The year was 1953. The city of Bombay ended at Bandra. What is Andheri today was then considered a no-man’s land. On a fine day with clear skies, Kamal Amrohi, then in his 40s, drove down for a survey of the estate that he had been lucky to acquire from a well-wisher. He parked his car near the last habitable spot close to the Holy Spirit Hospital, and, holding his teenage daughter by her hand, followed a narrow trail up a hillock. Surveying the acres of untamed land that lay beyond, he turned to Rukhsar and said, “This is where I will build my studio. This barren land will flourish and bloom like an emperor’s garden.”
It is not surprising that the filmmaker who would go on to make Pakeezah (1972) would imagine a baroque, grand enclave on empty land. Amrohi spent the next few years working with what he had. Blasting the mounds made of soft rock, he flattened the land to first build a ground, followed by an office, a garden and several ponds. In 1958, he opened up the space as Kamalistan Studios. “He spent the next 30 years developing it. He took a personal interest in the trees planted on the estate. There were mangoes and papayas, tomatoes and other vegetables. Once he had fulfilled his vision, Kamalistan became the location where he erected the set for his last directorial project, Razia Sultan (1983). The gardens and the ponds, the fountains and walkways of the studio were the queen’s personal garden of pleasure,” says Rukhsar Amrohi, now 65.
Today, Kamalistan, which was renamed Kamal Amrohi Studios in the years following its founder’s death, stands on one of the city’s busiest stretches — the Jogeshwari-Vikhroli Link Road. Step past the iron gates and one is greeted by a sight rare in this jostling city — landscaped gardens, rows of mango trees lining a walkway that leads to quaint old sets of a railway station, a village, a police station and several indoor stages. A set of a bungalow stands decrepit in a corner just before the set of Nimki Mukhiya, an ongoing soap on Star Bharat, rises into view. The staff wears the old grey uniform, with “Mahal Pictures” embroidered on it, even though Razia Sultan was the last film made under the banner.
Spread over 16 acres, Kamal Amrohi Studios is one of the last standing studios in the city. It was once home to Kamal Amrohi’s Mahal Pictures and the preferred location for outdoor film shoots. Among the films shot here are Amar Akbar Anthony (1977), Naseeb (1981) and Coolie (1983), as well as all of Sooraj Barjatya’s movies. Of recent films, Salman Khan’s mega-hit Dabangg (2010), was shot here. Today, however, it is let out for weddings and events, ads and TV shoots.
The estate is embroiled in litigation following a family dispute. Rukhsar believes it is a matter of time before it will be replaced by a corporate park, a highrise or a mall. “I read and reread Mr Rishi Kapoor’s interview on the family’s decision to sell off RK Studios in Chembur. And I agree with every word he said. This is inevitable,” says Rukhsar.
The era of studios dawned in the early 20th century, after Dadasaheb Phalke made India’s first film, Raja Harishchandra, in 1913. Shot in a bungalow in Dadar, no trace of which exists, the film was made under the banner of Phalke Films. Phalke later moved to Nashik, where he established Hindustan Films. By then, cinema had caught India’s imagination and studios started to come up in Bombay, Calcutta, Pune, Madras and Lahore, then part of undivided India. In 1931, Imperial made the legendary Alam Ara, narrowly pipping Madan’s Shirin Farhad to become the first Indian film with sound. By 1936, Bombay was home to well over two dozen studios.
According to film and city historian Amrit Gangar, Indian film studios were at their prime then. “The migration from villages to the cities in the years following World War I created an unprecedented demand for cinema. Indian filmmakers looked to the West for ideas and the studio system was introduced,” says Gangar.
A studio would offer every facility — from location to actors and technicians to post-production, all under one roof. “It was an assembly-line concept, where the actors, directors as well as technicians were on the studio’s payroll. This way, the makers could not only control their budgets but also avail of an environment that was professional and creative at the same time,” he adds.
One of the earliest studios was Devika Rani and Himanshu Rai’s Bombay Talkies. Trained in Germany’s UFA Studios, the couple set up their studio in Malad. The suburb, which, too, was not considered a part of the city at the time, soon flourished as the team of five Germans, including director Franz Osten, and other Indian artistes, settled nearby.
