Awtar-1 (Deadly drama )

April 19, 1974, 5 pm, ground floor of Arab Bungalow, Khetwadi main road, Girgaon, Bombay.
The day did not seem to be any different from earlier ones. Land lords of the large place, Patel family was going through its usual lazy chores. Jayantbhai, Bhabhi and Ba (grandmother) were sitting on the floor, as usual. Kids were back from school. Their servant Tukaram, brought tea from the kitchen for all of them. Arun, one of their paying guests was also hand over a cup. Between four people there were three different kinds of cups. Nobody in family think about it. Arun also did not seem to care. He was happy to be relaxing for a day from his grueling shooting schedules. Arun’s room partner Awtar Krishna Kaul, producer-director of an under production film titled, 27DN, had left before lunch to meet friends. His regular time-pass adda used to be Samovar at Kala Ghoda. It was the meeting place and savior for so many people of this city, who were either jobless, between jobs, strugglers, starry-eyed, writers, painters… People would order a cup of tea or a beer and stretch its contents to hours, unless suddenly a waiter slides the bill in front. With experience most of them knew when to renew the order well before a waiter got restless…
At 7pm Jayantbhai proudly switched on his Toshiba B&W TV, a star attraction for many. It made a regular gathering of about 15 guests feel very special, watching Chhaya Geet and other weekly movies. Those days it was a huge privilege to be in front of a TV. At 7.30pm Hindi news was scheduled. Jayantbhai and Arun would be anxious to watch it, because of the newsreader. She was a very pretty, young, dusky belle Smita Patil…
Among other political headlines Smita announced that national awards for films have been announced. Arun being a film person got interested. Later giving details of various awards, she said Awtar Krishna Kaul’s film ‘27DN’ had won national award in the best Hindi film category! Suddenly a spell of utter disbelief fell over everyone. Jaws dropped down. How could something so special happen to someone living right here inside their home? Their own paying guest? Might be a mistake. But when a clipping of the film was shown, the emotions tuned into a high-pitched excitement! Arun especially was so ecstatic. After all he was an assistant recordist in that film! Patel family boasted to all the TV watching neighbors that the news of the award was about their paying guests. Arun became an instant hero among them. Jayantbhai boasted, ‘Awtar has gone out right now… he and Arun live in that room there…’
As the national award news sunk in, something had to be done to celebrate it. They decided to organize a grand party to announce the news to Awtar and then celebrate with him. Arun and Jayantbhai went out and got a bottle of whiskey and a rum from a wine shop near Dreamland cinema. On their way back they picked up lot of snacks, like assorted bhajia, gathia, batata wada etc go with the drinks…

