By SUNIL RAO
Long-time viewers of Omni 2 South Asian News will doubtless be familiar with the name Zuhair Kashmeri, who until not so long ago used to spice up the news with his witty comments on the goings-on of the day.
But not many among us will perhaps recognize the name Aghajani Kashmeri. Which is a pity.
Aghajani was Zuhair’s father. He was also the scriptwriter of a string of early Bollywood smash hits, such as Junglee, Love in Tokyo, Tum Se Achha Kaun Hai, Khilona and Naya Zamana — to name just a few.
In turn, Zuhair (Kash) Kashmeri has made a film about his father. The Golden Pen.
Originally from Lucknow, Aghajani eventually landed up in Toronto (via Rangoon and Calcutta and Bombay, as the cities were then known), to be with his sons Sarwar (who lives in New York), and Zuhair, (Kash) Kashmeri, of Toronto, and latterly of Niagara-on-the-Lake.
Reputed and well-known as he was in Bollywood, later in Toronto, hardly anyone recognizes Aghajani’s name.
His son Zuhair is now trying to rectify this. Call it a son’s personal tribute to his dad, or a labour of love, but Zuhair shot an hour-long documentary on his father’s life and times.
The film, The Golden Pen, has now been accepted to premiere at Toronto’s 2012 ReelWorld Film Festival, which runs April 11-15.
The Golden Pen itself will be screened April 13 at the Famous Players Canada Square Cinema.
“The film documents the amazing journey of early Bollywood scriptwriter Aghajani Kashmeri, who ran away from his hometown of Lucknow to become a hero in a 1930s movie in Rangoon and ended up becoming a celebrated scriptwriter who wrote about 50 flicks,” says Kashmeri in his promo.
But he leaves out some interesting bits: like how his dad first ran away from home, to Rangoon, to star in his maiden film; how he was stalked by a circus gorilla there, and eventually wooed the gorilla’s female owner; how he found himself a misfit as a lion tamer and landed up in Kolkata; how he started up a romance with the sultry siren Suraiya, the biggest actress of the day — only to marry the strong-willed and politically-minded Khursheed, Zuhair’s mother.
Zuhair, who affectionately calls his dad Babba, also notes: “The early years of Bollywood fired the imagination of thousands of young men and women, who rushed to Bombay seeking the spotlight. Among them was (this) young man from the north Indian city of Lucknow, a city of architecture, poetry, literature and romance. He had to run away from home because in the India of the 1930s, Bollywood was an industry of ill repute.
“Aghajani Kashmeri… would start off acting and quickly switch to scriptwriting. He would eventually pen some 50 movies — among them classics such as Najma, Anmol Ghadi, Amar, Andaz, Taqdeer, Mujhe Jeene Do, Yeh Rastey Hain Pyar Ke, Junglee, Love in Simla, Khilona and Naya Zamana.”
Truly a trip down memory lane.
Local reports appearing in a section of the media had earlier noted: “By the time they were married, Mr Kashmeri was an established writer. He did write his share of formula movies, which he produced in a couple of months, usually in a hotel room where he paced and chain-smoked while dictating to two assistants.
“(But) he often badgered producers and directors to improve the quality of scripts, citing his heroes Guy de Maupassant and Honoré de Balzac, as well as the films of Billy Wilder and William Wyler. His pleas usually fell on deaf ears. Still, he made lots of money, finding that two or three screenplays a year gave him enough leisure to dream of becoming India’s Billy Wilder.”
However, after his move to Toronto, Aghajani found himself a fish out of water, unrecognized, unappreciated and trapped. He eventually passed away Mar 27, 1998, of cancer, aged 89.
The documentary, written and narrated by Zuhair, tracks Aghajani from his grave in Toronto to Lucknow, then Bombay, and then back to Canada, picking up footage from his films, interviews with old actors against a backdrop of stunning historical architecture and street scenes.
“The making of The Golden Pen has been an incredible journey, and after almost two years, we couldn’t be more excited to share our film,” says Zuhair.
“This quite an honour for any documentary and as a first time producer, writer, researcher and narrator of a documentary, I am ecstatic!”
The film unfolds through the stories told by his descendants and a historian in Lucknow.
In Mumbai, the heart of Bollywood, the film picks up with footage from his films, interviews Bollywood actors such as the late Shammi Kapoor and Joy Mukherjee, and the veteran sweetheart of early Bollywood, Nimmi.
Others such as Amin Sayani — of the radio show that could make or break movies, Binaca Geet Mala — reminisce about a man who entertained six generations of Indians, and was a celebrity… but who lost much of his wealth on the racetrack, before moving to Toronto late in life.
The 47-minute documentary is part comedy, part tragedy, part travelogue and a commentary of a Bollywood during and after the British Raj. It is a fast-paced slice of life based in early Bollywood, following the footsteps of Aghajani. His movies themselves starred such legendary actors as Raj Kapoor, Sunil Dutt, Shammi Kapoor, Sharmila Tagore, Saira Banu, Nargis, Ashok Kumar, Noor Jehan, Suraiya, Sadhna…
Their memories are embellished with lively footage from his films. The documentary producers also meet a Mumbai journalist and Bollywood historian Rafique Badhdadi, who did the last interview with Aghajani Kashmeri before he left for Canada. It was titled, Man with the Golden Pen.
Ergo, The Golden Pen.
The movie ends where it began, at Aghajani’s grave, after using footage and interviews about his final years in Canada.
The Golden Pen combines three very Canadian themes into one story: a Canadian’s search for his roots in a far off land, India; the story of another Canadian who is famous, even revered by millions of people but who was all but anonymous on the streets where he chose to spend the final years of his life; and finally, it is the story of the times and places that shaped Bollywood — as we know it today.
Explaining how and why this project was begun, Zuhair states:
“The Golden Pen started with a promise — a promise made by a son, myself, to my father, a legendary Bollywood scriptwriter, who was revered by tens of millions of Indian moviegoers.
“In early 1998, a few months before my father passed away at a Toronto nursing home, he looked at me one day and said, ‘Do something with my life story, it is so unusual. Neither you nor your children will ever experience anything like it.’
“I replied that I would, perhaps in a film and in a translation of his autobiography, Sahar Hone Tak, published in India in Urdu and in Hindi, in the late 1960s, to rave reviews.
“On his grave at Toronto’s York Cemetery, he wanted me to inscribe the following Urdu couplet (my translation) written by a neighbourhood poet from his beloved Lucknow:
‘The world listened to my story with rapt attention
It was I who fell asleep while telling the tale.’
“The Golden Pen fulfills one-half of the promise, giving audiences a taste of what they can expect in the translation of Sahar Hone Tak (literally Until the Day Dawns).
“In a sense, his journey has ended. My own journey has only just begun,” concludes Zuhair.
Tickets for the premiere are $10 each, and $5 for seniors and students. For further details visit thegoldenpen.ca
By SUNIL RAO