Today, June 27, is the birthday of Rahul Dev Burman, or Pancham. To me, he is not a composer, but a commodity I cannot do without even for a day, such as the soap or toothpase. Only after I've had a bit of him that I find myself ready to face the world. In the evenings, though, he becomes my soda -- to add fizz to my drink and my life.
There are two kinds of people who take the road from Bangalore to Mysore. One, whose destination is Mysore or one of the towns that fall in the 120-km stretch. Two, the connoisseurs of Sholay, who treat the road as reverently as the Silk Route, traversing it to relive history. Presently I fall under category no. 2.
I am waiting at the traffic junction at Ramanagaram, a town 40 km from Bangalore. Sholay, the 1975 blockbuster, was shot somewhere here, as testified by the rocky terrain that flanks you as soon as you approach the town. This is also the constituency of H.D. Kumaraswamy, the Karnataka chief minister. But that’s only for record’s sake. For the connoisseur of Sholay, the territory is called Ramgarh and it belongs to Gabbar Singh.
“Sholay ka shooting? Take a U-turn and then left,” the man selling sliced cucumber at the junction gives directions. So there we are, the driver and I, entering a narrow road off the highway, under the gaze of brown hillocks that loom large on the horizon. We snail past a ‘Men’s Beauty Parlour’ and a few timber shops, and then stretches of barren land on one of which stands a signboard: ‘Site for sale’. Then comes a nursing college: young boys and girls trickle out of it in white coats. From their gaze, it is very clear that a passing car is not a frequent sight on that road. Then comes a village, Konkani Doddi, and soon tiny boys with mischievous eyes and with catapults in their hands start running alongside the vehicle. Every adult we ask for directions points further down the road. So we snake through isolated huts, trying to evade roaming goats and hens all the while, and finally climb up a bit when the road terminates in front of a tall iron gate. The arch over it reads: Sri Pattabhirama Devalaya – Rama temple, in short.
Is Ramanagaram – and therefore the fictitious Ramgarh – named after this temple? I have just begun to wonder about that when the driver, looking relieved that he has finally deposited me at some significant-looking destination, asks me how long I will take. Thirty-two years, I want to tell him. But I hear myself saying, “Maybe an hour or so.” “In which case,” he grins, “can I go and have my tiffin? You know we have been out since eight.” I tell him he can take his time and enter the gate.
The search for Ramgarh begins with a steep climb. The temple, I soon make out, is right on top of the hillock that I am now climbing. As I pause once in a while to catch my breath, I realise I am the only living creature there apart from the birds and the insects – such is the privacy. No wonder the rocks along the steps bear innumerable graffiti that testify ‘love’ between people with every conceivable Indian name.
I soon realise there is someone lonelier than me: the priest of the Rama temple. Still, he treats me as if I was the 75th visitor since the morning and dutifully pours, on my joined palms, the holy water. He tells me that Sholay was shot around that hill but that he was too young then to remember the shooting of the movie. “Maybe you can ask the elders in Konkani Doddi,” he suggests.
One side of the temple offers a bird’s eye view of a terrain that could have well been Ramgarh. On the other side is a huge boulder, on top of which stands a small Shiva temple, a small dome (even its ceiling is cluttered with love graffiti – God alone knows how) and a water tank. Standing under the dome, I look at the other side of the hill – that too looks like Ramgarh. As I stand there wondering which could be the real Ramgarh, I notice an old man climb up, panting and holding on to his bag and umbrella. He walks into the control room of the water tank, and when he comes out, I ask him if he knows anything about Sholay. “Oh Sholay! I worked for it. I was a carpenter (on the sets).”
Meet Parasuram. He is 66 years old now and looks after the maintenance of the temple. He led me to the edge of the rock and points to the land spread out below: “That’s Sippy Nagar. The Thakur’s house stood there. And that was where they shot the Holi song. And there, do you see those rocks? Behind them we had built the bridge where Amitabh Bachchan dies.”
As a carpenter, Parasuram helped build the water tank from where Dharmendra threatens to commit suicide, and also the wooden posts on which the hands of Thakur (Sanjeev Kumar) are tied up before being chopped off by Gabbar Singh (Amjad Khan). “At first we put up temporary structures (for the hand-chopping scene) but they kept falling, so (Ramesh) Sippy asked us to build proper wooden pillars. Oh, what a scene that was!”
Other scenes that Parasuram recalls vividly include the one where the shrouds fly off the faces of the slain family members of the Thakur, the Holi song, and the shot where Gabbar orders Basanti (Hema Malini) to dance on broken glass. “Oh, such a fine actor! What a personality he had! The way he said, ‘Naacho!’” Parasuram says of Amjad Khan.
Parasuram reported to Aziz Sheikh, the construction manager, and his most difficult moments happened during the shooting of the Holi song, when he had to keep fixing the roller-coaster featured in the sequence. “Sippy was just not happy with the way it was going. He would keep saying, ‘Cut, cut, cut.’ It took 15 days to picturise that song. How much money must have been spent!”
