The story is apocryphal but bears retelling. In the days when the film industry was yet to gain respectability in Indian society, the late swashbuckling film star Feroz Khan had applied for membership in Mumbai’s Khar Gymkhana. Facing the snooty balloting committee was not a pleasant task for someone of Khan’s calibre. And so when he was told by an officious member, “We have a policy against admitting actors”, Khan drew himself up to his handsome six-feet height and, tongue firmly in cheek, said, “ But sir, I have 30 films to prove that I am not an actor!”
I was reminded of this story when I read a news item yesterday that said that following the alarming number of murders involving Bollywood people, housing societies in Mumbai are wary of renting or selling them apartments. For whatever it’s worth, I am essentially a film industry brat. Following Partition, my parents settled in Mumbai and not only worked in the movie business but also fraternised with it, married into it and lived cheek by jowl with it. So it is with an understandable sense of sadness and alarm that I witness how it might once again jeopardise its hard-won status and respectability.
In her newest book, Sahni Brothers in Political Theatre (Sahmat), my aunt, the author-academician Kalpana Sahni writes of how my grand-uncle Bhisham Sahni was dispatched by his wealthy merchant father to rescue and bring back his elder brother (the actor) Balraj, who was planning to settle in Mumbai and join the acting profession. (“This time my grandparents were truly horrified at the prospect of their son joining the dubious profession of film actors,” writes Kalpana.)
“Instead of a film set, Bhishamji was taken to a modest-looking house on Pali Hill where three families were living (Chetan and Uma Anand, Dev and Goldie Anand, Hamid and Uzra Butt along with her two sisters, and Balraj, Dammoji and their two tiny children.) Rehearsals were on full swing in the drawing room for a play called Zubeida in which Chetan Anand was playing the hero.”
Of course, those were early days in a nascent industry and it is to their credit that most of the inhabitants of that house went on to not only become giants of the film industry but also brought it immense stature and dignity.
The late and charismatic P C Joshi, the first General Secretary of the Communist Party of India (1935-1947), under whose watch the party had its glory run, writes with reverence in a contributory essay in the book about the talent that abounded in the film industry of those days: people like Prithviraj Kapoor, Balraj Sahni, Zohra Sehgal, Shaukat Azmi and Deena Gandhi.
And even beyond the Commie circle there were men and women like Nargis and Sunil Dutt, K A Abbas and Bimal Roy who threw themselves into nation building and wrested for the film industry a long overdue and much deserved dignity.
After that no one objected to their sons and daughters being part of the film industry and, in fact, things looked like they were coming full circle in recent years with investment bankers and Harvard graduates setting their sights on Bollywood.
Which is why it will be such a shame if incidents like “Starlet’s headless body found in sewage tank” turn the clock backwards.
Malavika Sangghvi is a Mumbai-based writer