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Yeh Un Dinoñ Ki Baat Hai – In Conversation with Yasir Abbasi

February 2, 2023 | By

Yeh Un Dinoñ Ki Baat Hai: Urdu Memoirs of Cinema Legends, selected and translated by Yasir Abbasi and published by Bloomsbury India, brings together an eclectic collection of memoirs written by renowned writers and cine artists and published in Urdu magazines of yore, many of which are now defunct. Silhouette Magazine Consulting Editor Antara Nanda Mondal quizzed Yasir Abbasi about his interest in Urdu that eventually led him to take up the mammoth task of searching, collecting, archiving, collating and translating the nearly lost literature and life sketches of cine luminaries.

Yeh Un Dinoñ Ki Baat Hai

Yeh Un Dinoñ Ki Baat Hai – Urdu Memoirs of Cinema Legends

Urdu film magazines were one of the richest treasure troves of charmingly candid writings on cinema and film personalities. Over the course of seven decades from the 1930s through the 1990s, these magazines regaled their readers with personal memoirs, anecdotal recalls, heartfelt accounts and tributes written by journalists, writers and even actors and other luminaries of the film industry. Sadly, as reading Urdu became less popular, these magazines slowly faded into oblivion.

Yasir Abbasi, the Delhi-based cinematographer, who had been brought up on a rich diet of Urdu magazines and newspapers, realized that these fast-fading magazines had invaluable records on Indian cinema that were in the risk of being lost forever. He followed leads — some futile, some fruitful — to obscure towns and people’s homes in a last-ditch effort to save the faded magazines and original texts. He translated some of the many unique and touching memoirs covering a wide spectrum of artists from the world of the movies and collated them in Yeh Un Dinoñ Ki Baat Hai, published by Bloomsbury.

Excerpts from the interview:

Antara: Before we talk about your book, please tell us about the background that equipped you to eventually write it – about your education in Gorakhpur and Lucknow. You had mentioned you learned Urdu under the guidance of Maulvi sahib while studying in an English medium school. Learning is one thing but how did you develop your love for reading Urdu?

Yasir Abbasi: My early education happened in Gorakhpur and Lucknow. The schools were all English medium, and a maulvi saheb would come home in the evenings to teach Urdu. This happened till class 12, I think. But another form of crucial learning was simultaneously happening all through my growing up years — hearing Urdu at home and around me, in general. That’s how I picked up the finer points of usage and pronunciation, and actually ‘learnt’ the language, so to speak.

As for the reading (the voluntary kind), it was mostly limited to my favourite subject — cinema. My mother was a subscriber of the noted film magazine Shama, which I would keenly read every month. Other than that, there was an Urdu newspaper called Qaumi Awaaz, the Monday edition of which carried a full 2-page spread on the movies. As with all kids, I too was encouraged to read newspapers. So, while reading Qaumi Awaaz, I would place myself in the busiest corner of the house so that everyone could see I was reading a newspaper, and an Urdu one to boot!

Antara: What kind of Urdu magazines were popular — cinema journals, women’s magazines, literary periodicals? How were they different from, say, English or Hindi periodicals? How have they changed with times? Yasir, I am familiar with Bangla magazines – there was a host of children’s magazines, women’s mags, pure literature magazines, current affairs mags and so on. All these magazines published write-ups by prominent writers, including children’s mags. Sometimes even actors, music makers and sports stars wrote in them. Many are still continuing with elan. Hence the question.

Yasir: Till the mid-1990s, all kinds of Urdu magazines were immensely popular. Shama, Ruby (film + literary), Biswin Sadi, Shabistan (literary), Khilona (children), Bano, Huma (women), Mujrim (crime) – there were so many of them. The paper/print quality was clearly lower than the glossier (and more expensive) English ones but the quality of content was remarkably high (I’m talking of major publications here. Of course, periodicals with shoddy content existed as well).

The Urdu film magazines were ­­­­ semi-literary, hence they were not really looked down upon or considered frivolous like it happened with the English and Hindi ones. Unfortunately, Urdu was steadily marginalised, leading to a gradual shutting of publications, and arrival of the internet further killed the readership. There’s practically no Urdu film magazine for over 20 years now, and that’s regrettable.

