December Issue 2015
“I’m more than just a filmmaker.” — Muzaffar Ali
At different times in his life, Raja Muzaffar Ali has studied geology, worked in advertising, promoted the crafts, organised music festivals and published books on Sufi poetry. His driving passion all along, however, has been film-making, a passion and vocation that brings together all the talents of this multi-faceted person. He began his film career with Gaman and made the award-winning Umrao Jaan soon after. Aagman, a film on sugarcane cooperatives, followed, and then after a hiatus of three decades came the feature film,Jaanisar, starring Pakistan’s own Imran Abbas. Muzaffar Ali interacted with film buffs in Karachi at a screening and panel discussion organised by Habib University. In this exclusive interview, Muzaffar speaks with Newsline about his life and art.
Your background was in the visual arts?
Coming from Lucknow, it was more of a cultural background. The cultural aspect connected with the social reality of the place, jo rehan sehan hota tha vahan ka. I used to sketch since I was a child, doing water-colours, exploring every single medium. I’ve not been trained as a painter, but in school I did well at art. Other things I was not very good at.
And then because of my upbringing… you develop a sort of association with good taste, with a certain kind of ambience. My father had a socially conscious outlook towards society, which at the time was very rare. He studied in Edinburgh and was part of the Communist movement there. He went to China, Russia, travelled the whole world. He had a bigger picture in mind when he came to India. He was focused on human emancipation, on social issues, and particularly the village. He came from a kind of feudal situation, but thought there should be audio-visual education, family planning, farmers should not be exploited, those issues. He was an entirely secular, anti-colonial person, opposed to any manifestation of religion in politics. He was the last person to accept a country being divided on communal lines. That was his driving force.
And then, of course, I read Faiz at the time. It was Faiz Saheb who led me to understand Urdu poetry, more than what Lucknow had to offer. The Urdu poetry of Lucknow had a different kind of sensitivity, marsia, soze…Faiz brought a kind of social consciousness, the whole spirit of change and revolution. When I went to Aligarh, the passion for poetry became more acute.
How important is education in this process?
I have my own take on education and I want to set up an integrated school of design, taking every single factor into consideration. People learn the technique of communicating and then they are hired by people who have their own agenda…they seek jobs…iss main kaam mil jaega, uss main kaam mil jaega. The moment you are picked up by somebody, then you are not yourself. Iss say accha aap kuch aur kar lain.
You need some sort of crusaders in this. If you understand what poetry is all about, then you’ll respect what I’m trying to say. A poet has to be a free bird. The moment you tell a poet to write something, you’re killing him, you’re clipping his wings. Wo jo parvaz hai, wo to azaadi say hi aati hay.
How did you end up in Calcutta?
After I graduated from Aligarh, my father advised me to take up science subjects. For me, arts and science were the same. I was interested in nothing. I thought, if I know petrology and what’s under the earth, I’ll always have a job. I trudged through the mountains with a haversack to collect samples, carrying a hammer and kilos of rock. I passed with a 2nd class, but then I thought, this is not for me, let me come as close to art as I can while making a living.
So I got into an advertising agency in Calcutta. I managed interesting accounts. There’s another side of advertising, there are poets who become translators, artists who become visualisers, this was the other world of advertising. It introduced me to theatre, to poets.
So how did you meet Satyajit Ray?
He was our art director. I used to spend a lot of time with him, just chatting, watching him work.
You were with Air India for some time.
Main wahan say bachh kay nikla hoon. I got as much as I could out of Air India, an opening of the mind. The minute I thought my wings were going to be clipped, I cut out.
The top person in Air India at the time was a Parsi gentleman. He was a phenomenon, I’m proud to have worked with him. He was the one who invented the Air India Maharaja.
Air India was a great product, it was not just selling seats, it was creating an image. I was dealing with that image, I could do anything. For me, kathak or a thumri or a painting were as much a part of Air India… we had hundreds of offices, creating the look and feel, it was a very complex job. The organisation was far too big for a mad man like me to become a burden on them.
I enjoyed it and made the film Gaman while I was there.
Umrao Jaan came soon after Gaman. And then?
Soon after Umrao Jaan, there was Aagman, which was on the sugar cane cooperatives, a film that was very close to my heart. Where I come from, there are sugarcane farmers, so it was close to home. I used Faiz Saheb’s poetry in that. He had given me permission to use any of his poems in any of my films.
