Jayant – Memories
To understand my father, it is very important to know a bit about my grand dad who was a fascinating character. He was a very good looking Pathan who could even sell ice to an Eskimo. He was a very adventurous, intelligent and impressive person. But he was an absolute nomad. He could never be happy. With anything or with anyone for too long. This restlessness stayed with him throughout his life. That’s the reason he married four times. My dad was the youngest of the three sons, he sired with the youngest wife. Strangely, he was particularly attached to the children of his youngest wife. And my dad inherited a lot from him. Genetically too.
It was this basic restlessness which made him flit from one job to another. At one point in his life, he came all the way to Rajasthan and befriended the maharaja. The maharaja was simply won over by his charm and grand dad was employed as his personal sports coach. Once there, he trained the maharaja in many games — tennis, squash, cricket, etc. Once when he returned from a trip, with the maharaja he found his seven-year-old son selling bhutas at the street corner. My grand dad was totally flabbergasted at his young son’s enthusiasm to make a few extra pennies. But he swore that his son would make a living in the most dignified way possible. So he carted along his two sons (my dad and his elder brother), everywhere he went with the maharaja. My father was a huge, good-looking Pathan who appeared far beyond his years. He was selected to be the second lieutenant in the maharaja’s cavalry. My uncle joined as the deputy inspector of police. We were both very young then. It was here that my dad started cultivating an elite lifestyle. He learnt from the maharaja all about the best silks, perfumes, clothes, shoes, wining, dining etc. Royally really rubbed off on him. And he lived like that all his life.
After a couple of years, my father got fed up of regimented living. He wanted to change his career. Unfortunately, he wasn’t educated beyond the fourth standard, and so was quite unfit for any job. It was my grand dad who didn’t allow my dad and his brother to study. He believed that formal education in schools was a positive waste of time. One could learn much far better from travelling… life…people.
The only place that employed uneducated youngsters, was films. So dad and his brother who were seeking adventure anyway, caught the first available train and came to the Mecca of Indian films — Bombay. Here they discovered that Dadar housed all the major studios in Bombay. They started hanging around there and met quite a few movie greats. But nothing worked out. They then shifted their venue to Andheri.
At that time, something happened that worked favorably for my dad and all Hindi speaking entrants. Sound had just started and all the Anglo-Indians and Parsis who used to dominate the Hindi screen were slowly being edged out. Because of the language problem, none of them would speak Hindi without an accent. The quest was on for fresher faces who knew the Hindi language. It was at that time that my dad was spotted by the watchman who was also a fellow Pathan. He took pity on him and introduced him to the owner of the studio. My dad was only 18 then. The studio owner chatted up my dad just to please his old employee, and in the process, discovered that my dad could ride, fight, fence, and was avid at nearly all sports. He landed a small role in one of their films, and my uncle was employed as the assistant director. The banner was Prakash Pictures, the producers — Shankar and Vijay Bhatt. He was employed as a permanent actor with a stupendous salary of Rupees 30 a month! That required him to report every day at the studio, and being employed with them meant having to accept any role that they offered.
There was no such thing as a ‘particular image’ in those days. Madh was the first film in which he played lead and it did stupendously well as usual. Every film was successful in those days. My dad belonged to the dashing, flamboyant, larger-than-life category of actors who mostly did action oriented films. The films that he acted in had a lot of western influences because the period was the tail end of the British Raj. He acted in about 150 films and I can rattle off names like His Highness, State Express, Hero No.1, Paap Ki Duniya…
Talking of permissiveness being part of today’s setups, you’ve got to see films of dad’s era. There used to be passionate kissing scenes every two seconds. They were basically inspired by actors of the likes of Rudolph Valentino, Buster Keaton, etc. And there was perfect harmony in the co-existence of the two types of films being made those days. On the one side there were actors of the genre Chandra Mohan, K.L. Saigal, Shantaram, Sohrab Modi and others, who only did social themes. And on the other hand, there was my dad, fearless Nadia, John Cawas and others who did mainly action-oriented films. And there was never any signs of rivalry or superiority.
