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Kashmiri Pandits in Indian Cinema

By Gautam Kaul

For a community located in the far corner of the country, one would think it would be difficult to find people of the area moving in mainstream public life and particularly in the fast moving world of entertainment. Facts, however, speak differently for the natives of Kashmir and specifically the Kashmiri Pandits.

The first reference of a Kashmiri native making a public impact in the field of letters and entertainment is a non-Kashmiri Pandit and goes back into the early 1920s, when Agha Hashar Kashmiri emerged as a drama writer. He is also the first film writer from the Valley. His reputation rests on 33 dramas he wrote in his lifetime, which gave him a popular title of ‘Shakespeare from the Valley.’

Some of Agha Hashar’s play became early films made in Kolkata and Mumbai. He died in 1961. The fact that he was not ‘located’ in the Valley and in the Urdu realm of Delhi and finally Mumbai, also helped him in establishing firm roots in the world of Urdu literature. Between him and the next Kashmiris who held sway on the whole sub-continent, is also a small time gap of nearly 10 years. In fact when the Kashmiri Pandit community finally emerges in the field of entertainment one could say they were the original four-some of the community in the Indian talkies era who held sway for nearly three decade.

Leading the pack was Chander Mohan Watal.

Chander Mohan Watal started his career in Pune in 1934 by joining the Prabhat Pictures. His first film was ‘Amrit Manthan’ directed by V. Shantaram. People still remember the extreme close-up shots of the blue eyes of Chadramohan in this film. After a lull of 2 years Chandra Mohan again returned in ‘Wahan' as a hero.

Chandermohan Watal, who hailed from Gwalior now found himself full of assignments. Sohrab Modi cast him in a role in ‘Bharosa’ while Debate Bose gave him ‘Apna Ghar’. But his most important role came to be as an industrialist in Mehboob Khan’s Roti.

Chandermohan’s career ed, felled by a fatal liver illness in 1956. He died a pauper.

In 1935, there was a flash-in-a-pan appearance of one actor S.N. Kaul in film Daksha Yagna. But nothing is heard thereafter of him.

In 1936 itself a young man from Sultanpur, Uttar Pradesh, came to Bombay to try his luck and found himself in the company of similarly struggling artists like Dev Anand and Dilip Kumar. This young Kashmiri pandit was Prem ‘Adib’ Dhar.

Prem Adib had a passion to become a film star. He found himself knocking at the doors of film producers and hit Stardust with the lead role in film ‘Romantic Indiaopposite the actress Nurjehan. His next film ‘Pratima’ proved to be another hit and Prem Adib became a silver jubilee star overnight.

Prem Adib acted in such silver jubilee hits as in ‘Station Master’, ‘Chand’. ‘Darshan’ and ‘Anokhi Ada’. It was finally in the film Ram Rajya that Prem Adib found his immortality. The story inspired from the epic Ramayan, was a golden jubilee hit wherever it was shown in India and the only film ever seen by Mahatma Gandhi in 1943. Artists have only imitated him in later versions.

Prem Adib also launched his own film company but suffered reverses with ‘Dehati' and ‘Ramban'. His film Ram Vivah brought him some luck but the tr of mytholgy had started shifting, and Prem Adib moved from Class A movies to Class B films. His last film was Angulimala made in 1958 and released in 1960.

Prem Adib died in 1959 following a protracted illness which began in a car accident and a botched kidney surgery.

Prem Adib’s younger brother, Raj Adib also attempted a film career riding the reputation of his more famous brother, but success eluded him even when he featured in a hit like “Samadhi”,   He finally gave up the pursuet of cinema, and went into small business.

Then there was Ulhaas Kaul. We remember him today in Sohrab Modi’s ‘Yahodi’, ‘Mirza Ghalib’ and in Ramesh Sehgal’s 'Phir Subeh Hogi’. Hailing from Ajmer, Ulhaas moved to Pune in 1937 and joined Prabhat Pictures. He started his film career in ‘Wahan' in a supporting role.

Ulhaas had a brief period playing in the leading roles as in ‘Sharda’, directed by AR Kardar but his heavy pathan built led him to portray character roles of authority. In fact this helped him to ext his career for nearly three decades until the early 1970s. Then a phenomenon occured.

In 1934 itself a young Kashmiri pandit moved from Lahore to Pune. He knocked around the film studios and found an acting job in film ‘Diwani’ (1934) and followed it immediately with ‘Vatan Parasta’. He called himself Dar Kashmiri. Feeling secure, he now called his younger brother to join him. This was Omkar Kishan (O.K.) Dar. For two years Omkar Kishan Dar signed himself as O.K. Dar, but this name sounded odd, so he changed it to ‘Jeevan’. And we are very familiar with this name.

