Dilip Kumar. Mughal-e-Azam. K Asif. A very familiar poster.
But how many people know the name of the man who created this poster? The man who, in fact, created also the almost iconic Mother India poster? I didn’t, till a couple of weeks back. Then, one day, someone named Fred Miller left a comment on my review of the Premnath-Bina Rai starrer, Aurat. Fred told me that his father Sam Millar was the Art Director and Costume Designer for Aurat, and also the man (though uncredited) behind the Mother India poster—and more. Fred not only very graciously forgave me for lambasting the costume design of Aurat, but also agreed to do a couple of guest posts. Here is the first one.
Over to Fred:
To read and enjoy what follows, it is necessary to view the Indian film industry through the eyes of a child – my eyes at the age of five, in the company of the legends and stalwarts who created favorites like Mother India, Aurat and Pardesi. Legends like Mumtaz, Mehboob Khan, Nargis, Premnath, David, Dara Singh, Dharmendra and Feroz Khan, to name a few.
As the years roll by and my memory fades, my blogging seems to mature sooner when I inject the personal details of my life into everything I write. After all, I am the most reliable source of information about my existence – when my memory permits. Ever fearful of the possibility of being struck by Alzheimer’s after having worked with victims of that disease, I have become increasingly aware of the need to exercise the memory functions of my brain, which I believe has suffered a great deal of trauma at an early age. Judge for yourself if I am mentally up to the daunting task of recalling the early unseen, untold days of Bollywood…
When I was five, my Dad, two sisters and myself personally witnessed the slow, painful and agonizing death of my mother who was struck with TB. My mother’s death naturally affected us a great deal… for life. More so because it was the dead of night and there was no home phone (there was a call phone some distance away, not close enough to get immediate help). The details of the ensuing events, besides being private, are bare minimum because my family wished to shield us from any further trauma and help us lead as normal a life as possible. I can only state here that my Dad preferred to seek work away from the place where he lost his wife due to lack of emergency resources, and also because he was driven to try and single-handedly support three children. In this last aspect, he was not successful and we were thenceforth raised as foster children in my aunts’ Pune home, while he went off to Mumbai in search of work to keep himself alive.
My Dad excelled equally at art as he did at picking up any instrument and playing a tune on it almost instantly. Coming from an extremely talented family meant that everyone had to develop all their recognizable talents whether they wanted to or not – until they were independently employed. Thus we had piano, violin and vocal music, and art education and appreciation as part of our daily life, all thanks to my strict grandfather who was a schoolteacher and church organist. I believe my Dad was just born with an enormous amount of talent, and the others in our household and circle of society were all in agreement on this phenomenon. Training was not how he learnt his craft.
With that immense talent, my Dad came to Mumbai. He had friends who worked in the film industry who sought his advice and work in his spare time. They obviously convinced him that he was wasting his great talent working towards the security of an army pension. After his wife’s death he refused to turn to anyone in the family and so went to those who recognized his true worth; he made the jump to the movies.
I spent approximately a year and a half with him in Mumbai during which all the filmi events related here occurred in my presence.
Life became a blur for that year and a half that I spent alone with my father, cramming a lifetime of street smarts into a short span of time. And the street it was indeed, for my Father went from being an officer at the Army School of Physical Training (ASPT) in Pune, India to becoming an Artist perpetually roaming the streets of Mumbai in search of work, with yours truly – aged five – in tow.
Samuel Vincent Miller now became Sam Millar, and the assumption on my part, based on family talk, is that he wished to keep the family reputation clear of any business dealings he had, especially since he was forced to work in the cut-throat world of the Indian film industry (early Bollywood) which he always only half-loved. His greatest love was for Hollywood, all the swashbucklers, Westerns and DeMille epics that he had been thrilled by when he was growing up. That fascination became a quest, to bring Hollywood ingenuity to Bollywood while he worked on films of varying genres, with varying success.
Always the eager and helpful ‘consultant’ even when he was not directly involved in a film’s production, Sam presented his grandiose views in such a dynamic manner that he was welcome to just about any film set. And not only welcome to the sets but into the homes of producers, actors and musicians for brainstorming parties that lasted into the dawn, while I lay my head to rest wherever I was told to, only eating whatever I was offered, if I was offered. Many were the nights I went to bed with nothing in my stomach but a cup of tea and some samosas or bhajias. But I learned to make do and get by on my wits… the basic requirement of street smarts. It was the brilliance of intellect, the talent, and the ribald, uncanny humor of my Dad that guaranteed our passport to this Bollywood high society, the unseen inner circle.