My father’s pride and self respect are legendary. It even cost him one of the most major roles of his life. That of Sohrab Modi’s Sikander. Sohrabji caught him smoking one day on the sets and reprimanded him saying that no one smoked on the sets of Minerva Movietone. My dad apologized and said that he’d only smoke in between the shots and that too outside the studio. Sohrabji insisted that he couldn’t smoke at all whilst doing his film. Dad replied specifically that it wasn’t possible. He’d rather not do the film than give up smoking. He walked out and that was how Prithviraj Kapoor finally did the role.
Grandmom in the meantime was very keen to see her son married. Since films as a profession was considered taboo in those days, she would go around making explanations and defending her sons promoting them as very decent boys to all the illustrious Pathan families. In doing so, she managed to wangle a very pretty girl from a decent family for my dad. I’d sound like a very pompous idiot if I said this, but it’s a fact that my dad’s reputation with ladies was quite contrary to what would have been expected of him. He was a ladies man alright, very well-mannered and respectful, but not promiscuous. Instead, he was highly principled. In fact, when he married my mother all his leading ladies were irate and they all trooped in to see what had finally made him succumb. There was also a particular instance of an actress sending goondas to beat up my dad only because he had scorned her attentions!
Dad was also the trendiest dresser among his contemporaries. Yusuf saab (Dilip Kumar) had told me on one occasion that they used to all await his appearance on the sets, or to any party, only to see what he had worn. His felt hats and pin-striped suits are now famous. I’ve never come across anybody in my entire life who’d run around looking for a suit to match a particular handkerchief. As kids, when we were taken to a party, dad would think it was totally disgraceful if one-of us loosened our ties to feel a little more comfortable.
Quite a lovely woman, my mother complimented my dad beautifully. Her name was Quamran Sultan. She was only 13 when she married dad. She was the perfect hostess, wife and mother if I may say so. Of course there were quarrels like in any other marriage, but they were nothing serious. They had an instinctive understanding of each other, which is a very rare quality. They both played their respective unspoken roles very harmoniously. He was the boss and the breadwinner and she was the caretaker. If she spoke sense he listened to her and if he spoke sense she listened as well — which was all the time. Because he always spoke sense. The first four years of their marriage must’ve been the only time there was trouble if there was any trouble. I mean, just before he got married, my father had one of the biggest shocks and heartbreaks of his life. I think it was New Year’s Eve. My uncle came over and asked dad for the car saying that he had promised to take his girlfriend out that evening. It was raining cats and dogs and my dad didn’t trust my uncle with the car and insisted that he’d drive him up to wherever he wanted to go that evening. My uncle wouldn’t see sense and started emotionally blackmailing my dad saying that just because he’d become a star he was acting pricey with his own brother. And that he’d write to their mother about the same. My father had no other option but to give him the keys of the car. A few hours later, he was informed, that there had been an accident and that his brother was killed instantaneously. They were extremely close and dad never really got over this, all his life.
He started drinking and soon it developed into a regular habit. And after his marriage he continued to do so, even when there was prohibition in Bombay. He was never one for breaking any kind of law, so he used to drive up all the way to Poona, drink there, drive back home at four in the morning and report for work at eight o’clock. I guess it was sheer loneliness that drove him to do that. In the meantime, my mother who was expecting her first child, Imtiaz, went to Peshawar for her delivery. My dad went to the station to fetch them back and was quite disappointed when he saw his lithe son who he thought was very ugly. Apparently it was dark and the trains in those days were not very well lit. Added to all that the baby was covered in dirt and soot from travelling so many days in the train. My dad was so put off that he didn’t even want to hold the child. My grandmom told my mother not to feel dejected, but to bathe the child and lay him on my dad’s cot the next day in broad daylight. My dad walked into his room, saw, and fell in love with his angelic looking son. From then on, started the domestication of Zecharian Khan (his real name). There were no trips to Poona each evening and no more hard drinking.
