By: Ganesh Saili
‘He has a face only his mother would like!’ Auntie Maisie Gantzer used to say. Mercifully she never actually said that about me, but had she done so, she wouldn’t have been far wrong, That, anyway, is one of the reasons why I am tempted to begin this piece with a statutory disclaimer: ‘I have little to do with films!’
Landour and Mussoorie remind me of the two ends of a droopy moustache. Here in Landour, every other cottage has an actor, a filmmaker, or a publisher lurking around while Mussoorie gets its fair share of commerce from hoteliers, eateries and tourists. My plunge into these choppy waters began as a Gofer in the 1970s. Fancy as it sounds, I soon discovered that I ranked somewhere between an urchin and a waiter, to-go-for this or to-go-for that. In the 1970s, Raymond Louis-Steiner, an Australian chanced upon a children’s story in which the events take place in a single day. But things got delayed, as they often do with films and our hero’s mother, a school teacher who was picture perfect on Day One had, by the time she returned to the sets six months later, blossomed into imminent motherhood.
Catastrophe! A ‘double’ was needed.
Pretty, lissome Anita Sunderam, a final year student from a local school, filled the bill. Draped in a cotton saree in a ‘long shot’ against a Garhwali wood-and-slate-roofed house, she was an ideal double. Dawn found us hurtling down the road to Dhanolti on a bumpy mountain road, when suddenly a car’s tyre bounced ahead of us. Squealing to a halt, the car teetered precariously on the lip of a yawning precipice. Unbeknownst to me, our vintage taxi had been hired by the assistant producer from a friend of a friend, and the string that had kept it together had given way.
Flagging down a passing jeep we got to the location which was perfect. Perhaps too perfect for comfort!
‘Go away! Go away!’ yelled an old man waving his bent timru stick at us.
‘Arrey apka ghor mah ni jaan!’ (Not going into your house!) I mustered all my Garhwali-speaking skills to convince him we were a film crew and not an excise team raiding his hooch still. That and a few pieces of silver helped.
Sadly though, Big Business failed to make it. It stayed in the cans and never saw the inside of a theatre.
A few years down the road came actor Victor Banerjee with his wife Maya. To both of them I owe a huge debt of gratitude for promoting me from a Gofer to a still-photographer. I was put to work taking still photographs for Where No Journeys End, a documentary film showcasing India’s many charms for our Railways.
Out shooting one morning along the busy Grand Trunk Road outside Lucknow’s Rumi Darwaza, Victor said: ‘Stop the traffic Ganesh!’.
I was aghast and gulped at the sight of huge trucks zooming past. I had not the faintest clue as to what to do. Looking askance at me, Victor muttered: ‘I shall show you this only once!’ Arms outstretched, he stepped into the busy road and waved the traffic to a halt. Brakes squealed; wheels jammed; he got the shot he wanted. Lesson learnt.
That particular lesson, though, wasn’t much use when, feeling like an antique at seventy-one, I sat down with the affable owner of the Savoy, Kamal Kishore Kaya, to recharge my batteries in The Writers’ Bar.
‘Ganesh! Why don’t you record this hotel’s history on film?’ he said, adding: ‘All of us will be gone sooner or later and these stories will be lost forever!’
Funnelling Mussoorie’s history through the archway of the hotel, we filmed Saga of An Icon.
‘Saw that lousy promo!’ remarked an unimpressed Deepak Vaidya, a friend living in Happy Garden, Barlowganj. ‘You look like a fat duck waddling around! If I were you, I’d stick to writing!’
Despite his immense accounting skills, Deepak had got it wrong. The film was a success and won many awards.
Finding me grumpy about my less than stellar filmy days, Niharika, my grandchild sings: ‘Shine like a shooting star!’
Ganesh Saili born and home-grown in the hills belongs to those select few whose words are illustrated by their own pictures. Author of two dozen books, some translated into twenty languages, his work has found recognition world-wide.