Why did she do it?
It is still a mystery why Farideh Vakil agreed to the non-remunerative and anonymous act of letting her body inscribed with the credits of ‘A Fair Affair’
I have wondered for nearly half a century. The years patrolled at various speeds, and even in different frequencies, with the memory gradually tapering off. There are a couple of reasons for a return from that departure, for pursuing a relatively minor incident in-depth, for reflecting gleamingly at a happening of huge significance to me.
The first reason is the return of the India International Trade Fair at Pragati Maidan in Delhi after a hiatus. The exhibition ground, renamed as 'Pragati Maidan' was the venue in November 1972 for Asia 72 — the International Trade Fair meant to celebrate 25 years of India's Independence, as also to mark India's victory in the 1971 war with Pakistan. An exhibition at the said venue was being held after a gap of several years.
The second reason is Doordarshan. Once admired as a cherished companion to households, a source of incomparable entertainment and a treasure for family bonhomie, its achievements today are firmly in the past, and sadly enough, it has exited from the viewers' mindscape. Even imagination.
Given the importance attached to Asia 72, Doordarshan — known then as Delhi TV Centre — set up a make-shift studio in Pragati Maidan to both record and telecast programmes live from there. As one had to spend a lot of time on duty there, one was able to visit many pavilions, halls and venues and see the crafts on display and the myriad performances by pan India troupes. One such performance that caught my fancy was a fashion show put up at the Textiles India Pavilion under the baton of the pioneering choreographer of fashion, Jeannie Naoroji.
She is the third reason for this reminiscence. The stylish and much revered grand dame of fashion presentation and shows, who created, sculpted and mentored models like Zeenat Aman, Anna Bredemeyer, Shobha De, Salome, Lubna Adams, Shyamoli Varma, Nayanika Chatterjee among others, took her final exit in October this year at the age of 96 — marking the end of fashion's parabola of grandeur.
How does one write about the past without an 'I' as the focus?
"So, you want to film our show?"
"Yes, please," I said. "Come tomorrow, half an hour before the show starts", she said,
"No. Not during the show," I said to her. "You will have to stage it especially for me. And certain numbers will need to be repeated a couple of times. Moreover, the intensity of lights will also be required to be increased." She looked me in the eyes. She smiled. She acquiesced. What I did not tell her then, but coaxed her to agree to during the filming, was to make certain modifications in her choreography to suit my requirements.
Though hectic, the filming was quite a breezy affair. Given the rich mix of its ingredients – a slew of styles, silhouettes, designs, fabrics, colours, music, lighting, glamorous models, choreography etc. – the stage show (walking down the ramp was yet to happen) was a collage that was more than the sum of its parts. A spectacle that had meaning.
Meanwhile, I got to know about another fashion show being staged nearby, at the Punjab Pavilion. Unlike Jeannie Naoroji's opulent and even voluptuous display, Caroline King's was a boutique act.
An American, King was a leading model in Bombay who also choreographed shows. She, along with Vivek Anand (son of the famous filmmaker and actor Chetan Anand), created the show with college students. While Naoroji used celebrity models, King and Anand chose novices. The stark contrast between the choreographers was noticeable in other aspects as well. Whereas the former used fabrics of the leading mills in Bombay and Ahmedabad, the latter advertised the smaller, lesser-known brands of Punjab. If one used open-air space with an elaborate set for her magnum opus, the other a confined space in the pavilion with a wall comprising small mirrors for the backdrop. Another difference was that King and Anand integrated audio-visual (still pictures) into their live performances. Vidyun Singh, perhaps the youngest of the eight girls, who later on was to become a leading model and choreographer herself, recalls that Caroline King "who held her rehearsals on her modest 'barsati' was an amazing trainer. She had the ability to truly innovate with fabric and style." One image that I still carry is how King managed to poise sensitive bodies of her models against the curb of stillness in the midst of flux. And, curiously enough, the high fashion today is redolent of the trends in the 70s — a wild decade full of cross-cultural influences, disco and vicissitudes.
Challenges were brimful in filming the Caroline King gala — not enough room for camera movements, ambient sound and noise emanating from different areas of the pavilion, multiple and diverse reflections in the mirror-wall, camera, lights, crew, officials and bystanders.
An idea flashed — enough to mobilise and freshen my optimism. How about writing the title and the credits of the film on the body parts of the models? I had not reckoned that the fashionable, jet-set and liberated souls representing the elite society and colleges would be fazed and appalled at this. In the mush-mouthed silence, I could read many telling little details of distress and fluster. But contracting reality need not mean diminished expectations. So, I did not let my courage fail me. It was resolved that the girls would have the title of the film, 'A Fair Affair', limned on their faces; the other body parts would remain unstained. Mekhla Desai and Minna Johar volunteered out of the eight models.
As I was charmed by my innovative idea, I was determined to wait till I had found someone, somebody who would let her body be inscribed upon. And voilà, somebody did come along two or three months later.