My father was the best father any child could have. He was very loving, understanding and generous. Both Imi and I loved him to distraction. I’d even take the liberty to say that he was the best friend any Son could have. He just loved being with us and giving us a good time. Would you believe it if I told you that he used to come to school and tell the principal that he had fixed an appointment with the dentist, and we’d be carted off most happily to a matinee show at the nearest theatre. This was one thing that really bugged my mother who insisted that this would interfere with our academic performance in school. In reply, my dad would say movies would enhance our knowledge. Like his father before him, dad also believed that a formal schooling would only tamper our education. On other days, if it was raining, or one of us had even the whisper of a cold, it was enough for us to stay at home or come back early from school. We’d immediately change and rush to dad’s room which was like a haven to us. Dad’s room was very special. It had all the love, warmth, security and fun for us. Given a choice we preferred to be with dad rather than out playing with the boys or go out on our own.
I learnt everything about life, women, etc., from dad — in the right perspective of course. And it has stayed with me throughout my years. It was my father who inculcated a deep respect for women in my life. He considered treating any woman shabbily as criminal. I’ve thought over it, many times, but I’ve never come up with any fault in him as a human being. He was the most compassionate and generous of men and a sucker for any sob story. We used to formerly live in a huge rambling house in Bandra and you can check on the fact, that at any given time there used to be at least 35 strugglers staying in one section of the home. Free of any rent. He used to even give money generously to anyone who needed it.
Even when he was not employed for a whole seven years, our house was still open to anyone and everyone who needed shelter and a hot meal. After ’47 there was a massive anti-Muslim wave and he didn’t get any offers. During that time he never once left the house to approach anyone for work. Nor did he sit and brood over the grim future. He used to rise early, put on a huge Hawaiiqn shirt and carve, paint, polish and generally make himself useful around the house. Everything of value was pawned, including all of my mother’s jewellery. I remember the last thing to go was a solid gold cigarette case which was his prized possession. Every morning, the Marwari who the articles were pawned to, used to drive by just to ensure that we hadn’t run out on him!
Ultimately the sun shone through this dark, despairing gloom in the form of Mr. P.N. Arora who called up and offered dad a film. He was a friend of my father’s. When P.N. Arora invited him to his home for the film, my father declined and said that if he was interested in employing him, he should come to his house with the film offer. You know what he told him, ‘Raasi jal gaya magar bal nahin gaya’. The rope has burnt but it hasn’t lost its twist. P.N. Arora laughed and there was no looking back after that.
He was a strange paradox of pride and humility. But his pride was never mistaken for arrogance. He was humble enough to use a sleeping bag to rest in, when there was a shortage of makeup-rooms whilst shooting outdoors. He also had a rare insight into people and situations. He predicted a bright future for me, but not so in the case of my brother lmtiaz. But he always told me, ‘although you will be a big star someday, I won’t be around to live off your earnings. But you guys will always be known as Jayant’s sons!’ I remember an instance when fed up of not getting any acting roles, I was all set to join ‘Esso’ as a young executive much against my wishes. On the first day of my job, my dad tore my appointment letter saying laughingly that I looked like a lamb about to go to slaughter. And that was the end of my job.
The countdown was 1971. His voice started giving away. After a series of tests and biopsies it was diagnosed that he had cancer of the throat. What followed was a nightmarish four years, till the end finally came in 75. I don’t want to go into all the details, but it will suffice to say that something died within me with the death of both my parents. My mother followed soon after, three years later. You see she had totally lost all her will to live. For a year-and half she lived in the hospital with my dad, not coming home even for a day’s rest. She used to say quietly ‘this is my home.’ When she died, I felt like an orphan, although I was married and had children myself.
Today I run a household, so many people are dependent on me financially, physically and emotionally. But who do I depend on? I feel so lonely at times, because the two people whom I depended on entirely, are not there anymore. Before my time is up, if I would be even one per cent of what my father was as a human being and as a father, I would consider my life a noble one. (As told to Moni M. Singh in 1991).