After having waxed so long and eloquent about my parents, my sister, my cousin, and a couple of other relatives (not to mention servants!) in the context of our love for cinema – it’s time to focus on the one link my family does have to cinema. The one person from our family who made it to the Hindi cinema industry in Bombay, back in the golden years.
David Vernon Liddle, who called himself David Vernon Kumar. People in the industry used to call him ‘Kumar Sahib’, and he was my father’s elder brother.
Papa came from a large family – my grandparents had five sons and one daughter. David Vernon was the third son (my father is the youngest of the siblings). In this photo, taken when Papa was a little boy, David Vernon (or ‘Vernie’, as everyone in the family called him) is the boy sitting on the floor in the middle. He was 9 years older than my father.
Vernie tau, which was what we children called him (‘tau’, in case you don’t know Hindustani, refers to one’s father’s elder brother), was born in 1929. I haven’t been able to discover much – even from Papa – about Vernie tau’s early life, but he seems to have been allowed a little more freedom than his older, more strictly brought-up brothers and sister. My grandparents were very orthodox, staunch Christians; they frowned upon anything light-hearted – and cinema or popular music topped their list.
But Vernie tau was apparently an enterprising (possibly rebellious?) young man. Somewhere down the line he managed to learn how to play the guitar. Managed to make it to Bombay. Managed to get a contract with Filmistan. And managed to get to play in Mahal. All when he was only 20 years old.
You can hear the gentle strumming of Vernie tau’s guitar in much of Aayega aanewaala, including in that hauntingly beautiful start of the song.
He’s there again, playing in one of my favourite tragic songs, Tum na jaane kis jahaan mein kho gaye, from Sazaa…
… and in a host of other songs, including Vande mataram, from Anandmath. Vernie tau not only played for Vande mataram; he also (sort of!) sang in the chorus. There’s an amusing story behind this.
The entire orchestra, for rehearsals and for recordings, had to shuttle daily between Bombay and Goregaon – quite a long and tedious haul at that time. They were soon pretty sick of all the journeying they were forced to do.
And, as it happened, when the time came to record, someone realised that the number of singers in the chorus fell short of the number of people shown onscreen. (If you’ve watched Anandmath – or even just seen the song – you’d know that Vande mataram has a huge chorus).
The easiest solution was to get the orchestra to join in the chorus. After all, they were musicians, and not tone-deaf. The lyrics weren’t difficult, and all that was needed was voices to swell the chorus. So Vernie tau and his friends joined in. But instead of singing “Vande mataram, vande mataram”, they vented their frustrations by singing “One day Bombay, one day Goregaon”.
You can’t tell if you listen to the song – the chorus managed to drown them out, but yes; it did happen.
Vernie tau also played for some of the songs in Raj Kapoor’s hit Barsaat. Being at the studios most of the day, he sometimes managed to find time to pop in and watch scenes being shot. One he recounted later was the scene where Premnath’s character, an urban playboy, comes to the village where he’s awaited by an adoring village belle (played by Nimmi). The girl is deeply in love with the man, who’s flirtatious and indifferent by turn. There’s one scene where he comes to her hut at night and lies down on the bed. She’s miserable at his seeming neglect of her. But she tries to be welcoming and loving; she takes his shoes off, and presses her face to his feet.
Take after take, and the director, Raj Kapoor, wasn’t satisfied. Nimmi just wasn’t being able to get the right expression. Finally, something clicked. Raj Kapoor paused everything and told Premnath to go wash his feet with soap and water. “Thoroughly!”
And the next take? Perfect.
Sometime in the mid-50s, Vernie tau came away from Bombay, back to North India, to stay in Delhi. Here, he used to live in Pusa. My father and another of their brothers, my Johnny tau, stayed with Vernie tau too. While in Delhi, Vernie tau set up his own little band. ‘Kumar Sahib’ and his band would play at weddings and similar functions – and for that he’d be on the lookout for good tunes to add to their repertoire.
The two people whose task it was to help in finding new tunes were Johnny tau and Papa. Whenever a new film was released, these two young men (Papa was a teenager, Johnny tau three years older) would be given the tonga fare to go to Daryaganj, along with money to buy cinema tickets. They’d watch a film and note down any good songs it featured. Vernie tau, if he got a good report, would go see the film for himself. If he liked a song (or more), he’d buy the album, and his band would start practising.
In 1957, Vernie tau got married. With his wife, my Sheila tai, he headed back to Bombay and again into the film industry.
