SMM AUSAJA: Keeper Of Our Cine-Heritage & Memorabiliaby Aparajita Krishna October 15 2020, 12:10 am Estimated Reading Time: 18 mins, 5 secs
SMM AUSAJA, our man in the frame, deserves not just this mere article, but perhaps books on him writes Aparajita Krishna.
This Author and Cinema Archivist is owner of the largest private archives of primarily Hindi cinema memorabilia to be found in our part of the globe. Over the last two and a half decades he has collected, preserved, archived and restored a phenomenal collection of posters, movie stills, song synopsis booklets, lobby cards, glass slides, postcards, LP records and other film memorabilia. He is the Senior Vice President at Osians - The Auction House - World’s largest art and cinema archive online. His books are fittingly titled, Bollywood in Posters and Bollywood: The Films! The Songs! The Stars! (Co-authored). He and his small ilk of fellow-beings have done what government institutions like the Archives, Cultural-Libraries are meant to accomplish. His profile says that he is a film historian by profession and a cinema memorabilia enthusiast by passion. Ausaja at age 49 retains not just the passion for collections, but a childlike glee and fascination for cinema and the arts. He carries in his being and calling, the history of many films and allied arts. Amitabh Bachchan stands taller than his famous 6 feet 2 inches in Ausaja’s work appraisal. The talk and the pictures herein attest that. A handwritten note from the mega-star reads - ‘To Ausaja-for his tireless efforts at maintaining for posterity. Love-Amitabh Bachchan.’ (Dated May 21, 2002).
The Silsila of memorabilia collections, range from heritage to even trivia. It is perhaps not fortuitous that with all the prints of Alam Ara, the first Indian film talkie, lost and the original posters near impossible to find, SMM Ausaja found in a junkyard a 1930s newspaper advertisement of the film and also chanced upon a song booklet and two original still photographs of the film. ‘ALL TALKING SINGING DANCING ALAM ARA’ the publicity material reads to tug at one’s heartstrings in 2020. Upon finding a young Dilip Kumar’s weathered black and white photo with scratches, this collector’s heart sighs, ‘What a pain it is to discover a priceless photo in a dusty go-down in this condition!’
Having known Ausaja personally, I have been fascinated by his out of the ordinary passion-driven-profession. As a child and a teenager I was myself hopelessly film-fixated. Film magazines and film posters were my secret syllabus. Most of us in our childhood indulged in the innocent penchant for collecting stamps, postcards, booklets that we were quick to outgrow as soon as young adulthood set in. Ausaja made it into an identity as an adult. A keeper of our memories! He admits that this is an out of the ordinary calling and informs, “When I am asked what I do and I mention I am a film historian, I get puzzled expressions! The various hats you mentioned carry the same thread - passion for cinema.” And this passion also drives him to have in his collection the poster of the unreleased film SHIKAR (1952), starring Ashok Kumar, which Ausaja informs was supposed to be the debut of Subodh Mukherji as director.
In his treasury are many priceless items. They range from the colourful artwork of a film magazine cover by SM Pandit showcasing the 1945 film Ratnavali, to the beautiful sepia toned publicity still of Meena Kumari looking into the mirror in BR Chopra's Chandni Chowk of 1954, to a vibrant Waheeda Rehman as a pencil sketch inside the booklet of Pyaasa (1957), to actress Ava Gardner sporting a sari for her 1956 MGM classic Bhowani Junction, to a picture of a giant larger than life artwork of Prithviraj Kapoor being readied by promotion designer G Kamble for Mughal-e-Azam (1960), to a paper cutting of a timeless moment with Charlie Chaplin posing in the company of Raj Kapoor, Nargis, Dev Anand, Bimal Roy, Vijay Bhatt, Hrishikesh Mukherjee and others, to actress Sadhana sketched by Mario Miranda for Filmfare issue dated September 8,1961, to an advertisement of Nav Ketan's Hum Dono (1961), which reads-Dev Anand-Nanda-Dev Anand-Sadhana, to Rajesh Khanna in an advertisement for film ‘Rajesh Khanna as 007’ a secret agent with Padmini Kapila as partner and Panama Stainless Blade as brand advertiser, to the legendary Indian vocalist Bhimsen Joshi in block-print art, to photographs of tin pencil boxes with stars and films advertised, to an old talcum-powder box endorsing film Bobby on its cover-lid etc. Pointing to the film ‘Arzoo’s’ poster with Sadhana’s picture Ausaja informs, “One of the finest posters of its time, designed by the legendary Diwakar Karkare. It took me a good 20 years to finally discover it!”
