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Remembering Phani Da

October 8, 2021 | By

Nabendu Ghosh, the renowned screenplay and scriptwriter, was closely associated with Phani Majumdar, the legendary filmmaker who directed classics such as Street Singer, Doctor, Baadbaan, Oonche Log, Aarti, to name a few, had an illustrious career spanning films in several languages including Hindi, Bengali, Maithili and Malay.

In the second part of our 2-part Special Tribute to Phani Majumdar, Silhouette presents exclusive excerpts from Eka Naukar Jatri/ Journey of a Lonesome Boat, the autobiography of Nabendu Ghosh where he fondly remembers his Phani Da. Translated from Bengali by Ratnottama Sengupta.

Phani Majumdar

Phani Majumdar

In Bombay I started meeting new people.

Asit Sen introduced me to Phani Majumdar, who was once an A-list director in New Theatres. His office was on the ground floor of Bombay Talkies.

“He is the director of all those super hit movies – Sapera, Street Singer, Doctor, Kapal Kundala – Shri Phani Majumdar.”

The moment I bowed forward to touch his feet, Phani Majumdar held me by my hand. “Hold on bhai! May you be victorious! Jai hoke apnar…”

Tall, of robust built, handsome with chiseled features, wearing thick-lensed glasses and donning dhoti-kurta, he was a soft-spoken Bengali.

“I am familiar with your writing,” Phani Babu said. “Very shortly you will realise how difficult it is to get Bengali books and magazines in Bombay, and you will know why I am not up to date.”

“Never mind if it is slight,” I replied, “I am overjoyed that you are acquainted with my writing. Meeting you today has refreshed the memory of so many films! Such an enchanting performance by Kanan Devi in Street Singer! And Bharati Devi in Doctor is unforgettable – just like Leela Desai in Kapal Kundala.”

Phani Babu did not relax his smile.

Tea was served to us. By the time we had finished it, I felt that a long term relationship had been established.

“I am really happy that you people have come to Bombay (as a team),” he said to us. “Bimal Babu is known to me for a long period – we have been colleagues in New Theatres. His Udayer Pathey (Humrahi) has opened a new chapter in Indian cinema. I welcome you all – our tribe is growing in Bombay.”

Kapalkundala

Sailen Chowdhury and Leela Desai in Kapal Kundala

***

At this point two persons entered the room.

Phani Babu said, “Let me introduce you to one another.” After giving brief details of Asit Sen and my work he told us about the two gentlemen. “This is Arabind Sen, once my assistant, now a full-fledged director. He had made Muqaddar for Bombay Talkies, and introduced Nalini Jaywant on the screen. Now she is a top-ranking heroine. And this is Shakti Samanta, at present my chief assistant.”

Both of them exchanged Namaste with us.

Arabind Sen also sported thick-lensed glasses. He must have been 34-35 years old – same age as I. Dark complexioned but tall, with sharpness in his eyes.

“I have heard a lot about him,” he smiled, “from Bimalda and Bina.”

Phani Babu clarified, “Arabind is a saala (brother-in-law) of Bimal.”

“It is a very warm bonding,” I commented, “and yet no one is pleased if you address them as ‘saala‘.”

Everyone broke into laughter.

“Bina is my kaka’s daughter,” Arabind explained.

And Shakti Samanta – he was also dark complexioned, probably younger to me. Well built, his features bespoke  strength and his manner had the air of a man in charge. He was the chief assistant to Phani Da in Tamasha. The under-production film features Dev Anand and Meena Kumari in the lead roles.

baadban

Meena Kumari, Dev Anand, Usha Kiron and Ashok Kumar in Baadban (Pic: Facebook)

***

I always go out with an umbrella. Even before the rains strike in June – and certainly through the monsoon months. In the intervals between showers, when the sun lights up, the heat becomes unbearable. The parasol offers some relief then. So my ‘brolly’ and I are inseparable.

One day Phani Da quipped, “You always remind me of Lord Chamberlain, the prime minister of UK. He would always carry an umbrella at public gatherings, be it at day or night.

“Alas Phani Da,” I said faking sadness, “let alone a prime minister, if I were to become even a minister without portfolio, I would be Chhatrapati 24×7!”

Even as we laughed whole heartedly, I looked out of Phani Da’s office window and saw that it had started to rain..

***

One day in Phani Da’s office I met Hemen Gupta who had brought to the Bengali screen the famous work of Manoj Basu, Bhuli Nai.  He was all set to direct Bankim Chandra’s Ananda Math for Bombay Talkies.

He smiled as he spoke, “I have followed you all to Bombay.”

I said, “We are growing in numbers – and strength! Welcome to Bombay.”

