FLASHBACK & FLASHIN-FORWARD!by Aparajita Krishna September 30 2022, 12:00 am Estimated Reading Time: 16 mins, 39 secs
Aparajita Krishna, here, flashbacks and goes forward with Gopi Desai, Podcaster, Actor, Filmmaker and Writer and Suhail Akhtar, Urdu Poet and Writer.
Then & now! This article carries inputs from two noted professionals from the field of Indian theatre, cinema, television, the creative arts. Gopi Desai and Suhail Akhtar. It gives a peep into their early, past works and the ones in the making, or, just completed. They tell us in recall-flashback of their initiation into work, the start-up phase in their calling, the chosen works thereafter, the work that is just completed in the present, as also of the flash-forward work lined up in the future. A slice of their creative journey in their own words. Moments from life and living get woven in. These are anecdotal and personal.
Gopi Desai - Actor, Filmmaker, Writer, Podcaster
An overview…Not an insight!
Theatre attracted me from my young age. I landed up at the National School of Drama (NSD), Delhi, thanks to filmmaker Ketan Mehta who suggested and referred me. It proved to be an eye opener and a fantastic exposure. My first NSD play was Antim Yatra by director Barry John. All through the three years it was amazing to attend the Film Appreciation Course conducted by Prof. Satish Bahadur and Mr. P. K. Nair and in the last semester, in the third year, to attend the affiliated course at the FTII (Pune). It was a boon and a gift to the students from a great visionary, Mr E. Alkazi. During 1976 to 1979 the vast world of world- cinema opened up for me. Prior to this, back in Ahmedabad, I was a regular member of the Film Society, which screened films on Sunday morning. At the NSD one experienced one and a half years with Alkazi Saab and one and a half years with B. V. Karanth Saab. One was an aristocrat and the other was rooted to the Indian soil. Nobody could teach me better than Karanthji the importance and significance of music in a play and in a film.
After passing out from the NSD, back in Ahmedabad I joined as a production assistant the ISRO Site Project - first Satellite experiment in India, rural transmission for Pij and surrounding villages with one T.V. set in the Panchayat. Alongside my theatre continued. I did the play Yerma for group Chorus in Ahmedabad. It was directed by Nimesh Desai. I also got an opportunity to act and work as an assistant in Ketan Mehta’s film Bhavni Bhavai (1980). He was among the fresh pass-outs, passionate film-enthusiasts from the FTII, breathing cinema. During the film I just kept my eyes and ears open to learn, absorb, and observe.
I moved to Bombay in 1982. Since then Mumbai has been my home. My salute to the city of Mumbai! It first breaks you, shatters you and your identity. All my earlier accolades as an actor and all those super reviews by drama critics in Ahmedabad got drowned in the Arabian Sea. I started on a blank slate, but was lucky enough with the offer from theatre stalwart Mr. Pravin Joshi and started acting with Indian National Theatre (INT), Mumbai. I acted in film Giddh of 1984. And then came the kahani mein twist…
I parted with my husband Nimesh Desai in 1984 and he left for Ahmedabad. He had done the shooting for three non-fiction films on 35mm for the Information Department, Govt. of Gujarat. I was present during the shooting. He had borrowed money from a friend, Mr. Rashmi Zaveri. Rashmi bhai was in Mumbai and he started chasing me here. I was left with just one option, and that was to complete the films and submit them to the Government of Gujarat, collect and return the money to Rashmi bhai.
My dear friend Jahnu Barua helped to edit the films as the editor at a lab in Dadar. I learnt post-production. Carrying those negative and positive huge cans/reels gave me spondylitis along with an amazing thrill. Jahnu Barau was my director for two Assamese films. I learnt a lot by silently observing this honest, dedicated, powerful filmmaker. So, I would say my filmmaking nursery was passed with Ketan Mehta, middle-school with Jahnu Barua, and high-school with Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Ramesh Sippy, K.K. Mahajan, Kamal Swaroop, Girish Karnad, Ashok Mehta, Renu Saluja, Vidhu Vinod Chopra and Mahesh Bhatt. As a student I would ask questions and all the directors and cinematographers willingly tutored me in their free time.
