Urdu Memoirs | Book Review

Here’s a bit of film trivia: which Indian actor (other than Rajinikanth) worked as a bus conductor? Would it help to tell you he was originally called Badruddin Qazi? Or that he landed his first major role because Balraj Sahni suggested he enter Guru Dutt’s office pretending to be drunk? Or (last clue) that his inebriated act was such a hit that he later named himself after a popular whiskey brand?

Yes, it’s Johnny Walker.

Yeh Un Dinon Ki Baat Hai: Urdu Memoirs of Cinema Legends is full of such tales. Editor-translator Yasir Abbasi’s excavation of old Urdu film magazines lays out a new matrix of origin myths, loving details and vicious gossip involving not just actors, but directors, writers, singers and lyricists from what used to be called Hindi cinema.

Some get to tell their own stories, which means elisions and self-aggrandisements or, at least, careful public presentations of the self. Johnny Walker is keen to establish that he’s really a teetotaller. Writing in Shama magazine in 1981, the 1940s star Veena lists the many famous films she almost did: Anmol Ghadi, Udan Khatola, Mughal-e-Azam, Jogan, Mother India, even an abandoned early version of Mahal. Dharmendra mentions a close “friendship” with Meena Kumari, but completely avoids his role in ending it: “it never occurred to me back then that one day she… let’s just leave it at that.”

Others are described by friends and admirers, or by writers who happen to be friends and admirers. So the brothers Ganguly (Ashok Kumar and Kishore Kumar) get a tribute from the actor Iftekhar, Hindi cinema’s once-perpetual police officer. The composer Naushad tells of the director K. Asif’s grand ways, including the tale of how Bade Ghulam Ali Khan was persuaded to be Tansen’s voice in Mughal-e-Azam. Dialogue writer and playwright Javed Siddiqui has a charming fanboyish piece about working with Satyajit Ray on Shatranj ke Khilari. K.A. Abbas writes with acuity about Raj Kapoor, for whom he wrote many films: “If he loves just himself, then why do all of us still love him? Well, that’s because there’s something else that he places even before himself-his work, his art.”

The crisscrossing narratives sometimes produce a Rashomon effect. Eg: Dharmendra’s coy elision is matter-of-factly undercut by Nargis, who frankly appraises Meena Kumari’s passion for him and her heartbreak when he left. Whether reading that piece, or Ismat Chughtai on the singing star Suraiya, or the memoirs by Nadira, Shyama or Meena Shorey, it’s clear that the Hindi film industry awarded its actresses particularly lonely, difficult lives.

I have many quibbles with his translation, but Abbasi has done film buffs a service.