Far from being interested in film-making, Mansoor Khan was never even fond of Hindi cinema as a child. Even though he was born into a house frequented by some of the most popular film stars and technicians of the era, Mansoor was drawn to engineering. ‘I watched films incidentally,’ says Mansoor. He believes that even after making four films, he was never enamoured of them.
As an adolescent, he enjoyed the occasional Hindi film—invariably one of his father Nasir Husain’s productions screened for friends and family. It was the post-screening discussion that Mansoor would enjoy more than the film itself. The entire gathering would end up divided into two groups, where the younger lot---Mansoor, his sister Nuzhat and cousins including Aamir—would find holes in the ‘lost-and-found’ formula that was signature Nasir Husain and, much to their surprise, notice the elders smilingly brush aside such observations. Mansoor recalls how he and the others would take great pride in ripping apart Nasir Husain’s films because of their sheer incongruity. In the end, the film-maker would still win because there was only one answer to his final question: ‘Did you enjoy it?’ A resounding ‘yes’.
Mansoor’s complete lack of interest in popular Hindi cinema may have had something to do with the perception of Hindi cinema in the minds of the youth of the era. For the young, English-speaking crowd, Hindi cinema of the day was considered too tacky to talk about, and was a subject of constant mockery. Although Mansoor might have found the kind of films his father made mawkish, it wasn’t as if he was interested in any other kind of cinema either. Forget Hollywood or world cinema or standard auteurs such as Michelangelo Antonioni or Akira Kurosawa, he hadn’t even seen most of Guru Dutt’s works before he actually began making films.
Despite everything, Mansoor may have subconsciously picked up a few things from his father’s sessions with R.D. Burman. ‘I loved the music sittings,’ recalls Mansoor, marvelling at the terrific ear his father had for tunes. Mansoor enjoyed the process that both his father and RD would go through to create some of the evergreen songs of Hindi cinema, and with Majrooh joining in at times, the atmosphere would only brighten. Mansoor would see how, over days, Nasir Husain would challenge RD with an idea or just an image, or RD would play around with a simple note that he would work into a tune, upon which Majrooh would craft the right words and nuances, and the three would end up with a song that would soon be hummed by thousands. For someone who played the drums and the piano, it was undoubtedly a mesmerising experience, but it failed to stir anything significant within Mansoor, who says, ‘I didn’t go, “Oh, I wish I could do this one day.”’
Mansoor wasn’t as influenced by his surroundings. Also, he had a wide array of interests that ranged from electronics, anthropology, astronomy, engineering, amateur radio and such, many of which were far removed from the setting around him. Even his pop or counterculture interests hinted at a different mind. He loved the music of R.D. Burman but connected better with the sound of bands such as Steely Dan. Mansoor’s intuitiveness overrode most of his interests, and it was a matter of time before he chose a world where, unlike in the film business, the desire to try to outperform himself every time was not as overwhelming.
Mansoor joined the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Bombay, and enrolled in the prestigious Computer Science programme, but dropped out before he could graduate. At the time, Mansoor’s thoughts seemed to be running on two parallel tracks: the intuitive and the intellectual. His confusion would have amplified when he realised that, perhaps, the two were irreconcilable. Undeterred by his experience at IIT, Mansoor decided to move to the United States and enrolled in an Ivy League college, Cornell University. Although a sense of general disenchantment with studies had come to haunt him, Mansoor pushed himself to explore astronomy and sailing; he became quite proficient at sailing and later in the 1990s he would even sail from Taiwan to India. But he could never fully shrug off the feeling that the education system he was a part of only narrowed an individual’s worldview to fit into a particular slot. Abandoning Cornell, Mansoor moved to Boston, joined the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and continued his pursuit of education, hoping things would change. Once again, he pushed himself into all sorts of coursework but the result was the same. After nearly a decade of studying across three of the world’s most prestigious higher educational institutes, Mansoor decided to leave it all and come back home.
Returning to India, he seemed more lost than he had been before he left for the US. Mansoor remembers himself as ‘pretty much useless, rebellious, confused and angry’ during the two years after he came back and had no idea of what he was going to do in the future. It was during this phase that Mansoor thought of exploring video as a platform. Unlike film, video was a format Mansoor had not only seen first hand during his time in the US, but having used it himself, was also somewhat familiar with. Regardless of what lay ahead with his foray into video, he still believed in a future that didn’t include film-making. But even with such clarity, Mansoor ended up working with his father on Zamaane Ko Dikhana Hai, which was being shot around the time.
By the end of the 1970s, disco’s appeal was at its peak. While Donna Summers or Carl Douglas were universally acknowledged doyens, the global success of Saturday Night Fever (1977) redefined its sound. Nasir Husain had loved the film’s dance sequences, especially the synchronisation of the beats and the dance floor lights, and wanted to infuse that kind of harmony in one of Zamaane Ko Dikhana Hai’s songs. Ever since he could recall, Mansoor was always into electronics and his fascination with gadgets wasn’t hidden from his father. It was, therefore, hardly surprising that Nasir Husain asked his son to design the lighting effects for the number ‘Dil lena khel hai dildar ka’.
Along with a close friend, Anil Pal, a software engineer and his future brother-in-law, Mansoor came up with a lighting pattern that was synchronised with R.D. Burman’s vocals and music. It was one of the earliest Hindi film songs to feature a lit dance floor that flashed in rhythm to the beat.