He surveys the landscape and goes on: “Sippy was a lion-hearted man. By 4 pm everyday they would start counting the money to pay us. Four o’ clock sharp, everyday. And apart from the meals, we would be treated to puris and omlettes and kababs. Along with the sets, he had constructed a (makeshift) temple, church and a mosque for his unit. He had also installed a telephone line to talk to Bombay.” He says Dharmendra and Amitabh Bachchan were quite friendly with the locals, and so were the “two foreigners” (Sippy had hired stunt directors from London).
According to him, the shooting of Sholay, which was released in 1975, spanned three years. Sippy would shoot for four summer months each year, providing temporary livelihood to people like Parasuram and hundreds of other residents of Ramanagaram. “At least one member from every household in this village worked for the film,” says Elamma who, now in her sixties, sells knick-knacks from a wooden stall in Konkani Doddi. Her brother, for example, had lent his bullock cart for the sets.
But there are people whose lives the shooting altered forever. Such as Kadamma, who doesn’t know her age but is certain that she is past 70. Back then, she was young enough to have a daughter who was old enough to fall in love. And fall in love she did, the daughter, named Shanta, with a man called Shankar who was assigned to drive Dharmendra from and to the Ashoka Hotel in Bangalore every day.
“When I first got to know that my daughter wanted to marry Dharmendra’s driver, I thought it was some kind of a hoax. But Dharmendra and Amitabh Bachchan came home with the proposal. That was exactly eight days after Amitabh Bachchan’s daughter was born. (Jaya Bhaduri was pregnant during the shooting). I had made food for them but they did not eat. So I gave them tea and sherbet,” says Kadamma. Shanta and Shankar now live in Mumbai, where Shankar runs a taxi business. They even have grandchildren.
Kadamma, meanwhile, continues to be in awe of Hema Malini (she recalls the actress’ looks as “super”) and remembers how during the shooting, rice and sambhar had to be cooked separately for her and her mother (who accompanied her on the sets) because they could not stand non-vegetarian food.
Soon a small crowd gathers and the men complain about the lack of amenities in the village, most of whose residents are daily-wagers in nearby silk factories. “There are some 150 houses here but only one borewell and four taps. There is no proper sanitation. No government official ever comes here,” says Bairaiah, a neighbour of Kadamma. Kadamma, meanwhile, has begun to narrate the story of Sholay. Time for me to leave.
As soon as I get into the car, the boys with catapults arrive. Nothing has changed in Ramanagaram, or Ramgarh, in these thirty years. Each of them could have been a present-day Basanti, trying to aim at raw mangoes the whole afternoon because their mothers or aunts want to make pickles, or just for the fun of it.
By the time we hit the highway, the sun has begun to dip. Thirty-three years ago, Jaya Bhaduri must have been lighting oil lamps very close to the village I had just left, to the background strains of the mouth-organ, possibly played by R D Burman himself.
The previous post, I just realised, was my 200th. A reason to celebrate? Maybe yes, because I never realised I could touch the 200-mark, considering the insipiration and effort that goes into writing posts. Maybe no, because as a professional writer, I should have had no problem writing at least one post a day, in which case I could have touched the 500-mark by now!
Blogging is a funny thing -- it is a lot like your morning workout. At times you wonder: what's the point working so hard at keeping fit when disease or death can come knocking any minute, irrespective of how hard you work out. But most of the days you feel happy working out because it makes you feel on top of the world: you know you are doing your bit to keep yourself healthy, while everything else, including death and disease, are a matter of destiny.
There are days when I spend hours writing about a subject -- usually sex or women -- and then at the end of it, wonder: "What am I really getting out of it?" If I had channelised that energy to write guest columns for some magazine, I could have earned Rs 2 a word. But what do I get out of the blog? Not even honest comments, because most honest comments come from 'Anonymous' readers, and their anonymity, notwithstanding the brilliance of the comment, takes away from the credibility. It is like being patted on the back by an invisible hand: you know it is there, but it is still not there.
But on the other hand, Ganga Mail is like my second home -- rather my hideout. That's the place from where I can write about anything under the sun without bothering to censor my thoughts to suit readers' sensibilities. Most often, it is censorship that readers find most offensive and that way, after a year and a half of blogging, I find myself on a pretty strong wicket. Talking of wicket, blogging is also excellent net practice, in case you aspire to reach out to people through your writings. It is only here that you can learn -- or sharpen -- the art of translating your thoughts into writing, and nobody (save a few Anons) is going to laugh at you or take you to task for not having written well enough. "Well enough" today can be "good enough" tomorrow -- that's what consistent blogging can do to your writing.
I started blogging in October 2005, when this laptop was my sole companion. Today the machine is about to breathe its last any moment -- so much I have used and abused it. I have kept it on for days and also for nights -- just to have the faint glow of the screensaver and the songs for company while I slept. I am too scared to sleep alone in the dark. I had read about R.K. Narayan encountering a friendly ghost in his house in (I think) Nungambakkam. And Nungambakkam is not very far from T. Nagar, where I live. Most often, I would write or be awake till the birds began to chirp, for that's when I felt safe enough to sleep.
