Iftekhar – Memories
He was born in Jalandhar. They were a big family. He has three brothers and two sisters. They were very well off, because his father held a very high position there. Ifti has always been a very talented person, but he never dreamt that he would one day be an actor. He was a very good singer, at which he wanted to be famous and he has won innumerable medals for it. He is an excellent painter too.
Only a matriculate, his main aim in life was to become a great singer like Saigal. He sang in the same style and was very popular — he was a hero, and got a lot of adulation. (He was also a big flirt!) So when he wanted to go to Calcutta to make it as a singer, there was no objection from his family. His father even encouraged him to do so since being a singer in films was considered to be respectable.
So Ifti went to Calcutta, to the H.M.V. music company, was spotted by a producer, and signed for M.P. Productions. You see, the H.M.V. people asked him to sing which Ifti had no inhibitions about. They were impressed and so was producer Kamal Das Gupta who heard his voice and went up to investigate. Kamal wanted to sign him on for a film. Ifti was so ignorant then that he did not know anything about filmmaking. He thought he would have to sit for sometime and there would be a film ready! He did the screen test and walked out, but his passion for singing had not diminished. He was determined to make an album, a disc, and he did just that. He recorded his own album, and went back to Kanpur. The disc had only two songs, as in those days you could record only one song on one side of a disc. Though it did not do too well, fortunately, the screen test did. So Kamal Das Gupta sent Ifti telegram after telegram asking him to come to Calcutta and join films. Ifti was not at all interested, but his father saw one of the telegrams and was impressed. Kamal was a very big name in those days and obviously, his father urged him to go Calcutta. Though his relatives did not feel the same. They spoke depreciatingly saying, ‘Hah! Actor bana hai’! So Iffi started acting with famous actresses like Kanan Devi and Jamuna Devi.
The Bengali language was no problem since he had lots of Bengali friends and spoke it fluently. He also knew a lot of Bengali songs. Though M.P. Productions signed him on they did not start the film. They were waiting for other producers to follow and once he started shooting outside, things started rolling fast. The first time he came to Calcutta, we met briefly at a friend’s gathering. So when he came the second time, he started chasing me in earnest! We were staying in the same building and he tried to woo me but I did not give in. It was only later that I agreed. But there was a lot of opposition from my family since we were Jews and he was a Muslim. My parents were very orthodox and they were dead against the match. But we still got married. The funny thing now is, they like him even more than me. He’s their favorite!
Coming back to his career, the first film he did was Takrar. He was a sought after hero in Bengali films. After this, many films followed like Tum Aur Main, Ghar, Aisa Kyon, etc… These are the names I can recall though there were many more. His first film was in the year ’43. His career was going well when partition came about and there was total confusion. The M.P. company told him he was no longer in their service and things got very hard for us. We had to sell a lot of our things. That’s when we decided to come to Bombay.
We did not know anybody in Bombay. I even remember the small hotel we stayed at in Khar, called Evergreen. Though we were very hard up, Ifti knew music director Anil Biswas and it was he who helped us. Ifti would hang around at Bombay Talkies in the hope of getting a role. I remember he played a very old man, the heroine’s father, in a film. Imagine, a young man was reduced to this just because it was difficult to make ends meet.
At that time, Mr. Ashok Kumar was the big boss producer of Bombay Talkies. (Ifti has told this to me many times — his momentous meeting with Ashok Kumar.) At that time, Ashok Kumar was making the film Mahal. Ifti would hang around, trying to speak to him and probably ask for a role. But the opportunity never arose. Ashok Kumar had a suite of rooms upstairs, so he would come down in the morning and go directly to his room. Anup Kumar and Kishore Kumar would advise Ifti not to talk to him because his mood was not right. He had an office downstairs, but he rarely sat in the cabin and the adjacent cabin was that of the General Manager. Once, in Calcutta, Ifti had been introduced to Ashok Kumar. But then it could have slipped his mind. Anyway, one day, instead of going to his suite, Ashok Kumar sat speaking to the General Manager. That’s when Anup Kumar urged Ifti to send in a note. Ashok Kumar treated him with utmost respect and took Ifti to his cabin. He told Ifti that he had already cast for his film Mukaddar. He had taken on newcomer Sajjan, but he gave Ifti the second lead. Then he went to K. Asif who had been a childhood friend. And even he gave him the second lead.
In the mean time, I had two daughters, Saida and Salma. Soon after that, Ashok Kumar took a liking to Ifti. In the evening, he would tell Ifti very sternly, ‘Where are you going’? and when Ifti mentioned Khar, he would instruct him to get into the car. He would drop him since it was on his way home, and pick him up in the morning on his way to the studios.
