Thought Box

Haidar Ali @70 & His Familial Film Heritage: A Treasure Trove

Haidar Ali @70 & His Familial Film Heritage: A Treasure Trove

by Aparajita Krishna April 25 2018, 4:19 pm Estimated Reading Time: 17 mins, 11 secs

Voter-India ought to be voting Nirbhaya (unafraid) in 2018/ 2019 also for the freedom of Film India, Fashion India and her rights. Padmaavat played under police-protection. Will Bollywood, the Indian beauty pageant, modelling and fashion industry assert their right to freedom? 

2018 is an apt time to flashback and trace the story of Esther Victoria Abraham alias Pramila (1916-2006). In the 1930s and 40s she pioneered Indian modelling & fashion and set the acts of the silent Hindi cinema and the newly talking Talkies. Pramila was one of the earliest model-actress-producer of Hindi cinema. She was also crowned as free India’s first beauty pageant winner, Miss India 1947, at the age of 31. In her personal life too, she scripted her own choices and broke many rules. It is said she married thrice. The names of her spouses listed in the public domain are Manicklal Dangi, M. Kumar (actor) and Nari Ghadiali. Esther Victoria Abraham /Pramila’s pioneering story while defining her times tells India 2018 that the more you turn the cine-fashion-clock anti-clock the more audacious and liberating time it tells. 

On 4.1.2018 at Pramila Niwas, Shivaji Park, Dadar West, Mumbai, I had met her actor-son Haidar Ali who chose his parents’ professional calling and passion. He is Pramila’s son by her second husband, actor Mijjan Kumar, whose real name was Sayyed Hasan Ali Zaidi. One of the five children of the couple, Haidar as a youngster was a very agile limbo dancer and performed as a stand-up comedian at the legendary Firpo’s Restaurant in Calcutta. He is best known for his work in television serials like ‘Nukkad’, films like ‘Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani’ and as the screenplay writer for ‘Jodhaa-Akbar' (2008). Pramila lived her old age till her death with this son. 

I followed her son Haidar Ali’s flashback.

“We grew up in the world of cinema. Raj Kapoor, Nargis, Motilal would come home. My parents were making a film called ‘Dhun’ in 1953 with Raj Kapoor, Nargis, Motilal and with Madan Mohan’s music. It was produced by Pramila for her banner Silver Films and directed by my father M. Kumar. Pramila got into production after marriage. Before marriage she was acting big time; more as a vamp than a heroine. From the age of 19 to 90 she worked till she died. The last film she did at 90 was Amol Palekar’s ‘Thaang’/’Quest’ (2006), a Marathi-English bilingual. Right up to her last breath, to me, she was a very attractive woman.” 

Source : Haider

Esther Victoria Abraham (Pramila) was born on December 30, 1916 in Calcutta, Bengal Presidency in British India, to Matilda Isaac from Karachi and Reuben Abraham a businessman from Calcutta. She assimilated a great cultural mixing. At her co-educational missionary school, she proved to be a good student and a very talented sportswoman. After high school, her talent for drawing saw her receive an Arts Degree administered from Cambridge. She went on to work as a kindergarten teacher in a boy’s school and completed her B.Ed. degree. But the stunning looking teacher had a yearning to be an actor. Her interest in theatre and her family’s exposure to Indian dance and music propelled her tryst with cinema. Her first cousin Rose (Rose Ezra) and younger sister Sophie Abraham (Romila) were actors at J F Madan’s Corinthian Theatre at Calcutta and later left to join the Bombay film industry. The tall and statuesque Esther admired the professional choice her cousins made. One day Esther visited the film studio where Rose was shooting for ‘The Return of the Toofan Mail’ for Imperial Film Company. Director R.S. Choudhury took note of Esther’s presence on the set, gave her a screen test and signed her up. Though ‘The Return of the Toofan Mail’ (1935) never got completed Esther’s film career came on track. She stayed on in Bombay and was signed up to work at Ardeshir Irani’s Imperial Film Company on a salary. 

“Cinema at that time did not have ladies from conservative Hindu families available to act. Not even from Parsi families though they had more westernized outlook. Sex workers and heroines were equated. But the Jews and the Anglo Indians did not look at it this way. Talkies had come in with 'Alam Ara' (1931), but everyone could not afford theatre and talkie sound. They used to have touring theatres with generator to show the film. In-between while changing the film reels, to keep the audience in their seat for ten minutes, girls had to come and dance and men had to play comedy skits. ‘Hello, the picture is not over yet. Second reel is on its way’. This is how Rose and Esther started their career. My mother was the vamp of the first ‘Mother India’ made by Ardeshir Irani in 1938. Nobody knows of it. Dada Gunjal was the director. This was the first ‘Mother India’. It was a super duper hit. ‘Aurat’ was a different story.” 