The focus was gradually shifting from theatre to cinema. My journey as a filmmaker of non-fiction and fiction films saw me shooting on ½ inch tapes, 1 inch tapes, U-matic, Beta, Digi Beta, 16mm film, Super 16, 35mm and cinemascope. And then cinema metamorphosed into digital format. I still miss the thrill of laboratories and negative and positive prints and sound tapes. The smell of the film laboratory is still distinct and lives with me till date. What say Manmohan Shetty Saab?
In the British film ‘My Son the Fanatic’ (1997) written by Hanif Kureishi and directed by Udayan Prasad, Om Puri played the lead role of Parvez. I played his wife Minoo. It was back then a most relevant film and is so even now, what with fanaticism spreading like a disease and getting deep-rooted.
I remember director Udayan Prasad had come to Mumbai and was staying in a Juhu hotel. Dubeyji was helping with the casting and a kind of audition meeting got arranged. In the middle of this meeting Dubeyji broke the news that my friend, director T.S.Ranga was no more. I was shocked and in total disbelief I started shedding tears. I also tried to gather myself because Udayan was observing me. I had worked with T.S.Ranga earlier in the film Giddh as an actor and costume designer. Puri Saab (Om Puri) was also part of this. Now Udayan let me cry for some time. Then he ordered tea and finalised me for the role of Minoo. Udayan said, “No audition. I can see your potential.” I got cast. Arrey I earned dhoom Pounds! I travelled around Europe and what not!
In 1999 I directed the film My Little Devil. It starred Om Puri. In 2018 I acted in a Gujarati film after 32 years. Sharto Laagu was a super hit. The Gujaratis in India and abroad still adore my role of an unconventional, modern Dadi. By the end of 2018 I got an offer to act in a Gujarati play ‘Bhartiben Bhula Padya’. The play revolved around an Alzheimer patient and her family. I just grabbed this opportunity and performed on stage at Nehru Centre, Worli, on 25th November 2018, after 20 years. What an experience! I performed 160 shows till 2019. The audience would wait after the show to meet and with tears rolling share how much they loved the play. It was thanks to director Vipul Mehta, producer Sanjay Goradia and writer Vinod Sarvaiya.
See God has his plans. After this wonderful play I got an offer in 2020 for Podcast in Gujarati Pravaas. First few episodes were during the lockdown. I could do it sitting at home along with the team of Eplog Media. It kept me busy through the pandemic. It was also an opportunity to meet people over talks. They opened up, totally transparent, honest and friendly, without any inhibitions. I have completed 100 episodes till July 2022 of this for Apple Podcast, Google Podcast, Spotify, Jio Sawan etc.
In July 2020 I got a call from producer Rostrum Media to do the web series, Me and my Roots. I took up the challenge of research, recce, writing and directing. First recce was in August 2020 by road to Siddhpur. It was so liberating. I was like a child looking out of the window, stopping on the highway, as I was caged in Mumbai during the lockdown earlier. This brought fresh air mentally and physically and the struggle to think of a new and innovative format for non-fiction where people were exposed to OTT. I was able to crack it successfully. It is in the making, having completed two episodes.
In 2021 I also acted in Gujarati films, T.V. Serials, a web-series for Jio OTT called Ishq Next Door. Flashin-Forward
So cut to the present…
In July 2016 I started shooting for a Gujarati Feature Film Kevu Kevu Thay based on a short story by the renowned writer Mr. Harish Nagrecha. I am stuck with the film's post-production work due to finance, but with total positivity working towards it, meeting after meeting, finding investors, without losing hope and getting tired or frustrated. It is giving me enough time to edit and re-edit the film with my hard-earned money. Keeping fingers crossed.
In 2022 I again had a very enriching experience as an actor to work with director Hansal Mehta in the web-series, Scoop, for Netflix. I loved all his films as an independent filmmaker. I had acted in a TV serial directed by him called Shaadi Street in 2005, but you see here in 2022 he was a successful director after Scam 1992, with a lavish production, all the comfort a filmmaker would need, seek and dream about on the set along with the crew. It was a totally happy and ideal situation for an actor and of course I am very happy for Hansal.
I also did a cameo in the film called Popat. It’s an amazing subject, but can’t reveal much about it now. It was one of its kind as a subject.
Now in 2022 I am working, writing scripts and keeping my fingers crossed.
