Zafar Hai invests immediacy and emotion in the lesser-known parts of history through his unique approach to commissioned films, writes Rakesh Mehar
At first glance, Zafar Hai seems little like the wanderer of the bylanes of history that he is. The filmmaker’s prim and proper manner, however, belies a genuine interest and ability to tell good, strong stories. So it is with the corporate films that are this director’s mainstay: layered with ideas and perspectives that fall outside the realm of commissioned films, Hai’s works go beyond the aggrandisement of their sponsor to become relevant and interesting to the general viewer as well.
“I always look to try and engage the audience on an emotional level,” explains the filmmaker, who’s latest work “Jewels and Marble Palaces”, a brief look at four of India’s grandest palaces that have been restored by the Taj group, was recently screened at Taj West End in Bangalore. “I can’t get an audience to really react to my film in a committed, total manner unless I engage them on an emotional plane. The films are commissioned, which means that by definition they aren’t meant for mass viewership. But I do believe that there is a wider audience for my films, and the challenge is how to get them to see them.”
It is in engaging with this challenge, in taking quainter, more placid bits of history and investing them with immediacy and a unique perspective that Hai has scored many of his successes. Thus, his take on the 100th Anniversary of the Taj group’s flagship hotel, “The Taj of Apollo Bunder” talks through a series of light anecdotes not about who built the walls of the hotel, but what those walls have seen.
His forthcoming project about 100 years of Tata Steel, similarly has an epic sweep with the tumult of colonial and post-colonial India in the background. And “Jewels and Marble Palaces”, in its all-too-short twenty-odd minutes tries to capture something of the fantasy and romance of the princely era. “The whole idea was to invest another level to the stories of the palaces, to capture the romance, intrigue and the grandeur associated with royal lives.”
For Hai, “Jewels and Marble Palaces” also represents something of a full circle, with the narration being provided by the inimitable Naseeruddin Shah, with whom Zafar worked on the Merchant-Ivory production “The Perfect Murder”.
The film, made at a time when Indian-English hadn’t become a genre of its own yet, was a breezy comedy that followed the adventures of Shah as Inspector Ghote investigating an attempted murder. “That film was one of the first Indian English films, and at the time we were told that it wasn’t a viable proposition. But it seems to have been the kind of film that people still remember, and with all the multiplexes around the country, there does seem to be an audience for it. We are thinking of re-releasing the film, maybe with an epilogue about Inspector Ghote as a retired officer looking back in time,” says Hai.
As for Shah’s narration on “Jewels and Marble Palaces”, Hai is all praise. “His voiceover grows on you. The more you listen to him, the more you see the things that he has tried to inject with his voice. It is the sign of a great artiste that he senses the essence of what is required immediately and brings it into his performance.”
Of course, says Hai, he has always had the good fortune of working with great actors and personal friends such as Roshan Seth on “Taj of Apollo Bunder” and Kabir Bedi on “Keepers of the Flame”. “It is always a pleasure to work with someone from a shared cultural background, it makes all the difference to your work,” he points out.
Hai admits the very nature of commissioned films put constraints on a director in terms of the kind of subjects and scope he can explore. Thus, for instance, “Jewels and Marble Palaces” essentially touches upon the glamorous and the exotic, with no scope for angles such as the relationship between the royals and their people and between the royals and the British.
All of which, often makes Hai want to return to the world of feature cinema. “The climate is also much better now for my kind of work. The challenge is to keep these films going and find the time, space and energy to work the feature film ideas that are there and have always been there.”