Sunday, December 14, 2008

On Rajinder Singh Bedi

A creator `Sailing to Byzantium’

Nirupama Dutt

Meeting Rajinder Singh Bedi, writer and film-maker, who came here to receive the honour bestowed upon him by the Punjab Government for his outstanding services to the Indian film industry, brought to the mind the image of a desolate theatre, the players and viewers having fled, and the director sitting alone thinking of what has been gained and what lost. Bedi is no longer the vivacious man known for his wit and humour. A sudden attack of paralysis a year ago rendered his right side almost useless and at 65 he has lost the sight of one eye. He almost apologized for his ailing memory, fumbling speech and regretted that had he been his old self, this interview would have been more interesting and alive, for now he could not even remember the names of all the films he had made. One was reminded of W. B. Yeats ‘Sailing to Byzantium’:

``That is no country for old
Men, the young,
In one another’s arms, birds
In the trees,
Those dying generation--at their song’’

Born and brought up in Lahore, Rajinder Singh Bedi started his career as a post office clerk and during this period published two collections of short stories ``Dana o’ Daan’’ and ``Grayahan’’. These brought him fame and steadily through his literary pursuits he rose to the position of Station Director, All India Radio, Jammu and Kashmir, after the partition of the country. However, the job did not last long and he left for Bombay, the Mecca of Indian film industry, to try his luck. The first film he wrote was ``Badi Behan’’ with the singing star Surayya. The instant success of this movie brought him more work. Bedi wrote the screenplay of some of the most memorable films of the Indian cinema like ``Devdas’’, ``Daag’’,``Rail Ka Dibba’’, ``Basant Bahar’’. ``Ab Dilli Door nahin’’, ``Mirza Ghalib’’, ``Anuradha’’, ``Satyakam’’ and ``Anupama’’.

The first film he made on his own was `Garam Kot’’ with Balraj Sahni and Nirupma Roy, and then ``Rangoli’’ with Kishore Kumar and Vyajanthimala. Both did fairly well but it was his ``Dastak’’, a low-budget film based on his play ``Nakle makan’’, which brought him acclaim at the national level and he was awarded the Padma Shri.
His classic novel ``Ek Chadar maili Si’’, which was a sincere portrayal of the rural life of Punjab, won him the sahitya Adademi Award. ``I had written it in just three months’’, recalled Bedi. After he wrote it, he gave the manuscript to Krishan Chander to go through, Krishan Chander started reading it in the late hours of the evening and was so absorbed that he could not put it down. When he finished it late at night, he ran in his underclothes to Bedi’s house and said, you don’t know that you have written a masterpiece!’’ Bedi tried more than once to make a film on it but somehow the venture was ill-started in 1965, he started making it in Punjabi called ``Rano’’ with Geeta bali as Rano and Dharmendra as mangal. ``Shammi Kapur was against his wife playing such a bold role but Geeta bali was in love with the character of Rano and she lived the role’’, said Bedi. But the film was two-thirds complete when Geeta bali got small-pox. Bedi recalled the last hours when his ``Rano’’ died. ``I was by her side with her husband and father-in-law. She was completely covered with blisters, her face swollen. Geeta had beautiful eyes and she was so proud of them In that state, she asked for a minor to see her eyes but when she could not see them she fell unconscious and never regained consciousness. After her death, Bedi just drew a line across the negatives.

Some years back Bedi started the project once again and the mahurat was performed here in the Tagore Theatre and Kiran Thakar Singh was taken in the lead. Though the film was to be in Punjabi, the Punjab Government did not come forward with any help. Bedi was facing bad days. His ambitious venture ``Phagun’’ having flopped, the project had to be shelved once again. Now, Bedi revealed, Girish Karnad was making it in Hindostani and the cast had yet to be decided upon. Asked if he felt bad that his cherished dream was being realised by another, he replied: ``No, I am happy. I do not have the capacity to make it any longer and very few would take up a project like this. And Karnad knows more about films than I do, so he might do more justice to it.’’ He said that he could never make a Punjabi film because none came forward to help him.

Bedi has received many awards in his life but he was particularly bitter about the recent State honour given to him and S Sukhdev, ``The poor widow of Sukhdev came all the way from Bombay and she was given no money. Neither was I with such treatment, do they think anyone will come from Bombay to make a Punjabi film here? No one will touch them even with a pair of tongs,’’ he said. After ‘Phagun’, Bedi attempted another experimental film ``Ankhon Dekhi’’ on the atrocities on harijans with two newcomers, Suman Sinha and Suresh Bhagat. ``The day I got the censor certificate, I was taken ill and after that all my workers scattered and I was left alone.’’ He is now trying for the release of the film but he fear that it will not be done in his lifetime for he has vague premonitions of death. To a query of what he thought of the pages devoted to him in Balwant Gargi’s book ``the Naked Triangle’’, in which Bedi’s personal life has been laid bare with a vengeance, he answered: ``I have not read the book but I have heard about the much he has churned on. He never sought my permission to write anything and what he has written is in bad taste. If I got involved with one woman, Gargi got involved with 50 but that does not make literature.”

Looking back at his career, he said that it had been creatively satisfying but what was the use of making good films? There will always be a few to carry out the struggle and never see the fruit of their labour. Though Bedi will never be able to make a film again, he wants to write two novels, which he has already begun Mr. H.S. Bhatti made an offer that he stay with him and write them, but Bedi wants to work for the release of ``Ankhon Dekhi’’ first. Surprisingly, none of the local organizations arranged a get-together of the local writers to meet Bedi, not even some groups in the university, who love to bask in the glory of others. Perhaps they were more busy giving statements to the press about the deep shock Jean-Paul Sartre’s death had left them in!

Bedi’s son, Narinder Singh, is a successful film-maker and his films sell. Bedi said, ``My son realised what was profitable and made such films like `Bandhan’. `Jawani Diwani’, `Rafoochakkar’and `Benaam’. Asked if given the choice once again, would he make such a compromise and the reply, thankfully, was not disappointing. He said, ``No I would not have made such a compromise.’’ If with all the bitterness and disillusionment, this be the answer then hope still not lost and once again Byzantium, Yeats’ symbol for purity and creativity, comes to the mind:
``An aged man is but a paltry
A tattered coat upon a stick
Soul clap its hands and sing,
And louder sing,
For every tatter in its moral

Indian Express, April 20, 1980