By: Khemendra Kumar
I felt certain hollowness. It must be due to a long travel. Yes, it was a rather long journey. 16 hours flight from Fiji to Hong Kong, 8 hours idle transit, then 5 hours to Bangalore. Again in Bangalore, without much needed rest, I got into a taxi to Mysore. Was it jet lag? How would I know! I never travelled this far before. Was it leaving my family behind? Or did this sudden decision to study in India petrify me? I felt secretly pleased going through this strange emptiness. Ruminating upon this strange mixed feeling, I swung between half sleep and half wakefulness. I circled quietly around my inner self, like walking all by oneself on a cool morning. I thought about my family and my heart grew moist with emotion. I kept moving my neck to catch a glimpse of my mother’s outstretched hands in good bye, same old hands that had cradled me. They called out my name with gentle intensity, tears welled up, and everything else seemed to fade.
Shaking-off these emotions, I forced my eyes open and gravely smiled at the driver. Sensing the right moment, he introduced himself. “Sar, myself Prabhu”, in a proprietary manner. I managed a sincere reply, “Hi Prabhu”. Then like Chennai Express, his repartee went on, non-stop. It was a much needed distraction. I provided him with responses and questions to tip start idle conversation. In all his brusque conversational style, he asked me a question that was of interest, “Sar, you see Hindi filum?” I nodded yes. “You see Sholayfilum?” Yes, I replied. In fact I have seen it numerous times, I own an original DVD. Now it was my turn to show proprietorship. “You want see where filum shooting, Ram Gadh village?” In two days, this was the most appeasing question someone had asked me. The moment I said yes, Prabhu took a detour, pressed on the accelerator as if some itch had spared his foot. Did I hear him say, “Chal Dannno, palatsawar!” For me, sleep flew out of the window, and there was a strange sparkle in my eyes. Ram Gadh! Here we come. “Sholay, OMG, kitne aadmi the?” I chuckled with strange pleasure. Then I related a story my mother had told me innumerable times, a story of how Sholay rekindled Labasa town, and I slipped into another trance. It was Prabhu’s turn to taste a bit of his medicine with ‘hmm’, ‘hoke,hoke, sar’.
It goes like this…
The sun rose. The sun set. The people of Labasa suffered the wrath of Mother Nature, in silence. Rain eluded them for months, and drought embraced like long lost friend. Whirlwind circled in the minds of land toilers; some prayed to all Mighty, some secretly performed sacrifices; some blamed bad karma, but most could only water their wilting crops with tears. The wise ones tried to recall a similar pain, but nodded with strange restlessness. In this ordeal, people became tolerant of each other. It occurred to me as if they realized there was nothing to grumble about, nothing left to fight for. Or did they realize that their pain and suffering are same?
But life is not stagnant; it is natural for nature to change. It was the end of March, 1975. Black clouds engulfed Labasa, a countryside town on the northern island of Vanua Levu in Fiji. The eclipse lasted for an hour before thunder and lightening struck in unison never seen before. And at last, it rained. Heaven opened its floodgate. Rain pelted the corrugated iron roofs. First it sounded odd, and then slowly the drops found their rhythm, tip, tip, tip, tap, tap, tap, tip, tap, tip… With jubilant mood, in that heavy downpour young and old danced to the odd tune. For farmers, their tears of joy washed the pain and grief brought by a long spell of drought. It rained torrential for two successive days before easing into momentary showers. Dormant seeds and weeds sprouted together while dry, wilting flora changed its skin. Animals and people looked full of life; especially their eyes: blissfully bright and sparkling. This rain had a cleansing effect of the extended drought, and hope mended the dry cracked hearts of many. With rain, there was some zeal in all facet of life. Amazing how life degenerates and regenerates! The whole Labasa community once again wore its ‘Friendly North smile’. The people were happy. A saying in Fiji-Hindi goes like this ‘when He gives, He gives inabundance’. Happiness comes in heaps and bounds and more happiness came in the form of entertainment on the silver screen.
