Stars are born here

SHASHI BALIGA | Updated on June 09, 2011 Published on June 09, 2011

Where dream merchants dared: The historic Bombay Talkies, Mumbai's first corporate studio, struggles to get heritage status. - Photo: Paul Noronha

If it were a movie, I would have shot the dusty room in a sepia tone, with a shaft of sunlight hitting the Joker, sitting forlornly atop a pile of old trunks. For it was a scene out of the movies, in more ways than one.

There I was, standing, entranced, in the old Costumes and Props room of RK Studios, and arrayed around me was the fabric, the minutiae, the flotsam and jetsam of countless movie sets, neatly packed in compartments and boxes that had never perhaps been opened thereafter.

The Joker was a little luckier; he sat presiding over it all, his face frozen over the decades.

There were hundreds of memories to be reopened but the old-timer assigned to show me around the room had, perhaps, been through this too many times to be excited all over again. But he did show me Raj Kapoor's clown costume from Mera Naam Joker, the seductive gown Nadira wore in the song Mud mud ke na dekh from Shree 420, trunk-loads of costumes for the extras, and other bits and pieces of the great showman's films.

That room is just one of many such nostalgia-soaked spots in RK Studios, set in Mumbai's middle-class suburb of Chembur, where Raj Kapoor, lived, loved and made movies for a large part of his life. As a journalist, I've strolled through various other parts of the sprawling complex, interviewed stars, been part of the cinematic hustle and bustle, watched the rushes of Ajooba (it was a time when the industry was far less wary of the press) and been fed a hearty Punjabi lunch by Shashi Kapoor, who kept piling one missi roti after the other on my plate.

I never met Raj Kapoor (an abiding regret) but I've heard fascinating stories about him, been told of the many dalliances that flourished here, and walked down the staircase by which one nervous actress fled from her hero's makeup room, when his wife dropped in on a surprise visit.

And I remember thinking to myself: I've been privileged enough to be taken around this magical place, but why isn't it available to other movie buffs too? I asked the question of Raj Kapoor's son, Randhir, who shrugged politely and muttered something about thinking about it. Clearly, he was not too enthused about the idea.

Getting visitors to RK (as it is known in these parts and in the film industry) would surely be no problem. It is a local landmark that anyone will guide you to unerringly, and Chembur, by Mumbai standards, is not a very distant suburb. Or perhaps that was the problem? Perhaps they didn't want the hordes traipsing all over an operational studio? Perhaps the money thus earned would hardly compensate for the bother?

But is it just about the money? What about letting fans and movie buffs live the great film experience? Who can quantify the benefits, financial and otherwise, that the conducted tours of Los Angeles's Universal Studios translate into?

One studio that has seen the potential is a newer one — set designer Nitin Desai's massive ND Studios, some 90 km out of Mumbai. The sets of the period film Jodhaa Akbar stood there long after the movie released, as tourist buses lined up to see them.

Goregaon's sprawling Film City has become a tourist attraction of sorts, but only if you drive in on a private-conducted tour. You'd be lucky to even spot a star dashing from the set to the vanity van, and all film sets are naturally out of bounds to uninvited visitors. But tourists make do with driving past locations that they recognise, such as the temple with two facades or the inevitable courtroom; the helipad with its large clearing, which is often used for action sequences, the ‘jungle' that lines some of its slopes.

Both ND Studios and Film City have been able to take in a limited number of visitors because they are huge complexes. But smaller studios don't open their gates easily for a good reason: visitors can really be a nuisance on the sets, when a moment gone or a scene interrupted can be lost forever. While the older studios are trying to simply survive.

Our cinematic history deserves to be preserved and shared with the fans who feed the film industry's coffers. Yes, but who cares? Not the film industry, which is too busy counting its profits (or losses). Not the government, or the city that owes so much to the movie business and is, indeed, identified with it.

Why else would Mumbai's iconic Bombay Talkies, the city's first corporate studio, struggle to get heritage status? This is the studio founded by Devika Rani and Himanshu Rai in 1934, the studio that gave us movies such as Achut Kanya and Mahal, the studio where legendary names such as Madhubala, Dilip Kumar, Ashok Kumar, Dev Anand and Raj Kapoor learnt the ropes. At its peak, Bombay Talkies employed close to 5,000 people. It shut shop after about 20 years, after the passing away of Himanshu Rai. Where once carpenters built grandiose sets, tailors stitched glittering costumes and technicians shaped memorable films, sundry mechanics and carpenters ply their craft today.

Granted, precious little is left of it. Like some modern-day version of a crumbling Grecian ruin, a few columns stand, looking lost, forgotten and uncared for, in the dusty melee of Malad, a far-flung suburb favoured by TV stars and production houses today.

The Maharashtra government, busying itself building sealinks and flyovers, has little time for this bit of heritage. (Besides, there's little money to be made in heritage, while those mega-projects that run into thousands of crores offer, shall we say, more possibilities.) When so many of our early films have been lost forever, and our National Archives struggles to preserve those that are left, who cares about a few crumbling columns?

It is individuals such as film historian Amrit Gangar, who is pursuing the Bombay Talkies cause, and members of Mumbai's praiseworthy Heritage Committee who offer hope. Here's thanking them for their efforts.

Published on June 09, 2011
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