Amal Allana, E Alkazi's daughter and renowned theatre director, brought her production of Bertolt Brecht's famous play, 'The Good Woman of Setzuan' from Bombay. Most of us were bowled over by Farideh Vakil who played the titular role. I was introduced to her, we talked and she agreed.
Those days, being a good friend of Georg Lechner, Director of Max Mueller Bhavan, I had free access to its premises. The next Sunday, and a holiday for the MMB, Farideh reached the venue on time.
As we set about to start filming, I asked her for her eyeliner pencil, a stylus with which the title of the film had been written on the faces of Mekhla and Minna. Farideh didn't bring one because her face was not to be shot. I didn't bring my make-up man because I wanted to restrict the crew, especially male members, given the sensitive nature of the filming in which the model was required to be almost in the nude. Being a Sunday, the markets were closed and the limited time that we had on our hands was running out. Rummaging through the office, we stumbled upon some enamel paint and brushes. Sensing our dilemma, Farideh offered to be smeared. Back, arms, palms, legs, soles of her feet were all daubed. Unmindful of the stench that filled the room, she deftly began lifting the skein of her hair to reveal the credits, and simultaneously twitching her back so as to suggest animation of the letters while the camera tilted down from one word to another. As DD didn't have a camera trolley, Farideh had to execute an even more difficult manoeuvre — with her legs stretched in profile to the camera, she had to swivel herself to bring the soles of her feet in front of the camera to show the last part of the painted text even as she covered her bosom with one hand.
Since she was in a hurry to board a train, we could not fully erase the paint from her body. "Don't' worry, I'll manage it in Bombay. Good bye." And she was gone. Forever.
It was during the editing that I realised the enormous risk I was undertaking. No government visual media had ever shown such a skin flick. My film editor too, though appreciative of the novelty of presenting the credits in this manner, was apprehensive of the possible fallout. Even though I had worked in DD for six years as a cameraman, 'A Fair Affair' was to be my maiden film as Director-cameraman. On the strength of the reputation that some of us had earned, a preview of the film by the mandarins was not required. The aftermath of the telecast, however, could result in my losing the job. All creative personnel — producers, camerapersons, editors, scriptwriters, recordists, musicians et al — in DD and All India Radio, then and for over a decade later, were contracted hirees and not permanent government employees. The contract of a 'staff artist'— the nomenclature for all of us — could be revoked any time. But, infatuated with my quirk and the fact that the film was not just a record of the two pageants but a creative interpretation of fashion and with a fair sprinkling of puns and metaphors and a commentary on social mores, I chose to be foolhardy.
Those days, DD telecast syllabus-based education programmes in the mornings while other programmes were shown only in the evenings for just three hours. It was, and it still is, a practice to review first thing in the morning the programmes that were telecast the previous evening. This meeting is chaired by the Director of the TV Centre or the kendra [DTC]. Nandlal Chowla was the director then. A powerful bureaucrat, with his finger on the political pulse, earning his displeasure was forever dreaded. So much so that even his second-in-command would wince and be filled with anxiety should he see the DTC's trusted peon enter his chamber. This, despite the fact that one had never heard of Mr Chowla shouting at anyone.
Although my duty was in the evening shift, I reached the office in the morning, just in time for the said 'morning meeting' to end in order to know if I had lost my job. I met the duty officer – the first reviewer of programmes and a keeper of records. "Congratulations! Your film was appreciated. DTC called up last night to speak to you."
A couple of months later, I was invited to appear before an interview board to select candidates for the post of Producer. "Sudhir, why don't you tell the DG and the other Board Members about the film that you made," Mr Chowla prompted me. Though I was selected, I declined the offer to his utter disappointment. "Why?" "Because I love my profession. And, at the same time, I get to enjoy the freedom given by you to make my films as well. If you can, then please open a channel of promotion in the cadre of cameramen." A year and a half later this happened.
Those days and for many subsequent years, DD did not make payment to any party involved in outdoor shooting. Be it organisers of events, performers, interviewees, location owners, anybody whose hospitality or services that DD crews enjoyed or solicited. As such, no payment was offered to Jeannie Naoroji, Caroline King and their respective models …. So, why did they agree to give up their time, labour and spend their energy for free? Perhaps, it was another age, a different set of values prevailed or people were not that commercially minded, hospitality and free access to others was not abhorred. Or, was appearance on TV deemed to be a sufficient visual compensation?
But why did Farideh Vakil do what all she did? And that too with humility and dignity? Her face was not seen, nor her identity revealed? So, there was no question of a quid pro quo either. We had just asked her and she had said yes. No telephone numbers were exchanged, nor did she share her address. We have not met since, nor did I ever try to reach her. For to do so would have meant breaking the wonder spell and the grace of that act. "Why did she do it?" To have attempted to unveil that mystery would have been tantamount to disrobing her. As also to let her fall from grace.
The writer is a former President, Osian's Connoisseurs of Art; Founding Executive Director, LSTV & Additional Director General, Doordarshan.
Views expressed are personal