Two years before I moved to this city, Hemen Gupta had thought about filming my novel, Daak Diye Jaai.

***

Advertisement announcing release of Baadbaan

Advertisement announcing release of Baadbaan

I used to go to Phani Da’s office just to have a chat. The next time, as soon as I stepped in, he said, “Now write a script for me Nabendu Babu.”

“Hail Phani Da!” – I responded.

“Would you like to know who will produce the film? Bombay Talkies Workers Cooperative Society! This is the first time such an effort is being made in India.”

“Wonderful!”

“Another bit of news. In order to see this effort of the workers succeed, all the actors and actresses who have worked in Bombay Talkies films – then and now – have promised to happily work without charging a penny.”

“Hur-r-ray!”

Secretary of the Cooperative Mr Bhojwani came in with a contract which I signed then and there. “Kuchh meetha ho jaaye” followed.

Over the exchange of sweets, Phani Da briefly narrated the story. Ashok Kumar would be cast in the central role – son of a rich man who learns on his father’s deathbed that he was actually the son of a fisherman on the Konkan coast. This creates a unique drama as it prompts him to travel to his birthplace inhabited by fisher folk.

The very next day I started writing the screenplay for the film. And casting for the characters also started. Jairaj came forward, so did Dev Anand, a new girl Usha Kiran, a rising star Meena Kumari. Sheikh Mukhtar, comedian Gope – they were not to be left out. The music was to be scored by Timir Baran who was famous as the sarod player in the international troupe of Uday Shankar.

The film was titled Baadbaan – the word came from the sail on the fishermen’s boats that sail the ocean.

Kaise koi jeeye (Baadbaan, 1958) Timir Baran & SK Pal / Indeevar / Geeta Dutt and Hemant Kumar

***

When the leading lady was being finalised, a young girl named Baby Shakuntala came and met us in Phani Da’s office. Why ‘Baby’ Shakuntala? Because she had started as a child artiste in a Marathi film. Now she was about 20-22 but she still had a Baby-ish air about her. She broke into laughter at the end of every sentence.

One day another actress came to Phani Da’s office. A pleasing longish, paan-shaped face, soft demeanour, her complexion wheatish – rather, it was like turmeric blended with copper. Her eyes were not very large but there was depth in them – they were like a pool of water, deep and cool. And the lips below her Greek nose had a smile that cast a heady warmth. Her laughter sounded like the tinkling of bells. If truth be told, I was charmed.

I learnt that currently she was acting in B-list films but she was all set to work in Baiju Bawra under the respected director Vijay Bhatt who had gained renown with Ram Rajya and Bharat Milap. Cast opposite her in the male lead was Bharat Bhushan, who has impressed everyone with his performance in our Maa.

Phani Da introduced me to the lady and added, “He is an accomplished writer of Bengali literature and he is writing the screenplay for Baadbaan.”

Meena Kumari lifted her eyes and smiled, deepening their calm. A little while later, when she bade goodbye to Phani Da and made to leave with her attendant, she looked at me and again smiled her enchanting smile, bowed her head forward and murmured, “Aadab!”

That day her face kept surfacing before my eyes, her soft voice kept ringing in my ears, “Adaab!” “Adaab!” “Adaab!”

***

Parineeta

Asit Baran and Meena Kumari in Bimal Roy’s Parineeta, one of the early films in her career

That very evening, in Devika Rani Bungalow we were meeting to discuss the casting for Parineeta.

Bimal Da said, “I met Baby Shakuntala in Prakash Studios today.”

“How is she Bimalda?” Hrishi wanted to know.

Bimalda thought over it before replying, “Theek achhe – she will do.”

“Okay, will do – these are not very complimentary, Bimalda.”

Bimalda smiled, “We must look some more.”

I came out with the ace I had up my sleeve. “I met someone today. She is one hundred percent Sarat Chandra’s Lalita. Her name is Meena Kumari.”

Bimalda, suddenly all serious, stared into the air in front of him, as if he was visualising somebody. Then, gently, he nodded.

***

The next morning we, led by Bimalda, stepped into Ashok Kumar’s room. He asked, “So Mr Roy, when are you starting work on the film?”

“Let’s decide on the heroine first,” Bimalda stalled.

“Why? Baby Shakuntala?”

“No Dadamoni,” Bimalda shook his head. “There’s someone better than the Baby – her name is Meena Kumari.”

“Bimal Babu, that girl is acting in Wadia Movitone’s stunt films and demanding Rs 40,000!” Dadamoni didn’t sound too pleased. “Baby Shakuntala is willing to work for Rs 20,000.”

