How it happened
I was born and brought up in Tanzania and was working in Barclay’s Bank in Dara-es-Salam when racial turmoil forced us to leave the country in 1967. I was planning to settle in London but before going there I decided to visit my sister Kamal Barot, who was a playback singer in Hindi films. She sang “Hansta Hua Noorani Chehra” (‘Parasmani’), which became quite popular. During the visit I met Kalyanji-Anandji who introduced me to Manoj Kumar. He was giving final touches to ‘Upkar’ those days. I have this habit to say what I feel. I pointed a little mistake and Manoj Kumar felt that I should be in direction. He offered me to join him but I wanted to try my luck in London. When nothing worked out in London, I called him to enquire if the job offer still exists and when he said yes I joined him as an assistant on the salary of Rs.450 per month. He was shooting ‘Yaadgar’. I remember the first day when I was pulling the trolley, Nutanji politely said Chandra you have brought the trolley too close. She became my didi for life. I went on to assist Manojji on “Purab Aur Pashchim”, “Roti Kapda Aur Makaan” and “Shor”. After “Upkar”, Mahendra Kapoor and I went to Delhi for collecting the National Award for “Mere Desh Ki Dharti”. Teji Bachchanji was a member of the jury. She said our Munna, that’s how she used to call Amitabh Bachchan, is soon going to join the film fraternity, please take care of him.
He used to visit me at Filmistan Studio. There I introduced him to Manoj Kumar. Manojji said there is no scope for him to cast in ‘Yaadgar’ but he will definitely give him a chance in “Roti Kapda Aur Makaan”, which he did. During the shooting Amitabh, Zeenat Aman and I became friends and developed a bond with Nariman A. Irani, who shot the film. A simple, humble man Irani was a known name in the industry as he had shot films like ‘Chaudvin Ka Chand’. He had just produced a film called ‘Zindagi Zindagi’ (1972) starring Sunil Dutt and Waheeda Rehman. The film flopped badly and Irani was in no position to return the money he had borrowed. Seeing his dismal condition, we advised him to make another film because that was the only way he could repay the debt. Amitabh, Zeenat and I decided to help him. By that time ‘Zanjeer’ had released. So we decided to rope in Salim Javed for script. Irani’s wife was the trusted hair dresser of Waheedaji. So we approached Waheedaji to put in word for us to Salim Khan, who was Waheedaji’s neighbour. He agreed and narrated to us a title-less script about a don which was already rejected by Dev Anand, Dharmendra and Prakash Mehra. Irani agreed to make the film. Salim used to refer it as don wali script, so Irani registered the title as Don. I was inspired by Bond films and by then “Godfather” had released and words like don and mafia were slowly becoming part of our cinematic language, which till then knew only Thakurs.
How did it feel
The first sequence that I shot was the song “Yeh Mera Dil Pyaar Ke Deewana”. Having assisted Manoj Kumar for seven years, I could not think beyond him. I inadvertently started copying him. After the day’s shoot was over everybody clapped but I could see that Irani was sulking. He felt his lighting was wasted and said why you want to become another Manoj Kumar. After that I changed gears and put my Bond inspiration to good use. Salim Javed’s script was tight and I tried to keep it visually as sharp. When Manojji watched the film he felt it was too tight and needed a song in the second half. That’s how we introduced “Khaike Paan Banaras Wala”. It was originally written for Dev Anand’s “Banarasi Babu”. Those were the days when the titles used to be longish. Manojji was not too happy with “Don”. He said his driver has seen the Hindi poster and he read it as “Down”. ‘Why don’t you change it to something like ‘Mr. Don’’, he suggested. I said the dictionary meaning of don is a Spanish gentleman so there is no way we could add mister.
The biggest blow was the death of Irani before the release in a freak accident. We didn’t have money for publicity and 1978 was a year when many big films of big banners were released. “Don” competed with films like “Trishul”, “Muqaddar Ka Sikandar” and “Satyam Shivam Sundaram”. It didn’t get a great opening but slowly the word of mouth spread and the film went on to complete 50 weeks in most centres. “Khaike Paan Banaras Wala” played a significant role in bringing audience to theatres. We had put Rs.84 lakhs in the film and ‘Don’ has earned around Rs. 310 crores till date. And yes, Irani’s debt was cleared.
How life changed
My taqdeer (destiny) ditched me after ‘Don’. I started many projects but had to abandon them for different reasons. I started ‘Master’ with Dilip Kumar and Saira Banu but at that time he started playing elderly characters in “Kranti” and “Shakti”. Financers felt people won’t like him singing songs and the project was shelved. Then I started “Titli” with Sarika but she decided to marry and the film hit a road block. I also started a multi-starrer called “Lord Krishna” but producer Satti Shourie lost interest once his daughter got married to Boney Kapoor. I did complete a Bengali film and it also proved to be a hit. The last film that I made was “Boss” with Vinod Khanna, Jayaprada and Danny. It is ready and has the Censor certificate of 2003 but nobody is ready to release it. I am in talks with some satellite channels.
I don’t blame the industry. The industry is like a machine it needs petrol. Recently I met Shah Rukh Khan and Priyanka Chopra at the birthday of Dilip sahib and complemented him for Don’s success. He said, ‘Sir original to original hai’. Priyanka said we are making money out of something that you created. What more I want. “Don” has become a cult figure, a franchise. Today Shah Rukh is playing him. Tomorrow somebody else will take over.