Begum Para-Johnny Walker

Sample articles – Begum Para and Johnny Walker

Antara: What inspired you to do mass communication and take up cinematography as a career? Is it because of your childhood influences, as you mentioned, your uncle fed you with film magazines and your mother had such a keen listening ear?

Yasir: In today’s times where children have their careers all figured out in their school days itself, it’s kind of odd to confess that I opted for mass communication only because it seemed like an interesting thing to do at that point (I’m sure my fondness for cinema must’ve also influenced the decision). The exposure to cinematography happened in college — I really enjoyed it, and subsequently took it up professionally.

Antara: How did the idea of the book strike you? And why focus on cinema?

Yasir: Initially, there was no plan for a book. I started looking for Urdu film magazines out of plain curiosity. And once I managed to find some, I discovered stunning content. The biographical write-ups by film personalities carry important factual information and are thoroughly engaging as well. The reader is able to trace not just life stories of people but also the times they lived in.

Besides, film history is a subject that interests me a lot, and I know there are a lot of gaps and loose ends there. The Urdu film magazine, by virtue of a sustained presence for over seven decades, fills some of those gaps and hence relevant from an archiving point of view too. All these strands came together and helped the idea of the book take shape.

Antara: You have mentioned how difficult it was to source the magazines. Tell us about some interesting incidents that happened during this research and what kind of help you received.

Yasir: Tracking down the magazines was quite a journey! Looking back, now I’m surprised at some of the things I did, like travelling to remote corners in the country, following thin, vague leads. Sometimes it didn’t work out, but when it did, it more than made up for all the dead-ends. Then there was the luck element. I went to the Raza library in Rampur anticipating multiple shelves stacked with old film magazines, but just found a few stray copies there. On my way back from the place, a chance encounter with a gentleman led to a bunch of publications I had never even heard of. And he was most generous in lending them.

Actually, I was fortunate to find so many kind souls who went out of their way to help me, giving me complete access to their collections. There were a few disappointing episodes too, when people had what I was looking for but simply refused to share (an old, reasonably well-known poet in Lucknow rattled off names of pre-Independence publications in his personal library and then quoted an obnoxious amount of money for photocopies). But that only made me more determined to find it elsewhere.

Urdu film magazines

Urdu film magazines

Antara: How did you archive and collate the material you accessed? What made you choose these articles among the many that you must have found interesting?

Yasir: There were several factors at work. Apart from some heartfelt stories that immediately stood out on their own, I tried to include a variety of individuals as well as writing styles. Moreover, as I mentioned earlier, pieces which helped fill gaps in the existing film history documentation. For instance, Jaidev’s life and career have hardly been written about in depth. His comprehensive autobiographical essay lists the smallest of details right from his childhood to his last days — it’s a priceless memoir now reduced to the pages of a defunct journal. It surely doesn’t deserve to wither away due to Urdu’s falling out of favour. Similarly, I found plenty of material that’s significant and worthy of being preserved.

Antara: When it comes to translation, there are two ways of going about it. One is to literally translate word by word and the other to retain the essence. What was your approach? And that brings me to another question — how did you manage words that are sort untranslatable, words that are intrinsic to our culture and have no synonyms in English? Yasir, for instance a very common Bangla word ‘adda’ refers to the gathering of like-minded individuals animatedly chatting, discussing, debating on anything under the sun — can refer to fun gatherings and highly cerebral discussions, which is part of the Bengali culture. English has no such word. 

Yasir: I think not losing the essence of the original is what every translator strives for, and I’m no different. The accompanying aspect is a little tricky. One often comes across translations that digress from the original text just to get the essence right. That’s not the ideal thing to do. Word for word translations are obviously unnecessary (and impractical), yet I think the endeavour should be to remain as close to the original text as possible and not go about interpreting the writer’s thoughts.

If I didn’t find an English equivalent for some word, I left it in its original form (and added a footnote, if required). For example, I don’t think there’s a precise word for ‘tawaif’ in English, so it hasn’t been translated. I must add here that a great deal of such words are so popular that they don’t even need to be translated.

