Text | Aasim Akhtar

Visuals | Accessed Online

Issue 55

As tempting as it is to saddle Muzaffar Ali with the title“versatile”, the truth is that the veteran filmmaker, actor, painter, designer and organizer cannot be so easily defined. For starters there’s his brave choice of subjects – in films like Aagaman, Gaman, Anjuman – all of which explore the darker side of human emotions, relationships, experiences, and impulses. He admits, “I don’t want style to dominate my subjects.” Rather than finding himself pigeonholed as a filmmaker, Ali has managed to parlay his talent into something far more varied requiring a kind of ambiguous innocence, all the while making the treacherous leap from a sophisticated debonair from Lucknow to a latter-day Sufi dervish. With his narrow Renaissance face and aquiline nose, he has charming good looks and swells of tempestuous talent. He suggests a more languid version of a prince though I could see him playing St Francis of Assisi. With his dimpled smile, flaxen hair, and unstudied ease, it’s little wonder that the brooding character actor is locked in an old-time matinee idol’s body.

Muzaffar Ali was born in 1944 in Lucknow, and went to study at La Martiniere in Lucknow and to Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) before embarking on a career in advertising in Calcutta. He turned to documentary and feature filmmaking, and acted in the series Jaan-e-Alam on television. Since then, he’s organised Jahan-e-Khusrau – an annual event held in New Delhi to celebrate Sufi tradition of music and poetry – and Jashn-e-Rekhta – to celebrate the role and contribution of Urdu language in the subcontinent. 

Baroodkhana, Taxali Gate, Lahore:

MA: There are two kinds of childhood – one that is lived and experienced; the other that is reminisced or imagined. To blend the two and put them into a context truly defines the spirit of most of my artwork. My childhood has been really important in placing the human predicament in a larger socio-cultural context vis-à-vis the work I’ve done. That is what makes it so significant; otherwise everybody has a childhood full of stories, pranks and little parables one indulges in. Take, for example, Umrao Jan Ada. When I read the book, and later on listened to it and recorded it, I felt it had all those ingredients that I had witnessed as a child and taken pleasure in. Every era reflects on its past. There is certain purity in childhood.

When I was a child, the feudal order in Awadh was coming to an end, and the pain and agony of it was palpable in every relation and aspect of life. The Partition in 1947was another major episode that occurred around the same time. People from Lucknow and the neighboring states were migrating. (I was an impulsive painter as a child, and used to enjoy all other finer aspects of art such as film, music and poetry. Add to that the humor and wit of those times which still exist today in some one way or the other). The relevance of putting that pain in a larger context became more acute with the passage of time.

When democracy begins to evolve in a society, you become rootless if you overlook certain periods in history in your subconscious mind. I think it’s very important for people to understand what has been their role in shaping a healthy democracy, i.e., if positive change is required in the society. Otherwise what happens is that in electoral politics, like those in India, a lot of corruption, communalism, caste system set in. What I had always taken pride in was the composite culture of Awadh which is lost now. Even the role of Muslims has been somehow negated – their role in 1857 or in the construction of India. These facts had to be put into a context very gently, and, to a very large extent, my father had been responsible for creating this understanding in me.

My father was a progressive man with a sharp sense of history. He was the Raja of Kotwara and a Taluqdar. As a young man he went to Edinburgh, Scotland, to study, and joined the Congress Party there. Upon his return, he fought the first elections in 1936, and started the Indian Humanist Union. He also became member of the UP Assembly, and later on, joined independent politics. Today, when I look at his collection of cuttings from 1915 onwards, I am surprised to discover that he had been writing comments on anything that had to do with the evolution of the human mind. On the other hand, my mother was a deeply humane person. She was much interested in craft and music that made her connect with local women, leading her to find employment and livelihood for them. The feminine softness in my work, and the comfort that women share with each other in decorating homes, I probably inherited from her. Somewhere, in almost all my films, it appears that the atmosphere has been created by a woman. The films are masculine in terms of the larger picture Aasim Akhtar: Umrao Jan is said to be your magnum opus – a paean to your native Faizabad, Lucknow. Set against the backdrop of 1875, why do you think it’s a significant film? 

MA: I think creative work, be it any, is an attempt to relive the past and create a future. For that matter, Umrao Jan is not a retro film – it looks ahead in terms of sensitising people. Sensitivity is the best way of looking ahead. Your mind is shut if you have no sense of wonder and vulnerability. And you don’t have to be extremely loud; you just need to keep certain apertures open. There could be a subliminal approach to let people feel what you want them to feel without being preachy. 

Umrao Jan Ada, the novel, is episodic. It has brief anecdotes in it that have no link with each other. Poetry also appears and disappears, and there is no connecting thread. The novel is more connected to the episodes than to her life. 