Everything I learned from my Dad at that time I was told never to forget. And so I learned what a VIP was and how to behave in their company… Manners 101.
I learned to recognize movie listings in The Times of India and could tell exactly who was starring in a film. Because my Dad’s intelligence had to be showcased even when he wasn’t doing the talking, I recited the movie listings… Reading and Comprehension 101. I mastered the quick draw of a gun à la Hollywood cowboys like Tom Mix, Roy Rogers, Hopalong Cassidy, Gene Autry, and my personal favorite, The Lone Ranger… Acting 101. Private schooling on foot, in trains, on buses and in the open air of Cross Maidan, Mumbai. I never went to school until the age of seven, the time when I was officially baptized and named Fredrick. My Dad simply referred to me as ‘Rudy’, as in Rudolph Valentino, his Hollywood idol.
Far from Hollywood, future idols on another shore like a young Dharmendra and a young Feroz Khan often sat with us in Mumbai’s legendary Irani cafés like Olympia or Leopold, sipping endless cups of chai while they lapped up every morsel of knowledge they could from my Dad. He was the one who was willing to share the inside track on where the next shooting was scheduled and who the producer was. These and many other young aspiring heartthrobs were hypnotized and inspired by his wit and his wisdom, for he not only treated them to the preliminary sketches for the films he was working on, but also to the uncirculated glossies of the stars that were involved. It was enough to sway any aspiring, unemployed, hungry actor trying to break into Bollywood. They respected and idolized my Dad all through their careers but got caught up in the whirlwind of media appearances and so he slowly disappeared from their view… and even as their stars were on the rise, his was on the decline. Not that his talent and skills were diminishing. On the contrary, his enormous talents as an artist, musician (on any instrument) writer, director, set and costume designer etc., never abated one iota throughout his entire life. What led to his gradual decline in success was his increasing annoyance at the flagrant disregard of his input on projects and the cut-throats who stole his ideas over a cup of chai, then passed them off as their own in print and on film.
… I stood at his side and listened as he explained the intricacies of the superior drafting techniques he used when forming each individual letter that made up the title of a film. But rather than experiment with techniques as he did, his competitors simply got hold of his old posters and traced his lettering styles, with less impressive results. Their font spacing was invariably off, because only he had been impressed enough to master the styles of the genius poster artists of Hollywood. That’s what drove him into a fury, to walk by a restaurant or store front and see a copy of one of his portraits, reworked and poorly framed, with his signature cut off and a new one inserted.
That’s what gradually drove him away from the cut-throat film industry and motivated him to seek other outlets for his talent. He got increasingly involved with religious activities, creating Lord Ganesh statues during festival times. He scripted, produced and staged a Passion Play at Lent where he was so demanding that the actor playing Christ was subjected to many severe blows in order to deliver more ‘realistic acting’. That was a source of great amusement to my Dad and our family, and to a lesser degree to the Christ portrayer, another aspiring ‘disciple’ of my Dad’s. The things they did to please him in the hopes of getting their big break!
Later on, he did find a goldmine when he impressed the Supreme Commander of the US Forces in Vietnam, who had him as house guest in Jhansi during the ‘70s. In the midst of top US military brass, this man dressed humbly in a white shirt and khaki pants (his trademark clothing) wowed them all with his talent and intellect. He painted and displayed huge portraits for Gen. Westmoreland, as well as a series of hunting scenes, all of which reside somewhere in the Westmoreland family home. The rough sketches which my Dad showed me I consider equal to the masterpiece roughs of Leonardo Da Vinci and so refined and distinctive are they that they deserve to be housed in a museum. Trust me on that, if nothing else I have said here. I have grown up with art, and I know superior work when I see it.
So much for the background in a nutshell of Sam Millar, Bollwood’s finest artist. The next post will cover some specific films such as Pardesi, Mother India, and Aurat… what little one can expect through the eyes of a five-year-old child.
Text and Images © Fred Miller