Congratulations on your death. “I have neither heard nor said this earlier. Meena, today your baaji (elder sister) congratulates you on your death and asks you to never step into this world again. This place is not meant for people like you.” That was actor Nargis writing on the death of Meena Kumari in a piece titled “Meena — Maut Mubarak ho!” The personal essay that appeared in Urdu film magazine Shama, in June 1972, reflects the close bond shared by the two leading actors of Hindi cinema even as it details Meena Kumari’s slide into alcoholism and her eventual death.
This is among 30-odd articles gleaned from old Urdu film magazines that make up the recently released Yeh Un Dinon Ki Baat Hai: Urdu Memoirs of Cinema Legends (Bloomsbury), written by cinematographer and film buff Yasir Abbasi. From music director Naushad’s reflections on director K Asif and how he got Hindustani classical doyen ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan to sing for his 1960 film Mughal-e-Azam to poet Kaifi Azmi writing on the brilliance of lyricist Sahir Ludhianvi, the book recreates the magical world of Hindi cinema seen through the prism of Urdu film journals.
Abbasi has translated the stories from Urdu into English — an exercise, he says, that was formidable. “I was petrified touching the writing of Kaifi Azmi and other stalwarts, some whom would even invoke and refer to things in Persian,” says Abbasi. The book, divided into three parts — pen portraits, autobiographical pieces and general essays — reproduces some iconic posters from famous films and has some brilliant black-and-white sketches of eminent artists.
Abbasi’s familiarity with film writing began early in Uttar Pradesh’s Gorakhpur and Lucknow. He inherited his love for cinema from his mother, who introduced him to Urdu film magazines. “I grew up on a steady diet of Urdu film magazines. A trip to the railway station was always welcome as I would coax my folks to buy these magazines for me,” says Delhi-based Abbasi. His collection, an important step towards film documentation, holds a light to this lost world of film journalism in Urdu, a language that once lifted film writing to near poetry and which still lives on in Bollywood in its songs and dialogues.
“There has been a spate of film books in the last few years. What caught my attention was the absence of Urdu film writing. As I researched, I realised that all of those magazines and publications had packed up,” he says. Urdu film magazines gained momentum in pre-Partition India, with magazines like Paras being published from Lahore. Film Review and Film Stage were also popular magazines, published from Calcutta.
“The ’50s and ’60s saw Urdu magazines thrive in India, at their peak. In fact, they were very much around till the early ’90s. The arrival of cable TV did the rest of the damage. Shama, started in 1939, had an illustrious run for more than six decades, and was the most popular and widely read,” he says. Urdu’s marginalisation as a mainstream language affected the readership. “By 2000, all Urdu magazines had shut down. Most of the magazines are in private collections, very few are in libraries, but there is no archive, the publishers don’t have them, the original publishers/owners have died and the families haven’t preserved them.”
In the days that Urdu film magazines ruled, they differed from their English and Hindi counterparts by being more literary. Parents, too, found them fit to be read by children. “In the early ’80s, even in conservative households, Urdu film magazines were allowed. That can be attributed to the language’s beauty, tehzeeb (etiquette) and tameez (manners). The big names contributing to the magazines raised their mayaar (standard). Shama, Ruby and Gulfaam dominated the world of Urdu film journalism. They were essentially film magazines but a star’s interview would be followed by a Firaq Gorakhpuri poem or a story by Khwaja Ahmed Abbas or Ismat Chughtai. I only read the film bits,” says Abbasi, 40, who did a Master’s in mass communication from Jamia Millia Islamia.
Abbasi began working on this project some five years ago (the book was commissioned two years ago) by starting on the “Herculean task” of tracking down old magazine issues, making frequent trips to the book market in Old Delhi’s Daryaganj, to libraries and people’s homes in various towns to sift through personal collections.
The dominant idea, says Abbasi, was not to preserve the language — Urdu is too deeply entrenched in the Hindustani-speaking parts of the country to disappear easily — but to make Urdu film-writing accessible to those who follow the language but can’t read the script.
The writers included in the book are mostly actors and men, a bias reflective of the industry. “As film magazines were essentially star-dominated, a major chunk of content is driven by actors. The technicians were conspicuous by their absence. The numbers in the compilation are tilted towards males. Till not very long ago, women were essentially involved only with acting while men dominated every department,” says Abbasi.
His research has shown Abbasi how much film journalism has changed over the decades. “It’s PR driven today. Pehle log kuch bhi bolte thhe bekhauf hoke (earlier people spoke fearlessly),” he says. “Actors and filmmakers were not concerned about preserving their image off screen. Journalism was something else, too. Aap purani Urdu magazines uthayein, Sholay got bad reviews but no one went berserk,” he says.
This article appeared in print with the headline ‘In Their Words’.