Ms. Udaya Tara Nayar is a veteran film journalist. She started her career working with The Indian Express Group. She edited the weekly, Screen, for many years and took its circulation from modest 60,000 and doubling it to 120,000 in just a few months. She has written the autobiography of Dilip Kumar titled ‘The Substance and the Shadow’, which became an instant bestseller. She is a great reservoir of experience and knowledge and lived a true and very humble life as a film journalist. Mrs. Nayar recently talked to Mohammad Aleem, Managing Editor of India’s First Online Muslim Newspaper ‘IndianMuslimObserver.com’ in a free-wheeling interview at her Mumbai residence. Here are the excerpts of the interview, which are sure to enlighten and educate our readers.
Q: Madam, you are a veteran journalist. How do you judge your career as a film journalist?
Ans: I chose this career because of my uncle, S. S. Pillai, the younger brother of my father. He was the Editor of Screen, a very popular film weekly. I had just finished my BA. I was waiting for my result. So, I was getting bored in the house. One day, he said that there is a vacancy in the Indian Express for an apprentice. You should join there till your result comes out.
I went to the Express office which was at Sassoon Dock. Frak Moraes, the Editor of Indian Express, asked me to appear for a test which I passed. To become a full time sub editor cum reporter in Indian Express there was a hurdle. Night duty was compulsory and there was no exemption for women.
My parents were very orthodox and conservative. It was in 1967. They said you can’t do night duty. Then, I went to the editor and told him that my parents were insistent that I should leave the job.
He said: “I don’t think you should leave the job. You have the potential to become a good journalist. I will put you in Screen. Screen doesn’t have a night duty. He then called my uncle and told him that there is a bright journalist, sitting just in front of me. I want to send her to you.” My uncle immedately retorted don’t send her to me because she is my niece and I don’t like the idea of having a family member in my staff.
Mr Moraes said: “Take her. She is bright. She has a good future”.
I went to my uncle’s cabin grinning like a monkey. My uncle told me, don’t behave like my niece in this office. Whatever problems you have, you will have to solve it yourself. Don’t come crying to me with anything.
I was attending evening classes for my MA. He said you manage your classes, too. I don’t know how you will. If there is work, you will have to be in the office. You finish it and then you can go. It is your problem. I said, fine. Let me give it a try.
Till that time, I had not seen any films as a film student or film buff. I used to watch only Hindu mythological movies with my mother, like Ram Bhakt Hanuman, Sita Swayamvar, Sapoorna Ramayan. So, I had no great knowledge about other Hindi films. My uncle, of course, knew I had no knowledge of films. He said don’t worry, you will get the knowledge by and by.
So, I started working in 1967 in Screen and gradually my interest grew in cinema. I used to go to cover the shooting of different films.
Veteran actor and filmmaker Raj Kapoor was very good to me. He was a good friend of my uncle. He was shooting his film ‘Mera Nam Joker’. My uncle told him this girl doesn’t know anything about you, so you have to tell her everything about your film. Raj Kapoor used to tell me what shots he was going to take and show me the lights that were being used. He would point to a light and say “this light is called Baby, this light is called Lilly”. It made me giggle, and he would say, be serious my girl, your uncle wants you to become a serious journalist. Then, he would say “now watch me take my shot”. All the processes he explained to me. Then my uncle sent me to Hrishikesh Mukherjee to sit with him in the editing room. Hrishida told me you must see as many films as you can. Your education is now going to be films only. You must watch all kinds of films. Then you can become a proper journalist. So, I started watching films very seriously, Indian or foreign, Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, anything. It helped me to understand the medium immensely. And also, when I was interacting with the people of the industry, whether it was a cinematographer or art director, anybody, I would ask questions just to understand their work. I wanted to know how they were contributing to the films. My uncle told me; I want you to understand something. If you read the reviews of films you will see that a reviewer can dismiss a film in one line as a mediocre film when the filmmaker has spent one whole year making that film. So many people have put their own efforts into it. I don’t want you to do that. If you state that a film is bad you must justify your statement by pointing out what are the shortcomings and which departments have fallen short of expectations. To do that you need to have in depth understanding.
As a result, I took the trouble of understanding the creative components of the medium very well. When I wrote reviews I kept his words in my mind.
Q: It also raises a very pertinent question, if you had not joined the Screen you could have become a journalist in some other fields also.
Ans: No, I don’t think so. If I had not joined the Screen, the other best alternative for me was to go for IAS. I became very passionate about films only once I joined Screen. After meeting people of the industry, I began to realize that it was a different world altogether. People of this world are very different from the outside world. In fact, if I had gone for the IAS, I would have not got the kind of experience I have now.
Q: Do you think you had that kind of potential to qualify for the IAS?
Ans: I had. That’s why I wanted to appear for the UPSC exams. But, when I came to Mumbai, everything changed. My father was a government officer. He was the corporation commissioner of Trivandrum. He told me if you want to go for IAS, remember, you will keep getting transferred. He also told me that if you get married, your husband will be somewhere else, you will have to be at another place. You may not be able to lead a proper married life. So, don’t go for this government service. Do something else.
