India, The First Impression

Mauritius Times – 60 Years

By Satcam Boolell

We said goodbye to Pakistan on November 20th and set off on our Indian tour The Viscount of the Pakistan Airways dropped us at Santa Cruz Airport in Bombay two hours after taking off from Karachi.

Our hosts from the Bombay Legislature seemed to have put on an enforced smile to greet us. They looked tired. My first contact with India was not very encouraging. Subsequent experiences, however, proved that I was rash in my judgment I learnt later that our hosts had worked till late on the previous night to see that the programme arranged for us went off without any flaw. The next morning, they had to be on their feet early and by the time we landed they were already exhausted with fatigue.

Marine Drive in the 1950s and 60s

Bombay, the Hollywood of India, is a sophisticated city. The Fort Area with its imposing buildings can match in cleanliness and modernity with any European city. Forget for a while the lean swarthy Indians in their white caps and flowing shirts and you will think that you are in Mayfair. The semi-circular Marine Drive on the water part is the boast of the city. At night when the lights are on, Marine Drive from the top of the Malabar Hills looks like what has been called the Queen’s necklace. But Bombay has no typical beauty of its own like Lahore. It is too modern to be so. Life in the city is too much of a rush. Nobody walks but tears along. The taxi-driver gets impatient if you make him wait for too long. There is no room for buggies, tongas or rickshaws. The stately horse-driven carriage with the coachman on the top makes its appearance only in the evening as a luxurious mode of transport for the leisurely bourgeois.

In Bombay, the white Gandhi caps were much in evidence, a sure sign that Congress stood in great favour among the teeming millions of the city. It seemed to obliterate all distinctions of class or caste. But while during the day the millionaire rubs shoulder with the coolie, at dark each comes into his own. The former settles down in a rocking chair on the terrace of his luxurious flat while the latter spreads a piece of cloth on the pavement to lie down. The use of this antithesis should not lead one to the belief that all coolies sleep on the pavements, that Bombay consists of these two categories of people only viz: millionaires and coolies. The problem of the homeless citizens of Bombay has been exaggerated beyond measure by foreigners. That the problem exists cannot be denied. But it would be a distortion of truth if one were to say that one has to walk cautiously at night to avoid tumbling over people. The Government of Bombay is making gigantic efforts to give a roof to each of its homeless citizens. Workers’ flats are fast shooting up. But the problem cannot be solved in a day. Hundreds of people from all over India are daily attracted to Bombay in search of work, and those who come stay for good whether they succeed in making their way or not.

Bombay is a “dry” city. There is strict prohibition on the sale of liquor to the local people. But prohibition or no prohibition the fashionable bars remain open every night till midnight with customers about whose identity there can be no mistake. Cases of drunkenness are not of infrequent occurrences.

As Bombay is the home of the Indian film industry, a visit to one of the film studios was arranged for me. A freelance photographer who had become very friendly with me accompanied me to Bandra where in Kardar Studio a shooting was in progress. My friend had already worked as assistant cameraman with Shantaram and he knew most of the people in the film industry. We drove straight into the studio yard. B.R. Chopra, was directing the film ‘Sadhana’ which cast Vyjayanthimala, Sunil Dutt and Leela Chitnis, etc.

Chopra greeted us with a broad grin. My friend Ajoda Singh, the delegate from British Guina, had also accompanied me. The traditional cup of tea was immediately served and cigarettes were passed round. The set was ready, the cameraman had taken his position and the sound recordist had adjusted the microphone. In a corner of the set, I noticed a handsome looking young man with a blank face seated on a mat and eating something from a plate. He looked at us and attempted a feeble wry in the manner of a polite salutation. It was not after I had returned the salutation in the same cultivated style that I recognized in him the hero of Mother India. The next dramatis persona to make her entrance on the set was Leela Chitnis of ‘Bandhan’ fame.

Inspite of her age, Madam was not bad looking. She sat down on a chair, threw a shawl round her neck and with a few strokes with a tooth brush dipped into some white liquid dyed her hair near the temples and on the forehead. She assumed a calm and happy expression, joined both hands in salutation and Madam was now transformed into an Indian grandma straight from the pages of the Ramayana. In the meantime, Sunil Dutt had sat in front of her with a book in his hand out of which he was supposed to read certain passages and paraphrase them for “mother” Chitnis.

After the scene was shot, Leela Chitnis was introduced to us. My friend Ajoda Singh who is a bit blunt in his manners complimented her on her performance in a film which he had seen in his school days. I thought that his reference might be to a very old film and his compliment was turning out to be a left-handed one. I therefore immediately intervened and told Madam that she was a very popular actress in Mauritius.

About Indian films she agreed that they were rarely good. As a matter of fact, she made it very plain that she prefers American films to Indian ones. Before Leela Chitnis made her exit, Vyjayanthimala dropped in from nowhere and flashed her radiant beauty upon us. It was time to leave, I thought. We bade Chopra goodbye and left Vyjayanthimala and Sunil Dutt to their ‘Sadhana’.

The direction of a film either in India or in Pakistan is not solely the business of the director, although it is his responsibility. Everybody present can make suggestions as to which pose or gesture has the most dramatic effect. I remember in Karachi at the Eastern Film Studio where I met Meena Shorey and Charly suggestions were made by so many people as to the best manner to have a phone conversation that finally it was left to Meena to decide.

5th Year No 184
Mauritius Times – Friday 14th February, 1958

* Published in print edition on 18 February 2022

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