Films have been Muzaffar Ali’s passion but poetry, painting, couture, cars, dogs, horses, India’s composite culture, Sufism and Rumi’s humanism figure no less in his autobiography Zikr: In the Light and Shade of Time.

Like many autobiographies, Ali presents the events of his life in chronological order, beginning with an interesting account of his father Raja Syed Sajid Husain of Kotwara, who has had a major influence on his life, including helping him with historical research on his film Umrao Jaan. Ali finds some similarities between his father and Turkish leader Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in their outlook on life, and is critical of the Ali brothers’ role in arranging the marriage of his father to an Ottoman princess, Selma Hanimsultan, a marriage which did not last long.

Muzaffar Ali inherited his father’s interest in cars and describes his love for his automobile stable, including the 1928 Isotta Fraschini, Jag VII, Jog, Jaguar Mark V, and the Lagonda Le Mans replica, all of which he owned at different times. The memoir reveals that his arly influences come from the taluqdar background of his family, his upbringing in Kotwara house in Qaiser Bagh and estate in Kotwara in Kheri district (which date from the 15th century), regular visits to Nainital, his schooling at Lucknow’s famous La Martiniere Schookl, and his exposure to a changing environment in Lucknow after the partition.

Aligarh, Calcutta, and Mumbai

Sent to Aligarh Muslim University at the age of 18, Ali discovers that he made a journey from “a city of beauty to a city of dreams.” Despite his permanent companionship of “makhi,machhar, matri” and his experience of ragging, referred to as “introduction” in the university, Aligarh exerted a lasting influence on his personality, especially its poets who “taught me this art of associations”. Aligarh’s architecture, “its Colonial Moorish buildings in red bricks” and its poetic ambience held so much appeal for him that he would later plan a film on the “trauma of pre-Partition Aligarh”. Most importantly, he was exposed to the beauty and richness of Urdu poetry in Aligarh and developed his passion for painting in the university town.

He speaks lovingly of Zahida Zaidi, a professor of English and an Urdu poet and dramatist, who “inspired me to think from a feminine viewpoint, which was going to become my forte in films.” Part of an anglicised circle in Aligarh, Zaidi’s Art Club, which included soon-to-be famous collage painter Farhan Mujeeb and Inayat Zaidi, engrossed him. Rahi Masoom Raza became his mentor in Aligarh and Shahryar “a lifelong partner in my creative life”.

Though he failed in his BSc examination in one semester, he credits Aligarh for teaching him “to see the world poetically and lyrically” and preparing him for a larger political, personal and professional role in life. Developing his understanding of the world in Aligarh, he discovered “that there was a bit of a scientist in every poet of Aligarh, and a poet in every scientist.” After many years Ali paid a tribute to four important poets of Aligarh – Rahi Masoom Raza, Shahryar Javed Kamal, and Khalilur Rahman Azmi – through “Ghazal Mere Shahar Mein”, performed by Salma Agha, and his album Raqs-e Bismil which included one ghazal (sung by Abida Parveen) of Hasrat Mohani, the poet and the revolutionary and an AMU alumnus who had inspired his father to send his son to Aligarh.

If Aligarh enabled him poetically, Calcutta offered him something that bridged art and commerce, including a job in Clarion Advertising Services at novelist Attia Husain’s recommendation. In Calcutta he was exposed to various cross sections of the metropolis, meeting people like Mrinal Sen, Satyajit Ray, and a young Amitabh Bachchan, and learning his first lessons in film-making. The chaos and the crowd in the metropolis also made him discover his leftist leanings. His wedding to art historian Geeti Sen, his first wife, took place in Calcutta in the Brahmo Samaj tradition.

The job of assistant station manager in Air India took Muzaffar Ali to Mumbai, where he gave full rein to his passion for art, holding exhibitions of his paintings and selling them to the National Gallery of Modern Art, the Taj Mahal hotel, and Jahangir Nicholson, a famous art collector. During this period he learned valuable lessons in advertising and mastered a whole new vocabulary of drawings and sketches. He feels proud of his association with the “welcome a visitor, send back a friend” campaign of Ministry of Tourism and his work as in-charge of “congresses and conventions” to promote India as a venue for international meetings.

His early exposure to contemporary interiors in the company of his colleagues and friends Jog and Shona Ray, which he would take up as both his hobby and profession, also dates from this period. Interestingly Ali’s sense of design and business turned an ordinary cobbler named Bharat into a master designer who worked with him for more than 20 years. Together, they designed a collection of fashionable bags for women under the brand “Craftsmen of India”.

Cinematic oeuvre

The chapters on each of his films – Gaman, Umrao Jaan, Aagman, Anjuman, Zooni (unfinished) – enlivened by many vignettes, offer an inside view of his style of filmmaking and of his reasons for putting Awadh at the centre of his films. Gaman, inspired by the poetry of Faiz, made popular by Shahryar’s ghazal “seene mein jalan ankho mein toofan sa kyon hai”, and featuring Farooq Shaikh and Smita Patil in the lead, consisted of moving images which would remain etched in viewer’s minds.

He credits his exposure to poetry in Aligarh for enabling him to see social reality differently. “It was Aligarh that would make this windblown questioning son of an ‘educated villager’ a poet of cinema…The medium of Gaman came to me from Calcutta, its inspiration from Aligarh, its soul from the heart of Awadh, and its palette from my paintings.”

Gaman’s reception at the 29th National Film Festival as “the most sensitive treatment of migration from rural areas to urban centres” validated the making of this extremely low-budget film put up by FTTI team in which “no artist was paid more than five thousand rupees and the entire crew travelled in second-class sleeper.” It was possible for an outsider to make inroads in Bollywood because of the help of Subhash K Jain, a businessman and film financier, who could “keep any camp at bay” and protected Ali “in a world of wolves.”

