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Posted on February 21, 2008

Romancing The Reel

S M M AUSAJA traces the life and times of legendary director-producer Vijay Bhatt who launched some of the most illustrious names in Bollywood

The illustrious life and times of Vijay Bhatt is a man’s kaleidoscopic journey towards achieving his creative nirvana. One is amazed by the hardship he must have encountered to achieve what he did. A railway guard’s son, Bhatt was born a hundred years ago in Palitana, Gujarat on May 12, 1907. In his twenties, he moved to Bombay, along with his elder brother Shankarbhai Bhatt. Vijay passed completed his schooling from St Xavier’s while Shankarbhai took up a job. Keeping his passion for theatre alive, he continued his studies eventually joining Bombay Electric Supply and Tramways Company Limited (BEST) with an electrician’s diploma. At BEST, he lasted till he became the Drawing Office Superintendent.

The love for theatre led Vijay to quit the job despite obvious parental resistance. The struggle to survive and find a foothold in showbiz began. A couple of Gujarati theatre scripts penned by him were accepted and successful, but his aim was cinema – though of the silent form in those days. A much-awaited meeting with Ardeshir Irani (the maker of India’s first talkie Alam Ara) changed his life. Irani managed Studios of the Royal Film Company for its owner Abu Husain. On Irani’s recommendation, Vijay approached Husain with his script. Husain’s nod cleared the way to showbiz and director K P Bhave made Vijay’s first script into a silent film- Vidhi ka Vidhan. Association with Ardeshir Irani led to two more scripts hitting the screen – Pani Mein Aag and Ghulam (1929) – both produced by Irani. Having gained confidence with some success, the Bhatt brothers launched their own production studio. The Royal Film Company was to produce a series of silent films before releasing their first talkie Arabian Nights (Alif Laila) in 1932, just a year after Irani’s Alam Ara. Vijay soon acquired a studio at Andheri, named it Prakash Studios and launched the famous Prakash Pictures banner under which some of the greatest films of Hindi cinema were made beginning with Actress in 1934. In Sansar Leela (his first Gujarati talkie), Vijay Bhatt launched Zakaria Khan, christened him Jayant and launched him as the leading man in Bombay Mail (1935), Challenge(1936), His Highness (1937), State Express (1938) and Bijli (1939)'. (G P Sippy launched Jayant’s son in 1975. He was the villain in Sholay!)

Vijay Bhatt turned director with Dreamland in 1936. The plot was inspired by Hollywood’s The Invisible Man, and required trick photography. A young poster painter, Babhubhai Mistry from the studio was pivotal in assisting for trick-scenes. Mistry is now acknowledged as a wizard of special effects in the industry for the six decades before computers took over! In Leather Face (1939), Bhatt launched Mehjabeen, still at a tender age, and named her Baby Meena. This is how the legendary Meena Kumari was unveiled. She matured as an artist with each film, did scores of mythological movies and action flicks under Wadia Movietone before returning to her parent banner for Baiju Bawra in 1952. This colossal hit changed the fortunes of the actress, bagging her maiden Best Actress Award for the film. Bharat Bhushan, playing opposite Meena, shot into the big league, and the music director, Naushad swept awards and accolades for that year. Vijay Bhatt was one of the earliest producers to spot the potential in Naushad with Mala in 1941.

In 1939, on his visit to Valsad to meet Gandhiji at the ashram, Bapu suggested a film on the saintly Gujarati poet Narsi Mehta. Bhatt signed the lead pair of Prabhat’s Sant Tukaram – Vishnupant Pagnis and Durga Khote and, after some meticulous research, made Narsi Bhagat (1940) in Hindi and Gujarati. The film was a hit, winning critical acclaim all over the country. Buoyed by this success, Vijay Bhatt turned to Ramayana for inspiration for his next milestone. Bharat Milap (Hindi)/ Bharat Bhet (Marathi) hit the theatres in 1942. Several historians and curators were taken aboard to develop this project. With Bharat’s unstinting devotion to Rama as the central theme, the film is considered the most authentic excerpt of the great epic on celluloid. Dr S Radhakrishnan was present at the premiere of the film at Majestic Cinema, Bombay.

Vijay Bhatt moved from one milestone to another. Prem Adib (Hindi)/ Chandrakant (Marathi) and Shobhana Samarth led the cast as Rama and Sita in yet another excerpt from Ramayana in Ram Rajya made 1943. Considered the most successful and authentic Ramayana musical ever made in the country, Ram Rajya also enjoys the distinction of being the only film viewed by Mahatma Gandhi in his lifetime. Next came the historical Vikramaditya (1945) where Prithviraj Kapoor played the title role. In 1959, with Goonj Uthi Shehnai, Vijay Bhatt introduced the celebrated shehnai player Ustad Bismillah Khan to the silver screen. The shehnai in the background score belonged to the Ustad when Rajendra Kumar played the instrument on screen.

Manoj Kumar and Mala Sinha set the box office afire in 1962 with Haryali aur Raasta. Mala Sinha excelled under Vijay Bhatt in this musical where Shankar Jaikishen’s two title tracks and the duet Ibtidae ishq mein hum… became huge hits. Bhatt repeated the lead pair in yet another musical Himalay ki God Mein (1965), which had music by Kalyanji Anandji. Associated with more than 70 projects in his lifetime, Vijay Bhatt transformed into a legend. He won several awards and was felicitated by the government for Ram Rajya, but he was denied the Dadasaheb Phalke award despite being nominated.The doyen’s 100th birth anniversary was observed on 12 May 2007. He had four children – two sons Arun and Pravin, and two daughters. Pravin Bhatt is a noted cinematographer with over 80 films to his credit, and grandson Vikram Bhatt is a well-known director. His legacy continues.

The author is a noted film-historian and cinema memorabilia collector; he can be contacted on smmausaja@hotmail.com

Posted on February 21, 2008

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