Pramila was later loaned to Kolhapur Cinetone to play a rich, westernized vamp Chandra in ‘Bhikharan’ directed by Premankur Atorthy. When the film released in 1935, Esther’s anglicized Hindi and her look became a rage. She went on to play strong female protagonists on-screen, sometimes also with a whip.

Celluloid India of 1930s and 40s had the Anglo-Indian and Baghdadi Jewish actresses find favour for their lighter skin tone and for their cosmopolitan, modern, educated, independent outlook. They had no qualms about appearing seductive, fashionable and fearless on-screen. However, the Baghdadi Jewish actresses did not take on their Jewish names and instead got identified with single names whether Indian or western sounding: Lillian, Rose, Pramila, Aarti Devi, Sulochana, Fearless Nadia. Some took on Muslim names like Feroza Begum. Florence Ezekiel Nadira was just Nadira on-screen.

Starting off as a dancer-actress in Parsi Theatre Company, Esther as Pramila, a fearless stunt actor, acted in 30 films (including 'Basant', 'Jungle King'). She also produced sixteen Hindi films through the 1930s and 1940s as the first major woman film producer. These were released under her Silver Films banner formed by her in 1942. Her flair for drawing made her design her own costume and look. Her sarees with a western twist and her accessories made her a fashion icon and a much sought-after magazine cover-girl. Actor-son Haidar Ali claimed with immense pride, “Mummy is a first in a lot of things and so is my father in a lot of things. They were the first freelancer couple.” 

When the Hindi film storylines started to showcase the heroine as an ideal Bhartiya naari, a necessity arose to juxtapose her against the bad, westernized vamp. Pramila and Nadira adapted into the roles. As free-spirited and liberated characters, these young women had to play the piano, seductively waltz around the hero while fluttering their eyelashes. Film reviewers and cine-goers assessed that despite the negativity in the roles Pramila with her wit, charm, vamp-playing the piano persona, managed to fashionably outshine the heroine portraying the ‘ideal’ Indian woman. Pramila’s chosen filmography reads: 'Toofani Tiruni' (1931), 'Dilawar' (1931), 'Bhikharan' (1935) as Chandra, 'Prem Pujari' (1935), 'Bambai Ki Billi' (1936), 'Achyut Kanya' (1936) as Kajri, 'Janambhoomi' (1936), 'Sarala' (1936), 'Hamari Betiyan' (1936) as Vasanthi, 'Bijli' (1939), 'Ulti Ganga' (1942), 'Basant' (1942) as Meena, 'Nasib' (1945), 'Shalimar' (1946), 'Doosri Shaadi' as Pramila (1947).

Source : Haider

It was after the release of ‘Bhikharan’ (1935) that the already married-with-a-child Pramila met M. Kumar (Mijjan Kumar), a Shia Muslim, who too was married with children. She was doing a film for Imperial Movietone. M. Kumar was the hero in all the three films on floor. Pramila was cast as second lead in one film starring him. Son Haidar Ali recounted, “During pictures like ‘Dharam ki Devi’ (1935), ‘Our Darling Daughters’ (Hamari Betiyan) (1936), ‘Maya Sarita’, a romance developed. They decided to marry. In those days suppose Kumar, Prithviraj, Motilal working for film companies had a hit film, then the hero-heroine and main actors would get a notice and pack up for six months. If heroine wanted to marry then to clip the wings of the heroine the producer would give a notice for three-six months. No salary. Just keep sitting at home and no other company would hire you because all producers were in nexus. Sitting home for six months would take away the value of success and stardom. So, studios were the stars and the owners of the times.” 

Pramila and Mijjan married and had five children. Mijjan claimed his own artistic back-story. In 1927, he had joined the Urdu stage in Lucknow on a salary of Rs 75/- per month. The dramas of Agha Hashar Kashmiri gave Mijjan the chance of a lifetime to air his excellent Lucknavi accent. The actor’s tryst in Bombay started with him playing a corpse for several minutes in the film ‘Ranchandi’. Then cameraman Krishna Gopal summoned him to Calcutta to work in New Theatres’ ‘Zinda Lash’. The young man whose very first appearance on the screen was in the role of a corpse was now acting the ‘living dead’. In ‘Subeka Sitara’ he performed four different roles in a single picture.

