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Azurie – Interview

V. Shantaram is locked in one of his many serious conferences at Rajkamal Studios. The orders are: “Boss at work: no one to disturb.” The orders are carried out under the supervision of Shantaram’s son Kiran.

Somewhere in the middle of the conference two women, rather aged but full of life, enter the studios. They want to see Shantaram at any cost. One of them has come all the way from Pakistan.

People at the studio tell them it is just not possible. Kiran says the same thing. The woman from Pakistan gets a little impatient, looks agitated. She asks Kiran to tell his father that the woman who wants to meet him is called Azurie.

Somewhere in Kiran’s mind a bell rings. He has heard the name Azurie from his father. He sends word to him. The same Azurie means so much to Shantaram.

He is engulfed as it were by a flood of memories. He comes down, meets Azurie and for an hour or so it is a long walk down memory lane. So much has changed and there is so much to talk about.

Tears of Joy

A few days later, Azurie calls on Sulochana (Sr.) also known as Ruby Myers. One look at her and there are profuse tears of joy. It is a memorable meeting after more than twenty years. Azurie and Ruby Myers were stars in their own time, women whose beauty, talent and courage were talked about in the Forties.

Azurie also met a number of her old friends, “Friends whose friendship is for all time,” and everywhere there was a joy abounding. It was the same Azurie who, more than thirty years ago, had brought joy into hundreds of lives – on the screen and even outside it.

Before I go any further, I must tell you something about Azurie, the woman who has made a place of honor for herself. “People may forget me. For the present generation, the name Azurie may not mean anything but… I know and the people who know me and my work know what I am. It is a sorry thing to learn, now artistes, who have done so much for Indian cinema are left to suffer in silence. The Indian film industry should feel ashamed to let artistes like Sulochana and Cuckoo slowly wait to die,” a fiery Azurie says. She is seventy-two years old, they say, but has the body (“what a figure!” someone exclaimed) and the mind of a thirty-year-old (not more than forty, certainly).

Visit to India

Azurie is now in Pakistan where she had settled down soon after partition. She was in Bombay recently “to visit my relations and some good friends.” It was at her old house in Mahim, Bombay. She stood almost an hour and talked at breakneck speed with some very articulate gestures of her hands, eyes and body, relating the story of Azurie, the nimble-footed dancer, the woman who, in those dim and distance days brought respectability to dancing in films – and even outside films.

Annette (that was Azurie’s name before she was christened Azurie for films) was born into a family where films, Hindi films specially, was taboo. Her father was a strict disciplinarian, Surgeon General Gueizler. And her mother an orthodox Indian Brahmin. Till almost her fourteenth year, Annette know nothing about Hindi films. It was her Indian cook and driver who first drew her attention to the “Indian film” (words used with contempt among the higher class then and even now).

When Annette saw her first Indian film, she was stunned. She felt it was all like magic. Instantly she felt the urge to be a part of that magic. Many times after that first time, Annette slipped away from home at great risk to see the magic till one day she saw the shooting of a film in which she saw Sulochana (Ruby Meyers) for the first time. “Oh she was so beautiful! When she came down the steps. I almost lost my heartbeats. She was like an angel, a Goddess coming down from heaven. I stared at her for almost an hour,” Azurie still remembers the first time she saw Sulochana who was to be her “very good friend” later.

A Bit Role

The fourth time Annette went to see a shooting (her father still didn’t know anything) someone offered her a bit role in a film. “I still remember. I had to carry a pot and swing my hips for the scene. I did two or three scenes like that and soon I think they noticed my hips and my beautiful body. One day a film-maker asked me if I could dance and without thinking twice, I said ‘yes’. I started dancing and soon found out that I was born to dance. Everything came to me naturally, everything just flowed out of my body and the film-makers were very, very happy and I was happier than them,” she says.

Soon Annette became a known dancer – not only in films but also at private and some public functions. She remembers one particular performance. “I was dancing for a program organized by one Attiya Begum (“who encouraged me the most”). I went on dancing. I was possessed as if it were by the dance and I didn’t even see when my father walked in. Back home it was the most painful night for me. My dancing there before all the Sahibs was a big insult for him. He was livid with rage. He closed the door and whacked me till I had turned black and blue and even broke a bone. I still have that mark on my hand, the price I had to pay for my love for dancing.” Azurie says, going nostalgic.

Dancing Star

The broken bone and all the stringent measures taken against her failed to stop her from dancing. The “dancing devil” had possessed her and she was willing to do or die for dancing. Everything fell in place and in a short time Annette became the dancing rage. Dancing had become a part of her being. In films she was a star, the first dancing star. At a time when even acting was considered to be taboo, something closely connected with prostitution, Annette wore the most daring outfits and danced straight into the hearts of men — and women. Her body, her figure, became things that were discussed in every quarter, every circle. From Meerabai’s dances to the modern, the most exotic dances she was an adept in every form of dancing — “I just tried and everything came to me. It was God’s gift to me.”

