A photoroman feature film, a love story intertwined with the myth and folklore of Delhi’s heritage sites

Abstract: My research is towards the completion of a screenplay for a photoroman (a film comprised entirely of still images) titled Beeti Bahaar. Beeti Bahaar is a love story intertwined with the popular myth and folklore of Delhi’s heritage sites, a meditation on the possibility of an impossible love set in and against the backdrop of spaces frozen in space and time. Delhi’s ancient ruins, mosques and mausoleums, tombs and temples, remain an abiding haunt for clandestine lovers. Yet there is an inherent contradiction in the fact that these public spaces in the heart of an urban metropolis have become synonymous with secret romance and star-crossed love…

Blog: Sidharth Srinivasan is an independent filmmaker based in New Delhi/Mumbai. Sidharth graduated from St. Stephen’s College and studied Still Photography at the Triveni Kala Sangam. His debut short Swamohita premiered in competition at the Venice Film Festival and his subsequent DV feature Divya Drishti has won 4 awards and been screened at numerous festivals internationally.

Email: sidharth.srinivasan @ gmail.com
Postings:

27/1/06

Hi fellow fellows!

I am an independent filmmaker who shuttles between Mumbai and Dilli, or between head and heart respectively! I have been based in Mumbai on and off for the past 5 years but Delhi is the city I belong to. I graduated from St. Stephen’s College having studied Economics and immediately jumped into a life of filmmaking and glorious uncertainty! After 2 years assisting various people I went independent and my initial foray into direction was a short film titled THE TIGHTROPE WALKER (35mm, 15mins, Hindi) which made it in competition to Venice in 2000. The film was an experimental short on the anonymous life and (imagined?) love of a young woman who lives in a suburban highrise in Bombay.

I followed this up in 2001 with one of the country’s first digital feature films titled DIVYA DRISHTI (DVC, 95mins, Hindi) which was banned by the then censor board owing to profanity/street lingo and the casual depiction of a gay love affair between two married men (the cesnors said that homosexuality was against Indian culture). However to my joy this small film has carved a niche of its own being screened at various festivals (Singapore, Commonwealth, Karachi etc) and museums (Walker Art Centre, Museum of Contemporary Art, Nova Cinema etc). Currently I have finished my debut “multiplex” film, if you will, a supernatural thriller titled AMAVAS starring Konkona Sensharma, Victor Banerjee and others. T

he film should be released by mid 2006. I also make documentaries and most recently have shot a film on the endangered world heritage site of Hampi for UNESCO. Living away from Delhi and returning there from time to time made me look at the city differently. Hanging out at Safdarjung, Aurobindo Place and Green Park I was struck by the rambling and dilapidated ruins of monuments lying amidst the urban space of markets and colonies. I realized that I had taken them for granted to such an extent that I didn’t even know what these structures looked like from within. A few trips made were enough to get my juices flowing and soon the germ of an idea took place in my mind. Delhi unlike Bombay was an urban city with space for clandestine love. Mosques and mausoleums, tombs and temples dotted the city and in turn were dotted by names of anonymous lovers etched forever on stone and granite. Who were these secret lovers, what was there story, for surely they had a story to tell, and by extension, there must be countless such myths and folk tales surrounding these various heritage sites…I decided to weave a contemporary clandestine love story among the ruins of Delhi – a love story where the young man and girl in question become influenced by the past to such an extent that it starts overtaking their conscious waking life…

As a filmmaker I also took a conscious decision to treat the proposed film differently. Some years ago I had the good fortune of seeing Chris Marker’s legendary film “La Jetee” a sci-fi film comprised entirely of still images with voice-over narration and sound design – Marker called the film a photoroman. The film was so influential that not only did Hollywood make an ugly remake (12 monkeys) but a La Jetee Bar also exists in Tokyo! I came up with the decision to make my film in a similar fashion albeit do away with voice over narrative and in its stead have many voices of both the present and the past imbue the sound design. And that is where SARAI/CSDS thankfully came in.

