Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The charm of Irani restaurants

The romantic feel of the Irani restaurant is a celebratory cultural fix. Lost in its comforting confines – vanishing relics from a once unhurried city timeline – generations of commoners, writers and artists relaxed as they chatted over milky sweet chai and khaari biscuits. A home to numerous office dates, a witness to thousands of conversations and a diamond in the ring of ‘tea culture’.

Treasures of culinary heritage, these bakeries have dwindled from 400 in the 1950s to less than 40 in Mumbai and scattered sister shops in Pune. Who hasn’t smiled at quaint “By Order” instructions shakily written in coloured chalk at these teashop doors? Those repetitive commandments: ‘No talking to cashier/No fighting/No credit/ No combing of hair/ No talking loud/No bargaining/No water to outsiders/No beef/ No leg on chair…’   

Arun Kolatkar looks beyond these scribbled rules

“The cockeyed Shah of Iran watches the cake

Decompose carefully in the cracked showcase

Distracted only by a fly on the make

As it finds in a loafer’s wrist an operational base”

The late poet’s preferred hangouts included Military café whose ancient fans whirred over Thursday teas replete with Bun Maska shared by fellow scribes.

Despite a shift of clientele, the convivial café feel lingers. Gregory Roberts’ Shantaram – featuring Colaba’s Café Leopold, serving swarms of foreign backpackers and local loyalists alike since 1871 - is but an example.  Photographer Mahendra Sinh worked on a picture essay for Taj magazine in the 1980s, charmed by marble-topped tables ringed by bentwood chairs, “These trappings turn the café into a symbol, which has defined the city for over a century. It’s tragic that this is almost wiped out, because in their passing away, a bit of Bombay dies too.”

Theatre person Shiv Subrahmanyam’s interest extends to more than mere nostalgia. He wrote and directed the 2002 play ‘Irani Café’, keeping the backdrop deliberate. “The setting was intended as a metaphor to the whole city. Its characters from shabby to well-heeled, literally brought individual stories of love and longing on the table.”

Artist Sudhir Patwardhan revels in the idea of the Irani Café as a trans-cultural bond. He was drawn to its appealing Bohemian ambience during his college years in Pune. Patwardhan who painted ‘Irani Restaurant’ in 1977, says, “These places are idyllic, an escape from and a growing out of what one was used to. Their décor with those wonderful mirrored columns, reflected the road outside while welcoming the bustle within. Such all embracing public areas are not valued now, a great loss really.”

Where Irani cafes stand, say something about them. Built to hug the best street intersections, the prime corner plot that Hindus presumed to be inauspicious. The Iranis hoping it to mean twice the trade at a junction looked towards ancestral Iran and fervently invoked “Numo Khodu (Touch wood)!” Then they moved in to serve the cup that cheers. 

Inputs: Mehr Marfatia, Jam-e-Jamshed weekly

Thursday, February 16, 2012

The studio empire

Once upon a time Mumbai was dotted with film studios from Tardeo to Nana Chowk to Mahakali and Chembur. The recent hullabaloo about the sale and closure of Kamal Amrohi’s studio followed by Natraj, Filmistan shows the malady in the system. If agreements are not honoured, litigation crops up, amounts kept on credit are not paid up, successors or sons cannot cope with running studios or making films, then disintegration is inevitable. There are high stakes in redevelopment of land, studios becoming easy baits like other old buildings.

The three big giants of the 30’s talkie era – Prabhat (Pune), Bombay Talkies (Malad, Mumbai), New Theatres (Kolkata) made memorable classics and were epic pieces of direction, acting, singing, composing and technical finesse. V. Shantaram was at his peak at Prabhat while Devika Rani and Himanshu Rai did wonders at Bombay Talkies. The brainy Bengali lot threw their literary weight behind New Theatres under B.N. Sircar. Bombay Talkies later was converted to a rubber factory. It later broke to Filmistan and Filmalaya under S. Mukherjee.

The Wadia studio at Parel was rebuilt as Rajkamal Kalamandir by Shantaram. Wadia brothers went to Chembur with Basant studios, a lab, even a theatre. At Rajkamal two shooting floors became commercial complexes. At Sewri, Sohrab Modi’s Minerva Movietone became a factory-cum-godown. The first talkie Alam Ara was shot at Imperial studios by pioneer Ardeshir Irani in the 20’s. by the end of the 30’s they declared, “We have stopped production.” In later years, the low-grade Jyoti studios housed a number of offices including that of Shyam Benegal. Mehboob Khan who was an assistant with Irani at Majestic cinema went ahead to establish National studios at Tardeo making Aurat and Roti with corporate aid. At the other extreme of Chembur, alongwith Wadias and Basant, there came up R.K Studios, the dream world of Raj Kapoor. When it was under construction without a telephone line, one saw Raj come down to Basant to make phone calls. Next to it was Bhagwan Dada’s little studio making ‘B’ and ‘C’ grade action films.

The first nail was the new wave trend that used real spots - interior and exterior. Commercial film-makers soon took the cue of avoiding hot, stuffy studios with heavy equipment. The last nail in the coffin came with the vast film city brought by the State Government in Goregaon, Mumbai having studio floors, extensive natural locations and all up-to-date facilities. Another factor was the arrival Arriflex with zoom and steady cam movements as well as syneground mikes hidden inside dresses. To think Irani made Alam Ara near Grant Road Station against the disturbing noise of local trains!

Future generations may forget that films were once made in studios. That these very studios lent a defiant status to the movie and affected viewer’s perceptions. That people once looked up to the banner, its emblem and the studio team as a hallmark for films that had a certain standard, class, quality and sense of purpose. There were more than thirty studios functioning at the same time apart from recording-dubbing halls and labs. Now hardly half a dozen survive, that too mostly for shooting TV serials, ad commercials, music videos and trailers.  The culture of the studio empire is evidently dying.

With inputs from: Mr. Firoze Rangoonwala