I made Anjuman about the chikan workers of Lucknow, it was also dedicated to Faiz Saheb. I start with his couplet and end on his poem. Dard ki anjuman jo mera des hai — that was the genesis of the title.
Then I made a serial called Jan-e- Alam and also did some documentaries. One documentary was on the Vasiqedars, the descendants of the royal family of Oudh, which was deposed and sent to Calcutta.
You wanted to do a film on Kashmir.
Kashmir is another chapter. I stepped into the valley with the idea of Zooni, a film about Hubba Khatoon, a 16th century poet-empress in Kashmir. The idea developed from my work in Air India. I had started a division to promote India as a venue for international meetings. An expert from Stockholm suggested we make a film on the four seasons of Kashmir, to promote it.
We got a whole international team going, the New York-based designer, Mary McFadden, came on board, the Kashmir government bought the idea. They even gave me a bank guarantee. But the insurgency came up while we were working on the film. We were stoned, all kinds of things were happening. The whole film was around four seasons, but I could barely complete two seasons and had to scoot from there.
On another note, documentary. You’ve done quite a lot of documentary work.
I’ve done a reasonable amount of films that are documentary in nature, but that’s not my forte. I’m interested in certain things and try to document them… but I’m not deeply pulled into it.
My exploration is more in the realm of things that have a stronger ambience, which need to be contextualised more carefully, detailed with a lot of sensitivity, using other art forms as well. That engages me more fully. Documentary is very important, I respect it and I respect people who do it, but I have to see, what is my own track.
I’m more than just a film-maker. I like to paint, I’m very poetry-driven, I have a very acute sense of culture, of loss of culture. Being a strongly visual person, I look at production design, cinematography, with my own charge and passion. That’s my driving force.
Film-making is an art in which everything has to find its way to a precise language. A precise grammar, in which you have to be the author of every single element of art that you blend into a finished product.
You’ve done some work in the crafts.
I tried to start a movement in the village. Before my father passed away, he had expressed the wish that “yahankoi nanga bhuka na rahay.” My wife Meera and myself, we tried to turn things around, to reinvent craft. That was like getting an organic connect, and we never looked back. We had no resources, we just tried to make our hare-brained dreams and schemes a reality. We were the first, but there are a lot of people in the field now.
How did Jahan-e-Khusro come about?
I was drawn to Sufism and seeing the rise of the right wing and growing intolerance, I started Jahan-e-Khusro in Delhi. I’ve done it for 13 years, it’s like a jewel in people’s memories. I used to go for a walk near Humayun’s tomb, there was a quadrangle there, the place was in ruins, but it had the most powerful ambience, with adargah nearby. I told Sheila Dixit, then chief minister of Delhi, let’s do it here. Everyone came up with reasons why the place wouldn’t work, but it did. Abida Parveen would come every time, and I would make her sing new things. I would then translate the verse and put it into a book along with the CD.
I made a lot of films on Sufism. In the same vein, I started work on a film about Rumi. I’ve written numerous scripts, travelled to Turkey. I studied the Seljuk era in which he lived. I sketched out each frame of my film. I was almost on the brink of starting, but some wrong people entered the project and we couldn’t go on. The project is with me. Kab hoga, kaisay hoga…
So in these years, which I could say were my blank years, I’ve been struggling and fighting. I’ve built up a script bank. I’ve not compromised on what the audience should know.
What was your experience of working with Pakistani actor Imran Abbas in Jaanisar?
He’s a very pliable actor, very sensitive, very open, koi nakhrey nahin.
And a last question. Secular India, what is happening, where is it going?
Secular India is part of the cauldron. India ubaal khaata rahey ga aur balancing factor secularism hai. Its foundation is secularism. Fundamentalism is a very poisonous thing sown by the British. Yeh colonialism ka sub say zehreela tohfah hai aap kay liay. Donon taraf thaparain uss ki aati rehti hain.
Everything that has happened since, didn’t just happen, it was meant to happen. The demand for weapons on both sides, what could be better for the western economy?
You feel the equilibrium will come back?
We have to fight.
This interview was originally published in Newsline’s December 2015 issue.
Tehmina Ahmed is a writer, photographer and filmmaker. She is a senior editor at Newsline and head of Newsline Films.
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