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Khalid Mohamed rewinds to his magnificent obsession, the glittering fantasy Hatim Tai

Updated: Jan 30

Undeniably, we romanticize the movies we were weaned on during our childhood, exaggerating the   precious memories tattooed on our hearts and minds, unerasably.


For instance, there’s the first film I ever saw -- the Homi Wadia helmed Arabian Nights-style fantasy, Hatim Tai (1956) produced by Basant Pictures. The 142-minuter was showing, a re-run at Bombay’s dodgy New Shirin cinema at Saat Rasta below the Mahalaxmi bridge, four years after it was first released. Today, on re-viewing it on YouTube, the Gevacolour from its print has gone brownish pink and blotchy. A pity.


For me, it’s still a touchstone, a protector of the child within me, never mind my advancing age, now subjected to cinema which has lost its innocence. Naïve that may be, as naïve as clutching on to the first kiss from the never-forgotten first love.


The colours, tints, the songs, dances and the fable of the eponymous kindly hero, P. Jairaj, and Shakila as Gulnar Pari, the fairy wearing emerald green and peach pink gowns, Shakila, as well as the cannibalistic ‘Jinnat’ Kamlak, B.M Vyas – brother of lyricist Bharat Vyas -- with a gravelly voice, all stay mesmerizing.


A dance sequence had a lingering top shot, which amazed me.  Being ignorant of such factors as shot takings and technique, at the threat of tears I would coax the elders at home, to let me revisit Hatim Tai. That I did accompanied by a rather fed-up domestic help for seven afternoon shows consecutively.


In hindsight, the story and screenplay by JBH Wadia had cleverly picked the mythology of Hatim Tai, the king of Yemen of the sixth century, famous for his bountiful nature and generosity.


From this premise, emerged a script presenting Hatim as a merchant and a poet who undertakes a perilous journey, in the course of which he has to explicate upon seven puzzles, to save a fairy turned to stone


The puzzles asked to explicate the reasons for were:'What I saw once, I long for a second time’; ‘Do good, and cast it upon the waters.'; ‘Do no evil, if you do, such shall you meet with.'; 'He who speaks the truth is always tranquil’; 'Let him bring an account of the mountain of Nida(where mortals end their earthly journey)’;'Let him produce a pearl of the size of a duck's egg.’; and 'Let him bring an account of the bath of Badgard (a mythological mountain)’


 These puzzles provoked contemplation and discussion about life, values, and human nature.


The story has been remade time and again since 1929, and after.  And it’s acknowledged that the Wadia Bros’ 1956 version, with unbelievably modern special effects by Babubhai Mistry, has been the most definitive and successful one. Incidentally, it was dubbed into Tamil, titled Maya Mohini.


According to film chronicles, quite incredibly Hatim Tai was made as feature films in 1929, 1933, 1947, as Hatim Tai ki Beti (1955), Son of Hatim Tai (1965), and a 1990 high-budget take directed by Babubhai Mistry with Jeetendra and Sangeeta Bijlani, which tanked.


As a TV serial, the fantasy has been re-adapted as Dastaan-e-Hatim Tai (Doordarhsan), Hatim (Star Plus) and The Adventures of Hatim (Life OK).


To return to Wadia Bros.’ 1956 fantasy, the music composer was S. N. Tripathi. According to the  film credits he was assisted by JBH Wadia. The lyricists were Chand Pandit, B.D. Mishra, Akhtar Romani and Raja Mehdi Ali Khan.


The songs were rendered by Mohammed Rafi, Suman Kalyanpur, Shamshad Begum, Asha Bhosle, and Sheikh. The Sufi track Parwar Digaar-e-Alam, by Mohammed Rafi, with lyrics by Akhtar Romani became anthemic nation-wide. At a  screening in Hyderabad, the then Nizam  had the song repeatedly shown eleven times.


Such factoids I can know of today. As a child, I can assume I just had a whale of a time abandoning  myself to the splashy entertainment, with the residue of a moral lesson that piety and virtue always triumph against vice unleashed by fearful, acquisitive creatures. In a way it was akin to the assurances that  good fellas must prevail  over the venal ones in the Walt Disney pictures ( Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio and Cinderella), and the collection of Panchatantra Tales.


Importantly, faith in one’s  specific religion wasn’t enforced by the elders at home. Auspiciously I was allowed to discover my own values and an unwavering conviction in secularism.


The post-partition era I’m sure had a role to play in this since my family understood the futility of divisiveness. Which is to say Hatim Tai had arrived in my cinema feed at the right time. After all, in those days, hostility and mistrust were as rampant as they have become today. The fantasy, on recall,  conveyed (inadvertently perhaps) the spirit of tolerance and humaneness.


The Wadia Bros are as famously known for their stunt pictures – the Fearless Nadia Hunterwali series which are extraordinary for their depiction not only of women protagonists who’re far  more physically stronger than the males but also for their progressive themes and dialogue in which the emphasis would be on equal rights for women, their parity at workplaces and the combat of male oppression.