Jayant Patel, with whose family I stayed as paying guest, 1972-77

Awtar was still not back. Therefore, everyone used the time to organize glasses, put extra bottles of water in fridge and took out nice plates for snacks. It was past 8pm. He had to be back soon. Arun decided that they all go and watch TV again to watch the English news bulletin too (mainly to reconfirm). Normally, Arun and Jayantbhai would pour a drink around 8pm. So, 9pm was quite late. Unanimously they decided to clink the glasses at 9.30 and keep waiting for Awtar. With noisy cheers in the name of Awtar, Arun, 27DN and National award, this small group of friends took their most exciting first sip…
At 10.30, Ba (grandmother) peeped in asking has he not come yet. Arun said, ‘no.’ She said, ‘he also must be drinking somewhere like you all. Do you think he doesn’t know about the news?’ That put a different perspective in everyone’s head. ‘Yes’ all felt, he could be knowing and may be celebrating with people of his own status. Everyone felt that they should stop making noise and go out for dinner, as the family had to sleep…
Arun took the main door key from Tukaram before going to sleep. In case Awtar arrived too late and too drunk, he would open the gate quietly…
3am, Arun thought he heard a tap on his room door that in fact ajar. He thought Awtar is here finally. But it was Jayantbhai, who was shaking him. Arun thought he wanted the door key, but he said there was call for him. Call? At this time? Many quick ‘dark’ flashes crossed his mind. His father, mother, accidents god knows what. Arun was just about 23 years old and he was shit scared of getting a bad news from his family. In his drunken sleep Arun asked who has called? Jayantbhai said ‘call is from the police station and they are talking all crap. I don’t understand what they are saying.’ In the darkness Arun got up in his underwear and walked to the phone in outer verandah. ‘Hello’ he said. Caller voice identified itself as a police inspector. Arun said, ‘yes, I am Arun Sharma’ and in few seconds he sat down on the floor while listening to the cop. The receiver slipped from his hand and he passed out…
Jayantbhai was shaking him up. Arun had gone to sleep again sitting on the floor with the receiver hanging near his face. Jayantbhai put the phone to his ear and kept it down. Slowly both realized what had happened. Around 4am a police jeep noisily stopped near the gate of Arab Bungalow and two cops shook the collapsible gate. Arun was awake now and was dressed in pant shirt. Entire Patel family was awake too. Arun stepped out. He said, ‘I am Arun Sharma’. He was made to sit at the back of the jeep. They drove to Nair hospital near Bombay central station. Arun followed two cops to a room where a police inspector was sitting. ‘Come in’, inspector duty said and pointed him to a chair to sit. A green curtain was drawn at his side. Inspector held a small telephone diary in his hand and was going through it. Arun knew it belonged to Awtar. In a moment inspector got up smartly and said, ‘come’, drawing the green curtain aside. They both entered. There he was. On the stretcher was Awtar in his familiar red kurta. Inspector asked, ‘is he Awtar Krishna Kaul?’ ‘Yes’, Arun mumbled moving closer to him. He noticed many bruises and cuts on his forehead and face. Arun went yet closer to him and lifted his hair from his forehead to see if there was any other major hurt. Perhaps he wanted to touch his face and hair. He also became very angry with Awtar. ‘Why’, he thought, ‘what was the need to be so rash in life?’ They both moved out and sat in chairs. Arun had never felt an emotional tide of that magnitude in his life. He was just 23 then. Deeply shaken from inside he had managed to stand steady through it.
Inspector narrated his version. “Awtar’s body was seen floating in the sea at Girgaon Chowpati at around midnight. Fire brigade was called and with great difficulty they fished him out. You see it is no moon night and high tide was at its peak. He was rushed to Bhatia hospital, closest from there. He was alive then. For some reason they refused admission. Then he was rushed here; but was declared dead on arrival.”
For the police, identification of the body was complete. Arun was free to leave. He came out and same jeep dropped him back home.
Everyone was awake. Arun sat with them. Bhabhi made some tea. Arun narrated what he saw and reproduced inspector’s version of the incidence. Nobody knew how to react to this sudden reversal in fortune.
Arun could not sleep in the room, next to Awtar’s empty bed for many months.

T. K. Desai

My friend and colleague T K Desai expired in the morning of Jan 6, 2007 at his Bandra home, leaving behind his wife, 3 daughters and 2 sons.

T K Desai was a film ‘art director’ in Bombay’s film industry, now known as bollywood. He was a very sought after and popular person, easy to work and deal with. For a very long period he was mainly known to be a Navketan-man; just as I was, for a few years. He was much senior to me, though. He studied in the premier. J J School of Arts, Mumbai. After finishing his education he joined M R Acharekar’s art school as a faculty for a brief period. Mr. Acharekar was art director with India’s leading film production RK Films and Studios. So naturally TKD joined him in this field too and did many films of RK camp, as an assistant, set painter, property assistant etc. He worked in movies like, Jagte Raho, Shree 420, Dil Hi To Hai, Anari, Ab Dilli Dur Nahin. He was also associated with films like Amrapali, Kohra and Chaudhvin Ka Chand. In 1963 still an assistant, he entered Navketan camp, in Vijay Anand’s ‘Tere Ghar Ke Samne’. In 1965 he got his break as an independent ‘art director’ in Amarjeet’s ‘Teen Devian’. In Jewel Thief his work was hailed. He won Filmfare awards for Kohra (B&W) and Des Pardes.

My association with him started in 1972, when I was a recording-assistant in Gogi Anand’s film ‘Darling Darling’. On the sets T K Desai’s energy bowled me over. He seemed to have solutions to every requirement on the set. TKD was a very short man with a pronounced belly. His nose was very large and disfigured. He could be considered fairly ugly in this field of predominantly pretty and handsome. But no one including himself had any time to give it a vaguest of thoughts. TKD must have been one of the busiest and popular art directors of his time in Bombay.