Antara: Any write-ups that you found particularly challenging to translate?

Yasir: The ones by professional writers like Kaifi Azmi, Ismat Chughtai, Dr. Rahi Masoom Raza, and others were challenging because of the nuances they carry in terms of references, wordplay, etc. To quote an example, towards the beginning of his pen-portrait of Sahir, Kaifi casually uses the term do furlong lambi sadak. Now, that’s the title of a short story by Krishan Chander and I had to look for and read it just to understand the exact thing that Kaifi wanted to convey. Not to forget, translating even straightforward segments of such high-quality writing was a tall order in itself. What if I got something wrong, or worse, not get it at all? Such thoughts did lead to minor panic attacks once in a while!

Yeh Un Dinoñ Ki Baat Hai

Yeh Un Dinoñ Ki Baat Hai – back cover with quotes

Antara: When I received my copy, the first one I read was the one by Nargis on Meena Kumari — such a stunning opening line — “Meena – maut mubarak ho!” And I flipped through the pages and the next one I stopped by to read was by Javed Siddiqui on Satyajit Ray. Such a fascinating snapshot of the finest among filmmakers and the making of a classic in the space of a few pages. When you were researching and organising your material, any particular write-ups/material that left you in awe? There might have been several but do share a few experiences with us.

Yasir: Even though it’s largely true, let me avoid the I-like-them-all cliché.

I was quite thrilled to find Naushad’s description of K. Asif. One had frequently heard of the filmmaker in glowing terms but those were always generic references to his magnanimity, perfectionism, etc. Naushad brings him up and close, narrating one riveting anecdote after another, and by the time the feature wraps up, one is more aware of the incredible man that Asif was. Also, Mughal-e-Azam is an all-time favourite and to get a blow-by-blow account of its making from a person so closely linked to it was truly engrossing.

The light-hearted piece on Sa’adat Hasan Manto by Raja Mehdi Ali Khan was another one I really enjoyed. Even while translating it, I was laughing along. I think it would make for a tremendous short film. Imagine, Manto, Shyam and Raja Mehdi Ali Khan with a femme fatale on a crazy night!

Antara: The structure of the book is certainly very impressive. The book is divided into three sections — Khaakay (Pen Portraits), Aap-Beeti (Reminiscences) and Nuqta-e-Nazar (Perspectives). Each piece is embellished with pencil sketches and a brief bio of the person writing and the one who is being written about. And there is also a capsule of the original Urdu write-up. And also picture inserts of posters and stills. Tell us about the thoughts behind the making of this structure.

Yasir: Once the material was finalised, the idea of dividing it into the three sections was a natural progression, owing to the nature of the pieces. Himanjali Sankar, my wonderful publisher, was most supportive of all the ideas. Each time I lost track of objectivity, she would gently bring in the much-needed perspective. The bios, sketches, etc were included for a multitude of reasons — from highlighting individual contributions to putting faces to now-forgotten names to simply evoking a sense of nostalgia.

For the illustrations, a more practical but equally important reason was providing visual breaks at regular intervals. It helped, of course, that there was an in-house artist (Geetika, my wife, has made the sketches) I could turn to. Also, since I wasn’t too sure about my translation skills, having all these supplements was part of an elaborate cover-up plan!

Yasir Abbasi

Yasir Abbasi

Antara: In Khaakay, you have put together delightful, deeply personal memoirs of celebrities writing about fellow contemporary celebrities, full of anecdotes, opinions, humour and also a tinge of sorrow. It is an up-close and personal look at the legends we admire. Were they all such good writers? Some of them of course were professionals but the rest?

Yasir: Even the non-writers like Nargis or Iftekhar are so effective because they’ve articulated their thoughts with a lot of honesty, besides providing all those amazing first-person accounts. All the writers give their subjects the respect they deserve, but, at the same time, don’t shy away from pointing out their flaws either. Non-professional writing can be charming in its own way. The warm, personal stories, narrated with integrity, carry a distinct appeal for the readers. There’s an instant connect with the emotions they evoke, and I guess that point alone makes them good writers.

