By: Ganesh Saili
There came a time when, no matter where one stood in the hill station, one would find folks imitating film director Honey Irani shooting Armaan with the Big B. Her command to the cast and crew had leaked and gone viral, echoing long after the shooting was over.
Elsewhere, Mohan, a waiter, flung an old moth-eaten carpet across the corridor, Ram Singh the bar-tender tried to grab the end, even as Chatter Singh Negi from the front desk joined the banter and barked: “Cut!’ As if on cue, a bewildered chuchundar (shrew), rudely disturbed, squeaked in protest and scurried down the porch, across the tennis court and on to Library Chowk before sneaking into a shop.
These shops have seen it all: they were there when our hills turned into bolt-holes for actors, past and present; they were there in the 1950s when actor Prem Nath, and his wife, the actress Bina Roy, bought Kailash Cottage on Oak Road, across the wall of Rama Devi Inter College facing the Doon Valley. It remained their get-away till the 1960s.
Getting away from it all, ten years later, up the Mullingar switchback with his wife, the brooding beauty Mona Singha or Kalpana Kartik sitting in a rickshaw, came Dev Anand, who walked alongside and settled into the Nurses’ Barracks in Sister Bazaar. They tucked their children: Sunil and Devina, into school, and remained regular fixtures at the Landour Community Centre up until the 1970s when the kids finished school.
Other schools saw Rajesh Khanna aka ‘Kaka’, arguably India’s first super star, arrive to do Ghar Ka Chirag at Allen Memorial School in the 1970s. Then in the 1980s, he returned to do Karm at Hampton Court, Convent of Jesus and Mary.
‘Off to the Nunnery!’ one could not say to the thespian Victor Banerjee, who arrived a few years later in the 1980s along with his pretty wife Maya, to star in Lekh Tandon’s biopic Dusri Dulhan alongside Sharmila Tagore and Shabana Azmi. I remember seeing the shoot as I walked past Elcot Lodge. The film elicited a tepid response, but the very next year he got a role in David Lean’s A Passage to India which catapulted him into the league of international film stars. They decided to drop anchor at the Parsonage, putting their little girls into school. To the Banerjees I owe a huge debt of gratitude for promoting me from a glorified film Gofer to a still-photographer when I was assigned to make pictures for Where No Journeys End, a film to showcase the many charms of the Indian Railways.
N.K. Sahni, retired in Happy Valley, recalls: ‘In the 1960s, the song Kisi ka kuchh kho gaya hai was shot outside Library’s Whispering Windows restaurant with Johnny Walker on a horse, and in which sultry Miss Shakuntala Gupta, a teacher in Mussoorie Girls School, had a walk-past role!’ Dulhan Ek Raat Ki was one of the first films shot in the hill station, based on the plot of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, with Nutan, Beena Rai and Asha Parekh.
Landour-born Tom Alter was schooled at Woodstock and worked as a teacher until the silver screen called to propel him into Indian cinema. Perhaps, in comparison, our latest entrants Vishal and Rekha Bhardwaj are only freshers, gingerly learning the ropes, as it were, from their perch above Mohalla Ruskin Bond.
Elsewhere, in another mohalla, a film producer went broke – happens to the best of us. Unable to pay the hotel bill, he agreed to leave the cans of exposed film with the hotel owner as collateral, which seemed like a fair deal at the time.
Twenty years later, I stumbled on the stacked cans, now covered in soot and dust, in a corner of the hotel’s pantry.
‘Cut the film up! Make bookmarks!’ I suggested, trying to be supportive: ‘Sell them alongside the ‘I love Mussoorie’ T-shirts at the Cambridge Book Depot!’
A stony silence ensued. My friend, the grumpy hotelier, was not amused. Little did he know that most films turn to rust. Only a lucky few become stardust.
Ganesh Saili born and home-grown in the hills belongs to those select few whose words are illustrated by their pictures. Author of two dozen books; some translated into twenty languages, his work has found recognition worldwide.