A Mumbai resident for long SMM Ausaja belongs to a family of Shiite Muslims who hail from Lucknow in Uttar Pradesh. This film devotee born in Kanpur tells you, “So I remain a ‘chhora ganga kinare waala’ to quote lyricist Anjaan”. His father had a transferable job and retired as a regional manager with UP State Road Transport Corporation (UPSTRTC). Mother was a housewife. Since father had a transferable job, child Ausaja changed many schools. He received his liberal school education at Kanpur’s Huddard High School, Shahjahanpur’s Methodist English School, Kanpur’s Methodist High School and Lucknow’s Colvin Taluqdars’ College. He went on to study Ancient History at Lucknow University and also Economics and English Literature. He then did his business administration at IPM Lucknow. An endorsement during his college days shows a very young Ausaja modeling for NIIT Education. His first job was selling matchbox and plywood in Nepal. He would eventually land in Bombay/Mumbai in early1996. He has a sister who is married and settled in Lucknow.
Proficient in Hindi, English and Urdu, Ausaja is very artistically inclined with a keen ear, sight and mind for poetry, music and literature. His worldview is secular and progressive. I get talking to my very zaheen colleague of a shared working past to know him in the present of his accomplishments.
Did collecting archival material, memorabilia start in childhood? You made it into an identity as an adult. How did it all evolve?
In the 1970s besides watching films, the film magazines kept us informed about the industry gossip and information (yes, in that order). Filmfare, Cine Blitz, Stardust, Super, Madhuri and Mayapuri - I remember they were very popular. But my pocket money did not allow a stable purchase. Postcards were sold for - 25-naya paisa each. Some candies were offered with mini postcards, so if you were to spend 10-naya paisa to buy that toffee; you got one mini postcard, but you didn’t get the choice of selection. It would be a bonus if the card turned out to be your favorite star! These cards were uniquely quirky. I feel they were bracketed in the popular art/kitsch genre---the colors were organic, basic and they bled. And yet the joy to own such cards - especially those pertaining to your favorite actor/film was boundless. So, yes it all started in class 4 in Methodist English School, Shahjahanpur, where we were sent on a picnic to Agra. There we saw Manmohan Desai’s Suhaag. In the film there is this dramatic transformation of a street urchin to Amitabh Bachchan, where he uses his Kolhapuri Chappal to get temple donations out of rich businessmen. Bachchan magic touched me and left me spellbound for life! Posters gave me great joy. I would stare at them and remember the scenes depicted. The hand drawn art-work printed on a lithographic press gave them a rich aesthetic appeal, which went amiss post late 1980s. I had stray magazines and postcards with me till 1981 but my first film poster was Tinnu Anand’s Kaalia, which was gracefully given by Tandon Saab of Novelty cinema in Lucknow, where the film ran for a glorious 100 days. However, it was not easy in Lucknow and Kanpur to get film posters. My collections expanded in Mumbai since the late 1990s. It is then that I belatedly realized that there is cinema beyond Bachchan. Thereafter I ensured that a large fraction of my modest salary stays devoted to film memorabilia. So yes, I started collecting posters, booklets, lobby cards, glass slides, magazines, postcards and even books on cinema, which are mostly out of print. I have collected primarily Hindi cinema material, though I have interesting mini collections of Marathi, Bengali and Gujarati films as well.