Antara: Aap-Beeti essays are miniature autobiographies almost — at times daringly candid. Isn’t it a difficult job to concise your life in a few pages, especially when you are not a professional writer? Urdu magazines seem to have brought out hidden gems. 

Yasir: Urdu was the first language of nearly every writer featured in the book, and naturally, one is most expressive in one’s native language. That’s why the text flows so well. You can easily imagine ‘hearing’ the original articles of, say, Dilip Kumar, Nadira or Johnny Walker in their own voices. The candour indicates that as a society, we were perhaps a little less uptight in the bygone era. Also, credit to the publications too for not selectively pulling out juicy bits and sensationalising them. The most controversial of opinions were put across within the realms of tameez and tehzeeb. Urdu film magazines operated with a certain degree of decorum and this had an influence on the content too.

Antara: Tell us about the feedback the book received.

Yasir: It was most unexpected. While working on the book, I was convinced that apart from a handful of nostalgia-loving senior citizens, nobody would be interested in reading about Urdu film magazines and yesteryear film people, many of whom have since faded into oblivion. However, I was pleasantly surprised at the interest the book generated right from the moment the release date was announced. The response that followed was extremely rewarding, and readers cutting across age groups have been very kind in their feedback.

Antara: Archiving or preservation is not our strong point — be it literature, films, memorabilia, music recordings, documentaries — we have lost many treasures. Your book has brought to the fore how urgently we need to put our house in order. Based on your experiences, what would you suggest to be done to archive this rich content?

Yasir: Indeed, we’ve been awfully careless towards archiving and have already paid a heavy price by losing considerable records of our film history. I hate saying this but unfortunately, we’re still not taking steps in the right direction. Individuals do their bit but they can only do as much. The scope of work requires an institutional intervention, but there’s barely anything worthwhile right now. What’s worse, even the future of National Film Archive of India looks jeopardised at the moment. NFAI has been the sole custodian of invaluable material, especially film prints, and no one knows what will happen henceforth.

Speaking of videos, imagine the riches that must be lying in the Doordarshan vaults. If those are digitised and made accessible online for a fee, I’m sure many of us would happily pay. Same goes for old, unavailable books and magazines. I hope we see an initiative in this regard soon.

Yeh Un Dinoñ Ki Baat Hai: Urdu Memoirs of Cinema Legends
Published by : Bloomsbury India
Hardcover, 442 pages
Available on Amazon

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Editor in Chief, Learning and Creativity; Consulting Editor, Silhouette Magazine. A former business journalist, Antara writes extensively on the changing trends of music, direction and filmmaking in cinema. Her articles aim to provide well-researched information on the legends of cinema for the movie and music enthusiast. She is also the Founder-Editor of Blue Pencil, a New Delhi-based publishing house. She edited and published Incomparable Sachin Dev Burman, the biography of SD Burman written by HQ Chowdhury. She has co-authored a chapter on Hemant Kumar's Bengali music in the acclaimed book The Unforgettable Music of Hemant Kumar, written by Manek Premchand. Her articles have also been published in and Antara is Editor-Creative Director of Wisitech InfoSolutions Pvt. Ltd.
All Posts of Antara Nanda Mondal

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9 thoughts on “Yeh Un Dinoñ Ki Baat Hai – In Conversation with Yasir Abbasi

  • N. S. Rajan

    From a cinematographer to being an author of a book of essays and write ups on personalities in the Hindi Film world is perhaps natural, the more so as, all this coincides with that period recognised as ‘The Golden era of Hindi film music’.
    But what is really amazing is Abbasi’s single-minded pursuit of the written matter in Urdu magazines and periodicals, inspired by things that he had read ages ago, when only a student. To convert a hobby into a book is no easy task given the search for such old material scattered all over and having to spend time and money to find it, to say nothing of the daunting physical effort. The result is a beautifully compiled and written book for which Abbasi deserves high appreciation from filmgoers, particularly those nostalgic for a Bombay film world that was vastly different in sight and sound from the so-called ‘Bollywood’ of today.
    In the process, Abbasi has also skillfully advanced the cause of Urdu writings.
    A commendable piece of work.

