Cinematic genius

patriotic hero

That was in 1957. But with dogged determination, actor Manoj Kumar made his way up, getting his first commercial recognition in the average Vijay Bhatt success Hariyali Aur Rasta (1962), his first hit film in Raj Khosla’s Woh Kaun Thi? (1964) and his career breakthrough in Bhatt’s next, Himalay Ki God Mein (1965).

Trivia lovers would like to know the secret revealed by Raj Khosla — that Manoj wrote a major chunk of the dialogues and some key sequences in Woh Kaun Thi? when the director was not happy with his writer’s work and they were shooting on location. A year later, Manoj penned his dream subject, Shaheed, ghost-directing it for S Ram Sharma. When the film won a President’s Silver Medal, Manoj Kumar went to Delhi to receive the honour, and an impressed Lal Bahadur Shastri, then Prime Minister, asked him to make a film on his slogan ‘Jai Jawan Jai Kisan’.

“I wrote the entire script of that film, Upkar in the 24-hour journey back to Mumbai in the first-class compartment of my train,” smiles Manoj. And with these two films (Upkar was his official debut as director and his unofficial one as producer) Manoj acquired the tag of Mr Bharat, the prototype of the patriotic Indian. It was in Shor (1972), a moving story of a father and son that he made his debut as an editor. In Shirdi Ke Sai Baba (1977), which he wrote, presented, starred in and reportedly again ghost-directed, Manoj ventured into writing lyrics as well!

The multi-faceted legend now enjoys a life of ‘retirement’ in the Mumbai suburb of Juhu. He conducts our entire conversation in his bedroom, lying on a huge bed, using acupressure pads and infra-red radiation for his age-related physical ailments. Homeopathic textbooks and medicines can also be sighted, since Manoj is an expert homeopath as well.

We start off on what Manoj is doing now. “I’m taking it easy. The working atmosphere isn’t conducive, so I keep writing but I do not know whether anything will come out of that. I read a lot, I watch television. I tried doing television too, but while I am not enamoured by the private channels, I do not find Mandi House (the center of power for Doordarshan) a congenial alternative either. I remember going there first in the 80s with a very interesting concept and a paanwala outside Mandi House saw me and respectfully said, ‘Please don’t go inside. They will give you lot of respect but no work!’”

Manoj reveals that even his last film, Jai Hind (1999) in which he did not star — his son Kunal Goswami and Rishi Kapoor did — earned money for every distributor. “The film took six years to make because of various factors including an unprofessional heroine named Manisha Koirala and changes in my financial backers. The delay made its story on Kashmiri Pandits, a hot topic in 1993, lose relevance. Like Mani Ratnam’s Bombay would flop if it came today, right?”

The actor, panned for his Dilip Kumar-like acting, was always appreciated for his technical wizardry. Manoj smiles and shrugs when I mention this. “My very good friend Salim Khan (Salman’s father and one-time top writer who co-wrote Kranti) once asked me to guide his son Sohail Khan when he was starting out as a director. And I told him just one thing, ‘Direction is that jo paper pe nahin hai!’ I can never understand directors who say that they plan their shot divisions at home. I relish Mrinal Sen’s statement that a good director writes a film with his camera. You have to go beyond the script into another audiovisual dimension.”

An admirer of Raj Kapoor, V Shantaram, Satyajit Ray and Guru Dutt, Manoj admitted to the last-mentioned filmmaker’s influence on his song-conception and filming. “Guru Dutt’s influence on me was tremendous. A song had to be a scene from a film told differently.” He is modest about his terrific musical acumen but gives maximum credits to his music teams, especially Kalyanji-Anandji and Laxmikant-Pyarelal.

Explaining his success at multitasking in every department, he says, “First I consciously make my mind blank and forget my previous film, regardless of the success, awards or other appreciation it may have got. A story can strike you from anywhere and at any time. When I go on floors, the director says “Cut!” even for a brilliantly-written scene, if it is not necessary for the film. As film editor next, I tend to go into a panic, but then I ruthlessly edit in the interests of both the film and the audience, never caring for the efforts of the writer, director and actor and for the money spent by producer Manoj Kumar. Only the final product matters!”

The detachment, says Manoj, is vital. And finally, there is his chief sounding-board at every step — his wife Shashi Goswami — officially credited with the story idea of Purab Aur Pacchim and the production of Kalyug Aur Ramayan. Chuckles Manoj, “Oh, she can be very cruel in her opinions, but I realise that they make sense oftener than not!”

Does he watch films today? “I do, but very few touch the soul or have substance. There is no music either. There are good actors and some good directors though.” But isn’t it ironical that the golden age of Hindi cinema did not see global exposure the way Hindi films are getting now? “If we are speaking about marketing our films in an organised way, yes, you are right. But Hindi films always had a market with foreigners. Purab Aur Pacchim ran for three years in London. Raj Kapoor’s Sangam was a huge hit. And when I was in Paris I saw a poster of Rajendra Kumar and Vyjayanthimala in Suraj. When I enquired, they directed me to a theatre where the film was running, with a ‘Housefull’ board outside. This was in the mid 60s!”

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