SMM Ausaja was quoted in Hindustan Times, May 20, 2010 - “Indians have hardly been interested in preserving films and film culture for posterity. For most old films, it is too late now.”
Do inform of the inspirations in your field of archiving and collecting memorabilia.
Two people have inspired me in this journey. The first is Firoz Rangoonwalla, the legendary film historian and archivist, with whom I spent countless evenings. The best of my collection is his. I purchased literally every month from him till he was alive. He was a tough bargainer and his collection was awe -inspiring. It is Rangoonwalla who broadened my vistas, making sure I look beyond Bachchan and popular cinema to Ray, Ghatak, Benegal, Adoor, Mrinal… to Saigal, Motilal, the Billimoria brothers, Ruby Myers, Sohrab Modi… to regional cinema and to films which were rewarded but did not run at the box office. He did not like Amitabh Bachchan but never told me the reason why.
All he reluctantly said was that when Screen newspaper came out with the special issue commemorating Bachchan’s 50th birthday, the filmography section was his. Bachchan apparently was upset at the captions Rangoonwalla wrote for the film-stills used in the filmography. The same was conveyed to him by Gopal Pandey, Bachchan’s PRO. I remembered that particular issue myself and I also felt it was not very kind to the superstar specially as part of a commemorative issue and I conveyed the same, but Rangoonwalla did not agree!
The second person that inspired me in this journey is Neville Tuli. This man single handedly transformed the outlook to cinema memorabilia in this country. His pioneering work in archiving, documenting and celebrating Indian cinema heritage is unparalleled in the country’s history. Am not saying this because I work for Osianama. The reason I am with him is his love and respect for Indian art, culture and its preservation. He is temperamental, famously arrogant and crazy and yet there is this innate positive aura in this man that evokes awe and inspiration. If a vintage poster of Mughal-E-Azam has a buyer at INR 300000 and if the producers, distributors and collectors value posters and don’t throw them away as ‘raddi’ anymore, it’s because of one man’s determination to force the film fraternity to value cinema heritage.
Update us on the professional synergizing you do and the uniqueness of your offering.
Since I have a collection, it is easy to use images to aid the text. Cinema is a visual medium. I prefer visual books on cinema rather than voluminous ones of just text. Besides my own books, I help authors with visuals. Recently I was engaged to aid research on an oral history project for the Academy Awards Foundation California on Amitabh Bachchan. Shivendra Singh Dungarpur, who helms Film Heritage Foundation, directed it. At Osianama I am involved with the cinema section. We do auctions, exhibitions, film festivals, panel discussions and master-classes on various aspects of cinema. Like we did a charity auction in London for the Tata Memorial Cancer Hospital. Waheeda Rehman graced it. I also write guest columns sometimes and do curated exhibitions. I curated ‘The World of Javed Akhtar’ with Pradeep Chandra.
You are also an author. Do appraise the article of your noted books and what is in the offing.
I have been writing about cinema since college days. In Lucknow City Magazine the film reviews were mine. I also wrote the annual round up on cinema for Times of India, Lucknow. My debut as an author was Bollywood in Posters (Om Books International, 2009), released by Amitabh Bachchan at IIFA 2009. He released it again in Mumbai at Crossword. The only book he has released twice! It got two nominations at the Vodafone Crossword Book Awards under two categories - Best Popular Book and Best Non Fiction. It was also listed among the top ten by India Today.
Bollywood in Posters pays due coverage to the long-neglected art of hand-painted posters. The coffee table book compiles images of rare posters of classic films. For each film Ausaja has archived their credits, famous songs and a treasury of interesting anecdotes.
He was quoted saying in the Hindustan Times, May 20, 2010, “The artists who painted the posters never got their due. They were popular only among the producers, who would visit their homes to discuss layouts.” And so Ausaja through his book paid tribute to artists such as S.M Pandit, Ramkumar Sharma, M.R. Achrekar and Divakar Karkare. He says, “From the 1930s to the early ‘80s, attractive hand-painted posters were the most effective way to market a film but the lithographs and offset prints of posters were usually printed on poor-quality paper. Today those posters are priceless.”