My research is ostensibly on “excavating” the various stories, myths, legends, folk tales and “sthalapuranas” surrounding the heritage spots of Delhi City which would find there way into the script for my proposed photoroman – in short my research is on all the stuff that never finds its way into the text books. So if any of you have any bizarre, grotesque, cute, strange and downright fascinating stories to tell about nooks and corners and gullies and gates in Delhi please inform me. Also, if you know any wise old men and women who love hearing the sound/s of their own voices and talk about Delhi as if it were a loved one please put me on to them. I look forward to hearing from you and wish all of you all the very best with ur proposed research… Best, SIDHARTH SRINIVASAN

1/3/06

Dear fellows,

I have only just managed to get into the flow of things regarding the nuts and bolts of my project. In other words after what seemed like eons I got my Nikon F3 serviced and took snaps for some seriously needed “haath ki safai” (practise!)…

Currently I am in the process of buying obscure books and travelogues on delhi city and meeting people for whom the city is a mistress or lover, as the case may be. I go through these books more often than not with a completely “voyeuristic eye” looking out only for heritage spots or stories that may have serious cinematic (photographic) appeal or legends of bizarre even macabre anecdotal value.

For example Majnu ka Tila – every self respecting north campus student has had his fair share of momos nearby but how did the place get the name? legend has it that a Muslim boatman plied people across the Yamuna free of charge. he was a mystic at heart and yearned for a glimpse of the sacred, so much so that he was called majnu by the locals. One day Guru Nanak himself was ferried across the river by majnu, and blessed him. majnu erected a gurdwara in praise of Nanak by the banks of the Yamuna which is popularly known as Majnu ka Tila. I’m sure many of you know of this story but to me, in the context of my photo roman, it conveys images of a small boat traversing the river yamuna in shimmering afterglow light. a man in stark blurred white inside the boat. the boat itself is decrepit and small yet rocks peacefully from side to side, the boatman has a look of intense peace and bliss on his face, but we never see the white man’s face clearly despite his flowing beard. buffaloes laze about on the muddied bankswhile dhobis wash sullied clothes and drape them to dry…

The clandestine lovers in my proposed photo roman script would go to majnu ka tila, ostensibly to eat momos but then, on the off chance, they would also stop off at the hermitage by the riverbank. images mentioned above would confront them for it is the love of majnu for laila and majnu (the boatman) for nanak that they want to achieve… a sublime love beyond the here and now…

This is just a small example of how I am planning on going about my project. Of course I am very much on the lookout for places outside the radar of common knowledge, hidden away in gullies and lanes. The places dont have to be acquainted with famous personalities. but there has to be something eternal and mythical to what has supposedly transpired there. who knows the location may really serve the script I intend in more ways than one!

I also revisited chris markers legendary short film La Jetee, the only photo roman I have ever seen and the inspiration, if you will, for Terry Gilliam’s insipid bruce willis starrer – 12 monkeys…do see it if you ever get the chance (the original, that is), perhaps to get a sense of what I am trying to grapple with! My proposed film has one thing in common with La Jetee (asides from form) in that I want to convey a sense of the past through the present. however, having said that Marker’s film does away with any pretense of being or belonging to any place and time whereas my film will try and evoke a sense of the historicity and secret history of a particular city… Hopefully by the time of my next posting I will have many more stories to narrate and, once again, if you know of any people or places do tell me about them. I would be very grateful…

Best,
SIDHARTH

27/3/06

Dear Fellows,

My progress report has been delayed owing to a grand irony – the Indian Institute of Technology (where I stay) server was down for the last two days and its only now that I have been able to get the past month off my chest…its no coincidence that we lovingly refer to the institution as the Institute of Indian Technology.

In the course of digging up information regarding my project I was told by an old college friend about a small, innocuous-looking book called “The Delhi that No-One Knows” by R.V. Smith. Apparently the book was out of print but by a queer quirk of fate I was able to lay my hands on it. Was it irony(again) that I bumped into my friend after a gap of over 4 years at Neemrana, where the re-designed turrets and bowers and especially the nearby “bauli” (well) seem to be crying out loud for some peace and quiet, I don’t know?