Today, even though I have company in the form of a wife, I write till late hours because it is a matter of habit. There is no longer the fear of ghosts, but I somehow feel that kindred spirits roam the atmosphere only during the wee hours and that the best way to communicate to them is by writing. Spirits are faceless and formless; and you seek to persuade them into assuming a face or a form by writing something worthwhile. But they give you the slip, and you write on.
So here I am, writing on -- for who, I don't know, but there's someone definitely out there persuading me to. But persuasion makes no sense without passion -- and of many of my passions, music is one. Oh yes, there's sex too -- but I can't link to a pornographic picture to celebrate my 200th post. What I can do is make you listen to a song that I am passionate about and about which I had written an entire post in January 2006. If you listen to it and happen to like it, I could justify the existence of myself as well as of my blog:
"Get me just Sprite. You drink whatever you want to, drunkard that you are.
"And pick up a packet of chips if you want to. No, not for me, for you. And just before you take the turn you will find a grocery. Will you please pick up some custard powder? Sorry for the trouble...
"Oh, yes, yes, I know you will take all kinds of trouble today. His Excellency is coming with high hopes. Ha! Ha! Ha! Did I tell you that Amit is also coming? He will be here any moment.
"Hey, hello, don't be an ass. I was just kidding. Amit is not in town. Ok, will you just shut up and come?
"Stop this, will you? I love you, I love you... How many women do you say this to? They might fall for it but I won't, ok?
"Oh yeah? I am different? And to how many do you say that to? Hey listen, I don't have time for this rubbish. I need to hang up, I can smell the oil burning.
"Yes, that's my dad. That's my mom and me, and that's my Tippy. She's a pomerian. She's getting blind.
"No, I will get mine. I hate Gold Flake. I smoke only Classic, or I don't smoke. Ok, I'll have a drink with you. A very small one. But please don't drink too much. There's lot of food. The whole morning I was cooking.
"Excuse me! I cooked because you are coming for the first time, not because I love you. Get your head examined, man! And what is this love business? Grow up, man.
"Yes, I like you. Maybe I also admire you. But what's this love shit? You mad or what? Don't get ideas just because I am nice to you.
"There you sulk again. You are impossible, man. Now stop drinking, will you? The alcohol is getting to your head. Ok, you like R.D. Burman, don't you? I think I have some of his songs, let me check. This is your last drink, by the way. You are not getting anymore. Ha! Ha! Ha! What do you mean there is more! I've hidden the bottle. No, no, no, you can't look for it. No, you are not following me. No, you can't search my bedroom. No, please NO.
"These are some R.D. CDs. Back home I have a good collection of his Bengali songs. He would bring out an album every puja. You are not even listening to me. Ok, ok, I will get you your bottle. Drink and die. I will throw away the food.
"Amit is just a friend, yaar. He is not my boyfriend. Please, for heaven's sake, don't talk about that night. That night there was the whole bunch around. We didn't go to the disco alone. And even if we did, what is your problem? Don't tell me you are jealous. Even if you are, I give a damn.
"God, one more drink! What meaningful? We can have a meaningful conversation even while having food. Don't know when you will stop all this. Grow up, man? Don't think I will be after you all your life, telling you not to drink. I really pity your wife, whoever she will be.
"Oh I love this song. Rekha looks so gorgeous in the movie. Isn't it Ghar? And what's his name, yes, Vinod Mehra. How he blows the smoke on her face, and she lovingly takes it. Height of romance! Give me a drag, na.
"No, no, don't shift, just move your legs a bit. Yes! Badly need to stretch, been cooking the whole day. And cooking for someone who is not even bothered to eat! Ah, this is another lovely number, my all-time favourite. Aane wala pal jaane wala hai, ho sake to isme zindagi bitado, pal jo yeh jaane wala hai -- The moment that is going to come is also about to go, so why not live life in this moment since it is about to go. Yes, yes, I know you know the meaning. I was just thinking aloud.
"Making fun of me? I know very well that this moment I am in the arms of a drunkard. You don't have to remind me of that. Can you repeat the song, please? My hand won't reach there.
"Who told you I am crying? Sanjana never cries, do you know that? My eyes are just watery with all the cooking. Hey, I hope the prawn curry does not go bad. It's already, what, eight hours since I made it?
"Remind me to get the CD of Ghar. We will watch it together.
"Give me two minutes, I will just heat up the prawn curry and the daal. No, no, you won't like it cold. Give me just two minutes.
"Take some more rice, Mr Superman. You've worked really hard. You need the calories. Wait, I'll get the custard. It must be frozen by now. God, it is eleven!
"Stop it! Let me brush my teeth. God, aren't you tired of me by now?
"You are like a child when you sleep. You look so cute. Did anyone say that to you before? I kept pushing you off but your hand kept on reaching for me. I was up the whole night watching you. God, I love you so much!"