In Bombay, Vernie tau and Sheila tai lived in the same apartment complex as some other well-known film personalities. Their neighbours included, for instance, Talat Mahmood (“his wife was such a sweet, gentle lady”) and Agha (“a man with a delightful sense of humour, even off-screen”).
Two stories about Agha and his family follow, but if you’re the delicately-nurtured sort, you might want to skip these. They’re not X-rated, but they’re definitely disgusting – the kind that always make me wrinkle up my nose.
Agha and Talat Mahmood’s little sons – Jalal and Khalid, respectively – used to play together in the apartment complex. Jalal Agha used to tease Khalid by yelling cheerfully: “Tu toh khaa-leed hai! Tu toh khaa-leed hai!” (in Hindustani, ‘khaa’ means ‘to eat’. ‘leed’ means – ugh – excrement. Faeces, shit, crap. Call it what you will. The implication is still yucky).
There’s another gross tale, this time about Agha himself. During the shoot of a film, lunch used to be served to the crew in the typical ‘dastarkhan’ style: they’d sit cross-legged on a sheet spread on the ground, and food-laden thalis would be placed in front of each one of them. One day, Agha found himself seated next to a fat financier with no manners and a bad (or overworked?) digestion. Every now and then, this financier would lift one of his buttocks and let loose with a massive fart.
Each time, Agha was at the receiving end. He bore it a couple of times. But the next time the sethji began to lift his bum, Agha pounced on him, “Sethji, is baar doosri taraf!” (“Sethji, the other side this time, please!”)
I can understand poor Agha’s plight, though.
(Incidentally, Agha – whose father had been in the shoe business – used to invariably introduce himself as a ‘mochi’, a cobbler).
Vernie tau stayed around in Bombay, continuing to play in film songs through the years. Sometime in the late 1960s, his younger brother (my Johnny tau) came to visit Bombay with a starry-eyed friend of his. This was the friend:
(That studio photo certainly does have the look of someone trying very hard to look ‘the hero’, doesn’t it?) This friend had great aspirations of being a film star someday, and pestered Johnny tau to put in a word with Vernie tau to try and get him a role – even if it was only as an extra, to start with – in any film. He was sure he’d make his mark.
A film starring Dev Kumar was being shot in the studio where Vernie tau was working. The person in charge of casting did need some extras for a restaurant scene, so Johnny tau’s friend got his chance. What he didn’t know – and discovered only when the cameras began rolling and the action started – was that in the scene, he (Johnny tau’s friend) is given a whopper of a slap by Dev Kumar.
The poor man emerged from the scene, dishevelled, his jaw nearly dislocated, and seeing stars (well, I did say he was starry-eyed to start with, didn’t I?!). He came rushing back to Vernie tau and blubbered, “Bhaiya, I don’t want to work in films. Thank you, but I’m going back home!”
Vernie tau himself eventually came back home to North India. Shortly after the Dev Kumar film (I don’t know which one it was), Vernie tau, Sheila tai and their sons came to Delhi and settled here. Vernie tau went back to being part of a band. He passed away in 1981 – or was it 1982? – still only in his 50s. I was only about 8 years old at that time, but I have earlier recollections of visiting their home, of sitting out on the balcony and watching my parents, my tau and tai drinking tea; listening to their stories; watching Vernie tau meeting his many visitors and friends, all of them happy to meet ‘Kumar Sahib’…
In the mid-1950s, an interesting film project had been launched. Madhubala’s father Ataullah Khan decided to make a film that would be called Pathan. Madhubala, of course, would be the star. (We don’t know who was supposed to star opposite her). Around the same time, Naya Daur was being made, and Madhubala was signed on, opposite Dilip Kumar, to star in that. But when Ataullah Khan discovered that it would involve Madhubala’s travelling outside Bombay for the shoot – with Dilip Kumar, who was courting her – he put his foot down. His daughter wouldn’t go out of town.
Vyjyantimala replaced Madhubala in Naya Daur (and went on to notch up another hit with it), but the breach of contract caused much rancour. BR Chopra, the producer and director of Naya Daur, sued Madhubala, and among the witnesses he produced was Dilip Kumar.
BR Chopra won the case, but it soured things for Ataullah Khan. He ended up shelving the Pathan project.
So what does Vernie tau have to do with all of this? He was to have been the music director for Pathan. He had, in fact, already composed some tunes for the film when it was called off. Had it been made, Kumar Sahib might have been better-known today.