Although 1963 and 1964 belonged to the jubilee star, a different genre of films was beginning to capture the public imagination. Along with Rajendra Kumar’s Sangam and Zindagi, 1964 and 1965 saw films like Haqeeqat, Dosti, Rajkumar, Ziddi, Kashmir ki Kali and the mystery Woh Kaun Thi?, along with the path-breaking Guide, ruling the box office.
To be rewarded for one’s efforts with success and fame was one thing; to hold on to them and work one’s way through the fear of losing them was another, he told himself. Hard work, staying on top of things and continuously reinventing himself were indispensable for retaining his position, and retain it he would. He did so admirably, reigniting his creative passion with his new pet project, Aman, the ideation for which had begun in late 1965.
During a brainstorming session involving the film’s creatives, Rajendra Kumar had come up with a suggestion. ‘Mohan,’ he said to the director, ‘let’s try and get Bertrand Russell in the opening scene.’
The other man laughed at the very idea. ‘You’re joking, right?’ he said. ‘Lord Russell is one of the greatest philosophers of our time and a famous member of Britain’s anti-war brigade. Look at his stature and look at us – just ordinary film-industry people! How could we even dream of bridging the divide?’
‘True!’ Rajendra admitted. ‘But he advocates nuclear disarmament. Our film Aman conveys the same message. No harm in asking him, is there?’
So the next day, the two men composed a letter and mailed it to Lord Russell. To their surprise, they received a reply from the philosopher’s secretary ten days later. ‘Lord Russell,’ said the letter, ‘has agreed to appear in the film’s opening scene. However, because of his age, he is unable to travel to India. If you could be so kind as to come and meet him here, he will be glad to give you an hour of his time.’
Elated by the news, Mohan Kumar, Rajendra Kumar and their crew left for England without delay and made their way to Porthmadog, earlier known as Port Madoc, the small coastal town in North Wales where Bertrand Russell lived.
The ailing Lord Russell received the Indian film star with great warmth and respect and so enjoyed the meeting and the shoot that he worked on the scene for all of four hours, instead of the allotted one. With the first schedule of the film completed successfully, the members of the crew were soon back to the bay and busy with preparations for their next shooting schedule in Japan, slated for early 1966.
Aman’s second schedule in Japan stretched over a period of thirty days that seemed magical and dreamlike to its stars. Filming in quaint, picturesque local villages, glitzy towns and locations surrounded by breathtakingly beautiful mountains, the film’s leading man and leading lady were attracted to each other. Responsible family man that he was, Rajendra Kumar tried to resist his co-star’s bewitching charm and avoid a romantic entanglement with her, but Saira Banu’s proximity during their leisurely evening walks in the enchanting gardens of their hotel plunged him into confusion. Back in Bombay, gossip magazines went into overdrive and rumours of a love affair gained momentum.
Photographs of Rajendra Kumar and his beautiful leading lady appeared in various publications, accompanied by spiced-up reports of their alleged affair.
“Aman released in May 1967. It was a very good film, but it didn’t run. For the Indian audience, the film was far ahead of its time. It enjoyed success mostly in Iran, Lebanon, Egypt and so on. Iranians would rush towards me, exclaiming, ‘Aga Kumar, yallah yallah! Aman, yallah yallah!’ It was such an honour for us to have Lord Bertrand Russell in our film, but the funny part was that the Indian audience neither knew who he was nor understood the value of his message and appearance. They thought, ‘Pata nahin kaunsa buddha kahan se pakad layein hai? Who knows where they picked up some old man and brought him here.’
Aman is the only feature film that Lord Bertrand Russell appeared in. It was brilliant. The climax of the film was shot in Delhi. It was a funeral-procession scene, an arthi scene for which we had placed a small advertisement in the newspaper, stating that fans who wanted to witness and be a part of the scene should come to India Gate with flowers. Next day, millions of people arrived, showering the arthi with flowers, while the song ‘Aman ka farishta’ (Angel of Peace) played in the background. Halla ho gaya! Pandemonium reigned. Even Madam [Indira] Gandhi couldn’t pass through because of the surging crowds. She asked, ‘What’s happening?’ A film shoot, she was told. From that day on, she banned shooting on Rajpath. When the film released, people thought [deceased Prime Minister Lal Bahadur] Shastriji ki arthi ka stock shot tha, but it wasn’t.”— Rajendra Kumar, quoted in Jubilee Kumar.
Other than featuring Lord Bertrand Russell in a special appearance, Aman presented other firsts too: ghazal maestro Jagjit Singh in a rare acting role and Naseeruddin Shah, making his debut as an extra. Although critics rated Rajendra Kumar’s performance, especially in the father-and-son showdown scene with Balraj Sahni, as one of his finest, the film failed at the box office. It remained just another film that the jubilee star had featured in.
Excerpted with permission from Jubilee Kumar, Seema Sonik Alimchand, Hachette India.