Sapru – Memories
Dad was born in Jammu on March 16, 1916, into a very big family which comprised of four brothers and two sisters. Dad was the fourth child. Today, only his younger brother and sister are alive. Daddy’s death was the first among all the siblings. His full name is Daya Kishan Sapru, but he became famous only with Sapru.
Dad’s father worked as a treasurer with the Dogra kingdom, under Maharaja Hari Singh. He is Karon Singh’s father. As a result, the family had two homes — one in Jammu and the other in Lahore. Which was why they had to shuttle between the two homes every six months.
As daddy grew up he went to a school where Urdu and Hindi were taught more than English. Since he wanted to learn English, he would tryand learn the language on his own. He bought books and papers to help him. He also bought himself a huge dictionary to educate himself — self-education. He was very good in Urdu.
From a very young age, daddy was fond of music. Whenever I meet some of dad’s old friends, they tell me how dad used to spend his evenings with them. Almost every day they would have gatherings or get-togethers at each others’ homes. Dad used to be the centre of attraction right through the evening. He would sing songs, most of them being his own compositions. Right from his childhood, he was a very artistic and creative person.
Whenever my grandparents would discuss my dad with me, they would always tell me that dad was a very quiet child. He barely spoke much, as he was always immersed in his books or busy with himself. Even when food was served, dad was the only child who had to be called to eat. The other kids would rush for dinner. Dad was too involved with what he was doing. That used to irritate my grandparents, but still, he was their favorite child. He was very obedient and his mother doted on him.
As dad grew up in Lahore, he took up a job as a contractor. He lived in Jullunder Cantt, for two or three years. Later on some of his colleagues and friends suggested that he join films, as he was quite a handsome man — actually he was really good looking. Dad thought about it before he took a decision to come to Poona. He never told his fattier that he was going to join films.
He came to Poona where he met V. Shantaram, Sheikh Fatehlal and Baburao Patil. They were like the owners of Prabhat Studios, as they were the three partners of the studios. Then, the studio was a very big name. At the time when dad joined them, actors were paid a monthly salary. His first role was a character called Peshwa in Prabhat’s Ram Shastri. It was a big hit when released and dad was noticed. People remarked, ‘What a handsome man’!
As a result, the three partners took daddy on for a very long term, which was when he was introduced as a hero. At the time Vikram Bedekar made dad’s first film as a hero — Lakharani. It co-starred Monica Desai. This was somewhere around 1945-46. And going by those day’s pay scales, dad was the highest paid artiste at Prabhat Studios. I think it was two-and-a-half or three thousand rupees.
Dad had four very good friends —Dev Anand, Guru Dutt, Rehman uncle and Ram Singh uncle. Now only Dev saab is alive. Together they were known as the ‘paanch Pandavs’. There used to be this huge tree under which these four friends used to sit together and chat. Later on, when Prabhat Studios became the Poona Film Institute, the students would call that tree the Wisdom Tree, with reference to the ‘paanch Pandavs’. They were really great friends.
Can you believe it that Dev Anand has worked opposite my mother? They worked together as a hero and heroine in Mohan. This was a social drama made in 1947.
When dad was making his presence felt in a couple of films, there was another big star Chandramohanji in Bombay. Unfortunately, he died when he was very young. People began to notice my father and found a lot of similarities between Chandramohanji and dad. Both were Kashmiri pundits and had light, expressive eyes. After Chandramohan passed away, several offers came to dad. At the time, K. Asif, was making Mughal-e-Azam and was looking out for Prince Salim. Nargisji was playing Anarkali opposite dad and Veena was playing the other role. The film was barely half complete when the financier died and Chandramohan who was playing Akbar, also passed away. So the film fizzled out. Of course K. Asif made the film again with Dilip Kumar and Madhubala. Dad instead did Samrat Ashok with K.B. Lal, opposite Veena and Husn Banoo. After that dad did a lot of films as a hero.
When I was born, dad was living at Parel near Hindmata Cinema. All the prominent studios were situated around Parel. Since he was getting a lot of offers in Bombay, dad decided to settle down here. He felt there was more scope here in Bombay than in Poona. Besides the three partners of Prabhat had split. Sheikh Fatehlal was the closest to dad. Every-time he came down to Bombay, I remember, he used to stay with dad. He was like dad’s guru.
Later, dad shifted to Bandra. It was a reunion of sorts. Dad and Jeevan uncle met after years. Jeevan uncle is my grandfathers only sister’s son. Since blood is thicker than water, they decided to build their homes next to each other. At the time both were doing very well, dad as a hero and Jeevan uncle as a villain. They used to stand together and watch their bungalows being constructed. They supervised everything being done.