Shehryar who is an intellectual, had taught the novel at Aligarh University. I told him that we needed to create a graph of Umrao Jan’s life – right from what we thought to be the optimism of a youthful girl, to getting romantic and acceptable in society, to the blossoming of romance, to disillusionment and frustration, to finally coming to terms with her life. From that point of view, I selected some mukhras from Shehryar’s own writings such as Yeh kya jageh hai dosto, yeh kaun sa dayar hai, and thought these lines should mark the end of her journey. Together with Khayyam, the composer, we spent a year working on that graph. It turned out to have a huge nostalgic throwback despite the fact that Khayyam was from Punjab who didn’t know the culture of Awadh. The sound of sarangi coupled with alaap had a certain urge to it that eventually became the film’s hallmark. 

Aasim Akhtar: You often talk about the idea of ‘rootedness’. Can Aagaman (The Return) be read as an illustration of that? 

MA: Aagaman takes us into the heart of Awadh to Kotwara. It deals with a problem that became larger than life in the 1930s – the Sugarcane Cooperative Movement in UP. It was part of colonial expansionism; the British made the mills and exported them to India where land and labor were cheap, and made the business community own those mills that changed the entire lifestyle of the farmers. They who had never seen sugarcane were now planting it. In my opinion, sugarcane is a cruel crop that became a political crop. On top of it, there was a sugar lobby. In the film, the mill owner controls governance and decides how the first elections will be fought to suppress the Movement in that area. The man who began the Movement is arrested. Here I used Faiz’s poem, Nisaar mein teri galiyon pe. Afterwards, when he struggles, I used Toot giren gi zanjeerain; when they fight the elections in 1952, I used Yeh daagh daagh ujala, yeh shab guzeeda seher; and when the mill is made, I used Junoon ki aag manao. It felt that Faiz had this movement before his eyes when he wrote those verses. The protagonist in the film is a young man studying in Lucknow who returns to the village and takes up the movement. The musical score was composed and sung by Ustad Ghulam Mustafa Khan. 

Aasim Akhtar: Would you subscribe to the notion that Aagaman, Gaman and Anjuman – all three – are politically-inclined films that also shed light on the plight of the Muslims in India?

MA: I studied at Aligarh, and while studying there, got interested in poetry. Aligarh had a unique atmosphere in entire India. It’s rare to find that kind of an environment in the subcontinent today. On top of it Aligarh was the cradle of Muslim culture in India. It made a huge contribution to the spheres of science and literature. The poetry born there had a peculiar temperament and a peculiar thought. (Poetry born in Pakistan had a different mood while in India, poetry had very different concerns. The environment almost always affects and leaves a mark on art). Jan Nisar Akhtar, Rahi, etc., were all there. Around the same time, I came to know Shehryar. Then I left for Calcutta and started working for Satyajit Ray at Clarion Advertising that later on became Clarion McCann. I realized then that films have a great connection with the cultural milieu. In Bollywood, the Urdu poet was making a different type of contribution. Actually, he gave it a hybrid form that had no defined moorings. On the contrary, Urdu writers did wonders with the medium in terms of story writing and dialogues. 

I realized there was a lot of anguish and pain among the people of Awadh that needed to be shared. I felt we needed to make films which had a universal appeal but which, at the same time, had been rooted in a particular soil. That was the beginning of my career in films. When I came to Bombay, I came across people from Awadh – how they were living; how they were burdening the lives of the local populace; and how they had been looking at their identity. In addition, how their absence in their villages was creating a vacuum in the democratic process. Democracy has always occupied a very important position in my subconscious because of my father and his concerns. I felt that the ‘newly-gained’ independence needed to be reinvented. I made some visual notes, did some reading, and the first film Gaman was born. The thrust of the film was born of the imbalance between the urban/city life and the process of migration. 

Aasim Akhtar: Tell us about your foray in music, from compiling ghazals to organizing festivals of mystical renditions. 

MA: I composed music for the serial called Husn-e-Jana. Then came Paigham-e- Mohabbat in which I celebrated 50 years of Independence through music and poetry by choosing to make Pakistani singers sing Hindustani poets and Hindustani singers sing Pakistani poets. The poetry chosen was either pre-Partition or post-Partition from around 1940s and 1950s to recall the ethos of Partition. That is when I worked with Abida Parveen for the first time. (Working with her has been one of the most important ‘trips’ of my life!). We worked on two ghazals: O des se aaney waley bata by Akhtar Shirani, and one by Ahmed Faraz written in the same ground: Aahat si koi aaye to lagta hai tu. And then there were poems by Faiz that recalled the void created by Partition. 

This was followed by Raqs-e-Bismil in which I concentrated on mystical poetry. Mystical poetry had been rendered, by and large, in devotional forms like the Qawwali but not quite as a ghazal with fresh abandon and novel musical arrangements which are modern but thought-provoking. Later on, when I started Jahan-e-Khusrau in 2001, Abida would come every year to sing at least 4-5 compositions. It is an annual event held at Arab ki Serai located between Humayun’s tomb and Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya’s Dargah. It is a beautiful old quadrangle now in ruins which I thought would be a perfect setting for this event. I’ve noticed that when people come to the dargah for mystical poetry, they listen to it with great reverence but in a mehfil, the same poetry does not command much respect. People from far and wide come to this festival, and the audience comprises of 2000-3000 people. It’s more or less like a Haazari. 