Coming back to Mr Smith’s text – it is a treasure trove of anecdote and little-known fact about the capital’s past – by a gentleman who has evidently spent many a day wandering about by foot and DTC. Some of the stories, for example that of a churail(banshee) outside Delhi Gate, a White lady who appears outside Kashmere Gate and the many palaces Feroz tughlaq erected for his many mistresses, are truly bizarre and described with great affection for the past of the city. I myself, after reading portions of the book, visited some nearby mausoleums adjacent to Green Park Mkt. and Aurobindo Place Mkt. with my F-3 at hand. I am struck by these beautiful constructions that exist cheek by jowl with affluent residential colonies and markets and yet no one knows the names of those buried there. The placards outside these tombs declare them to be protected monuments by the ASI but no background and needless to add no names are mentioned.

Certainly the tombs belong to noblemen of repute or minor royalty, but if that were the case there should have been proof of the same. I wonder if the people residing in the vicinity sleep peacefully at night, or are they disturbed by spirits of the past ‘dying’ to make their presence felt after all these centuries.

A man has spread a mattress in the lawns of one of the tombs and is having a siesta while nearby there is a taxi stand, a tea-stall, a dhobi, and of course the incessant buzz of traffic. I am not even an armchair historian yet these spots seem to have some crazy allure which invites one, beckons one to freeze time and be still.

Of course, the romantic in me wants anecdote and myth where there is amour-fou involved, or something akin to it. But the fact is that countless couples must have made out at these places, hidden away from the glare of society, yet bang in the thick of it! I have also begun compiling a list of as many inscriptions and etchings marked into the walls and facades of these buildings as I can. They will come in handy while scripting. Some great examples of amour-fou in the cinema (asides from the Romeo Juliets and Heer Ranjhas) that come to mind are Leonard Castle’s The Honeymoon Killers, Arturo Ripstein’s Deep crimson (based on the same story of the lonelyheart killers), Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures (Kate Winslet’s first) and of course – our very own Qayamat se Qayamat Tak, Amir Khan’s first feature as leading man. Was it a coincidence that Mansoor Khan chose Delhi as the city where the star-crossed lovers live? I don’t think so. I have also zeroed in on one of the leads for my proposed photo roman, the female lead to be more exact. I hope to have more info for your benefit next time round.

All the best,
SIDHARTH

27/4/06

Dear Fellows,

I seem to finally be getting my bearings in understanding a “secret” history of Delhi. At times I even feel like a paparazzi voyeuristically peeping into the past. Somewhere, the filmmaker in me has to make a distinction between fact and fiction – the fiction that is to inform my photo roman as well as the fiction that is intended to be the photo roman itself and the fact of history that weighs down on the monuments I am exploring. I have tentatively titled my film “Beeti Bahaar” – hopefully it evokes the past and suggests a sense of nostalgia…

I recently met someone who gave me a lot of idle gossip regarding the Delhi of yore and also advised me very politely against making a tragic love story as it may unduly influence the youth of today – which got me thinking that maybe I have a Rang de Basanti on hand!!! The Delhi of yore is a Mughal Delhi, a Muslim Delhi, by all accounts. Aside from the emperors, it is the poets and the pirs who created this beautiful city and the historicity of the capital stems from the folklore and myth surrounding these very people.

Some of the gossip I gleaned from my encounter was rather colorful. I was informed by the gentleman that anything and everything imaginable actually happened and, despite never being documented, had been passed down from generation to generation through idle banter and gossip. Of course Hindi cinema immortalized Jahan Ara’s love for her childhood friend Mirza Yusuf Changezi in the 1964 film JAHAN ARA by Vinod Kumar starring Mala Sinha, Bharat Bhushan and the great Prithviraj Kapur as Shah Jahan. In the film Jahan Ara’s mother, Mumtaz Mahal’s death disrupts the romance between the two lovers. Before dying Mumtaz Mahal makes Jahan Ara promise that she will take care of her father in her absence. As a result of this the princess is unable to commit herself to Yusuf and he wanders the earth waiting for Jahan Ara to return to him.