There are interesting details about the making of Umrao Jaan, Muzaffar Ali’s signal contribution to cinema. It was a challenge to make a different film on the courtesans of Awadh, a subject treated frequently by many but “with little or no sense of any moorings of a time or place.” He approached the subject through Shahryar’s poetry, conceptualising the character of Umrao through his ghazals and working on the subject through the lens of Urdu poetry.

Ali gives full credit to Rekha who worked very hard on mastering the nuances of Urdu in the film, to Asha Bhosle who insisted on reading the novel Umrao Jaan, Ada before attempting the songs, Khaiyyam who worked as a good team member and all others associated with the film. Interestingly, Mirza Hadi Ruswa, the author of the novel on which the film is based, had given its rights to Banaras Hindu University, whose vice chancellor “immediately assigned the rights to” Muzaffar Ali’s company “Integrated Film”. Calling his Lucknow ‘the Lucknow of poetry’ and a bit disappointed with the present “Lucknow of projects”, for Ali poetry’s invisible influence “dwells in the soul whereas projects assault you in the face”.

Aagaman, a prequel to Gaman, was the first film of Anupam Kher who would later act in Mahesh Bhatt’s Saaransh. Anuradha Paudwal also got her first break in this film. Set in the “Awadhi winterscape of the sugarcane season and critical of the exploitative practices of the mill owners, the film was considered so real that many theatres, owned by mill owners, boycotted the film. Aagaman used the poetry of Faiz Ahmad Faiz to bring out the pain and pathos of the workers’ life.

Panned by India Today magazine as a disappointing unhistorical promotional film which is “neither fish nor fowl”, Ali draws consolation from the fact that the opening song of Aagaman – “‘younhi hamesha ulajhti rahi hai zulm se khalq / Na unki rasm nayi na apni reet nayi,’ written by Faiz ‘resounds thirty- eight years later in the camps of the recent farmer’s protest bringing to life the eternal conflict between the exploiter and the exploited.’”

Anjuman, a film about the exploitation of the chikan workers, was also inspired by the poetry of Faiz. Ali calls this a poet’s and painter’s film which even drew rich praise from iconic painter Satish Gujral. Ali takes pride in using the vocabulary of feminine feudal culture of Lucknow in both Umrao Jaan and Anjuman. Calling his kind of cinema “a new genre” and “Urdu cinema”, there “was a genuine urge to understand cultures and people through languages.” Anjuman was “the coming together of Lucknow, Aligarh, Calcutta and Bombay.”

Ali is full of regret for not being able to complete his dream project Zooni, a film based on the life of legendary Kashmiri poet Habba Khatoon. He shot a portion of the film in Kashmir and tried to resume work on it a number of times but finally political circumstances forced the cancellation of the most ambitious film of his. Ali puts together the entire journey of Zooni in one interesting chapter: casting of Dimple and Vinod Khanna, work on costumes and the songs, long stays in Kashmir and other places and his perspective on turmoil in Kashmir.

Couture, Sufism, politics

Ali’s feel for craft and couture, fully reflected in his films, is yet another dimension of his personality. Getting his ideas from his father’s wardrobe and the clothes he had seen in Lucknow, “each ensemble was a language, like Urdu, Awadhi and English.” He feels disappointed to see characters in films let down by their clothing and proud of his efforts to integrate “the element of time with the language of clothes” in his films. He has also made 18 short films on textile and craft.

Ali considers himself an outsider in Bollywood who yet managed to make his mark through his kinds of films. Bollywood is a “cauldron of insecurity and ugliness” where “small minds with narrow agendas subjugate giants and make them pygmies. Money becomes the only criterion of art.” The title of his autobiography Zikr: In the Light and Shade of Time exudes a Sufistic air which, in fact, runs all through the book and becomes his driving force in the later chapters. He gets intellectual insights from his reading of Sufi scholar Seyyed Hossein Nasr and imbibes virtues of self-effacement in Ajmer at the dargah of Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti.

Rumi is present all through the book through his quotations and Ali’s immersion in his philosophy of humanism. “Rumi was the essence of Islam, and yet belonged to every possible faith from every part of the world.” His devotion to the Sufi idea of the need for a master and his fascination for the poetry of Amir Khusrau further kindled his interest in Rumi whom he would read in English translation like a religious text, getting inspiration from him on a daily basis. His short film Rumi in the Land of Khusrau is further testimony of his love for the philosophy of humanism.

There are euphemistic references to politicians in the book. Mulayam Singh Yadav, Ali’s leader briefly, could not match the “maverick machinations” of Amar Singh “maybe he was having too good a time to care.” Ali decided to contest elections from Lucknow after a member of parliament had him removed from his reserved berth in Lucknow Mail.

He also takes a dig at Atal Bihari Vajpayee when he refers to Vajpayee’s praise of his speech at a seminar on the demolition of Babri Masjid: “I so wished people understood what they said, meant what they did.” He often saw Vajpayee at the New Delhi station “dressed in his usual shalwar kurta, a dress which was abused as being Pakistani after December 6, 1992. At many places in the book there is a lament for the loss of Ganga-Jamuni tahzeeb.

Ali hopes his autobiography will “highlight the finer, vulnerable, intangible aspects of Lucknow.” Zikr has done that and more.

Zikr: In the Light and Shade of Time, Muzaffar Ali, Penguin India.

Mohammad Asim Siddiqui is professor in the Department of English at Aligarh Muslim University.