Q: You have now a lot of experiences as a journalist. How do you see your growth as a journalist? Are you satisfied with your work or not?
Ans: I am very satisfied. I started from zero, from the bottom of the ladder, but my hard work and consistent efforts paid a good dividend. It helped me to come to the position of the editor of Screen. In 1988, I took charge. I put in a lot of hard work. I not only edited the English Screen, but Hindi Screen also. It was called Express Screen. I also edited Screen’s Trade Weekly. So my workload was heavy. My office gave me a flat at Cuff Parade. It made my work easier because I became free from the worry of traveling. The Indian Express Management was very good to me.
Q: What makes a person a good journalist?
Ans: Only thing required foremost is hard work, patience, and this is especially required in this particular field because no star will give you time for the interview so easily. You will have to wait because they have their own problems.
There are many actors who are initially difficult to understand. So, you will have to deal with them in a particular manner also to get work done. For example, in my time, there was Raj Kumar who was a huge film star. He was well known for his eccentric behaviour. My editor, B K Karanjia, gave me an assignment to record his interview.
I called him to take the appointment. But he told me to call him the next day at 11 am. I called him again and got the same answer. And it went on like this for many days. Finally, I went to my editor and said that he was just delaying giving me an appointment and perhaps he did not want to be interviewed.
Finally, on Mr Karanjia’s insistence, he gave me the time for the interview.
I went and talked to him at length about his work and the other things associated with his life. Finally, when I finished, he asked me how I was going to write the interview because I had not taken any notes.
Remember, in those days, there was no tape recorder available so easily. We relied heavily on the notes jotted down.
But, when the interview was published, he was surprised. He called me at my house. First, I got scared. But he very politely congratulated me and said that I had done a commendable job and would like to have a coffee with me at Oberoi. I went to meet him and he told me jokingly, “you must have hidden a tape recorder somewhere in your head. I had to find out.” The interviews I did in those times were done without any tape recorder or notes. God has really always been very kind to me. God has gifted me with the power to retain the information verbatim.
Even, Dilip Kumar sahib used to tell me the same thing when I started work on the biography. He used to be surprised by the way I reproduced his conversations with me verbatim. He too suspected I had a recorder hidden somewhere.
Q: What changes and challenges do you see as a journalist today?
Ans: Today there is only sensationalism, nothing else. The emphasis is on spicy stuff. Everything has to be spicy. No facts are verified. There is no authenticity and credibility, all that has gone out of the window. Now, it is only who is meeting who and who is going to get married with whom. Who is going where and for what? Take Karva Chauth, for instance. Even in the past the ladies of the industry were keeping the fast, but they used to do it quietly in their houses. Now, they publicise it all by getting photographed in the clothes specially designed for that. The stars too like the invasion of their private lives when it suits them.
Q: What is the reason behind it?
Ans: Reason… I think it is survival. It is not easy now for print publications to survive because of the proliferation of the media. There are some journalists who write very seriously
Q: You are in the news for writing the biography of the thespian actor Dilip Kumar. How that work came to you and what were your experiences?
Ans: I was very close to Dilip sahib because my uncle Pillai sahib and he were good friends. His wife, Saira Banu, had been persuading him to write his autobiography. But he was evading and avoiding it.
One day, he read something which somebody had written about him. He said what was written was utter rubbish. Saira Banu then reminded him: “This is the reason why I am requesting you to write your own book.”
He said; “I can’t sit and write. Somebody will have to write it. I was in the room and Saira instantly told him: “Somebody is right here.” Then, he looked towards me and said: “You will write it”. He used to like the editorials I wrote in Screen and he was confident I could do justice to his narration.
First, I thought that he was joking. But he said: “I am serious. You do it.” He was comfortable with me because I was like a member of the family. I was close to him for many years.
Then, we started working on the book. Sometimes, he allowed me to record the conversations and sometimes he did not. But, it went on.
I had started work in 2004 and got it completed in 2014. It took so much time because if he was not in good mood, sometimes, he would not talk. Then, suddenly, if he was in mood, he would call me. I always went by his mood and willingness to talk. He would change the topic quickly, at times. He would talk about Bombay Talkies and the next instant he would switch over to his native place, Peshawar, and suddenly switch over to his meeting with Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. There was no sequence. He would just talk and I listened intently. It took me a year to put it into a proper sequence and weave it all into a story.
The wisdom he had was great, whether it was cinema or the world in general. It was amazing. I would just sit and listen to him. He mostly spoke in English, but sometimes, he used Urdu also. He has a great knowledge of Urdu poetry and literature. But, most of the time, it was difficult for me to grasp that beautiful language. But, there was one of his relatives who used to translate those conversations in English for me. Urdu is such a lovely and very expressive language. If he recited a couplet in Urdu, he would translate it into English and he would tell me that the English version was only half as good as the original.
Q: Tell me something about him as an artist and as a human being?