Unfortunately, we had to sell off our bungalow because dad made one wrong movie. You see, he had made two movies, one worked and the other did not. The first one, though it was a hit, we only earned a few thousands. That was called Patitpavan where dad played the title role opposite the Marathi actress, Sulochana. My mother Hemavati also played a parallel role in the same film.
After marriage, my mother worked in only one film, Patitpavan .Before marriage, she worked in only six films — Sangam with Ashok Kumar and Nalini Jaywant, Mohan with Dev Anand, Jail Yatra with Raj Kapoor and Ghar Ghar Ki Kahani with Mubarak and Renuka. Besides that my mother was a Prithvi Theatre artiste. She and Raj Kapoor uncle were a popular pair on stage. They made the famous play ‘Deewar’ where they played servants, Ramu and Lakshmi.
When dad and the family shifted into his new bungalow, he was getting few films. Once you get into producing films, you tend to get less work from other producers. They feel that if a person’s producing their own movies, then they would be too involved with their own projects. Anyhow dad was doing quite well. (It was around then that dad got his first film as a villain.)
Coming back to dad’s home productions, the second film was Bahadur Shah Zafar where dad played the title role. There was Sudesh Kumar, Shyama, Rehman uncle, Chand Usmani, Jeevan uncle, Ulhas uncle and Nirupa Roy played the lead opposite dad. In those days, it was considered a big star cast. Half way through, I remember something went wrong. Some of the people around him advised him to mortgage his bungalow to finance the film — to invest in the movie. They told him that when the movie get completed it would be bought by distributors. Gullible, dad believed every word that they told him. My mom was too immersed in her own work. She had a ballet troupe with P.L. Raj and Gopi Krishna. They used to perform live shows before the President, Indian and foreign dignitaries. So she could not advise dad. If I was old enough, maybe I would have. When dad finally completed the movie, he did not sell the movie, because the proposals weren’t right. As a result, he went on repaying the mortgage interest for two-and-a-half-years. I could see my father going through hell. That movie took everything of his.
Our family life began to suffer. You see, we were used to a very lavish life. And our family was very huge with my father being the pillar. He looked after all his brothers and sisters, and their families. Not only that, he looked after my mother’s relatives too. Our house was always full of guests, relatives and strugglers, eating away to glory. Being the eldest, I was around 12 years old when dad was forced to sell off the bungalow to repay his debts.
Just before he did that he packed me off to my buaji — dad’s sister, because he knew I was too attached to the house. He knew that it would break my heart to see it being sold. I was in Lucknow when the house was sold. The education that I received there helped me a lot in my writing, because of the language and culture. Nobody used to believe that I was Sapru’s daughter. They thought I was a boy because I had short hair and I used to wear jeans. I was a real tomboy.
I even played a boy in two films as a child star. In Naagchampa I played the young Manhar Desai. Dad and Lalita Pawarji played my parents. As a remuneration I used to get a lot of Coca-colas. I did that film because Vinod and Chandrakant Desai, dad’s good friends, could not get Daisy Irani’s dates. So they asked dad who readily agreed. While I was shooting for this film, Prakash Mehra and Vijay Kaul were his assistants. Then again I worked with dad in Patitpavan where I played his youngest son.
Till daddy expired he worked in over 350 films and around 50 where he played a leading man. His first film as the main villain was Durgesh Nandini. It was also his first colour film. Dad co-starred with Pradeep Kumar, Bina Rai, Ajit and Nalini Jaywant. I have the print of this film with me. At that time it was a very big star cast. I don’t know whether it did well or not, but it was a very expensive and well made historical film.
Dad did quite a few mythological films too. He played Lord Shiva in Ganga Maiya opposite Asha Mathur (who is now Mrs. Mohan Sehgal), and Sumitra Devi. Dad also worked in social and fantasy films. He even worked in a Gujarati film with Bipin Gajjar, Satyavan Savitri, where he played Yamraj. I still remember how he used to practice his dialogues. He also worked in about five to six Punjabi films. But being a Hindi film actor, he could not concentrate much on regional films. His friend and noted director, Vasantrao Painter, wanted him to work in Marathi films, but he could not find the time.
One thing about daddy, is that he never had any vices whatsoever. He wasn’t fond of drinking but he liked smoking. When we shifted to our house off Juhu Tara Road, next door to Kishore Kumar’s, we had some of the neighbours coming over every afternoon to play cards for three to four hours. He never ever went to the races. But whenever dad had a drink, his eyes would start twinkling and he would get into a naughty mood.
