After a couple of months of living in the Panditjee’s house as subtenants, [KL] Saigal uncle kindly gave us a two-bedroom flat on rent in his own building Radha Kunj (now called Amar Kunj) in Punjabi Gully. Saigal uncle’s mother and my grandfather were cousins. K L Saigal was an affectionate and kindly man. Every evening he screened his movies on the terrace of the building for family and friends. The men would enjoy their drinks while the ladies sat and chatted and the kids ran around. It was not uncommon to see Bal Thackeray, then a cartoonist, at the Saigal house. Lata Mangeshkar was also a regular visitor. Saigal uncle had two daughters, Neena and Beena; his eldest child, Madan Mohan (Gogi) had a wonderful voice, but died before he could fulfil his potential.
At the time of our move to Punjabi Galli the entire Kapoor family stayed in the Lane: Prithviraj Kapoor with his sons, Raj, Shammi, Shashi and their sister Umi; Prithviraj’s father Lala Bisheshwar Nath Kapoor and Prithviraj’s two sisters Kailash and Shanta. Bauji worked with Raj, Shammi, Shashi and their cousin Subiraj, then with the next generation, Randhir and Rishi, and also their wives Babita and Neetu.
Prithvi Theatres, established in Bombay in 1944 by Prithvi Raj Kapoor, heralded the renaissance of the Hindustani Theatre Movement in India. He was large hearted and a great man indeed.
He usually had hordes of young actors staying with him and with his father. One would always see Papaji’s brothers Ram, Amar and Vishi, his sons Shammi and Shashi and his nephews Tiger and Narinder Jetley, with other young men like Sajjan and Lekh Raj Tandon around the place. All of them were hardworking and industrious but any spare time they had they would play lane cricket. Mr Lekh Tandon, whose father was a friend of Papaji from earlier days, was also to be seen with them. Mr Lekh Tandon told me that my father always affectionately called them the Loafer Gang.
The famous German-trained producer/director/writer J K Nanda lived opposite our house. He made great movies like Singhaar, Parwana, Dhakke ki Malmal and Chalaak. In 1954, in collaboration with Rajinder Singh Bedi, he wrote the script for Mirza Ghalib, the first Hindi film to win the President’s Gold Medal. In his heyday, one would see a veritable line up of beautiful and glamorous stars like Suraiya, Nargis, Nimmi and Madhubala visiting his house. Great film personalities like D N Madhok, A R Kardar and others also visited him regularly.
Manmohan Krishna lived across the road from us. Manmohan chachaji’s father and my grandfather were office colleagues and lifelong friends. Manmohan chachaji was a professor of Physics. His wife Nandini (Kiki aunty) was a MA in History and had taught at Islamia College, Delhi. They would frequently come over after dinner to talk about our shared family connections and the film world. Their discussions about the working conditions of the character actors and the junior artistes eventually led to the formation of the Character Actors Association in 1956.
Manmohan chachaji gave me lessons in Algebra, and a few slaps were part of the teaching process. In those days getting occasional slaps was no big deal, and there were no psychological scars or trauma. Our elders loved us and their punishments carried no sting. I was singularly fortunate that I had plenty of loving elders.
Manmohan Krishna won the Filmfare Best Supporting Actor Award for Dhool ka Phool and subsequently directed the highly acclaimed Yash Chopra’s Noori. Bauji played Poonam Dhillon’s father in the movie, a positive role superbly played.
Trilok Kapoor lived next door to Manmohan Krishna. He had played Lord Shiva in so many movies that calendars and religious photos depicted him as such. His elder brother Prithvi Papaji often told him jokingly, ‘I dare not scold you because you might point your angry Third Eye toward me!’
Jagdish Sethi, a great producer-director-actor who made many classics such as Jaggu, lived in the next building. He had acted in Alam Ara (1931), the first Indian talkie movie. Jagdish Sethi was also an astrologer who was not afraid of making negative predictions. His son Omesh was my classmate and best friend and we had shared many childhood escapades. Once, Sethi uncle fell seriously ill. Half-joking, Bauji asked him, ‘Papaji, you are always predicting people’s future; today, what about you?’
Sethi uncle replied, ‘Madan, I am not sure about my exact date and time of birth so my predictions about myself may not be accurate, but I know that Omi’s father cannot die as yet.’
He recovered, and lived for many years. Unfortunately Omesh, who rose to the rank of Master Mariner in the Merchant Navy, died of cardiac arrest in 1993, aged barely fifty.
On one occasion, Mohinder Lal Saigal (younger brother of K L Saigal), who lived next door to J K Nanda, took very ill and was admitted to Sion Hospital. One night at about 3 am, Savita, daughter of Jagdish Sethi woke up and saw the light was on in Sethi Saab’s room. She walked in and found her father fully dressed and sitting at his table. He said that he was waiting for the phone to ring. A few minutes later, the phone rang. Amrish chachaji, who was on hospital duty that night, informed Sethi Saab that M L Saigal had passed away. Sethi Saheb got up from his table and said that he was going down to the Lane to inform everybody.
Mithun Chakravarty lived for a short period in the back lane in the building next to K N Singh. Jayant, Anil Biswas, Ashalata, Jairaj, Phani Mazumdar, Bismil Peshawari, P N Arora, Sitara Devi and Manna Dey all lived in Punjabi Galli during that period. Dwarka Khosla and Raj Khosla lived nearby. Film producer Dr Sinha and his niece Vidya Sinha, Kanhaiya Lal and Bharat Kapoor also lived in the vicinity. Mr Kakkar, the studio manager of R K Studio, occupied the flat above us. Mrs Kailash Kakkar was Prithviraj Kapoor’s sister. Their son Subiraj worked in many movies as the male lead and later worked in TV serials. He married Baby Naaz of ‘Boot Polish’ fame – a Raj Kapoor classic. Subiraj and Naaz starred in Dekha Pyar Tumhara (1963) and Bauji played the villain. Subiraj passed away in July 2007. Naaz had died some years earlier.
The mid-fifties saw an exodus of the film fraternity from Matunga towards Pali Hill, Bandra, where large independent bungalows and spacious flats were available. Now only three film families live in Hollywood Lane: Mrs Manmohan Krishna and her son and family; J K Nanda’s widowed daughter-in-law and her daughters; and my younger brother Ramnesh and his children. However, the legendary aura of Hollywood Lane aka Punjabi Galli lingers on.
Excerpted with permission from My Father, The Villain, by Lt Col Kamlesh Puri, Bloomsbury.