A GREAT ACTRESS, A GREATER WOMAN (ON HER BIRTH ANNIVERSARY )

“Nutan ka phone hai, Nutan ka phone aap ke liye hai, hey ladke,” the senior peon in the office who loved calling me ladke (boy) because all the others were senior to him, said and there was excitement in his voice. I was not listening to him really. My mind was working overtime on how to catch a glimpse of Molly, the girl who meant the world to me in the evening. I had almost finished my work for the day and was waiting for my boss to leave so that I could reach the station in time to catch that glimpse which was very important to me to live the rest of the evening. The senior peon kept shouting, “Arre tereko samajhta nahin kya ladke, main bol raha hoon Nutan ka phone hai tere liye, tera dimaag sachmuch kharaab hai,” he said. I slowly walked up to the table and aimlessly picked up the phone and the phone instantly fell from my hands. I could not believe it. It was Nutan, the actress on the line. I picked up the phone again and almost lost my voice, but said “Hello Madam” in my weakest voice till then. She said, “This is Nutan the actress. I wanted to talk to you. Do you have some time to listen to me?” I was only listening, there was nothing else I could do. It was Nutan talking to me, Nutan who was one of my favourites whose films like “Bandini”, “Sujata” and “Seema” and “Tere Ghar Ke Saamne” and “Dil Hi To Hai” and all the other films she did with Dev Anand, Sunil Dutt and Dharmendra I had seen several times during my school and college days. I loved her voice, her performances, her laughter and even her crying. “Shall I continue?” she asked. I said, “Yes, yes of course.” She said, “I have been following your writings ever since I first saw your interesting name in ‘Screen’. I am not saying this to flatter you, but I must say you write with your heart and your command over the English language and the way it flows is unbelievable. I don’t know whether you are an old man or a young man, because you write with the feeling of the young with their best feelings and you write like an old priest or a philosopher when you go on your sermonizing trip. I must tell you frankly that I am a fan.” It was a little too much for me to take. I forgot all about that glimpse of Molly and plans for the evening. And she continued, “My son Mohnish has just come down from America. Would you find time to join us for dinner tonight? I will send my chauffeur to pick you up at whatever time you say”. I did not think of anything and just waited till 7.30 at the Express Towers even after all my colleagues had left. At 7.20 a man dressed in spotless white walked into my office and kept asking for me. His name was Rajaram and he said he was the personal chauffeur of “Madam” and had come to take me home.

I did not tell anyone about my evening because no one would believe it was happening to me, the junior most who had joined the staff eight months ago. Rajaram then met me down and we reached outside the Oberoi Towers where I saw a huge and posh car parked. Rajaram led me to his car and opened the door of the back seat for me. I said I would like to sit with him in the front seat. He said he could not allow me to do that because I was a ‘Sahab’ and said, “Kya Sahab, meri naukri chudwaoge kya? Madam ne aapko theek se lekar aane ko bola hai. Aapko aise aage ke seat mein dekhigi toh meri naukri zaroor jaayegi.” I understood his position and got into the back seat. Soon we reached outside the tallest building in Colaba, “Sagar Sangeet”, South Mumbai. I asked him if this was the building in which his “Madam” lived. “Yes, on the 35th floor,” he said. I shuddered and was shaky all over and found the colour going out of my face. Rajaram looked back and asked me if I was alright. I told him that I have not gone beyond the third floor of any building. I also told him how I was invited to the film festival of the then Moscow. I was also given a big farewell party for being sent on my first trip abroad. The company had made all arrangements in consultation with the Directorate of film festivals in Moscow. All was well till ten days before I was to fly. A man dressed in a suit came to see me and told me he was from the Soviet Embassy. He handed over the papers to me and told me the day and the time I was to take off. I was excited till I finally saw the name of the hotel in which I was living for fifteen long days. All that was fine but my heart sank into my chappals when I saw my room number. It was a room on the 48th floor of the most prestigious hotel in Moscow. I immediately decided that I would not go to Moscow, come what may. Both the Embassy and my office tried their best to convince me and make me see reason but I just refused. I could not imagine living in a room on the 48th floor. I had my way and decided never to ever go anywhere abroad for the rest of my life…

I had a strange feeling as I entered the monster of a building where the beautiful Nutan lived. I wanted to make some excuse and run away but somehow I did not want to ditch a gracious woman like Nutan who had given me some of my glorious moments during my boyhood days. I asked Rajaram to accompany me in the lift and every time I saw the number of a floor my heart started beating furiously. I tried to put up a brave front till I reached the 25th floor and then just wrapped myself around Rajaram and asked him to hold me as tight as possible. I told him the truth about how scared I was about heights. He kept holding me till we came out of the lift on the 35th floor. I was standing outside the door with Commander Rajnish Bahl and Nutan written on it. The door opened and the entire family welcomed me. My head was in a haze and Nutanji asked me what had gone wrong. I couldn’t hide the truth from her and her family and told her I would not be able to sit with them because I was suffering from vertigo. They would not let me go easily and Commander Bahl asked me if I drank. I said sometimes. He recommended “two stiff ones on the rocks” and all would be well. The Commander’s remedy worked because after the two stiff ones I was like a tiger. All fear had left me and I could walk anywhere and even lean against the window and look down at the footpath below. A few more stiff ones and I was as brave as the Commander. Soon it was time for dinner and Nutan played the perfect hostess when she served me with her own hands. I was so thrilled that I never knew when I got high and how I came down and how I reached home. 