Dad married in 1948. He was already a star then. Every girl in town wanted to get married to my father. He was so handsome and had a beautiful complexion. Many star wives used to tell me how they used to watch him from behind the curtains. Mom too was very popular because of her assignments with Prithvi Theatre and also as a heroine. She was really bankers about dad. And she was the luckiest woman on earth because she was the only woman he ever loved. Dad was a romantic, but he was more down-to-earth by nature. He thought my mother was the last woman on earth. If I’m not mistaken. I think they met at somebody’s house.
Irecall how daddy used to cash in on his eyes when he switched to playing the villain. Guru Duttji did not give him any dialogues in Sahib Bibi Aur Gulam where he played the villain. Dad had very expressive eyes. At this point, I must inform you that dad was the only one among his brothers and sisters, who had light eyes. When the movie went for the Berlin festival, foreign delegates asked who was the man who played the villain. Because of his personality, people talked about thim.
At the time Mr. Kamal Amrohi was planning to make Pakeezah. An actor called Kumar was supposed to play the villain, but he left for Pakistan. So my father who was playing Ashok Kumars role, was signed to play Kumar’s role. And Raaj Kumar was signed to play Ashok Kumar’s role. Pakeezah took seven or eight years in the making.
Believe it or not, but dad had done one of his first films opposite Nargis in their home production titled Romeo and Juliet. This was in 1948. It was directed by Nargis’ brother Akhtar Hussein. Actually Nargis’ mother, Jaddanbai, produced the film. She always loved my father very much and praised him to the skies. That’s why she took him. Recently Nayyar saab told me to see this film.
Another point you would probably not believe is that dad never ever played a poor man. There was only one exception. He did Vijay Anand’s home production with Dev Anand and Hema Malini. I think it was Johnny Mera Naam. In all dad’s films, he has either played a prince, a king, a thakur, a zamindar, or a police commissioner. Dad had royal looks, That is why, in Krodhi he played a pujari and in Kudrat he played a nawab.
Dad did have hobbies too. He loved to write thoughts. He would also write his scripts and often had story sessions with his friends like Omar Khayyam, Vijay Kaul, Jaan Nisar Akhtar, Javed Akhtar’s father. Every evening they’d gather together and discuss scripts. I used to watch all this. That is how I got influenced.
Not only that, dad had a very good voice. Every morning he would get up at five and start singing. All the neighbours used to know when dad awoke. You could set your clocks by dad’s timing. It was an everyday ritual, Dad used to play his harmonium and sing. That not only disturbed us but also the neighbours. One day he tried to wake us up to sing. But after a couple of days, we refused to get up. Dad used to play the tabla, tanpura and harmonium very well.
When dad and Jeevan uncle (his real name is Omkarnath Dhar ) got into films, they were looked down upon. That’s because dad’s father worked with the Maharaja of the Dogra kingdom and Jeevan uncle’s father was the first Vazir of Kashmir. When dad was born, Queen Victoria who had visited India, presented a gold coin to my father. That record is still there. As I was saying earlier, people considered films a bad profession. So they made a big cry over dad and Jeevan uncle’s decision to join the line. ‘Hamari naak katengi’, they felt.
Later, dad began buying medical books and became a homeopathic doctor. He used to make medicines and treat us when any one of us fell ill. Though it would take long, he knew it was better. Dad used to treat a number of people free of charge and I used to be his delivery boy. I still have all his files. He educated himself like Ashok Kumarji.
Until the day my daddy died, he’d always talk to mom about the past. Before he died, he tried to make a movie which nearly worked out with Mr. P.L. Seth of Seth studios. Having been a family friend, he allowed me to do the script for Jeevan Chalne Ka Naam whith dad was supposed to do. We signed on Sanjeev Kumar, Rekha, Shashi Kapoorji and Preeti. But the plan went haywire because dad fell ill. He was hospitalized for around 11 months. Though he was diabetic, the doctors did not know what was wrong with him.
One day, the doctors discovered a tiny speck on his shoulder which they pointed out to be cancer. Although the doctors removed it and said that daddy was out of danger, the shock of having cancer, took its toll on him. He began to get weak and finally died of a heart attack. You see he thought he was too serious to be cured. Dad passed away in 1979 at the age of 61. But before that he saw the birth of my son. He’s been dead for 13 years now, but we feel as if he died only yesterday because we still continue to talk about him daily. (As told to Keith D. by Sapru’s eldest daughter Reema Rakeshnath in 1994)