Sunday, April 18, 2010

Bollywood Backstage

This was published in today's Business Standard. The slightly longer version appears below.

The mirror betrays its age. Faint brown veins spider against the glass, lending one’s reflection a sinister appearance. The bulb-holders around the mirror are missing several bulbs, giving it a gap-toothed appearance. I imagine all bulbs in place, lighting up as the late Nargis preens at this mirror, pinning up her hair stylishly to one side, framing that sharp profile in readiness for her next scene. Down these corridors, with the unpleasantly green paint now peeling off in patches, down these worn stairs, the wood now concave where most feet have stepped, she would have gracefully gone, into the spotlight and into cinematic history.

Once the fiefdom of the man who gave India classic cinema like Andaz (1949), Aan (1951), and of course the internationally acclaimed Mother India (1957), Mehboob Studios is today a historic, verdant alcove eclipsed by the shops around it. Well actually, at 4 acres of prime property in Mumbai’s Bandra suburb, it’s a bit more than an alcove. And with the who’s who of Bollywood zipping up and down its bumpy driveway in their hot wheels, it’s the hub of much that’s going on in the Hindi film industry. As I enter, a silver Mercedes rolled in, which may or may not be carrying Aishwarya Rai-Bachchan behind its tinted glass.

With so much glamour breathing through its walls, I expect a building that lived up to the gloss of Bollywood. Something shiny and well maintained. But I am met with a solid, school-building-like structure, mundane windows stained with bird-droppings, a simple entrance, and a wood-paneled notice board (announcing, among other things, a salary hike back in 2008, for head carpenters to now receive Rs 902 as wages, up from the previous Rs 801) much like we had in college. The digital clock looks out of place above it, like the afterthought it probably is.

A huge hall, known as “stage” or “floor” by those in the trade, is bare save two large, ancient pedestal fans. One cools down a laborer, whose yellowing vest sticks to his skin as he takes a break from sorting the planks that will form a set for the next shoot. I park myself in front of the other as I look around. This one, stage no. 3, is the largest, at 122 by 115 feet, and a ceiling 55 feet off the ground. I crane my neck to peer to the top. Makeshift corridors fashioned from wooden planks form the grid from which lighting will be set up and adjusted. The language here is unique, I’ve heard. On an earlier visit, I was laughingly told by film-maker Anuradha Tandon, ‘You know, “Baby ka mundi kaatke upar latka de,” which suggests beheading a child and hanging it from the ceiling, actually means taking a small spotlight (baby), covering it up to minimize the light it throws, and suspending it from above!

Padmashree Mehboob Khan’s velvet-upholstered office too is untouched. The walls contain awards and commendations, including the Nomination Certificate for Mother India at the Oscars. A framed letter dated 30th October 1952, from Cecil B. deMille, President of the Paramount Pictures Corporation, compliments Khan on Aan and says it reveals the “tremendous potential of Indian motion pictures for securing world markets.” Prophetic words.

Up on the second floor of the office building, large offices contain the skeletal 18–20 staff members of the Studios. Cardboard file covers try their best to contain bulging sheafs of papers, with labels like “TDS Challans & Certificates”. Piled to the ceiling are bundles of scripts, posters, trade magazines and paperwork. Plastic cans teeter all the way to the top, each containing negatives for memorable names like Anmol Ghadi, Najma, Anokhi Ada and others. The can colors, once bright, are now fading, just like the studio itself. “Can you ever locate anything?” I ask, taken aback at the carelessness with which these are kept. Rajendra, the Bookings Manager, shrugs and says casually “Haan, mil jata hai.” He tentatively picks up a bundle of magazines, seemingly for the first time, and disinterestedly remarks, “These are all old trade magazines, you know, that keep coming.” Huge, handmade posters of the same movies lie folded in half, yellowing along the crease. What about Mumbai’s humidity and natural wear and tear for these papers? He shrugs again. Later, in the study of Iqbal Khan, Managing Director of Mehboob Studios and son of the late Mehboob Khan, I ask the same question and am shown a pink stationery file of clippings from UK newspapers of the 1950s reporting the release and success of Aan in London. “These are fine,” he insists, “and so are the others.” Unconvinced, I let it go.

Obviously, the past is on its own here. It is the present that matters. With 80 percent bookings, the studio is in demand, though it’s not all Bollywood. “Ads make up three-sevenths of our revenue,” cites Khan. And suddenly he turns the tables on me, asking, “What percentage is that?” Stumped, I grope in my head, dividing 3 by 7, that’s errr, ummm, “42 percent,” he says complacently. “In fact, the music recording studio is now just another stage, where we shoot commercials. We couldn’t afford to modernize the equipment; the Klang Bauer machine was outdated. So, rather than spending 5-8 crores upgrading our studio, we have just stopped music recordings here. Producers can rent the room for their ad-film shoots.” That hall where orchestras lovingly recorded memorable music, most often composed by the lively Laxmikant-Pyarelal, that would have India swaying on its feet is now the mute set for here-today-gone-tomorrow commercials.

