BY AVTAR MOTA
Avtar was born in Kashmir.While his family moved to Delhi in 1949, he joined them later after completing his studies. He joined Ministry of External Affairs in 1958. In 1960,he moved to the US and enrolled to learn film direction in New York city. He returned to India in 1970, with his American wife Anne, and settled in Mumbai, where he would live until his death. In India, he worked with Ivory Merchant production house. By now he had acquired wide knowledge of films and the French New Wave Cinema.
It was during this period, the Film Finance Corporation helped Mrinal Sen to produce Bhuvan Shome, Basu Chatterjee to make Sara Akash and Mani Kaul for his Uski Roti.The trend that came to be known as Parallel Cinema had already become visible. Avtar Kaul was keen on adding his name to this list. With the encouragement of FFC chairperson BK Karanjia, Kaul set out in 1972 to make his first feature. He started looking for some good script.
The film is based on the Hindi novel Athara Sooraj Ke Paudhe, by Ramesh Bakshi. Avtar Kaul picked up the book from Delhi book shop. He liked the novel and decided to make a film based on the novel. That is how 27 Down was born. He sounded his younger brother, Predhuman Kaul about the project.Pradhuman Kaul quit his job with the Indian Air Force to help on a production that was a challenge on all fronts. Predhuman Kaul tells this :
“I had never seen a shoot before that. We shot on more than 40 actual locations. The film could be made only because the people involved with the film were all young. The most prominent crew member was Raakhee, who had already a movie star. Avtar initially wanted to cast director Bimal Roy’s daughter Aparajita in the lead role. Rakhee came on the recommendation of FFC’s BK Karanjia. She accepted the role because she liked the storyline.”
Avtar Kaul had signed Bansi Chandragupt as art director for the project. Bansi Chandragupt worked with Satyajit Ray, Jean Renoir, Mrinal Sen, Shyam Benegal, Basu Chatterjee, Ismail Merchant, James Ivory and Aparna Sen. Narinder Singh ,the well known sound recordist was also signed for the project.
The film had many first-timers that included A.K. Bir, the Film and Television Institute of India-trained cinematographer who was 22 years old at the time and had never shot a feature.The crew faced many problems. Raakhee was a known face, and the crew had to show her travelling in trains or walking through crowds .
“It was difficult to handle her in public,” remembers Pradhuman Kaul. “For some of the shots, we had to seek the help of the police. We just kept rolling and managed it.”
And Avtar had complete confidence in M.K. Raina who had already graduated from NSD and was noticed for his acting skills in some popular Hindi plays.
The production took nearly two years as Kaul brothers ran out of money. “The film cost around Rupees eight lakh, and we gave 2-3 lakh from our side,” says Pradhuman Kaul.
As filmmaker, Avtar didn’t even spare his brother. “He would shout at me if I made a mistake,” Pradhuman Kaul said. “A unit member was combing his hair while recording sound. Avtar yelled, you should have a boom in your hand, not a comb”
The shooting at ever busy VT station Mumbai was done in a secret manner.Nobody knew that a film was being shot. M. K. Raina in his dress appeared like a genuine Travelling Ticket Examiner. Even people were seeking information on trains from him. By the time people came to know about shooting, the team 27 Down had packed up. The camera was placed away from public gaze.
The film was completed with MK Raina and Rakhee in lead roles. It created some sensation with its cinematography, direction, handling of the story and dialogues. Arvtar Kaul was planning to make another film with M K Raina in lead role.
July 20, 1974, Avtar Kaul was invited to dinner at a sea-facing bungalow in Walkeshwar in south Mumbai. A.K. Bir was at his rented apartment with a few friends. That night, Bir got a call from Delhi, informing him that 27 Down had won two National Film Awards.
“We were expecting Avtar to come and celebrate,” Bir said. “At around 1am or so, I got a call from the police, asking me to identify a body.”
They learnt that the waves had been treacherous the previous night. Avtar Kaul was sitting on a parapet along with a friend who lost balance and slipped into the Arabian Sea. Kaul dived in to save his friend, but neither survived.
Avtar was taken first to one hospital and then to another, and he died on the way.
Avtar Kaul’s wife, Anne, returned to the US halfway during the shoot. 27 Down was finally completed in 1973. It had been screened at the Locarno Film Festival the following year, where it was given an award by one of the juries.
Praduman Kaul wasn’t in Mumbai at the time the tragedy struck the family. He had returned to Delhi to attend to his ailing wife. Predhuman remembers:
“It was shocking for all of us. We had heard that he was getting the award just the previous night.”
Avtar Kaul’s wife, Anne, had lost her father around the same time, and couldn’t travel to India for the funeral.
