To Sir,With Lovehttps://indianexpress.com/article/news-archive/web/to-sir-with-love-6/

To Sir,With Love

Age is not just a number for Sita Devi. She’s on the lookout for a 50-plus “buddah professor” for her two college-going nieces and two school-going nephews.

Lalita Pawar and Shammi Kapoor face off in Professor,a film that almost never got made

Age is not just a number for Sita Devi (Lalita Pawar). She’s on the lookout for a 50-plus “buddah professor” for her two college-going nieces and two school-going nephews. Those who know her call her “zabardast dictator” and “jallad”. She has a fetish for army-green sarees and hangs a loaded rifle on her wall.

Pritam (Shammi Kapoor) desperately needs a job to check his ailing mother in to a sanatorium. When he comes to know of Sita Devi’s age stipulation,he retorts,“Unhe meri jawaani se kya aitraaz hai?” He does what he needs to and disguises himself as an old man. Underneath all the fake facial fuzz,the limp and the cane lurks a “chatpate qism ka insaan,” as he tells his pupil Neena (Kalpana) whom he can’t help falling in love with. Things are confounded when Sita Devi falls for the old professor.

Lekh Tandon crafted a memorable entertainer out of this romantic mishmash in his directorial debut. The film came to him in a roundabout way. Film lore has it that Guru Dutt was impressed with the initial story of the film,written by Shashi Bhushan,and had even started shooting it,but stopped when an associate alerted him about a possible issue with the Censor Board. “When Guru Dutt was making it,the story was of an old lady principal falling in love with an old professor,who is in love with the principal’s daughter. Guru Dutt feared this theme wouldn’t sit well with the audience. Dutt’s close associate,Abrar Alvi,who was my close friend,told me of this development. I told him that with a few tweaks,this could be a very good film. Abrar retorted,‘You think you are bigger than Guru Dutt to attempt this film?’” says Tandon. He persisted,cajoled Alvi to write the screenplay and dialogues and Professor was born.

Tandon approached Dev Anand and Raj Kapoor (he regards the latter as his guru,having assisted him) for the title role. Both actors declined,so he went to his childhood friend Shammi,who was enjoying the ‘rebel star’ phase of his career. According to Tandon,Kapoor was hesitant. “Shammi felt I couldn’t direct. Rajendra Nath told me that Shammi was keen that his favourite,Nasir Hussain,should direct the film. So producer FC Mehra stipulated in the contract that if my work was not up to the mark,I’d be sacked,” says Tandon.

Sacked he was. And then serendipity took over. Tandon fought to edit the three reels he had shot,and by a stroke of luck,the screening theatre,where he was working,was booked by Raj Kapoor’s distributors who were in town for the showman’s birthday. “Rajji’s distributors saw the three reels,and raaton raat picture bik gayi. Mehra saab asked me back and finally I got the confidence to make the film I wanted to make,” says Tandon.

The film’s leading lady,Kalpana,was spotted by Tandon on a street in Mumbai’s Pali Hill. But Professor belongs to Kapoor and Pawar,who play off superbly against each other. Kapoor plays both roles with consummate ease,quite like the reversible jacket he wears in the film—“ek taraf jawaani ke liye,aur doosri taraf budhape ke liye.” Pawar is spectacular. When she sees the old professor for the first time,she demands to know,“Yeh mard yahan kaise aaya?” When she comes to know that he’s praising her,she thunders,“Aainda meri tareef karne ka jee naa chahe aapka.” But when she falls in love with him,she’s all woman. The army colours make way for peaches and turquoise. She starts humming Prem nagar mein banaungi ghar,as she does shringar in front of the mirror. So what if the only words the professor can muster in her presence is “Ji bilkul,bilkul.” The shrew has been tamed and she’s smitten. Pawar was so kicked about the role that she wanted to design her own costumes. “When I approached her,she told me that her usual price was Rs 15,000,but for this film,she’d charge us Rs 30,000,because nobody else could play this character,” says Tandon.

Darjeeling as the backdrop added to the charm of the film. The film’s unit shared the location with that of Satyajit Ray’s Kanchenjunga. “I wanted to shoot the song Aawaz de ke hume when it was cloudy,but it didn’t happen. Ray was at the same mountain but jab woh shoot karte thay,badal apne aap aa jaate thay aur hume sooraj milta tha,” says Tandon. While shooting the Main chali,main chali song in a train,the film unit was almost beaten up by an angry mob. “Since we were shooting,we made the train stop and start at our will. There were many college-going students in the train who were getting delayed,and almost attacked us,” says Tandon.

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With songs like Ae gulbadan,Khuli palak mein and Aawaz de ke hume,composer duo Shankar Jaikishan lived up to their blockbuster status. The duo played 18 tunes for Tandon,and asked him to select the ones he wanted. He chose five on the spot. Aawaz de ke hume was recorded later. Right choice. All the way.

harneet.singh@expressindia.com