In his regular column this time TOM ALTER speaks of his encounters with the doyens of Bollywood, V.Shantaram, Raj Kapoor, Manoj Kumar and Subhash Ghai. Read on:

In my more than 40 years in the Hindi film industry, I have been blessed to work with four of the pillars of that industry, four men who were directors and producers – and actors – whose films set a commercial standard of cinematic excellence upon which the whole rhyme and rhythm of the industry thrived – V. Shantaram, Raj Kapoor, Manoj Kumar, and Subhash Ghai – each moved on from the other, and yet each depended on the other, grew from the other, as Sachin did from Gavaskar.

Shantaram-ji was ramrod straight, almost military in his manner – but very straightforward, and so wonderful to work with as a very young actor fresh and nervous in the industry –

Manoj-sahib deserves an entire book to describe him – one day I will write it – but, he was, and is, an elder brother, and when we shot Kranti, he ruled the industry –

Subhash-ji is my senior from the Film Institute, so the respect is always there – and in his heydays, in the 80’s, he was the King – the Showman --

And then there was – is – Raj Kapoor – and as I remember him, I also remember, with equal love and admiration, Dilip Kumar and Dev Anand – for, yes, I was also blessed to work with all three of them – with Raj and Dev as director and fellow-actor, and with Dilip as fellow-actor –

I could write forever about these three amazing gentlemen, so I will try and restrict myself to ‘first encounters’ –

Dev-sahib – his children, Suneil and Devina, studied at Woodstock School in Mussoorie, where I and my wife also studied – not to mention dozens of other relatives – my wife taught both children, and I was assistant hostel warden when Suneil was in high-school – and thereby begins the tale – each student had to write home every week, so each week I saw the envelope addressed to Shri Dev Anand, 2, Iris Park, Juhu, Bombay – 49. Thus, in 1972, when I joined the Film Institute, I stopped off in Bombay, and went straight to 2, Iris Park – oh, my. The chowkidar was least impressed, and told me “Sahib is not in!” – only when I said I was from Mussoorie, from Woodstock, did he show any interest – and finally agreed to let Sahib know. And within a matter of moments, there was Dev-sahib at the gate, lean and smiling and full of such graceful energy – and welcoming me into his home for another two days. He just would not let me go – and I, a total stranger, whose only claim to fame was that I had worked at the school where his children studied. This was, and is, the true Dev-sahib. A man ruled by his heart, a man of culture and caring, but a true Hindustani, through and through. For two days I was an honoured guest, and suddenly Bombay was not a strange city for me – aaaah.

Dilip-sahib – we met for the first time at a mutual friend’s house on Pali Hill – it must have been in about ’75 – or late ’74 – all I remember is that I was suddenly in the same room with the legend, and he was talking to me – in Urdu. His gentle voice made me very comfortable, so I asked him, “Dilip-sahib, achhi acting ka raaz kya hai?” – He answered, without a moment’s hesitation, “Sher-o-shaayri” – until today, this answer had guided me, mystified me, challenged me – but what an answer – because, for Dilip Kumar, that answer was the eternal truth – not only for acting, but for life itself.

Raj-sahib – oh, my – it was the second half of ’74. I had passed-out (literally) from the Film Institute, and while there, had missed out on the chance to meet Raj-sahib at his farm near Pune, where he used to invite the acting students for dinner every year – so, thanks to a note from Girish Karnad, who was the Director of the Institute at that time, I learned that Raj-sahib wanted to meet me at RK Studios – so off I went, through those hallowed gates, and then down into Raj-sahib’s special room, where he was waiting for me – for me, the kid from Mussoorie who had seen Jagte Raho at Capitol Cinema on the Mall Road during the black-out of the ’71 war, who had seen Mera Naam Joker twice in a week at Regal at Delhi -- for me – and he was all smiles and wit and charm and we talked and talked and shared stories and sipped tea and nibbled on samosas and I knew that the great man was actually interested in me, and that knowing made my heart sing – and still does.

First encounters of the wonderful kind – there will never, ever be a Big Three again like Dev, Raj, and Dilip – I have a photo of the three of them with Nehru, and it is impossible to say who is the handsomest, the most suave, the most charming – but all four shared a love for Hindustan, and for all things Hindustani – aaaah.