Earlier this month, this blog hosted a guest post by Fred Miller, son of the talented (but alas, largely uncredited) Sam Millar. Fred had promised us another post, of his reminiscences from his days with his father in the big, bad world of Hindi cinema in the 50’s, and here it is: a delightful, very personal and up-close memory of an extra in the Indo-Soviet film, Pardesi (known in Russian as Khozhdenie Za Tri Moray). In Fred’s own words:
And now dear Dusted Off readers, the untold story of the early days of Bollywood continues with a look at my role in Pardesi, an Indo-Soviet film from 1953, tied up in post-production until its release in 1957…
Nominated for the Golden Palm Award at the Cannes Film Festival, 1958, it won the 1958 Filmfare Best Art Direction Award for M R Achrekar. In my opinion, it was one of the great collaborations in the timeline of Indian cinema history, given its proximity to India’s freedom from British rule. While I had not fully viewed the film in its entirety due to a lack of a decent copy, I was recently overjoyed to find the Youtube link to a perfect – and subtitled, colorized Soviet version, thanks to Dusted Off. What a treat it was for me to view the particular clip where I appear in full color with the subtitle of the leading man’s words to me, “Look at you!”
Those fifteen seconds of edited, on-screen moments have privately haunted me for my entire life. Only now, at the request of Dusted Off, have I chosen to take you along on a painstaking journey, all the way back through the mists of time to the actual events that occurred during the filming of Pardesi. From growing up in India to growing old in America, my entire existence has been colored by those days of filming with Russian actor Oleg Strizhenov, who in Pardesi so ably portrayed Russia’s greatest Adventurer-Traveler, Afanasy Nikitin.
It was a charmed life I lived at the Worli Seaface back in those days around 1954. I was a mere lad with nothing on my agenda but eating, sleeping and playing at Worli Beach. Months of playing from dawn to dusk with other boys, some of them neighbors, some who were the working children of working fishermen and some who were homeless vagrants.
Drinking deliciously refreshing coconut water from beach vendors, enjoying the wealth of fresh seafood in the area, most of the time I ran around bare-chested, with only tiny shorts or a lungi (or sarong, as Westerners call it). Jumping in and out of empty little fishing boats resting on either side of the pier that appears in the film, we only stopped when the tide came in.
A scary moment I recall till today is when one day I placed one foot each in two different boats floating side by side. There was a strong tide that evening and the boats swayed in different directions, with the result that I found my legs being tugged in opposite directions, and I had to let go of one leg. I felt the strong surge of the water that started dragging me out to sea, it seemed. Fortunately some fishermen in the area came running and hauled me out, drenched and shaken. After that dangerous episode I learned to respect the sea for life and made sure the boats I was playing with were safely secured by their coir ropes, weighted down by large rocks. I also learned that day to only play that game when adults were nearby to jump in and save my skin. Otherwise, there was no supervision of my outdoor activities with the neighborhood kids I mingled with, many of them homeless orphans who lived by the sea, under the stars. I shudder to think of how in modern times I could easily have been kidnapped, maimed, sold, bought, disfigured, abused, etc. as depicted in the hit film Slumdog Millionaire… and how my Dad never seemed to worry about all that back then. It was, perhaps, a kinder, gentler time indeed.
In the haze of those childhood days I remember there occurring what appeared to be a mela (carnival) in town… more food vendors and attractions than the usual nimbu pani (lemonade), seaside snacks and pony rides that I was accustomed to. I do vaguely remember riding in an early tumbling box type of thrill ride, which has its parallel in the ferris wheel rides of so many carnivals and county fairs these days. I had no idea that this was all part of a film set, just one of Pardesi‘s many international locations. What I do remember is that one day I was told by my Dad to go running to some men who were shooting a film near the beach and to tell them every chance I got, that I could act and speak English. As I see it now, my Dad through his friendship with the Art Director and Film Producers managed to get me a part as an extra in the film. But not satisfied with me just playing one of the onlookers in a scene, he convinced the producers that they could add a more dramatic scene for the hero’s arrival at the Indian port. And so I went through many takes of running towards the hero (Oleg) who was on horseback. Oleg would reach down and whisk me up into his arms. That was my Dad… in his fantasy Hollywood/Western mindset, he had them bring in a majestic white stallion, à la The Lone Ranger, so that there would be this unknown stranger who rode into town, very heroic and friendly.
Unfortunately, the directors had fantasies of their own that didn’t involve a white horse but a brown one instead. Perhaps this was to better fit into this epic moment in Indian film-making, when they were still new to the idea of not only international versions but also color and black-and-white post-processing. Today, so many Indians see the skin tones in the film as off-color and a poor depiction of the actors’ natural Indian skin. Even Oleg, the white leading man got a few extra shades added to his already rosy cheeks. Nothing wrong with that, in theory. But I do believe the black-and white version for Indian audiences was an economical more than an artistic choice for the producers. Also remember, this was barely six years after a new India was created when independence was declared from the British. The Russians were obviously ready to jump in and take what they could while anti-British sentiment was still fresh. They came bearing gifts and promises in the form of venture capital, technology and joint international film distribution rights, and I’m glad they did, because the Indo-Soviet alliance and friendship was further enhanced, creating some wonderful moments in Indian history.
Of course I don’t recall needing any real makeup to complete my screen debut. I believe I looked the part and played it to the hilt… even overdoing it when I was required to be lifted into the arms of Oleg/Afanasy. I was beyond thrilled, excited (thanks to my Dad’s inspirational fantasies) that Oleg really, really liked me and tickled me and hugged me on that set that I remained starstruck and mesmerized for months afterward. My adulation certainly shows in the screen capture below.
… as you see me clinging onto him for all I’m worth. I ran to share the excitement after each take with my Dad, as he kept on coaching me endlessly… for what finally (after editing and post-processing) turned out to be a mere 15 seconds of posterity on film.
So there you have it. My Dad did do a bit of directing (me) in the film, a bit of consultation and a lot of talking to his friends the directors and producers of the film. In return I got a lifetime of wonderful memories, while all he got was no credit. Hopefully he was paid some money for my debut turn as a thespian.