He was also quoted saying that digital art is nothing but “junk food” since it is available online for anyone to reprint. “People rely too much on Google searches, but information available online is hardly authentic,” he said, citing the example of a search that led a popular daily in the city to print an obituary of actress Manorama with the picture of a south Indian actress by the same name. He deeply feels the paucity of film libraries and official Bollywood archives. “If corporate houses offer some support, I would love to start a museum of my own.”
Ausaja’s second book, Bollywood: The Films! The Songs! The Stars! (Dorling Kindersley, 2017), was co-authored with an eminent panel of writers - Karan Bali, Aseem Chabbra, Rajesh Devraj, Juhi Saklani, Suparna Sharma and Tanul Thakur. Amitabh Bachchan released it. His third book, The Bachchans (Om Books International), is in the design stage and expected to be out next year.
Do recall your earliest memory of a film and an artistic performance that stayed with you, inspired you.
Many. Bimal Roy’s Bandini when it was aired on Doordarshan had a huge impact. So did Aparna Sen’s Picnic and Kedar Sharma’s Jogan. Many Amitabh Bachchan films—Mili, Kala Pathar, Do Aur Do Paanch, Abimaan, Bemisal, Deewar, Trishul, Shakti, Amar Akbar Anthony - I can go on and on.
Who were the personalities in cinema, art, music, public life including politics that influenced your aesthetics and mind?
Amitabh Bachchan stands tall. Then Lata Mangeshkar, Satyajit Ray, Bimal Roy, Kamal Amrohi, V Shantaram, S D Burman, Majrooh Sultanpuri, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Iqbal Masud, Dilip Kumar, Raj Kapoor, Dev Anand, Kishore Kumar, Manmohan Desai, Javed Akhtar and Aparna Sen. In public life Mahatma Gandhi, Rabindranath Tagore, Pandit Nehru, Arundhati Roy and in literature poets Makhanlal Chaturvedi, Gopaldas Neeraj and Mirabai. In the poster painting it is Ramkumar Sharma, S M Pandit and Diwakar Karkare. Painter-Artist; J P Singhal, Shrikant Dhongade and many more have been inspirations.
Your proficiency in Hindi, English, Urdu and your fondness of poetry, literature shaped you. Who are the poets, authors of the past and in the present whose works you carry in your being?
Mirabai, Tagore, Thomas Hardy, R L Stevenson, Makhnlal Chaturvedi, Harivansh Rai Bachchan, Gopaldas Neeraj, Majrooh Sultanpuri, Sahir, Ali Sardar Jafri, K A Abbas, Shailendra, Hasrat Jaipuri, Raja Mehdi Ali Khan, Premchand, Faiz, Yogesh. Javed Akhtar and Amit Khanna ofcourse.
Which was your first job? We got acquainted in the 1990s at Plus Channel (India) Ltd. - a media conglomerate headed by Mr Amit Khanna and Mr Mahesh Bhatt. But before joining the company, where were you placed? When did you come to Bombay?
I worked in Nepal for a year before moving to Mumbai. It was Javed Akhtar who recommended me to Plus Channel. My first project was A Mouthful of Sky as a production executive, followed by Swabhimaan as a production controller. And then several projects followed - Mumkin, Jaldi Jaldi, Ninad, Kabhie Kabhie, Tum Yaad Aye, Femina Miss India 1997, Filmfare awards 1998 and many more. I also scheduled edits at Plus Channel.
You have known many celebrities, film personalities, and citizens of repute. Do mention the chosen ones and your equation with them.