Ans: As an artist I can’t say anything that has not been said already. He is the greatest actor Indian Cinema has ever produced. He has earned that position in the industry through hard work and deep devotion. I understood it well when he was talking to me. It was very difficult for him because he had to learn everything by himself. There was no icon he looked up to. It all evolved with his efforts. He had great patience and dedication.
Today’s actors have many facilities. They can use a monitor to check the shots. Mughl-E-Azam was reshot many times to achieve perfection. It took ten years to complete.
He told me that playing Salim was very difficult for him because there was not much authentic information about him. He used to sit and think how did Salim walk, how did he sit, how did he look at Anarkali. All these things he had to imagine by himself. K Asif only told him: “behave like yourself. You are like a prince”.
In the meantime, he started Ganga Jamuna. In that film, he was playing a rustic character. It was quite difficult to handle two opposite kinds of films. But, his greatness was that he was perfect in both roles.
I do feel that Dilip Kumar as a person is far superior to the actor, Dilip Kumar. He is such a wonderful man. He is so humble. You will never feel that you are sitting and talking with a legend. Many a times, I have gone out with him.
During the holy month of Ramadan, after Maghrib prayer, he would take his family in his car to give a treat there. I was often asked to accompany them.
The way he would react to the people coming to meet him was a thing to watch. He would meet all sorts of people so warmly and lovingly. One day, he told me: “You know when a man from the street comes to me and holds my hand and tells me that he loved my work that is my real award. And other awards which come to me are just a trophy to me. I receive them in all humility, make a speech and I go away. This is the real award I cherish and keep in my heart”.
He is very down to earth. Which superstar nowadays will allow a stranger come up to him and hold his hand? Today’s stars have bouncers and bodyguards to keep people away.
Even, in Dilip kumar’s time other stars behaved differently. They used to maintain a distance with the people. A stranger could not go to Dev Anand and hold his hand. But, Dilip Sahib always felt free to talk to anyone. He felt that they were the people who made him the super star, Dilip Kumar. He has never refused an autograph. He has never worn dark glasses. He believes in making eye contact with people.
Q: What makes you more happy and contented working as a journalist or writer?
Ans: Now, I have tasted the happiness that comes from writing a serious kind of book. Many people called and told me that this book, the autobiography of Dilip Kumar, reads like a novel. The descriptions and the flow are so good. You have beautifully written it. I feel encouraged to start writing short stories.
Q: I have read somewhere that you are working nowadays on a short story book. What prompted you to write short stories?
Ans: I do feel now that I can write it. I learned from Dilip Kumar sahib during that period of writing his biography how to develop a plot.
He used to write most of the scripts himself. When other people wrote for him he used to make necessary corrections. He would work hard to refine and give more flesh to the characters, including other characters played by other actors.
It was called interference, but it was for the larger benefit of the films and the actors working with him. It was not interference.
Now, I am working on a collection of stories, all based in my native place, Kerala and Madras where I grew up. That is very exciting for me now.
One of my sisters was married to a Muslim. She passed away last month. She had embraced Islam as her religion and her name was Fatima. She used to live in Chennai. She was very dear to me.
My side of the family did not attend the funeral because we did not know what to do at that time. She was buried according to Islamic rituals. I am writing a story on her life and the turbulent times in the early fifties when she boldly married my brother-in-law. But, she had a wonderful life. She had a great fulfilment with her family. She was respected and loved by them. And she also loved and respected them. It is a terrific story.
Q: Tell something about your family background?
Ans: I am fifth among the five children of my father, Ayyappa Pillai, who was a civil servant. My mother was a simple housewife. I have three sisters with one elder brother.
I grew mostly in Mumbai, because, I had moved here. My uncle, Mr. Pillai brought me here. I grew in a very cosmopolitan atmosphere.
Q: You have won many awards for your work also. Tell something about it?
Ans: I think those awards and recognitions came to me when I was put at the helm of editing, Screen. In those days, when I became editor of Screen, the circulation was around sixty thousand. Mr. Vivek Goenka told me when he appointed me as the editor that he would like to see the circulation of Screen grow from 60,000 to 120,000 in a few months and I took it up seriously as a challenge and began to work hard to attain the target.
I included television coverage which was new in those days. Only Doordarshan existed. I also gave ample coverage to the regional cinemas. And all these things helped me in increasing the volume of readership tremendously. Finally, I achieved the target which was set by my chairman for me.
These efforts brought many kinds of awards and recognition for me. I have to thank Mr Goenka for it all.
Q: We do hear a lot about paid journalism. What is truth behind it?
Ans: Today, people say that newspapers charge for featuring the stars. Many people who don’t deserve to be featured are featured. It has become totally commercial. Why not, everywhere, you have to spend money to get prominence. The publications are uninhibited about making money and people are willing to spend to get recognition. To get out of turn Darshan even in a temple, you have to pay. So, what’s the harm? After all we are living in a marketing driven world. We cannot but be a part of the changing times.
[Mohammad Aleem is Managing Editor of India’s First Online Muslim Newspaper “IndianMuslimObserver.com”. You can know more about him by visiting his website at www.mohammadaleem.com. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org]