Avtar Kaul’s untimely death turned his brother’s life upside down. He was deeply disturbed and could not do anything in cinema after that. He returned to Delhi and worked for a while with a theatre group and later joined an insurance company.
I do not know why am I coming to the movie “27 Down “again and again. I wish the talented director had lived to add his part of creative output to the parallel cinema that emerged during seventies and early eighties of the last century .
I am informed that Avtar Kaul was not only the director of this movie , he had also arranged finances from NFDC .He wrote the script and dialogues and personally selected the talented cast comprising of M. K. Raina ( 1970 batch NSD graduate and a man from theatre) , Rakhee Gulzar , Sadhu Mehar ( He shifted to Oriya cinema), Om Shivpuri, Rekha Sabnis and Sudhir Dalvi. He arranged the music from Bhuban Hari ( Hari Prasad Chaurasia and Bubaneshwar Misra ). I saw this black and white movie again recently from the rescued version put on DVDs by N.F.D.C. The film is based on Ramesh Bakshi’s Hindi novel, Athara Sooraj Ke Paudhe.
The film came out at a time when Amitabh Bachan had begun his climb up the star ladder. Shyam Benegal had set free his ‘Ankur ‘ upon us. M.S. Sathyu’s Garam Hawa had also arrived.
I liked the storyline, screenplay and the dialogues. I am informed that Avtar Kaul made it a point to shoot inside Bombay local trains and crowded railway stations to give the movie a realistic feel. The frames shot at Bombay’s VT station and inside the crowded local train give a sense of kinetics to the shots. Such shots give you a feeling of commotion within and outside.
No character in this movie makes the usual filmi or impressive gestures .
You confront silence also. I believe this silence is corollary to settlement in a relation. In a relation, if attitudes are identified and reflexes established to deal with them, not much needs to be actually talked about. Silence then engulfs togetherness. This phenomenon one observes in this movie. I confess being guilty of not having seen this grand movie seriously on a previous occasion.
“ Phir koyee pul hai Kya ? Shayad Pul hi hai ”
“ Has another bridge come ? looks like a bridge only “ ( A dialogue from the movie )
A routine traveller seeks to confirm his assessment by the thud and sound of the train that he is used to. This traveller has been crossing bridges daily without reaching anywhere .
“Log ek din ya ek raat ke baad kahin pahunchtay hain , par mein to ek khayal ke baad doosray khayal pe pahunch jaata huun ” from the movie .
“People reach some destination after a day’s or night’s journey. But I continue to leave one dream to enter another.”
Fathers generally choose their own profession for their children ignoring the preferences and likes of the child. In a sense it is forced upon the child. Here in this movie, the hero Sanjay faces this from his Father.
Anna (Sanjay’s father) is a train-driver and works for the Railways. One day his train meets with an accident and his right leg gets paralyzed. When Sanjay grows up, Anna wants his son to join the Railways as Ticket Checker. Sanjay on the other hand wants to carry forward his artistic career but his father, decisively wants him to join Railways. His father believes that such a job shall give security and a handsome salary . And a good salary with a secured job would mean an ideal life for his son. Put to passionate pressure from his father, Sanjay takes up the railway job. Annoyed and discontented with a monotonous life, he feels he is heading nowhere until he meets Shalini.
“ Log hain ki ek jagah se doosri jagah tak jaatein hain . Mein hoon ki kahin se chal kar kahin bhi chalaa jaa raha huun ”
“ Din raat bhi agar meri duty laga dein to mujhey koyi eiteraaz nahin ”
This character known as Sanjay ( M. K. Raina ) measures life in train sounds and distances .The demands of conformity affect his relation with a young woman Shalini ( Rakhee ) .
When Sanjay faces his father Ana ( Om Shivpuri ) who tells him what future holds for him, two words slip from his tongue
“Par Ana ( Then Ana )”
Born in 1940 in Kashmir, Avtar Kaul graduated in science in the early 60s, and decided to pursue a filmmaking course in the US. He studied film making in New York, where he was exposed to every aspect of filmmaking.
The unexpected zoom ins, zoom outs and freeze frames give a moving visual sense to this film. Avtar Kaul learnt this technique during his apprenticeship with Ivory Merchant production BOMBAY TALKIE ( Sashi Kapoor , Jennifer Kendal , Aparna Sen and Utpal Dutt ). Avtar also worked as Assistant to James Ivory. Had he lived , he would have certainly made films that would have been middle of commercial and art cinema. The film won National Awards for Best Film and Cinematography in 1974.
Avtar Mota is a blogger, writes for local and national papers and journals