Well TKD would be the person with whom I worked on maximum number of films. We both were parts of Navketan; including most of its sister concerns. I would imagine that out of my measly 30 odd films, TKD and my credits must have shared the screen time in 15 of them.

During ‘Ishq Ishq Ishq’ we spent a whole lot of time together in Nepal. After coming back from Nepal, I too was considered to be a part of Navketan camp. Dev Saab and Navketan were heady with the success of Hare Ram Hare Krishna. His last release Heera Panna’s soft landing on the box office did not affect spirits of the camp. So, many movies were lined up in which we both worked together. Overlapping production of films like Des Pardes, Jaaneman, Loot Maar, Bullet, Kalabaaz etc made us meet every day for many years. That is a lot of interaction. There were more films to follow. We went for an outdoor shooting to Nainital for Kalabaaz and to Coorg for Anand Aur Anand. I remember at Coorg after a few drinks he got a little aggressive with me. He was showing off with his strength on me by hugging me very tight. In defense I managed to lift him; but could not put him down straight. Due to this he fell down. Later in the morning there were a lot of ‘sorry sorry’ and it was all wiped off the slate with ‘good morning’.

My last film with TKD was ‘Kaun Ho Sakta Hai’, which was shot entirely in Lonavala. I worked as a Production Designer in this film. This gave me a chance to work with him, in his own department. Due to this, instead of meeting only during free times we met during work too. I did get some valuable production insights by watching his way of working. At 78, he was energetic, able to think fast and provide alternates to create the required effect on screen. We went for walks during our free times. He was advised some form of exercise to keep fit. He would walk very slowly, but walk for an entire hour. I noticed walking slower made my muscles ache more than walking at my regular speed. He was very fond of flora. It was rainy season. So every corner of this hill station looked fresh and green. He would stop and look at wild flowers and plants and talk about them, sometimes even pick them up to take them back home. He also told me stories about his career, family and life in general. We were meeting in this film after nearly 20 years. There were a lot of gaps in my information regarding him and his career, which I was happy I was able to fill up…

On the morning of Jan 23, I along with Hersh Kohli went to meet TKD’s grieving family nearly two weeks after he had expired. I had come to know about his death very late. But as soon as knew it, I wanted to visit his place. His daughter opened the door for us and offered us seats. In a short while TKD’s very pretty wife appeared, sat near her husband’s enlarged photograph and sobbed softly. While his daughter filled us with details, “he was chatting with the family till 2.30am, he went to the toilet early morning, came out complaining of discomfort, collapsing on the bed, someone running to call the doctor from opposite house and… doctor pronouncing him ‘no more’. She said it was a very severe heart attack and in a matter of 5 minutes he was no more. Lucky, he did not have to suffer.” I totally agree with the lady. I too am happy he did not suffer.

Before leaving TKD’s house, I put my specks on, went to the blow up of his photograph and took a long hard look at his face smiling from behind a garland of fresh flowers. He wore his familiar cap and expression. As a comforting gesture I touched his wife’s shoulders. In response she sobbed a little louder. We said Namaste to all and slowly stepped out…

With this, the formalities were over and then started a mental test for me. Am I going to visit them ever again? I started questioning myself. Was it the usual ‘show your face’ show or will it have more depth? Will I be breaking my friendship with TKD just because he is dead or I should make plans to keep it going? Only the time will tell.

I came home and phoned Mrs. Desai to speak to her, to start a dialogue; but she was not yet out of her depression. She gave me the phone number of TKD’s assistant Ramesh, to get any information that I may be looking for. Ramesh spoke at length, “after working for nearly 50 years in this line, no one from any production house came to see TKD when he died. He was totally bitter about the ways of this ruthless film industry. He was cremated and even after all the other ceremonies were over; no one called up.” He was very bitter about Dev Saab too. “TKD worked all his life in Navketan, at least someone could have come to pay condolences from there or Dev Saab’s behalf. He used bad-words for the association of art directors, who did not bother to send any representative when he passed away.”
TKD as I said earlier was very popular among film producers, very technical, artistic, and excellent team member. But when he died he was not in the big league. He was so humble a man that no one felt any compulsion to visit his dwelling to console the family – including me.

‘Kaun Ho Sakta Hai’, a film in which I was lucky to work along with TK Desai, who was the Art Director.