Mansoor looked at his participation in Zamaane Ko Dikhana Hai as a son’s day out at his father’s place of work. He knew that had he not enjoyed ‘meddling’ around with gadgets, his father might not have even asked him. But he continued to let the thought of experimenting with video germinate to a point where he decided to pursue it somewhat professionally. The kind of people Mansoor found himself comfortable with were connected with the medium in some way or another, but were not the usual film-frenzied clan. Perhaps this may have been one of the reasons for him to start a production house specialising in advertisements shot on video. The group included friends such as Sanjive Sharma, a film executive at Ogilvy & Mather, and cinematographer Kiran Deohans, who would later go on to shoot Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak. The company Mansoor formed was called Scan Video and while Mansoor was not sure if he would direct commercials, he knew that he could get Sanjive’s help to produce, and Kiran Deohans to freelance as the director of photography. Later, Mansoor would officially partner with Sanjive and create a production house called Mobius. For some reason, Mansoor never directed anything for the company he created and, much like his efforts in engineering, found he could ‘easily move away’ from this as well.
Mansoor says, ‘I wasn’t very ambitious’ and recalls how he may have been searching for himself in the things he was doing. For someone constantly searching for a platform or medium to discover and express himself, Mansoor found the intimacy of video liberating. The freedom that the digital format offered, being liberated from the thought of wasting stock, or the possibility it offered of cutting the footage in as many different ways as one desired, motivated Mansoor enough to look for his own unique voice. He found this through a short film called Umberto.
At the time Mansoor returned to India, video was at a very nascent stage. Never having thought of himself as someone who could relate to a film audience, Mansoor’s video experimentation suited his persona, which was extremely private. Umberto was a true experiment in every conceivable sense of the word. ‘No one really saw it, barring very few friends,’ says Mansoor, smiling as he recalls how he had decided to make the film to prove that he could do something useful. For Mansoor, the experience was extremely personal even though, by the end, a select few happened to see it. Like any true art, Umberto couldn’t exist in vacuum. In an essay, ‘The Writer and His Audience’, philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre mentions that for any artist there is no such thing as doing it for oneself. Sartre observed that while a writer or, in this case a film-maker, might believe that he/she is perhaps creating the work for their own, this really isn’t the case for, had it been so, the work as an object would never see the light of day and the creator would either have to put down his pen or his despair.
Although Umberto convinced people around him, especially his father, that he could make a film, Mansoor’s anxieties about being a full-time film-maker were still driven by his own doubts about finding his audience. ‘By then I was convinced that I could make a film, but wanted to do that for my own reasons,’ says Mansoor.
As someone who could barely connect with cinema in general, let alone popular Hindi cinema, Mansoor needed to be convinced about not only his ability to appeal to an audience but also their willingness to collaborate in his kind of cinema, which Sartre points out as essential to the course of a writer’s work.
After his experimental film, Mansoor started developing an idea that would ultimately metamorphose into Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar (1992). More than a film about coming of age, for him it would be a discovery of the self. As Mansoor grappled with his Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar script, his father started working on one of his own to launch his nephew and Mansoor’s younger cousin, Aamir, as an actor.
Husain had started fleshing out the characters and writing the screenplay along with two younger team members, who he hoped would help him connect with the generation his protagonists belonged to. Conspicuous by his absence from the youthful squad that featured his sister Nuzhat and Aamir, Mansoor, fancying himself an English-speaking techie, believed he wouldn’t be able to connect thematically with his father’s story.
But there was another, bigger reason for not participating in his father’s venture. Mansoor had never been an easy candidate to convince, and his refusal to even listen to a narration by his father could be attributed to what he calls ‘a stupid rebellious streak’, which kept him from attempting what didn’t make sense to him. It was a while before Mansoor finally decided to hear his father’s story after failing to make much headway with Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar.
Right at the onset, Nasir Husain announced, ‘Yeh thakuron ki script hai’: this is a script about thakurs. This was the farthest thing possible from the preamble Mansoor was expecting. Despite his apprehensions about a story he couldn’t relate to, Mansoor was drawn to the tale of the star-crossed lovers. Probably because of the brilliantly etched prologue establishing the feud between the two clans, which incidentally remained unchanged till the very end. Once the narration was over, though, Mansoor and Nasir Husain disagreed on many things, but the set-up and the strong premise convinced Mansoor, and he ended up offering suggestions about the tone and the approach. Hearing Mansoor out, his father simply told him that if he felt he could improve it, he may want to try writing. Mansoor didn’t agree immediately, but Nasir Husain knew his son had taken the bait.
Among Mansoor’s biggest concerns about telling a story featuring thakurs was whether he would end up faking the whole thing. ‘I had never seen a thakur in my life and a part of the hesitation was also because I didn’t speak Hindi as comfortably at the time,’ recalls Mansoor, adding that he couldn’t imagine himself expressing what a thakur should be doing while ‘directing’ senior actors. By the time Mansoor had heard his father’s narration, Nasir Husain had not only worked out the narrative structure of the film and most of the plot points, he had also drawn up most of the scenes and situations. Husain’s first draft also more or less defined every character who had a talking part, including the protagonists, the doomed lovers Raj and Rashmi.
Although Mansoor wasn’t thought of as a natural choice to direct the film, largely due to his own reluctance, Nasir Husain too had never really considered directing it himself.
The change of guard ultimately took place once Nasir Husain persuaded Mansoor to look beyond the veneer of thakurs and treat the subject as a classic love story in the mould of Romeo and Juliet. As soon as Mansoor warmed up to that, there was no looking back.
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