Obituary: Kamal Amrohi
Wednesday 17 February 1993
KAMAL AMROHI presided Moghul-like over Bollywood or Bombay's film industry for over five decades and was responsible for directing and writing some of Indian cinema's most elegant and commercially successful films.
With an eye for detail and acute visual sense Amrohi harnessed the full power of cinema to examine social issues like prostitution, reincarnation and adultery. He was fascinated by the majesty of the Mughal Kings and writing and producing Pakeezh ('Pure'), the story of a cultured, good-hearted courtesan. Starring Meena Kumari, his beautiful, albeit estranged, wife, who died soon after the film's release, it subtly captures the ambience of courtly prostitution patronised by nawabs or Muslim rulers, through haunting music, alluring sets and a sensitive story-line and is popular in both India and Pakistan even today.
Pakeezah was the inaugural film telecast by Doordarshan, India's state-owned television station when it began broadcasting from Amritsar in Punjab state in the early Seventies and specially beamed towards nearby Lahore in Pakistan. Thousands flocked from here from Karachi, hundreds of miles away to see Pakeezah and crowds stampeded Lahore's streets to get to television screens placed at strategic points on virtually every street corner.
Amrohi was born Amri Hyder Kamal into a rich landowning and progressive family in Amroha, Utter Pradesh, in 1917. He was schooled locally and began writing short stories in Urdu, wanting to turn them into cinema, but was discouraged by his father who expected him to take charge of his estates. At the age of 16 Amrohi ran away to Lahore, the intellectual capital of northern India, paying for his train ticket by selling his sister's gold bangles. Here he scraped a living writing short stories for an Urdu magazine, graduated from the Oriental College in Persian and Urdu, and saved enough to travel to Bombay in pursuit of fame and fortune.
In the mid-Thirties Bombay was fast emerging as a centre for talkies and a magnet for youngsters gutsy enough to defy tradition and join cinema. After a series of disappointments and internecine studio politics Amrohi's Gaoler was his first story successfully adapted for the screen in 1938.
But in 1949 he made his directorial debut with the trend-setting supernatural movie Mahal ('Palace') which dealt with the Hindu concept of reincarnation, and for decades prompted films with similar themes. Soon after, he directed the controversial Daera ('Circle'), about a 16-year-old girl forcibly married to an older man who falls in love with a teenaged neighbour. Although acclaimed as a film far ahead of its time, it proved a disaster at the box office.
In 1940 he directed Pukar ('The Call'), a romantic story about Jehangir, the fourth Mughal emperor, known for his alcoholism and profligacy and for receiving Sir Thomas Roe, the first British Ambassador to India in the late 16th century. It was huge box-office hit and was soon followed by the equally successful historic romances Shah Jehan and Bairm Khan, set in the Mughal era.
But after the succes of Mughal- e-Azam in 1960 and Pakeeza 11 years after, Amrohi made his last film, Raziya Sultan, in the mid- Eighties about a female Muslim princess who inherited the Indian throne from her warlord father in the 13th century. Although cinematographically competent, the concept of emperor queen was unpalatable to audiences and it flopped, forcing him to concentrate on developing Kamaalistan, his Bombay film studio.
Amrohi was an Urdu scholar and perhaps Bollywood's only film director who laboriously penned even his shooting script in that language.
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