Muzaffar Ali with wife Meera.
Though he has won plaudits as a filmmaker, MUZAFFAR ALI, the Raja of Kotwara, has many other engaging facets to his personality. He is a fashion designer of repute, a poet, a painter, a lover of Sufi music and a messiah for the people of his village, Kotwara, where he has done phenomenal work for social uplift. Driven by a sense of beauty and oneness of the human race, the filmmaker views cinema as a vehicle to connect with all humanity. As he puts it, "A film is a journey from the heart to the heart through the sieve of the mind. It is a product of the heart and universalising emotion and finding a universal emotion is the main task."
NEETA LAL speaks to the philosopher-filmmaker who goes behind the camera after almost two decades with a spectacular international film.
WHAT is your reaction to getting the Padmashri?
It's a great honour to receive the award. Also, it's heartening to note that the work I am doing is being appreciated and valued by the people and the nation. What's also significant is that it's not one individual who decides upon the award but a huge state machinery, which is set in motion for the task. So obviously there are various parameters to betaken into account. And I'm delighted that I was considered worthy of that. Also, I'm not one of those people who say `why did the award take so long' etc. I think whenever awards come they should be taken in the positive spirit and one should accept them graciously.
You're back to filmmaking after a hiatus of 18 years. "Anjuman" (1987) was the last film you made. Tell us something about your new international film on Rumi, the poet.
Well, the film is titled "Rumi, The Fire Of Love" and it is based on the life and loves of the 13th Century poet/philosopher Rumi who lived in Afghanistan. Rumi was renowned for the cerebral quality of his work. He has been translated into a phenomenal number of languages. My film is a global project and mounted on a lavish scale with international technicians, editors, star cast and crew. So we're looking at exceptional quality of cinema all the way. Kabir Helminski, a Los-Angeles-based scholar, has given us a lot of inputs for the film. The film will have a broad canvas with large portions of it being shot in Turkey and some in Afghanistan. I'm collaborating with the governments of these countries for the venture. I'm also synergising with Dr. Deepak Chopra for a business plan where he'll be contributing towards the dialogues of the film.
But in an age ruled by violence/action, item numbers and nubile nymphets, what box-office potential does a philosophical film on a poet have?
It's like comparing the genre of classics with thrillers. Or like saying "what chance does a classical singer have in this age of raunchy singers?" In a heterogeneous society, both will co-exist and find different viewers. The Indian film industry has always manufactured all kinds of films. So I'd like to stick to my school of thought. My film will essentially deal with the poetry of ecstasy, the oneness of the human spirit and have a universal message. It will be packaged aesthetically and, Inshallah, with a talented international team working on it, find a measure of success. I hope to release it in 2007.
What do you feel about the current crop of Bollywood films ?
I look essentially at my own cinematic journey without bothering about the quality of films being made today. To each his own. I think since films have a huge footprint, they should have a broader, more universal message than what the current crop of films is conveying. Bollywood films are too formulaic with very narrow concerns. When I create cinema, I want to ignite a fire. I like to work on a larger canvas and look at more universal concerns than stick to a tried and tested formula, which will "work" at the box office.
Apart from filmmaking, you also design clothes, paint, sketch, promote Sufi music, do a lot of developmental work in your ancestral village Kotwara. How do you manage it at 60-plus?
I think it has less to do with age and more to do with your passion/inclination, the fire within you. I don't see all these activities as diverse or dissociated. There's no disconnect for they're all a part of the same persona. I view myself as an artist who is in a perpetual quest to reach within and reach out to the human heart. All art therefore has this common thread and this aesthetic and human quest connects all forms of art; one inspiring the other. You could also say that I'm a painter who has made films, designed music and created clothes! Or a couturier who also paints and makes films!
Your fashion line "Kotwara" has been very successful with exhibitions at Galleries Lafayette and La Cachmerian in Paris, at The Intrepid Air Space Museum, New York. You've retailed in Singapore, Dubai, London apart from having a pan-Indian presence at top notch boutiques (Ensemble, Carma, 1 MG). What do clothes mean to you?
"Clothes are an outward mainfestation of inner grace." one of his creations.
Clothes, to me, are an outward manifestation of inner grace. They can transform a human figure, add an ethereal dimension to realism. They are visionary and timeless. When I sketch clothes, I design a trance made of moments of the past and present and project them as valuables, which people would cherish even in the future. To me, these clothes are sacred as they enclose the temple of the human form. I have sketched clothes for more than a decade now and interpreted them as silhouettes, as embroideries, as surface textures with the sensibility of a painter.
With your love and philosophy for clothes, you've also provided employment to hundreds of people in Lucknow and Kotwara. In fact you've used craft as a tool for social emancipation and cultural development in these regions.
I have designed clothes with the idea of providing a vocation in Kotwara as also to upgrade the craft of chikan and zardozi in Lucknow and its vicinity. Kotwara, especially, has become a haven for craft and a strong designer brand in India and abroad with continuous design inputs from our NID-NIFT trained team. We've used craft design as an important tool of development. You could say it's a long-term community development and empowerment scheme directly benefiting about 600 people in Kotwara and and 300 in Lucknow.
Tell us something about the cooperative Dwar Pe Rozi (Employment at Doorstep), which you founded in 1990 in Kotwara.
Dwar Pe Rozi is a charitable society founded by my wife Meera and me to address the causes of social uplift in Kotwara. It champions the cause of art for peace. We also run a school here in a 14-acre mango grove. The UNESCO, under their Village One World programme, had sponsored a dhurrie weaving workshop and a school newspaper project, Kabira, here. The University Of Utah, the U.S., runs an annual students programme with the village school. So, our efforts have helped benefit Kotwara to become a model education centre, a studio, a craft centre and a couture label. Every year, in aid of Dwar Pe Rozi, I organise an annual festival of Sufi music, Jahan-e-Khusrau in Delhi, which is sponsored by the Ministry Of Tourism and Culture.
So you've extended the concept of development to give tourism a thrust in Kotwara. How have you managed that?
Over the years, we have consciously created a movement to cultivate friends of Kotwara (global bodies, corporates, powerful individuals, NGOs) across the world. These friends are kept abreast of happenings in Kotwara through our fliers/newsletter. In fact we realise that the future of Kotwara's tourism lies in integrating inputs from NGOs, State and Central Governments, the tourists, the corporate sector and the local populace. So we're working towards that. We're also looking at the cultural and musical dimensions of the region. Kotwara House, for instance, is a living museum of craft, artifacts and film costumes. It could be converted into a heritage hotel, which could then become a crucible for Awadh culture, craft and cuisine.
You have a similar template for development for Lucknow too. In fact most of your films, "Umrao Jaan" and "Anjuman" especially have forged a strong identity for the city.
Lucknow, by virtue of the fact that it is just 100 km from Kotwara, is an important gateway. It has vast tourism potential. And one of the ideas we have to promote tourism in Lucknow is to offer city sightseeing in old classic cars! The foreigners, especially, would love it! And as you point out, through my films too, I've tried to forge an identity for Lucknow, which has benefited the city in the long run. "Umrao Jaan", for instance, though it goes back several years, has been shown recently in international festivals the Pompadour in Paris, Locarno Film Festival, Los Angeles Film Festival, the Cairo Film Festival. And since the film showcased the Lucknavi culture and ambience, there's definitely a resurgence of interest in the city too.
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