Today is the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi. October 2 also marks 76 years since Vijay Bhatt’s Ram Rajya was released to packed houses all over India. A milestone in my grandfather’s career also goes down in history as the only Hindi film to have been seen by Mahatma Gandhi in his lifetime. Vijay Bhatt first met with Gandhiji in the late 1930s on a trip to Valsad with his friends. When Gandhiji learned that he was a filmmaker, he asked, “Why don’t you make a film on Narsi Mehta?” Narsi Mehta was a poet saint of Gujarat. His bhajan “Vaishnav jan to tene re kahiye je…” was Gandhiji’s favourite. Vijay Bhatt, or Bhai as we all called him, immediately started working on the script and in 1940, he released Narsi Mehta, which was made in Hindi and Gujarati. For this film, he signed Vishnupant Pagnis for the lead and Durga Khote to play the role of his wife. The film was well received and celebrated silver jubilee across India. Bhatt felt bad that he couldn’t show it to Gandhiji. It would be Ram Rajya, a film produced and directed by him in 1943, that would be shown to the Mahatma.
In 1945, he learned that Gandhiji was convalescing at Mr. Shantikumar Morarji’s bungalow in Juhu. Gandhiji’s secretary, Smt. Sushila Nayar, gave Vijay Bhatt only 40 minutes to screen the film. Once it started, Gandhiji was so engrossed that he watched it uninterrupted for over 90 minutes. It was a day of silence for him, but he gave Bhatt a pat on the back at the end to show his appreciation. This remained for my grandfather, one of the greatest moments of his life.
When Shobhna Samarth stopped smoking!
Ram Rajya is hailed as a classic because it was a film way ahead of its time in terms of content and execution. Instead of relying on melodrama and miracles, Vijay Bhatt portrayed Ram as an ideal son, brother, husband and statesman. He steered clear of gimmicks and special effects to focus on the inner turmoil of a man torn between a sense of duty and personal happiness. Prem Adib, a regular with Bhatt’s production house Prakash Pictures, gave a memorable performance as Ram. Sita was played with grace and elegance by Shobhna Samarth, mother to Nutan and Tanuja, and grandmother to Kajol. During its making, both Prem Adib and Shobhna Samarth agreed to stop smoking and drinking on Bhatt’s suggestion. My grandfather spoke wistfully about the euphoria generated by the film after its release. Viewers broke coconuts in front of the screen, and the cast and crew was felicitated all over India. Numerous films have been made on the Ramayana since the 1940s but Ram Rajya and Bharat Milap stand tall for the human treatment of mythological and religious figures. The film ran to packed houses for over 100 weeks and it brought Bhatt both commercial success and critical acclaim.
Eager to showcase this classic to the world, on May 5, 1947, my grandfather premiered Ram Rajya at the prestigious Museum of Modern Art in New York City. At the press meet after the premiere, a young American woman asked Vijay Bhatt why Ram abandoned Sita after the Agni Pariksha. Bhatt responded, “That is the difference between our cultures. In the West, in Great Britain for example, a king left his kingdom for the sake of the woman he had married. Here, Rama left his wife for the sake of his subjects although he loved her very much, and actually lived the life of a recluse afterwards.”
On this trip, Vijay Bhatt toured Hollywood studios, where he met Elizabeth Taylor, Shirley Temple and a young actor, Ronald Reagan, who was filming Voice of Turtles at that time. He even met renowned director Cecil B. DeMille, who wrote a special message for him: “Greetings from one director who is still trying to make good pictures, to another director, who will make great ones long after I am gone.”
In a career spanning 50 years, Bhatt, a pioneer of Indian cinema, played a vital role in the industry’s evolution from the silent movies of the 1920s to the contemporary films of the 70s. Through these decades, he produced and directed over 70 films, which upheld the rich cultural and musical heritage of India. Along with mythologicals, he also made groundbreaking films that questioned many of the social taboos of that time.
In 1952, my grandfather produced and directed another great film of his career, Baiju Bawra, a musical that enjoys a cult following to this date. He had signed Nargis and Dilip Kumar as the lead, but due to issues with their schedules, he decided to go with a fresh lead pair. There was a child artist who had starred in his action film, Leather Face (1939), named Mehezbin Naaz. Vijay Bhatt had given her the screen name of Baby Meena. In 1952, he brought her on board to play the role of Gauri, and Meena Kumari became an overnight sensation, winning a Filmfare award for her performance. Bharat Bhushan, too, gave the performance of his lifetime. Since music was a vital part of the script, Bhatt roped in Naushad for it. Vijay Bhatt had given Naushad a break in 1940, when he was still a struggling music director. He worked for Bhatt’s production for a monthly salary of Rs. 250! While Bhatt’s Darshan (1941), and Station Master (1942) had given a boost to his career, Baiju Bawra made him immortal. My grandfather took Baiju Bawra to international audiences in 1954, as part of the first Indian film delegation to the USSR and the USA. Among the delegates were Bimal Roy, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Dev Anand, Raj Kapoor and Nargis. A memorable part of this trip was a quick stop at Switzerland to meet Charlie Chaplin at his estate in Vevey.
Read this in Malayalam
Away from the arclights, my grandfather led a quiet life after retirement, surrounded by his family and a close circle of friends. Despite having attained the stature of a living legend, his humility was disarming. He lived by the values he showcased in his movies. I once saw him walking down the road to our house with a packet of ‘Ganthia’, a snack favored by his elder brother. When I chided him for not telling us to go buy it for him, he said “So what if I went to buy it? My brother asked me to bring it for him and I wanted to get it myself’! He kept abreast with the times by listening to classic rock with my brother, stepping out with us to watch film screenings and adding to his library, which occupied an entire room in our house. His only regret if any, was that he didn’t win Dadasaheb Phalke award, despite being nominated year after year, but he often said: “That pat on the back by Gandhiji is more precious to me than any award which can be obtained by lobbying the corridors of power.”
On October 17 in 1993, he passed away peacefully at the age of 86. For us, his family, he not only left behind a glorious cinematic legacy, but a legacy of values, knowledge, creativity, and above all, love.
(The author is filmmaker Vijay Bhatt’s granddaughter. She spoke to Shaikh Ayaz)