Booklets, posters and film memorabilia… if you wish to brush up on film history, Feroze Rangoonwalla is your man. Rishi Majumder called on the keen collector
Photographer: Rana Chakraborty
Firoze Rangoonwalla saw his first film, Musafir, in 1940. Tickled at Noor Mohammed Charlie’s comic timing, the nine-year-old insisted his mother buy the film’s booklet. “These booklets, sold with every show, had stills, song lyrics, dialogues, and sometimes the script,” Rangoonwalla remembers. Another booklet of Dharamveer, from back then, flaunts the director’s educational qualifications. “BA, BT, TD (London)” — in bold print. “To be educated was rare for a filmwallah,” he laughs, showing us a booklet of Sohrab Modi’s grand Sikander. “I pushed my mother to buy this — even though it was priced five annas over the regular.”
He insisted on a booklet every movie visit thereafter, and predictably his collection of film memorabilia today numbers 14,000, encompassing films in most Indian languages, Hollywood and world cinema. Having been exhibited in 30 cities, it has served as a source for articles, books and films, in India and abroad. But the ex-associate director, film journalist-critic and writer of 15 cinema books, is different from regular collectors, in that his hobby and profession grew symbiotically.
For pursuing his “first love” by joining a studio, Rangoonwalla had to part with his “first love affair”, as the girl’s parents refused to let her be with a man in such an unstable profession. “But after joining this line, my collection grew even more rapidly,” he recounts. Likewise with film journalism. Press shows, meetings with directors and actors, watching films and researching articles added to his collection. “And vice versa. Later on, my collection became an information and pictorial pool for publications,” he asserts. “Which is why I even paid exorbitant sums to procure a material someone wouldn’t part with.” Certain projects, like a cataloguing of Indian cinema from 1896 to 1970, Nargis and K L Sehgal anthologies, a compilation of the first films and early photos of the industry’s greatest stars especially helped, with adventures like traveling to dilapidated film godowns in Calcutta and Madras to rescue aged but invaluable promotion material.
Rangoonwalla shrugs when asked about “personal favourites”, claiming his life as critic has left him too objective to state such. But can any collection be bereft of subjectivity? He admits to a picture of the fastidious protagonist in Bimal Roy’s Udayer Pathey (1944) inspiring his own individualism. Next is a still from Duniya Na Mane: “The story is of a woman being married off to a much older widow.” The still shows Shanta Apte, holding a stick to beat one of the man’s previous sons for an attempted advance, while the husband-father looks on. “The film struck me because of the way it depicted social scenarios,” he mulls. The still strikes him also, because Shantabai was a fiery woman in real life, once beating up an editor in like fashion.
Another personal association is Satyajit Ray or Manikda, endless interviews with whom prompted him to write Satyajit Ray’s Art: “Manikda designed his film posters himself.” He possesses those of Charulata— “with lead characters faded into the background to denote loneliness” and Pather Panchali —“With Durga following Sarbajaya, and Apu in the forefront from the famous opening scene.” When Dignity Foundation held an exhibition for senior citizens, Rangoonwalla displayed a photograph of Chunibala Devi, playing the aged aunt in Pather… with a caption: “The senior-most citizen of Indian cinema.”
International cinema is well catalogued too: “ Bicycle thief, Last Tango In Paris, Lolita, My Fair Lady, Guns Of Navarone…” he rattles. But they all play second fiddle in number, to his Bollywood collection. Besides the routine Mughal-EAzam and Mother India posters, his moments of pride include a face-off between Prithviraj Kapoor and Sohrab Modi in a Sikander still and a handbill of Madhubala in Madhubala. “It was in vogue then, for stars to play themselves,” he grins.
His collection, spanning, posters, handbills, booklets, photographs and microfilmed old magazine and newspaper copies has been stashed at a friend’s Goregaon godown since 15 years ago, for lack of space when he shifted home. “I’ve given items to the National Film Archives in Pune… but it involves too much of bureaucratic hassle,” he winces. “I’m looking for personal collectors now.”
One wonders though, why this self-professed “dormant filmmaker” never tried making feature films. He says that there were a few aborted attempts, choosing not to discuss any further. A hint of subjectivity sneaks in again, however, when he narrates a scene from Truffaut’s Histoire d’Adèle H., L’ , the only movie (of those he remembers) whose memorabilia he searched frantically for, but couldn’t find: “It’s about a woman’s self destructive obsession for a man who doesn’t reciprocate her love. My favourite scene is when she finally meets him, after a long search, and looks through him. Her obsession had grown larger than its object, rendering the object mundane.”
This article first appeared in Mumbai Mirror, Times Of India: http://alturl.com/5ju5