Surviving from project to project is not an easy thing. One is constantly in search of a job. It is tough, but I have learnt to live with it. Waiting For Godot…
Suhail Akhtar - Urdu poet and writer
I, Suhail Akhtar, was born and brought up in Bombay. This is an easy introductory-answer, but the difficult question to address is, ‘What do you do?’ My brain goes into sleep-mode, turns blank when I am posed this particular question. What comes to mind instead is a sher/couplet of Nida Fazli: ‘Har aadmi mein hote hain dus-bees aadmi//Jisko bhi dekhna toh kai baar dekhna’.
I too stop and look at myself again and again. What is my profession? In our society a job is one that gives a monthly salary, or, profit in business. I am but a poet. I am also a poet-translator of the Urdu discipline and one who conducts interviews and stages thematic musical shows of ghazals, Sufi poetry and film-songs. The term ‘freelancer’ comes in handy to describe oneself.
In my young days I tried to qualify in commerce and so studied till SYBcom and passed in first-class. I thought of becoming a professor, but soon after the first term of further studies I had to run away from my college. The reason may appear bizarre, or, appropriate. You decide. Some girls had got after me. One of them was most persistent. I am not trying to boast. I am no prince charming, but as the phrase goes in Hindi ‘Gadhe pe dil aaya toh Shehzada Gulfaam kya cheez hai.’ My harassment at her hands got so overpowering that I had to leave my TYBcom in the first term itself and run for my life. This episode is of around 1993-1994. I must also tell you that the bigger reason is that I have no interest in girls. I fall in the category of what the world calls homosexual. So, her running after me was so tormenting for me that I ran away from college itself.
In the Maharashtra College I was the president of Bazm-e-Urdu. In the silver jubilee year of the college a proposal to hold a mushaira came up. We thought of inviting Javed Akhtar Saheb as the chief guest. Javed Akhtar Saheb’s book of poems, Tarkash, had got published. We were admirers. It was poetry of a new kind. We contacted him. He kindly agreed and obliged us. That day, from the same stage, a senior poet like Javed Saheb recited his poetry and a junior poet like me, too, recited my couplets. Javed Saheb showed his generosity, gave me his phone number and asked me to get in touch to further the contact.
After a couple of months, I called him up one day and he invited me over. I sat with him for 4-5 hours and we conversed over literature and Urdu zubaan. He loves Urdu and is always concerned about its reach and creativity. My visits to his place continued. One day he proposed that I become his secretary. I gladly agreed. Since that day to-date my association with Javed Saheb and Shabanaji remains strong.
For 2-3 years I worked as his secretary. It was through him that I met Nasreen Munni Kabir Sahiba. Who does not know of her? She has been associated with BBC, Channel 4 and has made television series and written books. She was then working on a book of songs for Javed Saheb. I too got the opportunity to get involved with the book. Thereafter I worked with Munniji on 5-6 books on film classics.
Then Javed Saheb got us involved in a very valued project that took ten years of our time and effort. It was a project on the works of Muztar Khairabadi, who is Javed Saab’s grandfather and a very reputed poet of Urdu. There is a song that is popularly associated with Bahadur Shah Zafar, but is actually that of Muztar Khairabadi. It has been used in our film: Na kisi ki aankh ka noor hoon/ Na kisi ke dil ka qaraar hoon/Jo kisi ke kaam na aa saki/ Main vo ek musht-e-ghubaar hoon. He has written poetry in all forms and categories. It took us ten years to collect the scattered works. We went to Bikaner, Rampur, Tonk; everywhere where life took him, wherever we could hope to collect material. And then we completed the project. Spread through 2000 pages this monumental work is now amidst us. If one is to weigh it on a measuring scale this book weighs 8 kilo and is spread across 4-5 volumes.
Then the National Book Trust of India offered me to write a book on the occasion of 100 years of Bollywood. I had in my custody my published articles on films, songs, dialogues. These had been published particularly in Inquilab and Urdu Times. This book got published as ‘Urdu aur Bollywood’. A first of its kind. I am an under-graduate, but this book would be a reference for those doing research and thesis. My work with Javed Saheb continued. So many books came out.