Watching films, back then, was not a common practice. Not that there wasn’t a theatre in Labasa or people didn’t watch films, it was generally considered metropolitan. Once in a while, whenever there was a popular Hindi film, such as Mughal-e-Azam, Naya Daur, Mother India or a mythological based on Tulsidas’s great epic Ramcharitramanas, then Indian men from rural areas travelled for the matinee show. Cinema, for iTaukei Fijians, was a distant drum; expensive and foreign. But this iconic Hindi film Sholay eventually changed the view on cinema, films and theatre. Sholay is a film loosely styled after Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 film Seventh Sumarai. It was directed by Ramesh Sippy and starred Dharmendra and Amitabh Bachchan as protagonists, supported by Sanjeev Kumar, Hema Malini, Jaya Bhaduri, with Amzad Khan as the antagonist. With them, there were character artists like Asrani and Jagdeep whose dialogues, nuance, and costume found cult status.
The film was released on 15th August in India. Slowly, the film gained tremendous popularity and reached Fiji some six months later. In Labasa, the film was screened at the Diamond theatre, a theatre situated at “Y corner” of the town. Without this only landmark, Labasa town was small with a single street, like a zipper, opened at dawn, settled dust at dusk. Most shops were of wooden structure, as in Wild West movies. Fish-vendors hung their catch under a huge Baka tree near the river. Groggies drank yagona sharing office space with the fish mongers. Masala news flew freely along with flies. Nearby a small municipal market provided a shack for the market-vendors. One could buy vegetables, local rice, kadawadu, yagona, rolled sukkhi and sweets; gatta was the most popular. Bicycles, cars, tractors, trucks, buses, horses, and pedestrians shared the same dusty street. Few concrete buildings were cropping up soon to engulf the ancient wooden ones, like termites. In the evening, one could see few Bambayas walking on the uneven streets or shift workers of Fiji Sugar Cooperation crossing over to the mill on their bicycles. At the Y corner junction, stood a rusty, half corrugated iron half wood building, the Diamond Theatre. Dhani Lal, the proud owner of this theatre replayed Hindi and English movies on weekends and managed ample income.
But Dhani Lal’s luck changed with Sholay. To watch this film, bus loads of people of different background arrived from far away villages and koros, the first indication that business could operate in the evenings, a beam of hope in the dark. With jute carry-bags full of food, homemade sweets, boiled eggs, cassava, dalo, and peanuts, they waited patiently for their turn, as in a hospital. Dhani Lal looked pleased with this sudden surge. His big round eyes glittered; his broad toothless smile gave way to bursts of laughter. Even in the moments of utter chaos, he just scratched his balding head and smiled coyly, as if he was visited by Mata Lakshmi, Goddess of wealth, his favourite deity among many. Being short and stout, he enthusiastically made his way around pushing people with his big tummy and greeting them individually in his cheerful voice. He spent less time with men though. With ladies, he was a gentleman. He asked for orders from lady friends personally and hand delivered meals and snacks from his cafeteria. Usmaan kaka tirelessly cooked Palau-bhaat, alternating with chicken, lamb, and goat. Miriama aunty served Fish in Lolo. But the children loved potato chips, cassava chips, and dalo chips deep fried and served with tomato chutney by Reddy Annaa. For three weeks, their cooking stoves didn’t find rest for a minute. They cooked Dhani Lal’s dream of a 200 seater modern theatre and his theatrics.
