It is sad that among the people responsible for making cinema what it is, the spotlight is invariably only on the ones whom the audience sees and hears. Actors, singers. Composers and directors, by dint of their work being most visible (or audible). We know these, we are familiar with them. We watch films for them. But how often do we stop to think who wrote the story for a film? Who wrote this dialogue that we have exulted over, who wrote this screenplay that fits so perfectly?
Rajinder Singh Bedi, the man who wrote the dialogues for so many of Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s films—from Mem-Didi to the hilarious Biwi aur Makaan, from the sensitive Anupama to Satyakam, is perhaps one of the exceptions. Not because people pay attention to who wrote the dialogues for a film (or even the story), but because his name is known as that of a literary stalwart. The man who wrote Ek Chaadar Maili Si; a winner of the Sahitya Akademi Award, the Ghalib Award, and the Padmashri. The director (and writer) of Dastak. The man on whose death Pakistani President Zia-ul-Haq offered condolences, saying that it was a loss not just for India, but for Pakistan as well.
Some days back, Nischint ‘Nishi’, who is Mr Bedi’s niece (his younger brother’s daughter) left a comment on my blog about her illustrious uncle. Me, being what I am (always eager to know more about the cinema of yesteryears) asked if she would be kind enough to write a guest post for this blog. She agreed. Click this link: Rajinder Singh Bedi – Biography to read a brief biography that she provided for her uncle, and read on for a heart-warming little insight into the man Rajinder Singh Bedi was.
Over to Nishi:
My earliest memories of him are about fun and laughter and a distinct fragrance of paan and tambaku. I remember in the early 60s when Dad was posted in Aurangabad. It was summer and as was customary, khats were set up in the lawn in front of the house – it was early morning and we were all still asleep. A sudden commotion startled us out of our sleep: it was my uncle with family. They had driven from Bombay – “Get up everyone” he said “we are going out to have paan.”
After my grandfather’s death, the family was abandoned by relatives who felt they did not need the additional burden, so at the ripe old age of 20 he took on the mantle of father to his siblings. One of his brothers joined the army and he married off his sister in 1938. In the meantime, his youngest brother (Dad) had matriculated, was bright and wanted to continue his studies. One ‘concerned’ uncle got him a clerical job. He was miserable. Dad tells us when he got his first salary he gave it to his brother. Uncle took him to a bar to celebrate. He said “Now that you are grown you are going to drink at some point, I would much rather you have your first drink with me so you never feel guilty or have to do it in secret!” Knowing how he hated the job, he asked him to leave it and sent him to college. Luckily Dad got full scholarships and was able to complete his Masters’ degree and became a professor at the Government College in Ropar and then on to IAS!
Dad used to tell us stories about Lahore and his village, Dalleki. They had some land which was being taken care of by their uncle, whom they called Babaji. Traditionally the eldest Bedi son did not get married and was Guru ki Aulad, since they are considered direct descendants of Shri Guru Nanak. Babaji stayed behind during the partition to take care of the land for his orphaned nephews until they returned (most families believed they would return once everything died down). Unfortunately, he was killed and my uncle never forgave himself for deserting him.
He always treated my Dad like a son and had a special bond with him, and consequently us. Dad tells us they had decided to name me Rita which was the name ‘trending’ at the time and Uncle took it upon himself to name us (just as well!) – so I was Nischint (without worries) and my sister he named Achla after Achla Sachdev who was his ‘Mooh boli behen’. His daughters were named Surinder and Parminder and used to say – how come Dad gave us those ugly traditional names and you guys the nice ones!
On a train he got talking to one of his travelling companions, and discovered he was one of Dad’s colleagues who mentioned to my uncle that Dad had a great sense of humor. After that, each time he introduced my Dad to anyone he used to say, “This is my brother, he is the humorous one!” He brought so much laughter into any family get-together. Everyone automatically gathered around him and we would laugh and cry between anecdotes.