Do you know how he came to be called Dada Moni? Ifti would always address him as Mr. Ganguly or Mr. Ashok Kumar, so Anup Kumar said, ‘You are so close to him, why don’t you too call him Dada Moni like we do’. Dada Moni in Bengali means ‘Bhai Jaan’ in our language. We were and still are, very close friends. Dada Moni learnt to paint and sketch from Ifti. Once, Dada Moni fell sick and he was very irritable since he was confined to bed for a long time. Dada Moni, being the busybody he is, felt very restricted. Ifti suggested that he pursue a hobby, and taught him how to paint. That’s how Dada Moni is such a good painter.
The doctors had also advised Dada Moni to have a little whisky in the evenings, before his dinner. He would feel very lonely sitting on the terrace all by himself. At that time lfti didn’t drink, but due to constant urging from Dada Moni, he started to join him in that one peg. Dada Moni did not have a good head for drinks. He could only handle two pegs the same as Ifti. He was the one who advised Ifti, ‘Never drink more than you can hold’. He taught Ifti control. He always told him, ‘Flirt all you want, but only uptil 6.30 in the evening. After that, the rest of the evening should be reserved for your wife. Never sacrifice your marriage’ That’s why our marriage has survived and thrived for 49 years, and thank God there have been ripples.
Kishore Kumar and his wife Ruma, were very friendly with us. In fact, we used to practically spend the whole day together. Kishore felt easier to talk and confess to Ifti, than to Dada Moni. It is not as if he did not care for his brother. Only because he respected him, he could not be too free with him. Since Ifti was of the same age, he felt easier with him.
At the time, Dada Moni worked a lot with B.R. Chopra. One day, Chopraji told Ifti, ‘Whenever I come to see Dada Moni you are always present. It is funny that I have not given you any role’. So B.R. Chopra offered Ifti a cameo role in Kanoon. There was a court scene in the film and Ifti was one of the many lawyers.
Ifti never had a particular role or goal in mind. He did all kinds of roles. Since he was not offered hero-oriented roles, he became a side hero and after that he was a villain in many films. In those days, it was only Pran, Madan Puri and lftekhar, who were good at villains’ roles. He played a Police Inspector in lttefaq and the film was a thumping success. After that, he got stuck with that role and did innumerable ones like Johnny Mera Naam, Deewar, Don and others. He was happy being a character artiste. He had done many films with Kishore Kumar and practically directed Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi, and enjoyed working in Delhi Ka Thug. He has hardly ever done comedy, a real pity, because he was so good in Dulhan Wohi Jo Piya Man Bhaye.
Very sweet and genuine, Ifti is a gem of a man. He has kept me and my children very happy. We had lot of fun in those days. Begum Para and Nasir Khan were our very close friends, we used to roam about a lot. We were close to Kishore. I remember once, Kishore, Madhubala and I were travelling by the car. Kishore never drinks, and an article about this had just appeared somewhere. I told Kishore casually that how news can be wrong and mentioned the article. I’d seen where they had referred to his drinking. We laughed it off. But once they went home, Madhu flew into a fit of rage saying, ‘So you drink secretly! You don’t tell anybody! Or else how did that article appear’? She tore off his shirt! Kishore later called up and told us about it. Madhu was a very warm and sweet person, except for her unreasonable jealousy.
Though not very fussy about his food, Ifti is very adamant that I cook it with my own hands. Even if I have 10 servants I like to cook for him or else I’m not happy. He doesn’t eat much, but whatever I cook he eats. Dada Moni likes to eat the paya I make. And Ifti loves the dal that Begum Para used to cook for Nasir Khan. He’s always told me ‘Woh Nasirwali dal banao’. He is very mild and sweet-tempered now, but he was very short-tempered before marriage. Since he was the first son of the family, he was more or less treated like a prince. He has related incidents to me, where he had thrown away his plate because the food arrived late. Unfortunately, none of my children or grandchildren were interested in films. At least one of my daughters could have joined. But it was not a fashion for girls in those days to join films like it is now.
My grandson is so handsome. How many producers literally begged him to join films but he refused. He is just not interested. The boys nowadays, do they look like heroes? My grandson looks like Adonis, girls used to just swarm around him. He got married just two months ago. Both Ifti and I felt rather sad that he was so much against films.
Now 72, Ifti has acted in about 450 films and is still going strong. He did not retire from films, the film industry retired him. There were so many younger people coming in, that they did not have anything for Ifti! I can’t exactly recall which is his last film. I only know that Kaarnama was one of his last films.
His list of films includes Gujarati, Bhojpuri and eight or nine English films. But one great regret Ifti has is that his best performance was in the film Five Past Five. The story was about the assassination of Gandhiji. There were only five characters in the film and Ifti played Gandhiji. But, the film was not released because the government felt that this film would make Godse look like a hero. They did not want that. Then there was a film by 20th Century Fox, The Far Pavilions, a film produced by Filmistan called The Three-Headed Cobra, and a lot of T.V. serials.
He has now completed nearly 50 years in the film industry and has no complaints against it. (As told to Jyoti Shashtri in 1992)