A Jhaap, make-shift shed, was erected on a clearing, as a transit lounge, for the crowd. Soon the shed turned out to be merry-making place where yagona flowed freely. Many, who watched the film once, came back to the jhaap. Like an arena, the middle was kept aside for the entertainer, on the right, the musicians registered their place, and front centre was reserved for sahibs, chiefs, and mahajans. The left side was mostly occupied by Indian men, where as iTaukei men settled on the right in their groups. Women sat further away from their men respectively. Children sat mixed-up in between the women joining the fragmented circle. With unprecedented ticket sales, Dhani Lal joyfully hired Mahen alias Mehebooba, an Indian folk dancer and his team to entertain the restless. Unlike typical nautankiwala,Mehebooba dressed like a nautch girl; with heavy make-up, a full length wig, and a brassiere with firm huge lemons for necessary push-up and shape. He looked like a cabaret dancer. This cross dresser’s dance, nuance, and flirtatious ways were enjoyed by all, especially the senior patriarchs. Most men felt a current of thousand volts when Mahebooba jerked and circled his hips. But the Indian women, to hide their modesty, just glanced sideways through their coloured veils and giggled within. For them, this was an occasion to play dress-up. Most were in their newly bought red saris, shiny twinkly veils that covered their talcum painted face, and like huge red dough doll sat in a corner. On the other hand, iTaukei women had the most fun dancing and imitating the showman. They added colour to that moment with their ‘sulu chamba’ and ‘kaila’ that resonated the once empty streets of Labasa. For anyone with little knowledge of Hindi films, Mahebooba was as good as Helen, the famed sensual cabaret dancer on screen.
The film Sholay not only had good music but a fine blend of heroism, romance, love, songs, villainy, friendship, high emotions, tragedy, and comedy. It was the comical interludes that were enjoyed by most. Like the film, moments of comedy and tragedy coined out of theatre. In one such instance, young Mehebooba, intoxicated with ambition, carried out Basanti’s dance step, that is, to spin around thrice in full speed, skirt furling and flapping high up in the air like a male peacock. All of a sudden, one of the lemons popped out from the brassiere’s cup and landed on Ratu’s nose with a thud. Silence fell. Dhani Lal informed the operator to stop the film immediately. Inquisitive viewers slowly came out of the theatre and stood motionless.
Ratu Viliame was the highest chief of Vanua Levu. He was contesting the general election and came as the chief guest to campaign. In great pain, tears rolled down his cheeks. Anger seemed to ooze from the tip of his nose. It was taboo for a chief to cry in public, but he couldn’t control himself. Deeply shamed and insulted, fretting and fuming he rose and commanded Mehebooba to be brought before him. Buuka and Georgie, his warrior clansmen rose to enforce their chief’s order. But Mehebooba, quick as a flash disappeared into self exile, like Phantom. People looked shell-shocked, whispered and murmured. Meanwhile Ratu’s nose swelled up like a big red tomato. A new clown was born.
After a spell of unbearable silence, Bajrangi Nana, an elderly tea-boy of the bada sahib at the sugar mill, stood up. Picking up the desolated lemon, he slowly walked to Ratu, and sat before him on his knees. All eyes were fixed on him, surprised, but he only gazed at the lemon with admiration, almost gaping at it. Then he spoke using all three languages: English, Fijian and Fiji-Hindi. His impromptu sounded like poetry. What he said can not be transliterated fully in English, but his hybrid speech was, “Ratu, chiefof all chiefs, greetings from Bajarangi, a tea boy”. He paused and looked around. Then he continued, “You bose levu, big boss, we small small man. This lemon fly, you cry, you get hot and mad, we get sad. Kerekere, big Ratu, you no woman, you no cry. Mahebooba bygone, bygone, bygone”. Then he mimicked one liner in British English accent like his sahib, “but the show must go on”, something he wanted to say all his life.