During our vacations we used to go to Bombay and stay with him in King’s Circle. My aunt was the boss of the house and had an inordinate amount of energy. I think she was OCD about cleanliness especially washing clothes – if you left anything hanging in the bathroom and stepped out for a minute, it was going to end up in the wash. My uncle decided to get her a washing machine, and did so on one of his trips to Moscow. She never trusted it and always washed the clothes before she put them in the machine. He said he should write a story ‘Dhoban’ based on her. Our visits to Bombay also meant going to see film shootings. We would come back and show off to our friends about the movie stars we had met. Bombay visits also meant driving to Khandala. I remember best our visit to Mulk Raj Anand’s beautiful cottage built on a hillside in Khandala. He said when he needed peace and quiet he went there to write.
Most everyone said about him that he was moved to tears very easily. He would begin to narrate a story he had written himself and would have trouble finishing it because he would be so choked up. I think all of us Bedis have that trait. I remember when Narinder got married and during the doli the only people who were crying were the Bedis – my bhabi’s family? No one.
His conversation was always interspersed with humor. The government had announced that people who had land in Pakistan would be allotted land in India and a few acres was given to the brothers near Hoshiarpur. Since he lived in Bombay and his other two brothers in Delhi, they decided to see if the allotment could be moved closer to Delhi. Afterwards he said “We lived together like friends, if we had lived like brothers we wouldn’t have lasted a day!”. He used to dye his beard and Dad, who was quite grey as well did not. He tried to convince him to color it saying, “I can deal with you looking like my older brother, but you look like my father.”
He was very fond of Geeta Bali who called him Bauji like his other children. She died having contracted smallpox while shooting the Punjabi film, Rano, based on his novel Ek Chadar Maili Si. He was directing the film and she was the producer. He was devastated by her untimely death, abandoned the project and vowed he would never make a film based on it. The film with Hema Malini was made after his death.
Dharmendra was one of his favorite actors who he said was a “beeba ladka” (good/decent). He acted in several of his movies – among them Anupama, Satyakam and Phagun. He had also been signed for Rano opposite Geeta Bali. Dilip Kumar used to sit in on the writing sessions but had a tendency to change dialogues. Uncle told him “You stick to acting and I will stick to writing”. His famous dialogue for Devdas subsequently plagiarized by Sanjay Leela for the new Devdas – badly delivered by Shahrukh Khan was “Kaun kambakht bardaasht karne ko peeta hai? Main toh peeta hoon ke bas saans le saku”. Dilip Kumar said of him. “Dialogues of ‘Devdas’ are replete with a haunting sensitivity and spontaneity that came from the pen of Rajinder Singh Bedi, one of those rare writers whose syntax was so perfect that simple lines he wrote inspired actors to build up deep emotions in their rendering,”
I remember once he and my aunt were returning from a party late at night and they were flagged down by a couple of men who were supporting a third who looked very sick. They asked him for a lift to the hospital. On their way there one of the men said “Khallas” (finished). At the hospital they put the ailing man on a stretcher, made some excuse about returning and left. A doctor who was passing recognized my uncle and asked what he was doing there. He said he had brought in a sick man – the doctor said “Bedi Saheb, just turn around and leave, they probably killed this man and you will end up in serious trouble.” [Rajinder Singh Bedi’s son] Narinder used this incident as the basis for his movie Benaam.
Soon after his wife died he had a stroke, his speech became unintelligible and he lost sight in one eye. He had finished directing his movie Ankhan Dekhi about the plight of harijans, but was not able to give it full justice. He also wanted to get a tax free certificate for it, which was promised by the then President Zail Singh. I believe the movie was never released. By then he had lost that joie de vivre and his health started to decline. He said he dreamt of funerals and assumed he had premonitions of his own death, but unfortunately he lost his son Narinder who was all of 45.
The fragrance of the tambaku paan that till today brings back such vivid memories of him was his undoing and he got cancer. Dad had retired by then and was with him during his last days.
Text and images © Nischint Bhatnagar née Bedi