His major big break came when Director Debaki Bose gave him the title role in the Hindi devotional biopic film ‘Puran Bhagat’ of New Theatres Ltd (1933). Son Haidar Ali shared the story behind his father’s sobriquet as ‘Kumar.’ “Film announcement said ‘Introducing Hasan Mijjan in and as ‘Puran Bhagat’. The film also starred K L Saigal, Uma Shashi and K C Dey. Director was Kumar Debaki Bose who was like a prince. Riots had taken place in East Bengal and West Bengal in 1931-32. After a week ‘Puran Bhagat’ picture was to release. The exhibitor/distributors became shaky. A Muslim was here playing a Hindu saint, ascetic. People would come to watch ‘Puran Bhagat’ with garlands to put around the poster, break coconut and find that a Muslim was the hero. Name change was discussed. Director took a name call. ‘I give my first khitab as Prince to the Prince of the film. So, word Kumar that means Prince will now become the name Kumar of the actor.’ Kumar became his screen name overnight. The film was a great success all over India.”

Puran Bhagat' (1933) had K L Saigal and K C Dey star and sing in the film. It was the massive popularity of the bhajans K L Saigal sang in 'Puran Bhagat' (1933) that made him a household name. His mellifluous singing, full of feeling and depth, captivated audiences who were just getting used to the talkies.

Source : Haider

Haidar took forward his parents’ story, “My father was the first Kumar of the Indian film industry. Sometimes he was called M. Kumar, sometimes Mijjan Kumar. Thereafter Kumar became a fixation with actors: Ashok Kumar, Dilip Kumar, Rajendra Kumar, Manoj Kumar. Everybody changed their name and put Kumar right up till Rajesh Bhatia who became Akshay Kumar. Perhaps film producers back then wanted to be on the safe side of the majority community. But there was no forcing. Heroines like Begum Para, Noorjehan, Nargis, Suraiya kept their names. Zubeida, the heroine of ‘Alam Ara’ didn’t change her name to Pramila or Devika Rani. Master Nisar, the first top singing super star of our industry, was there from the silent era.” Kumar, the actor went on to play the santarash/sculptor in 'Mughal-e-Azam' & the memorable beggar’s role in 'Shri 420'.

Esther/Pramila’s tryst with India’s first beauty pageant is an archival gem. The 31-year-old contestant was married with children and was also said to be pregnant with her fifth child. Son Haidar Ali shared the familial recall. “The first Miss India 1947 was just an experiment. The ‘All India Mysore Association’ of which Illustrated Weekly was the main part decided to have a beauty pageant. Karanjia at that time was the editor. The beauty contest was not open for society. They said they will see who the most beautiful actress is. All actresses of that time were married: Shobhana Samarth, Leela Chitins, Devika Rani, Ruby Myers, Pramila, Rose. Some also with children. They were all in their late 20s. Only on basis of photographs they were called. Then they were photographed in swimming costume, sari, in a close up and an interview taken. That is how they decided the beauty pageant. In that contest there were four judges. One was a foreigner lady.”

Q: So, your mother wore a bikini for Miss India contest?

Haidar Ali: Not bikini. It was a conservative swimming costume, one piece with collar, cleavage not showing. Some had even sleeves. Then hot pants. One picture was taken in sari and one close-up of every contestant. My mother was chosen after the interview by all the journalists. They felt her act is good, IQ is good, carries herself good, beauty is good. Some were more beautiful, some at par. Ultimately the three judges chose her. At that time the winner was given three films in the industry under the banner of A R Kardar.

Once the talkies got introduced and consolidated, actresses like Pramila suffered professional set-back for they with their anglicized accent could not deliver dialogues in chaste Hindi. “She knew Urdu, Bengali. She was brought up in Calcutta. But dialogues were poetry in those days. You can’t speak anglicized. They would write out the whole script in Roman-English and study dialogues like preparing for exams. There were long, long takes. If ‘one more’ retake then you are a bad actor. Raw stock was so expensive.”
Pramila still went on to act in films like ‘Beqasoor’ (1950), 'Dhun' (1953), 'Fighting Queen' (1956), 'Jungle King' (1959) and 'Bahaana' (1960). In later decades of 1970s and 80s, she appeared occasionally in films. Pramila’s last act was at the ripe age of ninety as a grandmother in Amol Palekar’s 2006 film ‘Thang’ (Quest).

Son Haidar Ali’s nostalgia asserted, “My father was iconic. My father was a very big star. The very first directorial venture of Mehboob Khan had my father as a star. ‘Al Hilal’ a.k.a Judgement of Allah (1935) publicity said ‘Kumar in ‘Al Hilal’. So big was my father. The director’s name was not on the poster.”

Film lore has it that Mehboob Khan started as an assistant in the Silent Film era and as an extra in the studios of the Imperial Film Company of Ardeshir Irani. “Mehboob Khan was then also aspiring to be an actor. He would stand like those extras as sipahis in a crowd with bhala. He would keep narrating his scripts to people. Once on the set, he narrated a film script to my father. ‘Kumar Saab, aap baithto ho mere zehan mein.’ (Kumar Saheb you fit into my concept). My father suggested he approach the producers of the film they were working in.”