Ratu, himself a semi-literate retired government clerk, didn’t understand the last line. What he understood was a simple plea from a fellow human being and so, he gave way to his anger, wiped his tears and smiled despondently. Bajrangi passed on the cursed lemon to Ratu Viliame like a cricket ball and said with pun intended, “lemon tea, bosso?” Ratu burst out laughing and others joined whole heartedly drowning the barriers of race, creed, and class. The musicians gleefully plied their trade and old Bajrangi became foot-loose. Soon a handsome flock gathered around him, fluttering their features like chicks around mother hen. Others mocked and mimicked Mahebooba, Bajarangi as well as Ratu. Indian women clapped their hands and ‘moved’. Amidst all this, Rabuka and George brought Mahen with his make-up smudged. But what they saw was beyond comprehension. All were mixed-up, like colours in a rainbow. It was no time to act so pettily. They joined the fun. Their laughter of humanity roared in the main street of the small Labasa town. For a while, it seemed like another world filled with joy. This dream-like moment had a happy ending like most films. And Bajrangi nana, anything goes when age is on your side; but for him, he had his last dance, a dance to remember.
Dhani Lal, in his late eighties, can’t help smiling through his ten pure gold teeth studded with diamonds, when recalling that event. He had the ultimate laugh. The others just lived the fleeting drama and remembered slices of their fragmented history. Amongst them were my mother, father, grandmother, with two elder brothers. My mother, in her late stages of pregnancy, was enthusiastically waiting to watch this film at the time of this incident. I was still in her womb but heard everything; the dialogues, cheers, laughter, and cries, like Abhimanyu. Unlike Subadhra, my mother didn’t doze off to sleep. Instead, she mouthed some dialogues aloud even at home, unaware of her frowning audience. While doing housework, she travelled to her own wonderland. She fantasized she had twins in her arms, and their names were Jay and Veeru, the two protagonists of Sholay. All these thoughts excited her; then she dwelled to other associated names. What about Dharmen? Amitabh, Dharam, Dheeru, Amit, Veer? Veerendra, Jaynendra and the associated list of names were never ending…
But when the reels of her dream ended, real life began. Exactly after a month, I was born on 10th February in the wee hours in Bulileka, Labasa. My mother always reminisced the incident of the day she went to watch Sholay. It seemed like a co-incidence the last two syllable of my name rhymed with Dharmendra! But was it coincidence I would visit India carrying this story? After 40 years since the film was shot in the village of Ram Gadh, I happened to travel from Bangalore to Mysore. As I stood motionless at the Sholay rocks, I recalled the reel and real life story. It was right before my eyes, the terrain, the village, the tracks and two pillars that chained Dharmendra, Samsan like. I could hear horses galloping, guns firing, and bullets scraping the boulders, and the menacing laughter of Gabbar Singh that resonated in the mountain ranges – a dejavu! The windows of both my worlds overlapped. Suddenly the hollowness I felt by leaving my family miles away was brimming with a peculiar sense of belonging, as if Mother India had embraced her long lost girmitiya’s great-grandson, my mother’s hug. This film served as my umbilical cord to my ancestral land. For my grandparents, who braved thousands of miles, whose hearts wept, eyes bled, and souls pined ever since they were uprooted and transplanted to Fiji, I say, part of you have found motherland. But for me, my longing for my roots have just begun…and will end when I set foot in the village they grew up in, and then dance like Bajrangi nana.
Sholay– 1. Title of a Hindi film. 2. amber
Labasa– A small town
Vanua Levu– an island in the Republic of Fiji
Fiji– An island nation in the South Pacific
iTaukei- natives of the Republic of Fiji
yagona– a drink made by mixing dried powder roots with water
groggy– those who drink yagona
kadawadu– dried fish
sukkhi– tobacco leaves
gatta– Indian sweet
koro– Fijian village
Sulu chamba- Fijian dress for women
kaila– loud laughter
bose levu– big boss
girmitya– indentured labourer
Thanks Danny…..Khemendra….Finally this script has seen the light of the day………….I’m excited and impressed that you wrote this…. Well done
Great Khemendra ji , aap ne to kammal hi kar diya boss, cha gaye
Keep it up
well done bhai….some old memories just flashed…..great work
Great work, feeling as Fijji is a part of India…
Mastar ji tusi great ho. You captured more then the episode.
And to mention bajrangi nana. Not many know he was real person in our life