David Abraham – Memories
The thought that I have been an actor in Indian films for nearly twenty years gives me the creeps – almost! My palm tenderly caresses my bald pate and my hair, whatever is left of it, and I become alive to the fact that I am getting old. To be frank, I have known it for quite some time and it hasn’t bothered me a bit. I am no Dorian Gray and they were twenty wonderful years that I have spent in the world of entertainment, in the world of grease paint and powder, in the world of illusion and make believe.
Let us look back over those years. Where should I begin? We will go back to 1930. It was some time in August of that year when a stocky young fellow stepped jauntily down the steps of the University of Bombay with an illuminated piece of parchment in his hand looking very happy and very proud. He had just been proclaimed a Bachelor of Arts of the University (a mere pass, but that didn’t matter).
The young man was full of ambition and hope. He had acquitted himself very creditably in the various activities of his college during the four years he was there and all his, professors and colleagues had predicted a bright future for him. The world was a ball at his feet! Little did he know what was in store for him.
Armed with his degree, he set forth in search of the job that was to launch him on the way to fame and fortune, only to find that nobody wanted him. It seemed there was no place for him and for many others like him, bursting with eagerness to work but unable to get an opportunity. The weary, heartbreaking search for employment went on for six long years right up to December 1936.
Our young hopeful, but no longer so confident, was getting properly stewed in the messpot of frustration, and had it not been for his love of histrionics he would have been a nervous wreck. The amateur stage afforded him occasional opportunities to give vent to his artistic impulse. One bright morning he made up his mind to take up a career which was dear to his heart.
He decided to become a professional actor in Indian films. From a close friend of his he secured an introduction to a producer- director and on the 15th of January, 1937, he was given his first letter of appointment to act in a picture in a character role. That young man was I—”David”. I expect you’ve heard the name. Nobody had at the time. The close friend who got me the chance was Mr. Nayampalli, a veteran character actor, and the producer-director who gave me my first chance was Mr. M. Bhavnani, late Chief Producer of the Films Division of the Government of India and now back in films again as an independent producer. My first picture was “Zambo”.
At the time I used to sport a carefully trimmed moustache a la Errol Flynn. But as the role I had to play was that of an old man with a grey moustache and beard, I reluctantly bid farewell to my Flynn line and turned up clean shaven at the studio to be made up as an elderly professor. After twenty years I am still clean shaven so far as my face is concerned and looking at my bank balance I discover that I am clean shaven financially as well—but that is another story.
Time marched on from 1937 to this day and in its course many things happened to me, some good, some not so good, but nothing ever affected in the slightest degree my attachment and my loyalty to my profession which I think is the most fascinating, exciting and delightful of all.
One of the best universities in the world is a film studio. It provides one with such an infinite variety of experience, so much food for thought, and such opportunity to study human character and behavior that as long as one is there one feels that every man one meets is one’s mentor and every woman a preceptor.
During my career as an actor the Indian film industry and the people connected with it have been forging ahead in steadily progressive growth which has won for both growing recognition at home as well as abroad.
Personally. nothing exciting has happened to me. I have always had a detached attitude towards the film industry, trying conscientiously to do only one thing and that is not to disappoint those who go to see me on the screen.
From 1937 to 1940 was the period I found most interesting, because it was, so to speak, my teething time. I was being groomed by a hard task-master, my first director Mr. Bhavnani, to be a film actor. One had always to be alert, absolutely on one’s toes, working with him. One could not afford to be caught napping. It was a period of wakefulness, a period of study and concentration, a period of little money and much work.
Towards the last quarter of 1939 and the beginning of 1940, I was assistant director, production manager, clapper boy, continuity clerk, telephone operator and actor, all rolled in one. It was hard work, but exciting. I was learning the several facets of film making on a single salary. There was the compensation, however, that in those days salaries were paid regularly and on the due date. They were good days, days of honesty and integrity in the Indian film industry.
Then came a day—it was the 1st of February, 1940—when I was told politely that my services were no longer required and I found myself on the road again. I was determined, however, to be a film actor. I found another movie company and accepted a lesser salary, which was better in a way because I was taken on as an actor and did not have to function in any other capacity.
This job did not last long either and after various attempts to find another assignment in films I was forced to resume my study of the law. I forgot to mention earlier that during my period of unemployment between 1930 and 1937 I had joined the Government Law School, as it was known then, as practically every unemployed graduate did—and still does. I had got through my first LL.B. examination and secured some exemptions in the final. I now appeared for the remaining papers in 1940 and got through—in the pass class, of course.
My name was now graced with the addition of a few letters of the alphabet—B.A., LL.B. They looked good on a visiting card. But they didn’t get me anywhere in the legal profession.
I fell back upon my screen career. The Indian film industry about this time was in a terrible mess. The second world war had crippled it together with the film industries of the rest of the world and now threatened it with paralysis. Raw stock was scarce and getting scarcer. The question uppermost in all our minds was—will the industry survive? Somehow or the other it did, and the show went on, but with it came a new breed of showmen.
A lot of black money started flowing into the industry and with it came many consequential evils. Freelancing began. Artists were in heavy demand and their prices went soaring up. Simultaneously motion picture standards went down and to this day they, have not come up again, not at any rate to the high water mark of our pictures in the early forties. The crop of pictures was bumper, but the theatres were few. Here, too, the prices went up, and on the final turn over the producer was at a loss.
The war ended but the evil remained. In 1947 India achieved her freedom to be governed by her own people but the Indian film industry lost a big market by the creation of Pakistan. One problem followed another and the film industry was able to survive only on oxygen. The crisis is not yet over.
During the twenty years a number of new studios came into existence and a number of old, ones closed down. It was the story of ring out the old and ring in the new. A number of film delegations went out of our country and a good many from other countries visited us. Good will missions they call them. There have been no concrete results as a result of the exchange of those delegations, but there is still room for hope.
Bombay is still the barometer of the Indian film industry, which, however, has been dominated by different territories in cycles. At one stage Maharashtra dominated the industry, then Bengal through the great New Theatres studio, which introduced the classic writers and the music of Bengal to the Indian public. Punjab with its rugged humor and rustic songs had a brief turn in the lead. Dalsukh Pancholi was responsible for this. With the partition of India, Punjab receded into the background, and today Madras holds sway with its great studios and magnificent mammoth Hindi productions. But Bombay remains the film capital of India with two-thirds of the country’s total output of films.
The industry has had a chequered career but the trend has been in the direction of improvement, hardly perceptible till recently but distinctly pronounced today with the move towards realism and the wide endeavor to produce pictures portraying the life and culture of our country rather than carbon copies of foreign films stimulated by audiences which are more discriminating than ever before.
I have rubbed shoulders with a galaxy of talent, both men and women. As colleagues and co-artists they have been wonderful. God bless them and may they thrive and strive to put India on the map of the film world.
When I think back upon my own career, I remember Cardinal Wolsey’s cry of anguish and could find occasion to echo it in my own words:
“Had I served myself as diligently as I have served the Indian film producers I wouldn’t have found myself broke in this my old age.”
Let me assure you, however, that despite the disillusionment and the disappointments, I still love my profession and believe with every actor, stage and screen, that “There is no business like show business.” (This interview was conducted in 1956).