For more than five decades Jeevan Dhar or Jeevan, ruled the world of Hindi cinema as the most visible representative of the screen villain, a credit shared less only with Pran (Sikand).     He is best remembered in Chand Aur Bijli, ‘Sangharsh' and ‘Kanoon'.

Jeevan Dhar retired, following a spell of various illnesses. He died in the early 1990s of a heart attack. His son Kiran Kumar (Dhar) stepped into the family business and got small roles. He finally emerged as the comic hero in the film ‘Aaj Ki Taza Khabar’. This film was adopted from a Gujarati play and Kiran attracted the attention of a Gujarati film maker. He was adopted by the Gujarati regional film industry as their new hero for the next 15 years. This was a bad loss to Hindi cinema. But today he continues to appear in character roles in both films, and in television serials. Kiran’s younger brother, Bhushan, also joined the film industry, but death snatched him even before be caught the public eye.

There are two contemporaries of Kiran Kumar namely Baldav Khosa from Jammu, who had a brief cinema career and is remembered vaguely for his lead role in Ved Rahi’s ‘Darar’ and Satish Kaul (Aima). Khosa gave up his cinema career and joined politics in Bombay to become a trade union leader in the film industry, and emerged as a one time MLA of the Congress Party representing a constituency in Bombay.

Satish Kaul joined the FTII, Pune to learn cinematography. One day while visiting the set of Dev Anand’s Prem Pujari he found himself being asked to play a soldier’s role and his career as a camera man vanished overnight.

Having joined the camp of Navketan pictures it was natural for Satish Kaul to prosper in the company of Dev Anand, but Satish Kaul was pulled away by other film makers who gave him roles in inconsequential films which included some early Punjabi films. But strangely speaking it was in Punjabi films that Satish Kaul finally became a trusted hero and a guarantee to give reasonable returns to his producers.

Today, both Satish Kaul and his Punjabi films are not remembered, but for 10 years there was no one in Punjabi cinema to push him aside. Satish Kaul lives today a semi-retired life in Mumbai.

In a rare case, a naturally old man joined the film industry and got accepted. He was Avtar Kishan Hangal. Hangal is best remembered for his blind man’s role in film ‘Sholey’, but he has over 100 films behind him.   He started with Teesri Kasam and

played the lead role in ‘Su-Raai’ as an old freedom fighter.  He also acted in Chit-Chor, Khandaan and Aaina.

In the world of male actors the most famous face of a Kashmir pandit belongs to Raj Kumar (Karvayun). The family hailed originally from Indore, which saw Raj Kumar join the Bombay police force as a Sub-Inspector. He was interested in drama and had a brief stint in supporting roles in the local theatre particularly those of the IPTA. Raj Kumar was spotted by scouts of Bombay Talkies for his peculiar style of delivery of dialogues and won a big approval of his audiences. His career as a film hero started in B grade, sword fighting roles, until he came to be noticed in film ‘Sara Akash’. Raj Kumar’s list of successful roles is rather long for this small essay. He is remembered in Neel Kamal, Waqt, Paakeeza and Oonche Log. Raj Kumar died a sudden death due to cardiac failure in the mid 80s. He left behind his Sindhi widow, and at least one son Puru who wanted to be a film actor, but won his notoriety first by killing pavement sleepers in a case of rash and negligence driving.   Puru has had no film career to himself.

The only woman from the Kashmiri community who had a long career, was Yashodhra Kathju. In fact, Yashodhra should be considered as some sort of a pioneer in the field of  comedians in Indian cinema. Incidentally in 1935, one Shyama Zutshi had a film appearance as its heroine. This film was Karvan-e-Hayat. A promising career began but Chandramohan Watal, then an influential conservative Kashmiri pandit in films, opposed the enty of a Kashmiri community girl in this line and fought tooth and nail to get her to leave this career. Shyama’s last film was Khuni Jadugar. Shyama returned to private life. But Yashodhra was different. She showed her thumb on Chandramohan when he repeated himself, because she had moved from home in Lucknow with parental consent to seek a spot in cinema. Her chirpee nature placed her immediately in the role of comics and supporting star.

A career spanning between 1942 and 1960 saw her in many social roles and in mythological films. But she caught attention in Gemini’s ‘Chandralekha’ in 1948, and in ‘Talaq’ (1958). She retired after having married a naval officer but soon passed away because of a sudden heart attack. It is unfortunate that this gifted girl is totally forgotten in the Hindi cinema as well as within her own community.   There is currently a starlet Rita Rani Kaul, some time found in Hindi television serials.  Her attempt to find a place in Hindi films has been unsuccessful as yet.

And who can forget those light blue eyes of Daya Kishan Sapru also known as Sapru which shone through even in black and white films like ‘Sahib Bibi Aur Gulam'.