According to other sources Jahan Ara and her admirer, who was a poet, only glanced at one another once, and it was love at first sight. Pigeons flew back and forth from the princess to the poet carrying messages of love and poems brimming with romantic yearning. Though the classic film suggested that they consummated their affair, in all probability they never actually met. Jahan Ara’s lover apparently died of a broken heart.

Rumor also has it that Jahan Ara had an illicit affair with her father Shah Jahan because she resembled his dead wife (Mumtaz Mahal). This story would be in keeping with the film, as Jahan Ara was being true to her word and in effect “looking after” her father. The Mughals were very wary of marrying off their daughters for obvious reasons of property and dispute. As a result many princesses remained spinsters till their dying day. The Persian couplet, Bar mazare ma gariban ne chirage ne gule/Ne pare parwana sozad ne sadai bulbule is by Zaib-un-Nissa, Aurangzeb’s eldest daughter, who was a poet and wrote under the pen name Mukhfi.

She earned the wrath of Aurangzeb because of her emotional attachment to Aqilmand Khan, also a poet, and her suspected involvement in the revolt by his younger son against him. She was jailed for nearly a decade and remained unmarried until her death at the age of 63. Behind the Red Fort is an area called the Suhagpura where many young women who had been with the emperor only once but were nonetheless married to him, resided. Needless to say, often their biological and emotional instincts got the better of them and they embarked on illicit affairs with commoners and outsiders as a result of which they were impregnated.

Yunani medicine, it is believed, could re-join a severed arm to the shoulder, and was used in aborting these discarded wives lest the emperor discover their indiscretion. The fetuses of the countless illegitimate heirs to the throne were all clandestinely buried behind the Suhagpura and the burial ground is still in existence today. I also learnt of the story of Sarhad Shaheed, a story that you know of perhaps, but one that really fascinated me. Sarhad was an Armenian merchant from Sindh who used to come to Delhi to trade. In Delhi he fell in love with a Baniya boy. However the young boy was married off and Sarhad was heartbroken. He renounced the world and became a mystic wandering the streets of the capital. He even removed all signs of clothing from his body and took to walking around naked, singing sufi hymns.

Word got round to Aurangzeb who ordered him to offer prayers clothed at Jama Masjid. But Sarhad refused to comply. Finally he was taken captive, forcibly clothed and made to stand in front of the head maulvi at Jama Masjid. While prayers were being offered Sarhad could divine that the maulvi’s mind was on other matters – namely, the lunch waiting for him at home and he loudly proclaimed in front of the congregation – “Mulla ki neeyat mere pair ke neeche!!”. Aurangzeb ordered him to be beheaded in public in front of the jama masjid. But miraculously, after being beheaded his headless body started to dance holding its own decapitated head in its hands. Aurangzeb was disturbed and the public thought that calamity had struck. The king begged forgiveness and requested sarhad to stop dancing, which he did. To this date his grave, painted bright red (to symbolize his blood), lies at the foot of the Jama Masjid and is called Sarhad Shaheed.

All for now, am following up on a few more leads and studying a bit more closely the poetry of the time…till the next posting…

Warm Regards,
SIDHARTH

Dear Sidharth

I read your posting with interest. Are you relying only on the so-called “gossip” and “rumour”, or are you also looking at the documented texts. Because what you call “secret” history is no secret for the historians. Most of these events have been documented in one text or another (Persian as well as Urdu). In fact, even the oral histories that maybe common among the present generation elderly people of old Delhi may have originated from the documented texts. It would be however interesting to look at what the texts say and what versions are avaiable in the oral domain today. You could also identify your sources.

Yousuf

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