About say 9-10 years back there used to be a director at the Nehru Centre, Mumbai. Qazi Latafat Saheb. He had asked me to make a program on Hazrat Ameer Khusro. I had an inclination towards mysticism, Sufism. I had read the great work on Ameer Khusro by Urdu writer Zoe Ansari Saheb as well as other valuable works. I had enough material to write a stage-play on Khusro. Though I had in life not written a play as yet. This happened perchance.
My script got staged by Nehru Centre. Shahbaaz Khan beautifully portrayed Khusro. I recall that during my first meeting with Shahbaaz Khan Saheb over the script narration he had raised a doubt if he was capable of portraying the role. I could sense he was wanting to say something else. I said forthrightly, “You fear that Khusro as portrayed till now seems a pansy, effeminate. But believe me he was not so. As a poet he was a historian who attended the courts of five emperors. The role will suit your personality.” Shahbaaz Khan was relieved and went on to wonderfully enact the character on stage.
Thereafter I wanted to compile a small booklet of my understanding of Sahir Ludhianvi’s poetry. His life was enigmatic, mysterious. My work started taking the shape of a play. I converted forty percent of Sahir’s poetry into dialogue. It became a very good blend of poetry and prose. I approached Tom Alter Saheb to give a script-narration. Since I write in Urdu script, I carried one typed in roman-letters. Bhai angrez aadmi hain! But he got angry seeing the roman-script. “Sahir was an urdu poet, right? Then why have you got a script in roman letters?” I learnt that Tom Saheb reads and writes in Urdu. I was so happy. We staged many shows of Parchhaiyaan in India and abroad. People really appreciated it. It also earned a lot of revenue. Today Tom Saheb is not in our midst. Now I myself enact Sahir. I also stage his songs as a narrative-musical performance with very good singers like Smita Rao Bellur, Pooja Gaitonde, Archita Bhattacharya, Sraboni Chaudhury and Mohammad Vakil.
I gravitated more towards stage shows. I had great freedom in this. We also did Rangreza, a show on Sufi themes. As also thematic shows on ghazals and film songs. NCPA, the prestigious venue, holds such shows. Once after a show of Sahir Ludhianvi’s songs some ladies from well-to-do backgrounds came up to me and said, “We have heard these songs innumerable times. But you have informed us today of the poetic elements in these songs, the nuances of Urdu Shaiyari.” People like my talk on the poetry in the songs. It becomes a different kind of experience for them.
We then started a YouTube series, Naghma-e-Sher, an amalgamation of Urdu poetry and songs. The singers were so co-operative and undemanding of any money. The series includes talk on the lives of poets like Jan Nisar Akhtar, Kaifi Azmi, Majrooh Sultanpuri, Sahir Ludhianvi.
As a summary I would quote what Hafiz Shirazi, the great poet of Iran, who lived some 750-800 years ago, had said. I am paraphrasing. “Jab Mu-arrikh historian mere baare mein likhega, toh mujhe afsos iss baat ka hai ki wo meri hijr ki, meri dooriyon ki, meri birah ki ek raat ko wo ek raat hi likhega. Haalanki wo hijr ki, dooriyon ki, birah ki wo ek raat hazaaron raaton par bhari hoti hai.”
I feel similarly when I look back at my life and work. To quote Faiz, ‘Kuch ishq kiya kuch kaam kiya… phir aakhir tang aakar humne dono ko adhura chorh diya.’ Life at every step is complete in itself, but if one aspires to take the next step then the lived moment in life seems incomplete.
Now to share the things I intend to do in the future. They are presently lying on my table. One is a book of compilation of my articles published in the newspapers. They are on different topics: politics, literature, economics, book-reviews. It should soon take the shape of a book.
Another very important work I am engaged in is a reflection on the mechanism of the poetics in poetry. Particularly in Urdu poetry there are so many streams, mechanisms via which poetics is invoked in poetry. The ‘Wah’ factor. I have on my own discovered 3 to 4 streams. It should be an interesting book and one of its kind. It will also address the muck that has come into Urdu poetry. It will chronicle the classics from the time of Amir Khusro, travel through the works of Mir Taki Mir, Ghalib, the Delhi school of poetry, Lucknow school, Deccan school. It should soon get published.
Another assignment is a collection of my own poetry - nazm, ghazal. Someday my very own Diwan-e-Ghalib should get published.
And thus, Gopi Desai and Suhail Akhtar’s respective past and present walk and work into the future.