Haidar Ali as Mehboob Khan: ‘Mujhe woh junior artiste samajhte. Bhala leke khada hoon. Unko pata nahi ki I can write a script’ (They take me to be a junior artiste. I am standing in the crowd with a bhala/sword. They do not know that I can write a script). 
So, Kumar approached the producer and recommended ‘Trust this boy’. 

Haidar Ali as Producer: ‘Aaaree picture udh gaya toh’? What if the picture flops?’ 

Haidar Ali as Kumar: ‘I will forgo three months of my salary.’ 

And that is how ‘Al Hilal’ got launched and Mehboob Khan became a director. 

Kumar himself carried quite an interesting repute. An article in Film India magazine of January 1943 by Sushila Rani described the actor as “Girl-gazing Film Star of the Indian Screen. Kumar Often Unemployed Yet Ever So Popular. This oft unemployed film-star has still made twenty-three pictures in the eight years that he has been in Bombay---that is an average of three pictures a year. And yet, when he is unemployed he sits in his quiet cottage in Mahim, Bombay and says that he smokes cigarettes and watches the spirals of smoke rising to the ceiling of his drawing room. Obviously, he has stopped girl-gazing now”. 
Mehboob Khan’s first film under Mehboob Productions as producer-director, ‘Najma’ (1943), starred Ashok Kumar and had M. Kumar cast as Mukkaram Nawab. 
“Then in Mehboob Khan’s last picture as director-producer, ‘Son of India’, again my father played the father of Kumkum the heroine. My father had a lot of connection with Mehboob Khan. He did Kamal Amrohi’s first picture as a producer though by then my father was a character actor.” 

It would be M. Kumar’s appearance as a beggar in Raj Kapoor’s cult classic ‘Shree 420’ (1955) that would get marked for posterity. An iconic scene in this morality tale written by K. A. Abbas/ V.P Sathe spoke an eternal irony and gave a lesson to the archives of Indian cinema. Raj Kapoor as Raj, the young migrant to Bombay, is lost and jostled in the city and its crowded bazaar. He bumps into a beggar with a tin begging bowl and crutch (played by Kumar) asking for alms. Raj asks the beggar, “Kyun bhai tumhari Bambai mein sab behre baste hain kya?” Beggar looks at him piercingly, spits, turns back and wryly comments, “Behre aur andhe bhi. Jinke kaan kuch nahi sun sakte sivaye ‘rupon’ ki jhankaar ke. Ye Bambai hai mere bhai Bambai, yahan buildingen banti hain cement ki aur insaano ke dil pathar ke. Yahan ek hi jaisa pooja jaata hai aur wo hai paisa…..Yahan sach bol ke pet bharne ka raasta dhoodhne se nahi milta. Aur jhooth bol paise banane ke raaste 420.” And again, he spits. Raj salutes him with his hat, smiles and says, “Thank you, boss. Thank you. Aaj maine tumse bahut kuch seekha.” Kumar’s act as the beggar matched every note that collectively played to immortalize this scene. 

In K Asif’s Mughal-e-Azam (1960) Kumar played the sangtarash, the royal sculptor of Anarkali. 

Pramila and Kumar remained together for twenty-two years in Bombay. When Kumar decided to migrate to Pakistan in 1963, Pramila refused to uproot her family and stayed on in India with her five children. She continued to produce films, faced tough challenges and forcefully navigated her career while bringing up a family. It is said she and the Parsi filmmaker Nari Gadhali remained settled in a relationship for more than four decades. Bombay film and political folklore suggests that Bombay chief minister Morarji Desai once had her wrongly arrested as a Pakistani spy because of her visits there to visit her father and promote her films. 

Pramila’s daughter and Haidar Ali’s sister Naqi Jahan became Miss India 1967 (Times of India, Femina) and was a top ramp and print model. She acted in Rajesh Khanna’s debut film ‘Aakhri Khat’ (1966) directed by Chetan Anand. They remain the only mother-daughter duo to have won the Miss India crown.

In 2018, the 70-year old son-husband-father Haidar Ali, happily married to a Hindu doctor wife Uma, would assert with time tested passion and integrity, “This is one industry in the world I tell you, Appy, that does not have communalism. Yes. How could these three be superstars (Aamir Khan, Shah Rukh Khan, Salman Khan) if there was bias? It is in politics, Rajneeti, that all this (communalism, religion), Hindu-Muslim gets played out. We grew up in the world of cinema. We went to synagogues and to mosques. Both religions got equal play in our home.”

Indian Cinema and her film industry remain perhaps the last bastion of composite Indian culture. If Mahabharata is being made as a movie-series with Aamir Khan’s active collaboration it would be interesting to see him play either Karna or Krishna.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The writers are solely responsible for any claims arising out of the contents of this article.