It strikes me that in my now 30-year-long career as a journalist I have met more people than I often realize. Memories about many of them revive only on hearing of their death. Filmmaker B R Ishara, who died yesterday at age 78 in Mumbai, is one such example.
Ishara was among the occasional visitors during my many long interactions with the late actor Rajesh Khanna in the mid 1980s in Bombay. He was a shy, retiring type who came into his own elements gradually. Being in the presence of India’s first genuine superstar Ishara knew how to position himself in a manner that did not distort the august space that Khanna dwelled in.
By the time I got to know him briefly Ishara had already been a veteran of close to 30 movies but did not seem to enjoy a stature commensurate with his output. That was as much a reflection of the kind of movies he had made as the fact that he operated outside the norm. His movies were not particularly well crafted and often betrayed a touch of the seedy in terms of their production values but it was clear that he was passionately committed to them. One could not make 37 movies in one’s career and not know a thing or two about cinema.
Filmmaker B R Ishara
An articulate and thoughtful man, Ishara seemed to compensate for some of Khanna’s own intellectual inadequacies. It was clear that Ishara was a well-read man who wanted to be seen as a serious filmmaker. Having run away from his home as a boy and come to Bombay to make movies, Ishara paid his dues in terms of his struggles to make it. “I used to be a tea boy on movie sets whose name no one cared to find out or remember. Mostly I got called Babu and that name stuck,” he said once.
Although born Roshan Lal Sharma in the Himalayan state of Himachal Pradesh, his nom de plume became Babu Ram Ishara. I never quite asked him but Ishara was perhaps drawn from the Urdu word ishara which meant a sign or signal or hint and was added to complete his avatar as a filmmaker. I suspect he meant it more as a harbinger of things to come.
It was obvious that Ishara had a way with words, particularly in Hindi and Urdu although he mostly chose to converse with me in English since in a moment of levity Khanna had introduced me as a journalist from “the international press”. I then worked for the Associated Press (AP), a fact that might have added to my professional weight in the eyes of those who daily practiced the art of showmanship.
Among the themes that exercised Ishara’s mind was the widely prevalent hypocrisy while treating independent minded women in India. That explains his 1970 movie ‘Chetna’ starring Rehana Sultan as a prostitute named Seema. The movie’s theme is about society’s attitudes and double standards toward the so-called “fallen” women.
I vividly remember the posters of ‘Chetna’ because some of them had the picture of Sultan’s bare legs shot from behind with the film’s male lead, a debutant Anil Dhawan between them. In the India of 1970 that was quite a bold image that allowed boys hurtling toward puberty a great deal to fantasize about.
The movie was granted the A (Adults Only) rating by India’s Censor Board and that dashed many a boy’s libidinous hopes. It was considered audacious of Sultan to do the role of a prostitute who drinks and smokes and sheds clothes without any inhibition.
There is a scene in the movie where she tells an awkward and scandalized Dhawan who does not even look at a nude Seema, “Aaj tak mere saath aisa kabhi nahi hua Mr. Anil ki maine kapde utar diye ho aur koi mard itni der tak, itni door meri taraf peeth kiye khada raha ho.” (It has never happened to me Mr. Anil that after having removed my clothes a man has stood for so long and so far with his back turned on me.” Ishara wrote those lines and asserted that it was his way of showing the power of a woman, even a so-called “fallen” woman.
Ishara was conscious that he never quite broke into the ranks of the much heralded celebrity filmmakers despite having made 30 plus films and worked with some of the biggest names of the day. “Some of them still think I am that tea boy,” he joked once to me. “Yeh ganimat hai ke ab mujhe ‘ey zara chai lana’ nahi kehte.” (It is a small mercy that they don’t say ‘Hey, bring some tea’ to me now.”)