If Memory Serves Me Right is a 56-minute documentary about a 74-year-old film critic for whom cinema was a 24x7 obsession. Rafeeq Ellias’s film about Rashid Irani, who died on July 30, explores Irani’s lifelong cinemania, his relationship with his neighbourhood in downtown Mumbai, and the loneliness and anxieties that gripped him during the coronavirus-induced lockdowns.
A well-regarded critic for the Times of India and Hindustan Times, Irani died after a fall at his home. His body was found three days later. Ellias, who was a close friend of Irani’s, was among the people who broke down the door to Irani’s apartment.
“It was hard for me to work on the film, I abandoned it for six or eight weeks,” Ellias told Scroll.in. “Just hearing his voice and not seeing him there was very hard for me.”
If Memory Serves Me Right was premiered at the International Documentary and Short Film Festival of Kerala held in Thiruvananthapuram earlier this month. It will be shown online through the Vikalp documentary screening group between December 16 and 19 and in Mumbai at the Press Club (of which Irani was a member) on December 18.
The documentary’s title refers to one of Irani’s stock phrases. Ellias gets Irani to talk about his earliest film-watching memories (it began with Niagara, starring Marilyn Monroe) and the unmatched magic of the big-screen experience.
Irani chucked up a steady job as an accountant at a shipping company to devote himself to the study of cinema. He was already a member of film societies. Irani also frequented several film festivals across the country, and was a part of the Mumbai Film Festival’s selection committee for international cinema.
For years, Irani balanced film criticism with managing Cafe Brabourne, a restaurant in Dhobitalao he co-owned and that was a short walk from his home. The film reveals Irani’s deep connections with Dhobitalao, where he was born and lived his entire life.
Strong nostalgia as well as a sense of creeping loss hang over the documentary. Brabourne shut down in 2008. The building that housed it is being rebuilt.
Irani’s unexpected death is seemingly anticipated by Dhobitalao’s changing landscape as well as his predicament during the lockdowns of 2020 and 2021. Unable to visit his regular haunts and cut off from the movies, Irani comes across as an isolated, tragic figure.
“The challenge of being lonely was multiplied by Covid-19,” Ellias said. “The pandemic made his situation overwhelming.” There is still a “hole in the neighbourhood” that has not recovered from the ravages of the pandemic, and this could be said about Irani too, Ellias observed.
A few months before the 2020 lockdown, Ellias had filmed three episodes of conversations with Irani about his engagement with cinema in Pune. “The idea was to go back and record a few more episodes.,” Ellias said. “Then the lockdown began and the whole thing came to a standstill.”
Ellias began filming Irani during the early months of the pandemic in 2020. “I used to meet him a few times a week to grab some tea and breakfast,” the 71-year-old filmmaker said. “Whenever I could, I would film a bit.”
If Memory Serves Me Right highlights Irani’s other great passion – poetry and literature. Irani amassed a massive collection of books in his apartment. In the film’s most unsettling moments, Irani makes his way past piles of books that surround his bed and spill out of every corner.
Irani’s poor living conditions might come as a shock for those who knew and remembered him as a well turned-out gent. Ellias says that he took utmost care in shooting inside Irani’s home.
“I was mindful – for instance, the scenes are overwhelmingly dark, to minimise the squalor,” Ellias said. “I didn’t want anything to be explicit. I didn’t use close-ups but focused on portraiture of Rashid and dimmed everything around him.”
Irani participated in the film as an equal partner, said Ellias, whose previous documentaries include The Legend of Fat Mama and What Men, Joe.
“We were on a journey together,” Ellias said. “There is definitely an inequality between filmmaker and subject, but I wanted him to participate as much as possible. Had he lived, I would have given him veto power over the footage. I showed him some of the bits I had shot and he said, I leave it you.”
Irani was encouraged by the Turkish documentary The Collector, in which filmmaker Pelin Esmer profiles her uncle Mithat Esmer. The elderly man lives in an apartment chockful of books and items collected over a lifetime.
“Rashid was hesitant [about being filmed] for a long time, but the turning point came after he watched The Collector,” Ellias revealed. “He said, I too am a collector, I have all these things and I treasure them and it doesn’t matter what other people think.”
Irani says at one point in the film, “Once one dies, nothing else matters. It is pointless to think or even worry about it.” Might the documentary’s tone have been different if Irani were still alive – a tribute to an uncompromising life rather than a lament for the departed?
For Eliias, the answer is complicated by his knowledge of Irani’s poor health and his inability to continue doing what he loved the most – meeting people and watching and discussing movies.
“There had been a melancholic undertone in the past few years that got accelerated with Covid,” Ellias said. “Had he survived, there would good highs but also definite lows. There was the exhilarating part, about cinema, and side by side the increasing loneliness and the impact of bad health. It would have been a tremendous effort for him to go back to watching movies in the theatres for sure.”
The film prompts another question: has it been released too soon?
“When we lost Rashid, I was in a fairly advanced stage of editing,” Ellias said. “I thought I would show him a rough cut and then finish it off. Rashid too was anxious that I finish the film, he had enjoyed the process. I felt I needed to complete the film for a bunch of people – the person I have filmed, his friends, my collaborators.”
The film’s target audience is people who may have never met Irani or may have only heard of his reputation as a cinephile and a certified Mumbai character. At the screening at the documentary festival in Kerala, Ellias said he saw a few people sobbing in the audience. “People who didn’t know him were moved too – they could feel for him,” Ellias said.