But Iqbal Khan has had to be practical to keep the studio going. When his sons inherited the studio after Mehboob Khan’s death in 1964, they also inherited a 5-lakh mortgage on the property, a debt of 28 lakhs, and a court battle with their stepmother. Renting out studio space was the only option. In those days of desperation, truant producers who tried to get away without paying rent found that their film’s negatives were held ransom by Khan till they coughed up the money due to him. “My father built this up from nothing,” Khan confesses, “with Aan, he captured world attention. Though Awaaz and Paisa hi Paisa failed, he made up for it with Mother India but then he destroyed it all with Son of India.” Mehboob Khan had been a stubborn director and producer, and built Mehboob Studios in his own name to serve as the staging ground for his cinematic vision. His legacy survives, some of it half-built, including a brick structure he began constructing for a “must-have” helicopter shot. He died before that, and no one saw any point completing the building. Doesn’t Khan want to construct something else to utilize the space? “No,” the old gentleman responds firmly. “I don’t need the space, so why spend money on it?”

Asked about improvements and renovations, he is non-committal. I suspect there isn’t much on the cards unless it is deemed essential. And indeed, why should they bother? Mehboob Studios is doing fine. Though small-budget producers prefer low-cost shoots elsewhere and the Chopras and Johars wing away to foreign lands, a steady stream of producers films here. For the forthcoming Hrithik and Aishwarya-starrer Guzarish, producer Sanjay Leela Bhansali booked one floor for seven months straight. At rental rates of roughly Rs 65,000 per shift of nine hours, this was a welcome booking. Iqbal Khan invests in no marketing, promotion or publicity. He prefers to let word-of-mouth guide producers to his gates. A new source of revenue has emerged - renting out the studio as a venue for exhibitions and events. Iqbal Khan is pleased as it takes care of overheads worth nearly 5 lakhs per month. “We make profits,” he states modestly.

If the clients are happy, I can hardly complain. In its out-of-shape realness, Mehboob Studios carries on. The Bookings Manager is endlessly on the phone, talking business, as he shows me around. Perhaps these barely-maintained surroundings – masked, wrapped and decorated to create glitzy images that hold millions spellbound – actually help keep the stars grounded, right here on earth with the rest of us.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Reliving 20 months in 3 days

So I'm going back for a weekend. Will things look the same, I wonder?

So much has changed in Dubai. Someone else must be enjoying the view from our 31st-floor apartment. There must be new restaurants open on The JBR Walk, which we treated as our backyard. More routes will be operational on the Metro. The Burj Dubai we craned up at is now open, and called Burj Khalifa. The company I worked for has collapsed, gone the same way as many small companies in the recession-hit Emirate. The team has scattered.

Yet, some things will be the same. It will be soothing to rediscover that comfortable nook on Gauri's sofa, and to park ourselves on the carpet as we dig into tempting snacks placed on Aditi di's centre-table. Will Irish Village still have the smiling, plump waitress with the cute accent?Possibly the guy who weighed in my vegetables at Al Maya will still be there. Zarine, who blow-dried my hair on occasion and spent 2 years convincing me to cut my hair will still be there, saving up for her kids in Pakistan. Ita will still be working at Pelle Capelli, dreaming of her next trip home to Bali.

Strangely, while I am so sentimental about the past, it's mostly just a nostalgic sweetness rather than a yearning to go back. I am happy to keep it that way. So while Dubai was great, Bombay (part II) has been perfection too. And the last 6 months have flown. So much so that it feels too soon to revisit Dubai. But before my visa gets cancelled, I want to go, put my feet up with friends, laugh, stroll around familiar spaces, and maybe visit some new ones. More updates when I return.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Battle Scar

He's a sinewy, macho dude. V-shaped body. Heavy-duty sneakers. Gelled-back hair. A powerful neck emerges out of a form-hugging T-shirt. A gold chain nestles near the collar, revealing that his name starts with 'U'. Stands straight. Like he's always on stand-by to spring into action. Speaks little. Effortlessly lifts weights as he trains out-of-shape gym-goers to sculpt their muscles. Secretly smirks when I collapse under heavy weights.

He spoke about his recent accident. A long story involving him, a motorbike, and some sort of obstacle. The bike fell. So did he. He was hurt. But he made it.

In response to widened eyes and a little sympathy, he pulled his tight T-shirt sleeve over a bicep bulge to reveal his wound. There it was. All one square centimetre of it. Covered with a slim band-aid.