Over the years, Bombay Talkies launched the careers of several stars, including Ashok Kumar, Dilip Kumar, Madhubala and Mehmood. After concluding operations in 1953, the regal marble-and-stone structure was, over the years, reduced to a ruin. A part of its structure, that stood until a few years ago amid waste and filth, has now been razed, replaced by galas owned by small businesses.
A few years after Rai’s death in 1940, Ashok Kumar, along with Sasadhar Mukerji, parted ways with Rani to set up Filmistan Studios in Goregaon West in 1943. It replaced Sharda Studio, which shut due to losses following a massive fire — a common occurrence in those days because of nitrate films. The studio has since changed hands multiple times but continues to run. Located on the congested SV Road, a few minutes’ walk from the station, it caters chiefly to television and ad filmmakers. Seven floors or stages are available and the make-up rooms, put out of use by vanity vans, now serve as storage spaces. A Shiva temple that doubles up as a set is located right at its heart.
Filmistan and Mukerji’s 60-year-old Filmalaya in Andheri, are two of the handful of studios still operational. Much like RK Studios and Kamal Amrohi Studios, they merely serve as shooting locations.
Gangar says under the studio system, each banner had its individual identity. If RK Studios was known for its socialistic cinema, with films such as Awara (1951) and Shree 420 (1955), Kamalistan had come to be associated with grandeur as its massive outdoor spaces allowed filmmakers to shoot historicals, war epics and so on. JBH and Homi Wadia’s Wadia Movietone, and, later, Basant Pictures, are best remembered for the action films with Fearless Nadia. Mehboob Khan, at his Mehboob Studio in Bandra, with a hammer and sickle as its logo, made films that were grounded in the stories of the common man. “In the opening sequence of Mother India (1957), when the dam is inaugurated, blood and not water flows out. That was a powerful comment on the socioeconomic reality. It followed Nehru’s statement that factories were our new temples,” says Gangar. “The audience was drawn in not by the stars but the studio’s reputation.”
The auteur Ritwik Ghatak joined Filmistan studio in mid-1950s but he didn’t last there long. “For Ghatak, the studio environment was too complacent. He suggested that Mukerji make a department for experimental filmmaking, appoint creative persons, lower the budgets, keep away stars, expect them to make genuinely good experimental films, encourage them to use their minds and generate new ideas. He wanted them to explore the possibilities of what the camera, the editing machine and the creative soundtrack could do,” says Gangar, who has a copy of the letter Ghatak wrote with his suggestions.
Rukhsar’s son, 37-year-old Wasim Amrohi believes the greatest advantage of the studio was its fertile environment. “It wasn’t so much about the money. Many actors would drop in at our office to use the landline phone and stay back for hours, chatting. Every evening, Nanaji would have his tea in the garden with the family but also the actors and technicians shooting on the premises. They would confer, sometimes brainstorm. Scripts and lyrics often came out of such tea parties,” he says.
Each studio, thus, has its own folklore and legends. Ramanand Sagar’s son Prem Sagar recounts how RK Studios was born from the desperate failure of Aag (1948), the first film produced under the RK Films banner. “Raj saab (Raj Kapoor) knew that his jodi with Nargis could create magic but after the failure of Aag, he was looking for the right script. Prithviraj Kapoor, who knew my father from Lahore, suggested that they both meet,” he says. A Partition refugee from Srinagar, Ramanand Sagar was living in Theresa Villa in Malad, the attic of which served as his study. The rest of his 13-member family was in a small house in Delhi’s congested Daryaganj. “Raj saab drove down all the way to Malad, which was back-of-the-beyond at the time, and Papaji narrated an idea. Raj saab loved it. The film, which later got made as Barsaat, got my father Rs 7,000 while collecting Rs 1.1 crore at the box office. That money was used by Raj saab to set up RK Studios in Chembur,” says Sagar, who worked as a cinematographer with his father’s Sagar Arts.