Meanwhile “Annette” had become “Azurie” (a dazzling blue light) and from 1938 to 1948 it was Azurie and Azurie all the way. Everytime they wanted a good dance in a film they ran to Azurie. Among her films Azurie, even at seventy-two, remembers are “Mere Wattan,” “Jai Swadesh,” “Naya Sansar,” “Jhankar,” “Kaliyug,” “Nai Duniya,” “Return of Toofan,” “Sheikh Chilli,” “Yaad,” “Tasweer,” “Lakharani,” “Magic Lamp,” “Shah Jahan,” “Faisla” and “Hatim Tai.” These are the films she remembers. There are others like V. Shantaram’s “Chandarsena.”

Her drum dance in silhouette in the film is still remembered by those who have seen the film. Shantaram is said to have told someone “Give me a girl with a figure like Azurie’s and I’ll give you anything.” It was a real tribute from a master.

Among all the films Azurle specially remembers “Rattan” made by A. R. Kardar. Her song and dance with Krishna Kumar,”O~ Jaane Wale Balam Laut Ke Aa.” is still fresh, still played and still liked. She also talks of “Naya Sansar,” made by Bombay Talkies. In this film too, her song “Main Harijan KiChhori.” became very popular at a time when the Harijan problem was a burning issue — it still is.

Her dancing went on till partition. A little before partition, she fell in love with a Pakistani national, Mahmood, “a great man.” and then decided to leave for Karachi. Her going there left a vacuum in Hindi films but she lead blazed a trail, a trail which others like Cuckoo and later Helen and now a number of young girls are following. Azurie had started a new school of dancing.

Working In films, and especially as a dancer in all those daring dresses and with a beautiful young body, was a very difficult thing for a girl, especially a beautiful girl. “There were men who tried to take me for granted. They tried to play tricks with me but I always put them in their place. I distinctly remember how I slapped a big producer at the risk of losing a very important role. Then, again. I remember how I almost stabbed a very big actor whom I shall not name because he Is dead. A time came when men almost feared Azurie. I had to do these things to survive, to dance with respect more than to survive. I never surrendered myself-respect at any time,” Azurie says.

Even as she made a name as a dancer in films, Azurie did her best to propagate the art and culture of dancing. Every week she used to give lectures, demonstrations and discussions. From Bombay she and the troupe she had formed went all over the country and even abroad “to show them how much life there is in dance.”

Meeting Gandhi

Azurie remembers with pride the time she with Krishna Kumar (her disciple) danced in Buckingham Palace. She also remembers her meeting with Mahatma Gandhi. She says: “My song, “Main- Harijan Ki Chhori.” had become so popular that even Gandhiji liked it and he sent for me and asked me to join his ashram to work for the upliftment of the Harijans. I told him that I would like to work from outside and he agreed. My meeting with him was a memorable occasion. Even the Harijans of those times considered me to be one of them.”

Azurie also remembers the time she danced for “some English writer called Shah” (she meant George Bernard Shaw). He liked her dancing “immensely and the old man liked my figure more than anything.”

Azurie is also proud “with every reason to be proud” about helping people. She claims to have got the veteran Naushad his first break as an independent music director in A. Kardar’s “Nal Duniya.” She remembers: “Naushad was an expert in playing the harmonium. I found the fire In him and, when Kardar wanted me to choreograph a dance for his film, I told him I wanted some new music director. I suggested Naushad. He was tested. he passed the test and Naushad was made.” Azurie also made the dancing careers of Tony and Robert “whom I picked up from some orphanage and trained till they were perfect dancers.” Tony later became Krishna Kumar, a famous choreographer, and Robert became Surya Kumar, a choreographer who is still one of the best in Hindi films. “There are some who are grateful and who care at least to remember me and some are not but I am not worried. I have just done my duty. God knows it,” Azurie says.

In Pakistan too, Azurie is a known name now. She is still respected there — specially among the younger people “who find me as young and as full of life as they are.” But Azurie is very blunt, and asks me to quote her when she says: “Pakistanis make really bad films and I have told them that to their faces and some of them even agree with me but there are better, younger Film-makers coming.”

During her short stay In Bombay, Azurie saw some Hindi films. She liked the films, she liked Amitabh Bachchan and all the other heroes. “but your heroines are very bad. All of them look alike. Not one of them has anything fresh about them and there is nothing striking about them. They all look tired. You should have seen the heroines of our times. You should have seen Sulochana. I have still to come across any Indian heroine as beautiful as she was. And today she Is ill and dying and there is no one to care for her and so many other artistes of my time.”

Azurie again comes back to her earlier appeal: “It is high time you people did something for these old artistes who have given their best days, their best moments, their life for you, for entertainment.” there is pain in her voice.

She refuses to sit. It is almost an hour since she started talking.  Her one big ambition is to be active, to dance, to live with dance to the end of her life. “Dance is my life. It has given me everything. I have given everything that I have to it. Our relationship will never end. I’ll be a dancer in my next stage of life too. I hope God agrees.” she says and laughs.

God will agree, I feel, and leave. Her words still ring loud and clear in my ears. I still can’t believe she is seventy-two. She herself doesn’t behave but it is a fact — a beautiful fact of life. (This interview was conducted in 1980 by Ali Peter John. Thanks to Kaustubh Pingle and Surjit Singh for making this article available)