Bimalda said, “But Vijay Bhatt has signed this very Meena Kumari for his Baiju Bawra. They will start shooting after two three days. And, even at the cost of paying 20,000/- more, if we get better results it would be better to cast Meena Kumari. The fact is that I have seen in this girl the calm and collected air of Sarat Chandra’s Lalita. Ability to act is not the last word in casting. The actor or actress must match the personality of the character (they are to play). That is the last word in casting.”

“Ayn!” Dadamoni had no words to counter this truth. He was silent for some moments, then said, “All right, let me also meet Meena Kumari in person. Give me a couple of days.”

Bimal Roy Meena Kumari Ashok Kumar

Bimal Roy directing Meena Kumari and Ashok Kumar in Parineeta – a still from And They Made Classics

***

Two days later unexpectedly Dadamoni entered Bimalda’s room. “I agree with your selection – Meena Kumari will be The Best for the role of Lalita.”

“Wonderful!” Bimalda was exultant. Then he popped his next worry, “We have yet to settle on a music director. Do we have a name?”

Dadamoni said, “I want to give a chance to a new name. I will be happy if you agree.”

“What’s the name?” – Bimalda sounded unsure.

Dadamoni said, “My cousin Arun Mukherjee. He is a very well-known playback artiste with a sound understanding of musicology.”

Bimalda at once agreed – and quite happily. And we three – Hrishi, Asit and I – went over to ArunDa’s flat in the evening and knocked on the door.

ArunDa opened the door and welcomed us. Boisterously we asked for his wife, “Boudi! Boudi!!”

Mary Boudi hurried up to the door, “What’s the matter, dears?”

“We are here with excellent news,” Hrishi said. “First tell us, what will you treat us to?”

“You bhais are here, that is the best news,” Boudi replied. “Come in and seat yourselves – let me fry some luchi. There might be some sweets too, after that.”

“That’s well put,” ArunDa responded.

We broke the news to him. His little girls, Benu and Ratna raced up to hug him. ArunDa’s lips curved up in the detached smile of a sadhu. And Mary Boudi folded her hands in prayer, “Jai Thakur!”

She was a devotee of Sri Sri Ramakrishna Paramhansa till her last breath.

Chand hai wohi (Parineeta, 1953) Aroon Kumar Mukherjee / Bharat Vyas / Geeta Dutt

***

Months later. Could be 1952 or 1953.

Puffing on his Chesterfield in between the sips from his teacup, Bimalda said, “Now that Maa is complete, What next? We need new work. Bombay Talkies is in a precarious state now – in case Maa is not a hit, we will be like bad penny to them. So, before Maa is released in the theatres, we must get a new contract. And for that to happen we need a stock of stories. Hiten Chaudhuri is talking to two possible producers, two others have got in touch with me. But without a story none of these will work out.”

So we needed stories. But what kind of stories? The kind that wins over viewers when it is reflected on the silver screen in a darkened theatre. One that compels them to repeat, “And then? What now? What will happen?” But what will happen to whom? To the problems and crises in the lives of the characters. If the problems are pregnant with drama, that will blend with the skill of unfolding the narrative and keep pumping the adrenaline of the viewer and raise his BP higher and higher and they will wonder, “And then? What now? What will happen?” In unison with the persona, seeking a resolution of their conflicts, they will wordlessly demand, And then? What now? What will happen to them?”

Writer Gajendra Gaur, Director Phani Majumdar, Madhubala and Kishore Kumar (Pic courtesy: Twitter)

In our country most people gravitate to stories that revolve around the crisis called Love, perhaps because desire to love is universal and to be loved is eternal. So love is a safe bet, especially in cinema. We have just completed Maa for Bombay Talkies, but that does not revolve around love between a man and a woman – it is structured around a mother’s love, for her husband and her sons. It is a family drama. We will know the power of this love only when the film releases.

So what kind of stories shall we narrate to the producers? Which stories will assure them that their investment will be secure and prompt them to say, “Yes sir! We will film this very story!” Because, no matter which story you decide on, to make it into a film means investing lakhs of lakhs – and every producer prays that he should recover his investment if not make a profit.

and they made classics Nabendu Ghosh

Nabendu Ghosh speaking about Bimal Roy and his films in And They Made Classics

Over the next five-six days we discussed and narrowed down the list to a few ideas. We listed some stories and novels from Bengali literature. Bas, we were equipped for one more round of chess with Success.

The problem with cinema as a mode of livelihood lies in this: the success or failure of each film decides the film you will get to do or not do next. The director’s team is engaged to constantly come up with ideas, concepts, narration that will appeal, first, to a producer and then to a financier.

