had wanted some additional fantasy and dream sequences to make Apanjan more successful in Hindi. He had approached Kishore Kumar and Waheeda Rehman to play the leads. SD Burman had been signed on for the music score. Then, after mulling over the remake, he dropped the idea.
Next, as it happened, (producer) NC Sippy, partner of Hrishikesh Mukherjee, for whom I had written Guddi, Anand and Aashirwad, asked me if I had the rights for the Apanjan script based on a short story by Indra Mitra. I said I only had the Hindi version of the script, which had quite a few deviations from the original. Undeterred, he asked me for me a script narration.
I summoned up the nerve to tell him, “I would like to direct the film if Hrishida doesn’t, which is why I have held on to the script.” NC Sippy saab said to meet him the next day, as was his custom at 4 am since he was an early riser. I read out the script to him. I had omitted scenes which weren’t in Indra Mitra’s story anyway. My intention was to make it closer to life – deal with the restless youth versus politics - and not retread it as a musical. And then came the big moment for me, Sippy saab said, “Okay, aap hi karenge, you will direct the picture.”
Chhaya Devi had portrayed the old woman in Apanjan, she was fluent in Hindi, and could have replayed the part. But Sippy saab was keen on casting Nimmi. He said, “I’ve had a crush on her ever since my college days.” With due respects, I disagreed and insisted that Chhaya Devi would be more appropriate. He told me to think about someone else, and that’s when I suggested the name of Meena Kumari. NC Sippy’s elder son Romu, who preferred to be on the production side, was instrumental in persuading Meenaji to be in the project though she was grievously ill those days. And Romu’s brother Raj N Sippy, who’s called Daddu affectionately, came on board as my assistant director.
Salil Chaudhary’s music score is remarkable, particularly for the song Koi Hota Jisko Apna Hum Apna Keh Lehte Yaaro.... And it’s believed that the tune was developed from a background piece in Anand.
Salilda would often do that.. there was this little musical refrain in the background music of Anand, which I had loved. I gave him some dummy words to get going, and he said that’s fine, these words are perfect. Before this, there was another instance, a piece of interlude in Main Kab Se Khadi Iss Paar... in Madhumati which Salilda had developed for the song Ghadi Ghadi Mora Dil Dhadke... for the same film.
How confident were you as a first-time director?
Zara si dhadkan tez ho jaati thi (The heart would beat faster). But the direction, the shot takings and all the details had already been incorporated into the script. Moreover, I had assisted Bimal Roy on Kabuliwala and Bandini. Bimalda had also sent me with cameraman Kamal Bose to shoot footage of the Kumbh Mela. These shots would have been used for a feature film , Amrit Kumbh Ki Khoj Mein, for which I had written the screenplay and dialogue. So, I wasn’t a complete novice.
Whatever happened to that film?
Unfortunately, Bimalda passed away before he could start directing the film.
How come you cast Vinod Khanna in his first empathetic role?
I’d seen his first film, Sunil Dutt’s Mann ka Meet, in which he was a villain. I had liked his personality and screen presence. I’d offered the role to Haribhai (Sanjeev Kumar) and Kaka (Rajesh Khanna) but they had shied away, they felt it was a woman-oriented subject. NC Sippy then said, “Forget about them.” We went to see one of Vinod Khanna’s next films – I forget its title – at the Imperial cinema, and my producer was impressed, leaving the film in the interval, and said succinctly, “He’ll be good enough.”
And how did the selection of Shatrughan Sinha and other actors come about?
Romu suggested his name. For other parts we opted for newcomers. It was the first film for Danny Denzongpa, Paintal, Dinesh Thakur, Asrani and Dinesh Thakker. They were all fresh names and were either from theatre or the Pune Film Institute, and already knew their craft. Danny, as a refugee, was especially sweet in his behaviour and focused. There was Yogita Bali in one scene and another shot. Romu had talked to her and she had agreed instantly. It’s my bad that I could never cast her again.
What was the audience response like to Mere Apne?
At the trial shows, everyone would heap praises. Still, I was trembling in my seat at the Delhi premiere. Asrani had caught hold of my hand, and calmed me down. As the film progressed, the audience was reacting positively, and I somehow stopped trembling. The film had shaped out quite closely to the way I had conceived it. Only we couldn’t picturise one song, Roz Akeli Aaye Roz Akeli Jaaye, Chand Katora Liye Bhikaran Raat... on Meenaji. She was in no condition to come to the sets, she was on the last stage of her illness. As far as I know, Mere Apne was the last film she shot for. She would often joke with the young actors, “This director is pushing you so hard, at least you can ask him to host you a beer party.” Alas, that party never happened because she was gone.
How did Mere Apne fare commercially?
It did very well. It wasn’t a bumper hit, but it always drew in crowds at the re-runs.
Could Mere Apne be remade today?
No, not exactly. In fact, I’d already updated it with Maachis. Only, back in the ‘70s, the youth fought one another with bicycle chains and hockey sticks. Over time, they have used guns, rifles and grenades.
Oddly though, the politicians haven’t changed. In Mere Apne, Asit Sen as a politician says that Mahatma Gandhi and Pandit Nehru are no longer in our midst…where have such greats leaders gone? Politicians are still saying that. Faces have changed, the lecturebaazi hasn’t.
Of your oeuvre as a director, which of your films have you been most satisfied with?
If I may say so in retrospect, Ijaazat and Maachis have been the closest to my heart and mind. Come to think of it, NC Sippy and the producer of Maachis, RV Pandit, were the best producers to collaborate with.
And once there was RD Burman with whom I shared a beautiful rapport. At times, he would grumble that he didn’t understand my lyrics like Gulmohar Gar Tumhara Naam Hota... (Devta) and Mera Kuchh Saaman Tumhare Paas Pada Hai... (Ijaazat), but he would accept them and come up with marvellous compositions.
Now, there’s a similar rapport with Vishal Bharadwaj. The only difference is that Vishal understands every nuance of the lyrics since his father was a lyricist, and while growing up in Meerut, poet Bashir Badr was his mentor.
It’s been quite a long and gratifying curve for me. Working with AR Rahman in the Sufiana spirit was quite another experience. And with Ehsaan-Shankar-Loy, whose compositions are modern and yet melodious.
Where do you keep your Oscar for Jai Ho (Slumdog Millionaire)?
You mean my Oscar and Grammy trophies for Jai Ho! I keep them on a shelf along with my prized possessions, books. These two trophies were all thanks to Rahman.
Did you win any awards for Mere Apne?
I did win awards presented by the Bengal Film Journalists’ and the UP Journalists’ Associations, which were extremely prestigious those days.
How come no popular award for Mere Apne?
(Tongue-in-cheek) Kyonki tum nahin thhe, you weren’t the Filmfare editor those days.
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