At Plus Channel I was scared of Amit Khanna, as I wasn’t directly reporting to him. I could not ever muster up the courage to walk up to him and compliment him for all the wonderful songs he wrote and which had enriched my formative years. Many personalities I worked with at Plus Channel bonded with me warmly - Mahesh Bhatt, Praveen Bhatt, Milind Soman, R D Tailang, Joy Sengupta, Deepak Parasher, Kitu Gidwani, Ashutosh Rana, Rohit Roy, Anju Mahendru, Tanuja Chandra, Rucha Pathak, Ashwini Malik, Irene Dhar, Rohit Kaushik, Debloy Dey, Rajesh Sethi, Ajay Goel, Raju Singh, Faruque Mistry, Mahesh Aney, Sameer Chanda.
Amitabh Bachchan has been exceptionally warm and supportive. It was he who suggested that my debut book should get a platform like IIFA for launch. He graciously wrote the Foreword for both books, besides releasing them and acknowledging my work on preserving cinema heritage. Jayaji too. I first worked with her when I was commissioned to put up an exhibition of Amitabh Bachchan’s posters on his 70th birthday celebration event at Nehru Centre. Abhishek Bachchan opened his father’s exhibition that I did with Pradeep Chandra at Whistling Woods. Shah Rukh Khan had a long meeting with me at Mannat where we discussed how best Indian cinema could be showcased in a Mumbai museum. He has also participated in our Osians Cinema Auction with great zeal. Even Priyanka Chopra and Aamir Khan have been bidding at the auctions. Farah Khan and Ritesh Deshmukh are also good friends and they have a fine memorabilia collection. Javed and Naved Jaffrey have been friends since I did Rahul Mahajan’s Truck Dhina Dhin - the comedy countdown show of Jaaved and Jagdeep in 1999. In fact I met Resul Pookutty and Kookie Gulati in this company, where we worked on Taste of India.
How is your work progressing in these corona times?
Am working on a book. Besides, I am working from home for the office. This break has given the world a new perspective - on how important is life and how health should take priority in the life ahead.
I know you to be a very secular, informed and politically alert citizen. How do these times sit on you? Are you worried at the growing alienation in society, at communalism now no longer a hidden agenda, but very much a ruling credo?
Anyone who claims to be Indian and believes in constitutional values, believes in the vision of India, as envisaged in 1947, should be alarmed at the erosion of those values. We Indians should learn from what the imaginary and hollow idea of religious/ethnic supremacy has done to countries across the globe. How can there be progress amidst state sponsored division, amidst prejudice and targeting of a large section of your own society? I feel if the country suffers socio-economically then the onus is not just on those who govern, but also squarely on those who gave them robust support.
Does your Muslim identity currently pain the Indian in you?
Should all Indians not feel the pain? If today it’s a religious targeting, tomorrow it can also be a caste, gender and regional discrimination. It is the greatness of the Hindu culture in my opinion that this country could be a torchbearer of plural, liberal values across the globe. The largely Hindu population would also solve the recent onslaught of fundamentalism if one thinks positive. The minorities don’t have much of a say on this I feel.
Which is the one song, or a poem that you beckon to assuage you or uplift you?
Two. ‘Where the mind is without fear…’ by Tagore because it defines the India we grew up in and Pushp ki Abhilasha by Makhanlal Chaturvedi, which in my opinion is the most patriotic poem ever. It gives me goose-bumps every time I visit it.
(Chah Nahin Mai SurBala Ke Gehnon Mein Guntha Jaaon/Chah Nahin Premi-Mala Mein Bindh Pyari Ko Lalchaon/Chah Nahin Samraton Ke Shav Par Hey Hari Dala Jaaon/Chah Nahin Devon Ke Sar par Chadhon, Bhagya Par Ithlaoon - Mujhe Tod Lena Banmali! - Us Path Par Dena Tum Phaink - Matra-Bhoomi Per Sheesh Chadhane, Jis Path Jaayen Veer Anek). The poem is a flower’s talk as to how it would want to be used for a better purpose than just as a mere physical adornment, a gift to the beloved, thrown on the dead bodies of kings, as an offering to the Gods. Instead it would like the gardener to pluck it and throw it on that path, which is taken by the brave soldiers to go offer their lives for their motherland.