That is the first stage. And, in the final stage, the viewer will give his verdict, “Waah!” “Lovely!” Only then will the moneybags be willing to hear your next story. There is only one problem: What if the aesthetics of the moneybag is not evolved? Or, sometimes, for the sake of livelihood you bow to his ego and settle for a story idea he supplies, then all your effort might go waste like a falling kite. In short, the art form we have embraced as our mode of eking a living is a dicey form – we are constantly walking the razor’s edge.

***

Kanan Devi and K L Saigal

Kanan Devi and K L Saigal in Phani Majumdar’s Street Singer (1938)

Suddenly I remembered the novel that had mesmerized me. I went up to Bimalda and said, “I want to remind you of this classic novel which you must have read…”

“Which novel?” – Bimalda was curious.

“It can translate into a spellbinding movie. I am talking about Bibhuti Bhushan’s Pather Panchali.”

For a few seconds Bimalda gazed fixedly at me. Then, slowly, pondering over every word he said, “Yes, it is an amazing novel. But in this Hindi film industry nobody will be able to appreciate its innate rasa. No Nabendu Babu, there will be no taker for it in this market.”

End of story. But I could not forget Pather Panchali. That very evening I met Phani Da (Majumdar) in his office and, in the course of our conversation, I mentioned it to him. I did not stop there: for almost an hour I narrated the highlights of the novel to him.

Phani Da also responded, “It will be extremely difficult to sell this in Bombay. But…” he went on, “there is no doubt that it has the possibility to become a movie of an entirely different flavour. Let’s do this: Let’s buy the rights to the story. You please write the letter.”

Write to whom? In 1950, at the age of 56, Bibhuti Bhushan had left for his heavenly abode. I did not know where his son lived. So, the next day I wrote to the publisher, the noted writer Gajendra Kumar Mitra. His company, Mitra & Ghosh had published Pather Panchali and I was lucky to claim his affection. So he would certainly guide me in the matter.

A week or so later I heard from Gajen Da. The movie rights of the novel have been purchased by the art director of the established advertising firm, D J Keemer, Mr Satyajit Ray. Initially the name was not significant to me but then, within brackets Gajen Da had written “He is the son of Sukumar Ray, the author of HaJaBaRaLa and Pagla Dashu.” The name acquired a certain significance then.

At the same time I felt a sense of loss. For three years after that the sense of loss would surface like a bubble, at unguarded moments.

***

Geeta Dutt, Talat Mahmood, Hasrat Jaipuri and Mukul Roy

Geeta Dutt seated on extreme right with Mukul Roy next to her. Talat Mahmood is seen next with Hasrat Jaipuri bending over Talat Mahmood in a recording studio.

One day in Phani Da’s office I met Mukul Roy. Who Mukul Roy? The third brother of acclaimed singer and playback artiste Geeta Roy. Mukul Roy was well versed in music, he had written the lyrics for many hit songs of his sister, his goal was to become a music director. Within hours of meeting him, I was convinced by our conversation that he was a man of honour.

“Your name is Mukul – my pet name too, is Mukul,” I shared with him.

At once he stretched out his hand, “That makes us mates – each other’s mita.”

I took his hand in mine and said, “Hello Mita!”

***

Four days later Hrishi left for Calcutta, and the next day Mukul Roy visited  me in Van Vihar.

He said, “I am producing a film – it is titled Sailaab, it means flood,” he added helpfully. “Guru Dutt is the director – Guru and Madhubala will play the lead roles. Will you write the screenplay for the film?”

Guru Dutt had gained popularity as a rising director. He had worked for some days as assistant to Gyan Mukherji, director of the super-super hit Kismat. Then he directed Baaz for Chetan Anand and Dev Anand’s production house, Navketan Films. Guru Dutt had also featured in the film’s central role. He is quite good looking, in a way that Bengalis describe as ‘Nandadulal’. I am always reminded of the illustration of Jamai Shasthi, the festival honouring a son-in-law, in P M Bagchi’s Panjika/Panchang.

“Guru Dutt will be the hero and Madhubala the heroine? Baah! Excellent,” I delighted in the thought.

Without a second’s delay I agreed to write the screenplay of Sailaab.

Hai yeh duniya kaun si (Sailaab, 1956) Mukul Roy / Majrooh Sultanpuri / Geeta Dutt and Hemant Kumar

***

Daily I would discuss the script of Baadbaan with Phani Da. That day, once we wrapped up the discussions for the day, Phani Da asked for another round of tea to be served. As I lit up a Gold Flake, Phani Da said, “The other day you mentioned that your boat has anchored in many cities before docking in Bombay. Why don’t you tell me about them?”