In 1962, the Wadia Bros. also presented Sampoorna Ramayana, featuring Anita Guha and Mahipal, the second significant Hindi film based on the Ramayana after Vijay Bhatt’s hugely popular Ram Rajya (1943). Lata Mangeshkar’s  semi-classical tracks in Sampoorna Ramyana, were San Sanan, Sanan, Sanana, Ja Re O Pawan and Badalon Barso Nayan Ki Or Se are unforgettable.


Clearly, the Wadia Bros. Hatim Tai had no agenda so to speak. Their oeuvre was designed as a pure spectacle , its sub-text working ipso facto into the mise en scene. As an aside, it may be mentioned that among the Bombay-produced films which left a lasting impression on the celebrated author Salman Rushdie, as a 10-year-old, were Shree 420, Funtoosh, Hatim Tai and Mother India.


Inevitably, when I found myself in journalism, I longed to meet P. Jairaj (1909-2000). He would drop by at the office of Filmfare, having compered several of the magazine’s award shows, partnered by actor David Abraham, at the Shanmukhananda Hall. An impressive tall and muscular personality, he had responded right away to my question on those Hatim Tai days, stating, “Oh, I’m mostly remembered by your generation for the brief role of a police commissioner in Sholay. I thought Hatim Tai was forgotten.”


P. jairaj

“All I can say is that I consider it as one of my most accomplished performances,” he elaborated. “The characterisation, as conceived, had to be underplayed throughout, so that he struck the audience as believable and not a figment of imagination. Actors had to be theatrical, I tried to be natural, lifelike before the camera. Moreover, I had to wear beautiful clothes and jewellery, look good. I’m told I did. Even in those days I’d get fan mail from scores of ladies.”


He was in a hurry for an appointment, and ended with, “Who makes such films any longer? The Wadia Brothers were big spenders and tried out every genre – action,social dramas,comedies, mythologicals – without worrying about their commercial fate. Main toh sirf actor tha.”


His parting shot, with a broad smile, was,“You know what? I would have won the Best Actor trophy for Hatim Tai but no regrets, Dilip Kumar did for Devdas that year. And who can equal him?”


Jairaj’s son, Dilip Raj – was, in fact named after Dilip Kumar and Raj Kapoor. Jairaj Jr had made his debut with K.A.Abbas’ Shehar aur Sapna (1964) on the subject of pavement-dwellers of Bombay, which won the National Award for Best Feature Film. However, despite a bunch of more films including a sidebar role in Kanyadaan (1968) headlined by Shashi Kapoor-Asha Parekh, Dilip Raj couldn’t make much headway in his acting career.


Incidentally, Paidypathy  Jairula Naidu, to mention P. Jairaj’s real name, was an Andhraite by birth, and a nephew of Sarojini Naidu. For his inestimable contribution to the film industry, he was eventually honoured with the Filmfare Lifetime Achievement Award and the Dadasaheb Phalke Award.


Shakila, born Badshah Begum, had featured in a number of fantasy films such as Sindbad the Sailor (1952), Lal Pari (1954) and Ali Baba 40 Chor (1954). In a career spanning 14 years, she had worked with several prominent directors such as Shakti Samanta and actors such as Shammi Kapoor (China Town) and Raj Kapoor (Shriman Satyawadi).


She is best known for Guru Dutt’s Aar Paar (1954), in which she played a gangster’s moll, who was assigned two chartbusting Geeta Dutt songs — Babuji Dheere Chalna and Hoon Abhi Main Jawan. As a producer, Guru Dutt had also cast Shakila opposite Dev Anand in C.I.D (1956) in which she had portrayed the archetypal spoilt brat of an heiress.


Year after that encounter with Jairaj at the Filmfare office, I met up accidentally with Shakila (1935-2017) on the Croisette boulevard, at the Cannes International Film Festival. Of Afghani descent, she was accompanied by her second husband, an Indian NRI into film distribution. She looked gorgeous, despite adding on kilos of weight. Draped in a powder blue sequined sari,  Shakila, her husband  and I sat in a coffee shop but she had requested categorically, “Please no interview, maybe when we are back in Bombay, you can give me a call.”



I did try to. She used to stay at Gobind Mahal, Marine Drive, but had lately suffered a personal tragedy. Her grown-up daughter had passed away suddenly (some reports alleged that it was by suicide) after which she moved to Bandra and became rigidly reclusive. It would have been intrusive to encroach on her privacy. Still, I consoled myself, I had at least seen my Gulnar Pari once, face to face.


New Shirin Talkies has closed down. The print of the fantasy of a Good Samaritan, fairies, goblins and mammoth monsters is ruined out of sheer neglect. Yet, nothing can take away my first film away from me. After all, as you know, the first film you adored, is like the first magnificent obsession of your life. Or your first love.



Khalid Mohamed is a Mumbai based film critic, screenwriter, prodcuer & filmmaker.

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