By Vinod Mirani
Struggle: The word people used for the hundreds of aspiring men alighting from Frontier Mail (now Golden Temple Mail) and other trains coming from the North, especially Punjab, in Bombay, to make it big in films. The odd one also came down from other states, but only Hindi speaking states. For, East and South had their own thriving film industries.
But, for every Dharmendra or Manoj Kumar who made it big in films, there were a thousand others who could not make it and were never talked of.
A lad lands in Mumbai, has meagre savings, goes from office to office and studio to studio where many have been before him and more will after him. Filmmakers can’t take all of them seriously or see a star in them. But, these lads never lost hope. Their money was running out and they had to survive to carry on the struggle. They needed a job, what they considered to be a stop gap till they got a break.
Not surprisingly, the jobs they sought were on the periphery of where the action was, close to the film scene. Some became photojournalists, some film journalists in one of the many vernacular publications. Being attached to a film publication helped them hover around the sets as did being photojournalists. Gradually, these strugglers came to terms with their status and adopted these professions for keeps, realising that there was no stardom to be got.
Being a film journalist helped a few develop closeness with established stars, and with their help, some film journalists went onto become film publicists.
Some who were not quite qualified became waiters in restaurants. They preferred restaurants at Dadar, which had three active film studios where shooting took place — Ranjit, Shree Sound and Roop Tara studios. This was because a few typical Punjabi restaurants operated here where film producers as well as actors shooting in these studios either called for food or came over.
Some of those aspirant-turned-waiters chose Bandra restaurants. There were three restaurants side by side, Neelam, Pamposh and Belga, and the waiters here usually presented themselves well, looking smart.
There was only one film shooting studio in Bandra, Mehboob Studios, and most of the shooting activities took at studios far from Bandra. However, somehow, Bandra was the centre point for most strugglers.
Just an aside to state that those who could not make it were never willing to go back home. It was the typical Indian sentiment: “Kya muh lekar ghar jaaon!”
Bandra boasted of many places, restaurants, liquor joints and such, which had connect with the struggle stories of some of the stars who finally made it. There was a lodge, Hotel Mansarovar, and very close to it was National Hotel, a Punjabi dhaba, among others, which fed struggling actors in the name of extending credit, never really hoping to get paid. And, there were country liquor addas where a lot of these strugglers gathered and opened their hearts out. Quite a few found solace in the country-made hooch at these illegal joints and graduated to Scotch (mostly VAT 69, with 555 cigarettes to smoke, the film industry unofficial brands both).
Dilip Kumar, Sunil Dutt, Rajendra Kumar, Bharat Bhushan, Jeetendra, Rajesh Khanna, as well as female actors, had opted for Bandra to build their houses. Even Dharmendra had bought his first flat in Bandra.
It was as if these strugglers, once successful, wanted to belong to that lot that had made it. Bandra also housed many film producers, directors, music composers, lyric writers and so on.
Bandra had another attraction for the strugglers. They dreamt of Bandra to be their ultimate destination. Because, all those who had struggled/ succeeded had built their bungalows and settled down in Bandra.
Strugglers were holed up in various nooks and crannies of Bandra. Among them was this typical Bandra Catholic settlement (called Gaonthan), one of many in this suburb. There was this old Goan kind of bungalow and this housed over a dozen strugglers trying their luck. They called the place Hostel. Among these ‘hostelites’, there were two hidden gems, actor-music composer Kanu Roy and poet-lyricist awaiting fame, Nida Fazli.
Kanu Roy made his living acting and when the opportunity arose, composing music. Sadly, even though he got few film opportunities to compose music for, most of his assignments were with non-paying makers. Still, with limited opportunities that he got, he composed some memorable, haunting songs.
Nida Fazli hit big times eventually. His fame started with the rising popularity of the ghazal and Jagjit Singh in India. “Duniya jisse kehte hai”. written by him launched Singh into bigtime, besides bringing recognition for Nida, himself.
Nida went on to write for films, having made a team with businessman-turned-writer Vithalbhai Patel from Sagar (MP). He was a rare struggler from that 16th Road, Bandra hostel to come out and afford his own flat. 16th road was our hangout and Nida regaled us collegians with his stories and anecdotes. He was a well-qualified post graduate.
In the film industry, Nida’s fame spread with “Razia Sultan”. Producer-director Kamal Amrohi was stuck for a song when someone suggested he try Nida. Amrohi had rejected a lot of lyrics earlier. Nida left Amrohi’s house after getting a lowdown on the situation for the song in the film. He stopped at a cigarette shop nearby and scribbled the words on a cigarette foil, returned to Amrohi in 10 minutes! He ended up writing two songs for the film.
The 16th Road hostel had no more success stories.
Another writer whose struggle stories remain untold is Javed Akhtar. When Javed arrived in Bombay, his father, Jan Nisar Akhtar, was already a known lyricist in Hindi films. But, that house was not where Javed could seek shelter. Jan Nisar had another family by then.
Javed found shelter at Kamalistan Studios where he would spend his nights sleeping on a platform under a tree, often on empty stomach. The poet in him would come out with “Aasman ki thali mei chaand ek roti”. Javed has also penned a marathon Shiv bhajan which he sang for me years back and not many know about it.
Salim Khan had come to Bombay from Indore and, with his good looks, wanted to be an actor. All he ended up getting was bit roles and, even when he got bigger roles it was in B-grade sword fight movies.
Coming to terms with his limitations vis-a-vis acting, he opted for script-writing and joined Abrar Alvi as an assistant. When Salim Khan and Javed Akhtar paired up to write film scripts, they created history and, for the first time, got recognition for the writers.
There are struggle stories and there are more stories, but these two — Nida Fazli and Salim-Javed — I have been privy to first hand.
(Vinod Mirani is a veteran film writer and box office analyst. The views expressed are personal)