“It’s a long story Phani Da,” I said, “starting in Dhaka, going on to Patna, then to Calcutta, and from there to here… Ever afloat! Let’s keep it for another day.”

“Be it so,” Phani Da agreed.

Phani Majumdar with Indira Gandhi

Prime Minister Mrs Indira Gandhi presenting the Certificate of Merit to Director Phani Majumdar for Oonche Log. In the centre is Nandini Satpathy, Deputy Minister for Information & Broadcasting (Pic courtesy: Personal album of Nabendu Ghosh)

***

(There is a long chapter about GURU DUTT and KAAGAZ KE PHOOL – how Nabendu Ghosh’s story was liked by Guru, changes made as per his suggestion, stalled, intermittently revived, and then credit denied to Nabendu Ghosh, leading to a spat over telephone where Nabendu Ghosh tells Guru Dutt he will fight it out.

THE FIGHT took the following course, as detailed in Eka Naukar Jatri/ page 371 onwards.)

Atmaram said, “It’s your story? But Dada is not saying that! He is claiming it is his story.”

At that, blood rushed to my head. “No, it is my story and I know how to prove my paternity.”

That very day around 2 pm I got a call from Mahalaxmi Studios, where many of the film production houses, producers and directors had their offices.

Guru Dutt was on the line.

“Yes Guru…?”

His raised voice spoke from the other end. “What’s all this you have said to my brother?”

I said, “Please don’t claim my story as yours.”

Guru Dutt raised his voice a pitch higher, it seemed the telephone will crack into pieces in my hand. “IT IS NOT YOUR STORY!”

I retorted, “Don’t scream at the top of your voice Mr Guru Dutt – I am also asserting loudly: The protagonist of my story was a writer, by promoting him to the status of director it cannot become YOUR story. Kindly don’t try to do that.”

“And what if I do?” – Guru Dutt’s voice was still at a high decibel.

I shouted back, “If you do, you will get to know how I protect my right over my story.”

Promptly I put down the phone and ended the spat. But it did not put an end to the story – instead, a long battle ensued.

***

Kaagaz ke Phool

Kaagaz ke Phool

I started thinking, who could put an end to this clash?

I remembered Gyan Mukherji, the famous director from the earlier years of Bombay Talkies. Guru had worked as his assistant for two-three years.

After hearing out the whole story he advised me to write down the synopsis of my story, then get it signed on each page by him and Phani Majumdar. This synopsis should then be addressed to me and sent by registered post. That would be my proof of right.

The system of registering story rights in the Writers Association with the office seal had yet to begin.

I liked this suggestion of Gyan Mukherji. I wrote that synopsis in Bengali and English, and on 9th January 1954 I got it jointly signed by him and Phani Da, then posted it as a Registered Letter. I duly received it five-six days later.

Here’s a photo copy of the synopsis bearing the signature of Phani Majumdar and Gyan Mukherji on each of the eight pages.

Photo copy of the synopsis of Nabendu Ghosh’s story, bearing the signature of Phani Majumdar and Gyan Mukherji (Pic courtesy: Eka Naukar Jatri)

***

Eka Naukar Jatri/ Journey of a Lonesome Boat, autobiography of Nabendu Ghosh
Publisher: Dey’s Publishing, Kolkata

Don’t miss to read the 1st Part of this 2-part Special Tribute to Phani Majumdar

Phani Majumdar: A Journey Through Life…

More to read

Meeting Ray: The Nawab of Sight and Sound

Dancing with Ray… An Unparalleled Celluloid Experience

Mrinal Sen: The Man Who Fought Through Cinema

Should Phalke, 150, Be Forgotten?

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A National Award winner for her Writings on Cinema, Ratnottama Sengupta is a natural writer with keen understanding of Cinema and Visual Art. A Journalist since 1978, she has been with The Times of India, The Telegraph, Screen and been the Editor of the online magazine CineBengal.com. Daughter of writer Nabendu Ghosh, she writes extensively on Cinema and on Art. She has contributed to Encyclopedia Britannica on Hindi Films, and has to her credit many titles including on Plastic Arts. Ratnottama has curated 'Little Languages Film Festival' in Delhi, Bangalore, Kolkata; 'Prosenjit: A Retrospective', Delhi; 'Bimal Roy Centenary', Goa, Kolkata; 'Bengali Cinema After Rituparno', Delhi; and initiated the 'Hyderabad Bengali Films Festival'. * She has been on IFFI Steering Committee; National and International Award juries; with CBFC; and on NFDC Script Committee. She scripted Mukul, a short film on Nabendu (2009). She debuts as director with And They Made Classics.
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