By this time, however, the payroll system, even if it provided fixed salaries to film professionals, was on a decline. Freelancing allowed the artistes to work with multiple banners and filmmakers, and it also gave birth to the star system. The restrictions on film and equipment import during World War II as well as the Partition affected the studios as well. “Fly-by-night operators also got into the film business for the money,” Gangar says.
As a result, studios started to turn into mere shooting locations with only a handful of facilities available in-house. Sagar remembers the time his father set up Natraj Studios with FC Mehra, Pramod Chakravarty, Shakti Samanta and Guru Dutt’s brother Nagaratnam Atmaram Padukone. “The advantage was that if you had one actor shooting for several of us, like at one point Dharmendra was, he could shoot in shifts. Also, none of us would have to chase the technicians such as set designers as they had their office there,” says Sagar.
Actors had, by the mid-1970s, gained the status of stars, but it wasn’t until the late 1980s that other departments took a backseat. “Yusufbhai was a background painter at Natraj with a reputation that matched that of any actor. Dressed in his pyjamas with paint strewn all over, he would work day and night to finish a backdrop in a week. The blissful view of the Dal Lake in Arzoo, visible from Sadhana’s window and Mehmood’s shikara, was his handiwork and no one can tell it was a set. He was so talented that he would create the background out-of-focus to save the cinematographer the effort of adjusting the focus when the actors shot in its foreground,” Sagar says. The advent of technology and realism also rendered many technicians and artists jobless. For instance, a special set at Natraj, with walls four-feet thick, was created by Shakti Samanta so that settings with water bodies like lakes could be recreated there. It’s where he shot parts of Amar Prem, recreating the Howrah bridge. But, as travel became economical, filmmakers realised the benefits on shooting on-location.
The entry of the underworld into films hit the studios hard. “It’s said that the interference started with Qurbani (1980), which landed into distribution trouble. A few calls from Dubai resolved the issue. But soon, it became a pattern where the underworld started to dictate who would get a film’s distribution rights and which actor should be cast in the lead role. Studio owners receded into the shadows,” adds Sagar, explaining his father’s shift to television.
The last nail in the coffin, believes Wasim, was the opening up of the economy. “To save every penny possible, the productions would outsource everything from vanity vans and generators to catering. Our only source of earnings comes from renting out the space, which brings around Rs 70,000 a day — insufficient to maintain the large studios or build the businesses further,” he says.
The studio has been inactive for months but a fresh coat of paint has been applied to the facade of RK Studios. The touch-up is in anticipation of the Ganapati festival, an annual tradition started by Raj Kapoor. This may be its last celebration as the Kapoor family has decided to sell RK Studios after a fire destroyed the main shooting floor a year ago, taking with it the film memorabilia that the family had preserved over the decades — old posters, the puppets from Mera Naam Joker (1970), the tramp shoes from Awara (1951) and several costumes. The Kapoors argue that rebuilding the floor and maintaining the studio is turning out to be too expensive while the returns remain minimal.
Rukhsar wonders if the loss of these tangible memories is not a strong enough reason. “It’s painful to see your memories destroyed in front of your eyes,” she says.
Seated on a couch next to Wasim, in her apartment that overlooks the last of the untouched land in Andheri — the mangroves — Rukhsar takes a long look at her father’s portrait that hangs on a wall. “Almost 30 years ago, Baba got an offer for the studio. A buyer was willing to pay Rs 100 crore. The money was good but I asked him if he will be able to live knowing that studio was not his anymore. He said he was losing sleep at the thought. The decision was taken and we retained what had come to be our home,” recounts Rukhsar. “But thinking back, I sometimes wonder if selling it off while Baba lived would have been a better option… like RK Studios. Because you may make money but you lose the loved ones to property squabbles. And from where I stand, it’s just not worth it.”
Wasim would wish to remember the studio as the place: “… where once the big door is thrown open, dust rises and the sound of pigeons taking flight is heard in the dark. Then, a tiny filament bulb hanging from the tarafa is switched on for the cinematographer, art designer and director to see if the space will work as the imagined set. And, in a few days, the crew takes over the space, transforming it into the vision of a director.”