Aasim Akhtar: What was so appealing about the life of Habba Khatoon that you decided to make a film on it called Zooni – the film that remained a dream?

MA: When I was in Air India, I initiated a department called ‘Congresses and Conventions’ to promote international meetings. To create an alliance to market it from between April and October, I thought of Srinagar. Mr Tata was our chairman. I spent six months just studying and researching what could be done. The parting shot was that if I could make a film on the four seasons of the Kashmir valley, the centre would be sold out. At that point I hadn’t even made my very first film! 

Many moons later, when Anjuman went to Vancouver, I was coming back via New York where I met my designer friend, Mary McFadden. At that point, The Last Emperor had just been released. I realised that cinema has to go global in order to make an impact. Mary and I sat together and started thinking about how global cinema could be created out of India. 

Habba Khatoon was the last independent queen of Kashmir. She was nicknamed ‘Zooni’ by the village folk after Zoon, the moon. Habba Khatoon was the title given to her by the king. She was a peasant woman who the king decided to marry. After that, when Akbar annexed Kashmir it became part of his empire. In Kashmir today, every single woman connects with Zooni’s character. The king Yousaf Shah was taken away and imprisoned and Zooni spent the rest of her life waiting for him. Today, a lot of women in Kashmir don’t know where their husbands have disappeared, and are still waiting for their return. The storyline of the film had an added relevance to the times today. 

For the film, I studied every little nuance of the valley, created sets and costumes, staying in the valley for two years. Ryuichi Sakamoto asked me to record as much music from Kashmir as I could. I’d taken a very interesting music director with me from Kashmir, Mohanlal Ahmer. For the Urdu version, I’d taken Shehryar and Khayyam. Jeeney ki koi rah dikhai naheen deti / Warna mein kabhi aisi duhai naheen deti – baba mere baba, is just one of the many songs translated into Urdu from Kashmiri by Shehryar sung for the film by Asha Bhonsle. That’s how I got involved in the music of tasawwuf. Unfortunately, the whole project had to be shelved because of the repeated threats from the insurgents.

Aasim Akhtar: What has been the basis of your mystical leanings?

MA: The meaning of Islam to me is that of an internal fragrance that should manifest in your deeds and acts. People should get attracted to it to discover it for themselves. One who covets it will seek it out and discover it. The basis of Tasawwuf is Islam, and we are ahl-e-ba’it. It’s open to everyone; one can take from it whatever one wants. It is not the legacy of any particular sect. You need to liberate the whole concept of it; not pigeonhole it. I’ve made quite a few short films on tasawwuf; 5-6 short films on Khawaja Moin-ud-Din Chishti alone. 

I am a poetry-driven person, and poetry has given me a lot. For instance, Hazrat Amir Khusrau’s poetry, and Rumi’s and Hafiz Shirazi’s. There are a host of Sufi poets in Punjab and in Awadh, and I’ve been publishing books on them under the generic title Hu. The first volume was on Khusrau; the second on Rumi; the third one on the Sufis of Kashmir; and the fourth one on the Sufis of Punjab. The last one is on the Sufis of Awadh called The Leaf Turns Yellow. I’ve also been working on a film on Rumi for the last eleven years. I haven’t yet been able to find the financial closure for the project though. We’ve already done 23 versions of the script, and it still calls for 2-3 more. The casting credits have not been finalised but I would like somebody like Daniel Day-Lewis to play the lead. As far as music is concerned, I have treasure troves of it. Besides, I’ve got a musician, Richard Horowitz – we’ve been working together on the music. For cinematography, I have Vittorio Storaro in mind. It’s an Oscar-winning team and Rumi-addicts. People have no idea how far a film can go and what it can do to you but the basic fact is that you cannot work without money. Unless you put in the element of magic – the technology – it won’t have the same impact. 

Aasim Akhtar: How did Kotwara Collection come about? 

MA: I left Bombay after the 1990s. I felt it was a soul-devouring city. My father had also passed away, and there was no one in Kotwara, so I had to come back. That is when I started looking into the local craftsmanship. It was a great blessing but it also entailed that I should be constantly reviving and improvising it. There are 300-400 women there now which has breathed a new life into that environment. In fact, when I was shooting Gaman based on why people leave their villages and go to the cities, Smita Patil ended up saying: “If you are so concerned about this place, why don’t you do something about it?” 

There’s a small school there now set in a 14-acre garden – it’s a humble abode called Dwar Perozi Man Haftawar School meaning Humanist School. It helps people gain confidence in what they could do in their own environment. Women mostly do chikankari while men weave durries. Some are carpenters and tailors. It brings me enormous joy to work with my own hands with the artisans. If you leave me in a village with the craftspeople, I’d be a fish in water. While making the film in Kashmir, I made Shah Hamdaan Centre for Design Development. I felt that the Kashmiri craft was fast degenerating, so I invited craftspeople who excelled in making papier-mache, woodwork, weaves, embroideries, come together and create.

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