Life then was beautiful.
Ram Chander was a likeable man. Inexplicably, he seemed unimaginably old. Every morning, he would bring his cycle-rickshaw, covered from all sides, to take me and a dozen other kids to school. We were all young, young enough to be in nursery or kindergarten; small enough for all to squeeze into the rickshaw with our bags and water bottles. Ram Chander was a wiry man with a nice little helipad. Every morning I would vie for the corner seat on his rickshaw, and often succeeded. This was as much to keep other kids from falling over me as to listen to Ram Chander’s songs which flowed thick and fast. As he pedalled across the lanes of Delhi, he would sing, “Chal chal mere haathi…”. To him, the rickshaw was the sole source of livelihood; he looked after it with love and care, hanging little balloons in the handle, little laces on the improvised windows. Over a time, I memorised the song too.
Then one day, while coming back from school, he told all kids, “Aaj sham koi khelne nahi jaana. Aaj ‘Haathi Mere Saathi’ ayegi TV par.” Not everybody owned television. Ever a generous man, Ram Chander announced, “Agar kisi ke paas TV nahin hai, mere paas aa jana. Mere paas hai.” He lived in a one-room house where the only room had space for kitchen, bathroom and toilet. Yet he had squeezed in a television. I took his advice, only partly though. We did not have a television at home then. But “Haathi Mere Saathi” could not be missed. After all, it had an elephant in a pivotal role, meaning for my innocent eyes, it was a cine substitute for the circus which I forever wanted to watch. So that Sunday, I held on to my mother’s hand and went all the way to Nizamuddin to a relative’s place. They had a TV. Once there, the house was like a mini theatre, attracting houseful crowds from the neighbourhood. So, all 15-20 of us, mostly children with some adults, sat on the sofa, on dining chairs, on the floor to watch “Haathi Mere Saathi”. How we all waited for the song “Chal chal mere saathi, o mere haathi”. How we clapped at seeing elephants push a car, bring a rope to the hero! How I missed Ram Chander then!
There was something magical about director Thirumugham’s film. Apparently, producer Devar had given superstar Rajesh Khanna an obscene signing amount to do the film. Kaka though was not happy with the script. Yet he needed the money to pay off for his bungalow. So he had to do the film. He approached Salim-Javed for help. Salim-Javed then were not quite the famous Salim-Javed, the duo behind Amitabh Bachchan’s Angry Young Man phenomenon. They, however, came on board. And got paid a pittance. It was something which greatly annoyed Salim, who vowed that one day he would be paid better than the hero of his films. The moment came a few years later. But for “Haathi Mere Saathi”, the duo whipped up magic with a Disneyesque story of an orphan boy Raju who works on the streets with four elephants. Of course, in true blue Hindi film fashion where sorrow is never a permanent companion, he too earns enough to start his own circus, meet and marry a girl of many a dream, Tanuja. Then? Shh. Don’t expect me to give away the storyline even if the film is almost 44 years old, and many have seen it more than once. Suffice to say that poor Raju at some juncture in his life has to choose between his family and animal friends. It was precisely the dilemma he faced that brought tears to our little eyes that evening in Nizamuddin. We kids hated Tanuja for putting loveable Raju in such a plight. We hated her for not trusting the elephants enough. Why, some of us who had watched the film earlier on the big screen, even went out when she appeared on the screen to songs like “Sunja aa thandi hawa”. “She will later ruin it all,” said teary-eyes children, not able to take the slightest bit of harshness towards the animals.
Be that as it may. “Haathi Mere Saathi” was a simply, little loveable film. In those innocent times which made few demands of our directors, when cine-goers happily suspended belief, when people came to watch a film for a hit song or two, “Haathi Mere Saathi” ticked all the boxes. Anand Bakshi got awarded for his lyrics, Laxmikant-Pyarelal for their music, Salim-Javed got acknowledgement for their skills. And Rajesh Khanna endeared himself some more to the masses in the year of “Anand”. As for Tanuja, she was bewitchingly beautiful. She played her part, never mind the kids.
As for Ram Chander, I understand him better in retrospect. Back then, every time, his would stop his rickshaw at a traffic intersection and he would find a lady sitting in the car, he would sing aloud, “Chal yaar dhakka maara, band hai motor car…phoolo se nazuk hai woh, motor mein bhi baithi hai jo”. We kids would smile along, he would quite something else on his mind.
Still, life was beautiful then. Elephants, songs, rickshaws.