  • Peeyush Sharma

    Kya baat hai! What a fantastic interview. Kudos to you dear Antara. Anyone would be impelled to buy the book. So true, that in Hindi and English the magazines that carried film stories, they very rarely or never carried any literary stuff.
    Great job Yasir and commendable effort. Must be a treasure trove. Keenly waiting to get my copy. Regards.

  • Taiyeb Shaikh

    Expect Unexpected!!!

    Wow never thought I will read an article on old Urdu magazines or newspapers etc today. I almost read all of them being a Urdu School Product & a movie buff who grew up in heart of Bombay or Mumbai during 60s. Shama, Beesvin Sadi were the most popular Urdu Magazines. Kahkashan was popular Urdu film weekly published by Inquilab Bombay.

    I was keen reader of all Urdu Papers, Novels & Magazines. Now only Urdu News Papers we see few film magazines. Fortunately we had a library opposite my home which used to keep most of newspapers, magazines, novels in English, Urdu, Gujrati & Hindi language. I was life member but unfortunately it’s closed.

    Thanks Antara for such an outstanding post.
    Amazing work Yasir. No words to appreciate except a big Thank you.

  • Songs Of Yore

    This is an excellent post opening a window to a lost era. Your reminiscences about Bengali magazines reminded me of Hindi scene when the Times of India were known for quality journals in Hindi and English. ‘Sarika’ was a literary magazine of short stories, edited by Kamleshwar who was a pillar of ‘Nai Kahani’ movement. ‘Dharmayug’ was a family semi-literary magazine, edited by another towering literary personality, Dharmavir Bharati, ‘Dinmaan’ was a news magazine on the lines of ‘Time’. This was edited by the Gyanpeeth awardee ‘Agyeya’. They also had a film magazine ‘Madhuri’ which was a clean family magazine, but nothing more than that. I wouldn’t call it semi-literary. The English counterparts were ‘Illustrated Weekly of India’, edited by Khushwant Singh, ‘Filmfare’, ‘Femina’ etc. All clean educated middle-class magazines. All these have disappeared. I would not blame it entirely to the Internet, because The Times of India Group had started shutting down Hindi magazines long ago – markets!

    ‘Yeh Un Dinon Ki Baat Hai’ is a valuable book. You get to learn many new facts about some unlikely characters – that Iftekhar acted as a hero and had sang some songs or that he also wanted to be a painter!

    I vaguely remember that there was an Urdu book too, with similar title on some vintage artistes. I was waiting for its English translation. It seems that must have been another book, because this one does not seem to be a translation of that compilation, but a compilation of translation of a number of articles selected by Yasir Abbasi. Could you please confirm whether this compilation first appeared in Urdu.

    1. Antara

      Thank you AK for the kaleidoscope of Hindi magazines and their English counterparts.

      Madhuri, Sarita, Dharmayug – I remember these from my school days. Our neighbours subscribed to these magazines while we had regular subscriptions for Anandamela and Suktara (children’s magazines) and Desh (literary) and the occasional Sananda (a women’s magazine which my mother subscribed to when they serialized Bela Mukherjee’s memoirs) or Anandalok (the cinema magazine). Interestingly, Ray edited Sandesh, the children’s magazine, Soumitra Chatterjee edited Ekkhon (literary mag) and Aparna Sen edited Sananda. In other words, people from the world of films had regular literary pursuits. All the top writers also wrote for children in the annual Pujo Sankhya of Anandamela.

      True, Yeh Un Dinoñ Ki Baat Hai is an eye-opener of a book. About whether this compilation first appeared in Urdu, Yasir would be able to answer that.

    2. Antara

      I forwarded your query to Yasir. Following is his response:

      “Antara, thanks for sharing AK’s comment. No, this compilation hasn’t appeared in Urdu as yet – it exists only in the English translation version. There are a few Urdu books in which present-day writers have profiled yesteryear stars but I’m not aware of any that contains articles written by film celebrities themselves.”

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