The next morning however I remembered the request Nutan had made to me before I got high. She wanted people to know her son who failed to make it as a hero was willing to try his luck as a villain. I tried my best to write a positive piece on Mohnish which appeared the following Friday. And before I could have my breakfast, it was Nutanji on the line thanking me profusely for the piece and inviting me over for dinner again the same evening. This time I was very smart. I had three stiff ones even before Rajaram could come to pick me up and he was surprised at my newfound courage and asked me what “medicine” I had taken. I did not tell him about my secret and maintained my secret even with Nutanji and the family. And they too were surprised about the change that had come over me within a week.

 I remember another encounter with Nutan. She was doing “Nutan Nites” those days, in which she sang songs from her own films on stage. She was kind enough to agree to my request to do a show for the welfare of the workers of the Indian Express Group. She agreed but she also wanted another senior star to be the chief guest. I ran around looking for someone who would be kind till I found Shashi Kapoor who agreed to come “out of respect for Nutanji”.

 That was the time Shashi was shooting seven shifts in a day. I had to wait for him the entire day and follow him from studio to studio reminding him of the programme in the evening. He finally sent word to me through his make-up Shyam saying that he was ready. Shashi and I reached the Shanmukhananda hall after Nutanji had sung her first few songs. Shashi took his seat as the chief guest in the front row and asked me to sit next to him. He kept clapping after every song she sang and cursing me for bringing him to this “excruciatingly painful performance”. The Shashi Kapoor who was known for his witty and even nasty comments was soon seen at his nastiest best, as the man Shobha De, the godmother of yellow journalism called “the only male bitch” and Shashi took it as a compliment because it came from “the most beautiful bitch in the world.” Shashi kept looking at me with fire in his eyes after she finished singing every song. He once even threatened to throttle me till death on the spot for torturing him and ruining his evening and every time Nutanji tried to catch his attention, he smiled his most charming smile. Who said Shashi Kapoor was not a great actor? Soon it was time for Shashi Kapoor to go on stage and say a few words about Nutanji and her singing. And what I heard him saying was a speech, I can never forget. The same Shashi Kapoor who was about to kill me for forcing him to listen to Nutanji was saying, “Nutanji ki aawaz iss duniya ke liye nahi hai. Inki aawaz ko swarg mein bajna chahiye. I always knew Nutanji as a very actress but it is my extreme good fortune and I don’t know how to thank my friend Ali for bringing me here to listen to this heavenly voice”. Nutanji blushed and the audience gave her a rousing ovation. And before the curtain could be brought down for the interval Shashi came running up to me and just said, “Arre ullu ke patte, kahan laake phasa diya, ab chal bhaag, jaldi bhaag nahin to dum ghoot jaayega mera. Don’t you care about the precious life of the great Mr. Shashi Kapoor?” I was caught between the love for Nutanji and this “devilish” Kapoor, Shashi Kapoor, such a great charmer, who could also be such a great harmer.

 I kept meeting Nutanji of and on because she had soon started accepting mother’s roles in films like “Karma”, “Meri Jung” and “Naam” and above all “Saajan Bina Suhagan”, films she did only to keep in circulation so that she could ask filmmakers to take her son seriously and offer him roles. What a sacrifice a mother was making for her son!

 Soon the same voice which many loved and Shashi Kapoor called all kinds of names that evening showed signs of cracking and within weeks she was diagnosed with throat cancer. The first thing the great woman did when she was told the truth was return all the money she had taken from producers whose films she had planned to do. She then started her own group of women who had their satsangs where they sang the praises of God. Then she was admitted to the Breach Candy hospital where her next-door neighbour was Seth Ramnath Goenka, the owner of the Express Group. He abused each and everyone in his wildest language and Nutanji screamed at him and forced him to keep quiet and this war continued till Nutanji finally succumbed to cancer and died before her time. But more than anything she died at a time when her most cherished dream was coming true. Her son Mohnish had signed more than a dozen films as the leading young villain but she could not know anything about his success. And the one promise she made to me and could never keep was to take me on a holiday to her Mumbra farm and now that promise and many other promises she made and hopes she had can never be fulfilled ever.

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