Sapru entered cinema as a supporting actor in the early 1950s, because of his aristocratic bearing. The result was he never played a hero role; but whenever there was a need for a zamindar or a thakur landlord for portrayal, Sapru happened to be a natural choice. He was at his villainous best in Guru Dutt’s Sahib Bibi Aur Gulam. He also acted in the hit ‘Charas’.  Sapru passed away in the late 1970s. His children, Preeti Sapru switched to film making in Gujarati and Punjabi regional cinema, while his son Tej is still trying to find his foothold in film direction.

Coming from Delhi is Raj Zutshi. Having taken his training from FTII, Pune, Raj found an early patron in Subhash Ghai’s ‘Saudagar’. Because of a series of bad decisions he was more or less thrown out of the Hindi film industry and for nearly 10 years he used time to find a foothold in the television industry. Raj Zutshi is now much wiser and older, and finds supporting roles in Hindi cinema.

Another person who smashed his promising career was Jawahar Kaul. His biggest role was in AVM’s ‘Bhabi’. But his career was nipped in the bud in a CBI raid when it was alleged that he had some connection with a smuggling racket, a charge which was finally thrown out of the Court after trial, but Jawahar Kaul's career was now totally finished.

Today the rising actor from the Kashmiri community is Anupam Khar (Kher) and his brother Rajra @ Raju Kher. Coming from Shimla and trained in Lucknow, Anupam Kher came to Bombay via his love for theatre. He caught the viewers attention in the very first film Saaransh made by Mahesh Bhatt. He took the Hindi film industry by storm and he continues to be a rage even today.

Anupam Kher has the sole distinction of having acted in Hindi and Tamil cinema in some 200 dramatic roles, but none of them as a hero. Yet if there is a hero, in a film starring Anupam Kher, it becomes an Anupam Kher's film.

An off and on film artist, has been MK Raina. An alumni of the National School of Drama, Mr Raina has been an 'accidental' film artist whose real passion is drama but has been roped in by his fris sometimes to act in film.

A promising career was cut short for AK Kaul who directed "27 Down" when he was drowned in sea in Mumbai. Another celebrated film director is Arun Kaul, whose film "Diksha" was a national award winner. Arun Kaul is better known for his 75 episode serial on Kashmiri culture, broadcast on Doordarshan until 1999. And then there is a one film wonder, Rajan Khosa who made "The Dance of the Wind" and then moved to Holland.

Before I close this essay which otherwise will continue to be mentioning an uning list of names known and unknown of Kashmiri Pandits in the Hindi film industry, I wish to recall the contribution to Indian cinema of Mahesh Kaul.

Mahesh Kaul is considered amongst the pioneers of cinema of social content. His long stint of working in the Indian People's Theatre Association in Bombay led him into finally becoming a film maker. Mahesh Kaul introduced Raj Kapoor in film Gopi Nath. He continued to make serious films and also made the first colour cinemascope film Talaq. Mahesh Kaul shuttled between theatre and cinema in Bombay for more than two decades, finally moving into retirement. His presence in cinema inspired his nephew Mani Kaul to take to this medium. Mani Kaul is heard more than seen, and therefore if we simply make a mention in this despatch it would be enough for our record.

An illustrious son of Kashmir valley worth mentioning specially herein, is not a Kashmiri Pandit. He is Vidhu Vinod Chopra. Vidhu Vinod Chopra currently needs no introduction for as a director and producer, his films like Parinda, Khamosh, 1942 A Love Story, Mission Kashmir and Parneeta produced by him, are all current rages as well as hallmarks of quality. Vidhu swears by his Kashmiri links and is ever keen to go back to the Valley to meet his childhood associates.

Cinema and television have also starred a number of artists, some famous like Om Shivpuri, and the lesser known Ashish Kaul and scriptwriters like RK Kaul, and Pawan Kaul. The latest amongst film directors is Maj. Ashok Kaul whose film Bhagmati is being released on August 26th in selected theatres in North India.

As I stated, this list will continue to grow and I have been assured only a limited space therefore if I have missed names to mention herein, it is not out of any ignorance but because of the compulsions that this essay must .

This essay is the first of its kind attempted. The author welcomes addititions and corrections which any reader may oblige, so that a better record is developed in the community's contribution to the Indian film industry.

A community whose total strength does not exceed 5 lakh in the world, seems to have played a dominant role in the Indian film industry and promises to play the same dominant role even in future.  How has this happened, is a little difficult to explain. It is not good looks alone that have attracted audiences and the film makers both. There is something mysterious for the members of this community even when they are moving in the direction to eliminate their cultural moorings; Moving they are still, like flashing lights, so as to be remembered for ever.

Source: Kashmir Sentinel

 
 

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