AMLAN HOME CHOWDHURY | 26 NOVEMBER, 2019
One Day Inside an Irani Cafe in Mumbai’s Fort Area…
Real stories of the reel life, inside Bombay’s iconic Irani cafes
You really feel pretty disturbed if a shabbily attired old man suddenly drops in during your bun maska-garam chai and discussion of a story idea about a Bollywood Mughal from the black and white era, inside an old Irani cafe in the Fort area of Mumbai.
In the Irani cafes, some born in 1895, nostalgia lingers. Mumbai is changing but modernity is kept miles away from these cafes. Even the food menu remains virtually the same as it was decades ago.
These Irani cafes are integrally associated with the Bollywood. Some of them even saw regular visits by Anna Salunkhe, Ganpat Shinde, D.D.Dabke and Vishnu Hari Aundhkar - the cast of India’s first film Raja Harishchandra, released in 1913 by Dadasaheb Phalke.
The cafes are a Victorian oasis in the heart of heartless Mumbai. The buildings that house them are ancient and most are not air conditioned. Old wooden furniture dominates these cafes and you feel a terrible absence of steel or plastic mould tables and chairs.
Yet people still come here, eat bun maska and even get shouted at by the old Parsee owners for “Khali-pili, faltu-giri”: wasting time in gossip just for nothing.
But then even Johnny Walker, the great actor, used to get rebuked for sitting khali-pili in an Irani cafe in Colaba. Our beloved Johnny Bhai was struggling then and could not get cheaper food anywhere in Mumbai.
Ratan Tata too was a regular visitor to such cafes. And former US president Barak Obama visited the same Irani cafe where Johnny Bhai of “Zara hatke, zara bachke, yeh hai Mumbai meri jaan” fame was a regular visitor, even after he became famous.
Over the years, thousands of stories have appeared in hundreds of newspapers and magazines the world over about these cafes. But hardly anybody has documented how these century-old cafes are replete with stories of Bollywood.
We, a group of journalists, found one such real-life story of the reel life inside that cafe in Fort.
Incidentally, that Irani cafe where I was rebuked for wasting my time by its aged owner umpteen times, is now slated to be a heritage-status building. The only time he asked me to stay back and talk with him was when I filed a story for my paper on Fearless Nadia, the Hunterwali of Bollywood.
The old man remembered the day when Nadia herself came to his cafe with her husband Homi Wadia (a fellow Parsee, of course) and talked with his father. Both Nadia and Homi shook hands with him and even called him Dikra, which means son in Gujarati.
That brings us back to the shabbily dressed old man who khali-pili intruded upon our discussion about that ancient Bollwyood Mughal who shaped the film careers of Dilip Kumar, Ashok Kumar, Madhubala, Vaijantimala and Balraj Sahni.
Some of the best vintage Lata Mangeshkar songs belong to his films. And all his films were superb box-office hits.
“Sahab! Are you discussing about the Bangali Babu?”
Yes! We are but how does it matter to you, asked a fellow reporter showing her distaste. I had tasked her with filing a report about that Bangali Babu on his birthday for our newspaper.
“Memsahib! I might have been a small filmy celebrity by now, had I not been a nine year old lad when the blessings of that Bangali Babu fell on my family.”
My reporter’s sense suddenly woke up and I asked the old man to sit with us. Please introduce yourself, I asked him.
I am the younger brother of Mr XYZ, the cinematographer of Bollywood and son of the chief photographer of the Bangali Babu you are talking about.
Suddenly, we staff members of the newspaper fell silent.
What do you do?
I retired some six years ago from a Marwari firm as Head Peon.
All of us were surprised at this. But you often stumble upon surprising episodes of the reel life here: in Fort, Horniman Circle, Victoria Terminus and Flora Fountain, all sites of film shooting for decades together.
Each and every Irani cafe here is a book of short stories. You still have such cafes dotting Colaba, Fort, Churchgate, Charni Road, Bandra, Dadar and Bandra, where Sahir Ludhianvi, K.A.Abbas, the music director Ravi, Dharmendra, Naushad and other film stars once thronged.
But the iconic cafes are now vanishing. Naturally, stories on the Bollywood titans too are vanishing. Even 50 years ago, as many as 314 of these Parsee-owned cafes were functional. Today you won’t find more than 35.
Let us go back to the old man and his ancient tale.
“I still remember when that Bangali Babu came to our chawl in Matunga when my father died,” the old man said. “He was about to catch flight for Calcutta but cancelled it when he heard the news of the death of his chief photographer - my father.
“After about a month, the Bangali Babu called my mother, elder brother and me at his home in Bandra for lunch.
“‘Your husband was like my own brother. Now that he is dead, I will give a job to your elder son as the assistant of my new chief photographer. He can come from tomorrow,’ he told my mother. My elder brother was about 21 or 22 then.
“My mother died within four months of my father’s death. I was just a boy and lived in the chawl all alone as my brother would be very busy with film shootings and sometimes would not even return home.
“After about a year, my brother suddenly said he was shifting to Bandra to be near that Bangali Babu, and could not provide more money as his own expenses were going up.
“So I joined a Marwari firm as chaprasi (office boy).
“One day, I heard from a muhalla-wala (a neighbour) that my brother had married a starlet. I knew her. I saw her photographs in roadside film posters. I was very happy and went to his Bandra house.
“‘Why are you here? Don’t you see lots of filmy persons are here? What will I tell them if they ask me about you?’
“I immediately rushed out of his house and left for this Irani cafe.
“Some months later, I was very curious to meet my Bhavi (sister-in-law) and went to my brother’s house. On seeing me, he asked me to come some other time as they were going to Marine Drive for a shoot.
“Sahib, how I felt! The last time I went there was to attend the fourth birthday of my brother’s daughter. A lot of filmy persons had come there. I carried a small packet: a small frock, not so costly, as birthday gift.
“Then my Bhavi asked me to serve tea to the guests, warning me not to divulge my identity to anyone. She also told me to call her Memsahib, not Bhavi, in front of the others.
“That was the rudest blow. I left the birthday party and returned to this Irani cafe. Sitting here, I often hum Talat Mahmood’s ‘Aye mere dil kahin aur chal…’ Talat Mahmood sahab also used to come here often.”
Our time was up! We had to go to office to file a special feature for the Sunday Page of our daily on that Bangali Babu.
But I asked my reporter not to file this story. For some or other reason, I wanted to keep the identity of that shabbily dressed old man a secret.