Reel Life: The road less travelled-Remembering Rashid Irani

Among the country’s foremost film critics Rashid Irani passed away in Mumbai in July this year. Luckily, memories and a documentary on his life survive as reminders of his extraordinary journey

Photo courtesy: Rafeeq Ellias
Photo courtesy: Rafeeq Ellias
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Namrata Joshi

Rashid Irani was one of Mumbai’s most ardent cineastes, bibliophiles and a connoisseur of the fading genteel culture from the city’s past. A custodian of several remembrances and recollections, one of his oft-repeated catchphrases was “if memory serves me right”.

It is in the fitness of things then that Rafeeq Ellias’s documentary on Irani is titled after his favourite utterance and kicks off with him using the expression while reminiscing his train rides to Pune and heading to the Film and Television Institute of India and the National Film Archives of India to watch Yasujiro Ozu, Robert Bresson, Jean Renoir et al along with his cinephile friends, including the former director of NFAI, professor of film appreciation, curator and historian, Suresh Chhabria.

Those were the days when cinema was not as easily accessible as it is today, Irani says in an exchange with Chhabria. So, they would rush to Pune, even for a day, and, without any money in their pockets nor a place to stay, at the prospect of getting to watch the print of a rare classic, hit upon by archivist, founder and director of NFAI, P.K. Nair.

If Memory Serves Me Right is made up of several such conversations with Irani holding forth and the camera observing him with affection and admiration, at times intensely intimate, at others respectfully distanced.

Irani was an abiding presence in film festivals across the country and was part of the selection committee for international films at the Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival. Quite appropriately the film on him also premiered earlier this monthat a leading Indian film festival—the International Documentary and Short Film Festival of Kerala (IDSFFK) in Thiruvananthapuram. It was shown online this weekend by the Vikalp documentary screening group.

Irani is the film—its pivot and the proverbial needle that weaves together its several thematic threads. One is that of the genesis and evolution of the film buff. How Irani’s lifelong romance with films was fuelled by a chance encounter with Marilyn Monroe in Henry Hathaway’s Niagara at Liberty, all thanks to protest bunking of tuitions and finding nowhere else to go but to the movies.

Irani fondly recalls how her divine, voluptuous figure made him oblivious of the others in the theatre. As he puts it, it was a complete identification with the film and the star. James Dean was another who captured his heart, mind and soul some years down the line. Over time he’d watch European auteurs in Mumbai theatres—Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Passenger, Blowup and Zabriskie Point in the morning shows, Ingmar Bergman at Sterling and Luchino Visconti at Eros.

There are astute observations about cinema that fellow film buffs respected Irani for—the greatness of Abbas Kiarostami, the inconsistency of Mohsen Makhmalbaf and how Iranian cinema subverted the State’s creative control through fablesque narratives that also, over time, became conventions of sorts and hence also a trap.

There are magnificent moments he goes back to. Like meeting Werner Herzog at International Film Festival of Kerala and how he told him that “the written word will last longer than the moving image”. Or how, in one of the early screenings of Psycho in Mumbai, the entire theatre screamed in unison in the scene towards the end when Norman Bates’s mother turns around and it’s a skeleton that stares back at the audience. You can’t replicate that experience while watching a film alone at home on television, laptop or mobile, he says.

Till the end Irani remained a proud purist, one who’d never appreciate digital over film print. One who’d root for the drama of the big screen viewing, that too the huge single screen theatres than the multiplexes what with their expensive snacks and popcorns.

Reel Life: The road less travelled-Remembering Rashid Irani

If Memory Serves Me Right is steeped in nostalgia. Many a time one hears phrases like “those were the days”, “what glory days” and these terms are not reserved for watching films alone but an entire way of Mumbai life. Its charming Irani restaurants—Café Edward, Lord Irwin—and their eccentric owners and waiters that served everyone without any discrimination of caste, class, religion, where business was built on trust than money.

Confectioners like Paris Bakery that proudly made butter filled goodies but also warned the customers with heart problem and cholesterol issues about what might await them if they gave in to a bite. Or a bookshop in Kalbadevi from where Irani procured one of his most cherished books— Chinese Poems by Arthur Waley. Places that valued customers and where relationships were not merely transactional. “Relics of old Bombay”, as Irani calls them, making way for monstrous, modern, unfeeling towers.

With Irani sporting a posture that’d make you recognize him from a long distance away—hunched shoulders, mineral water bottle in hand, one arm resting atop the other at the back—the viewer literally takes a walk down the old-fashioned world with him, a Mumbai of bustling streets and marketplaces, marked by community and camaraderie than competitiveness and commerce. Particularly the neighbourhood of Dhobi-talao, where he was born and lived his entire lifetime, and which housed both his home and Café Brabourne that he co-owned till it closed down in 2008.

We are given a privileged peep into his personal life, the 17-odd years that he worked in the accounts section of a private shipping company, the family restaurant he took over along with his two brothers, without a business acumen for it. And how the Irani roots made him almost abandon India for Tehran in the 60s when it was the “Paris of the East”. A compulsory two-year military training made him reverse his decision.

He is candid in talking about the women in his life or rather the presumed absence of them: “I lived vicariously through films.” There was a Billy Liar like fantasy world he inhabited that made him look at all women as “beneath himself ”, he says. Instead, he lived for over 60 years with thousands of books in his messy abode. What happens to the collection once he has gone? “Burn the whole bloody lot”, he says while talking prophetically of the ephemeral nature of life and how nothing else matters once a person dies.

Despite being resigned to mortality, we see him in the last few months struggling with life in the times of the pandemic—how it impacted his health, physical as well as psychological and made him question his choices in life, ignoring all else in living for books and cinema, having nothing, not even a stove or a fridge or a functional kitchen at home. His tea, meals, all happened outside, mostly at the Mumbai Press Club where he also consumed films voraciously.

As the film rounds it off in the end, Irani kept ascending those steep stairs months after the completion of the shooting and then left the world forever on July 30, 2021, perhaps with these anxieties about the future of films and film viewing still playing at the back of his mind. He had died of a fall at his home and his body was found three days later. But the cinematic tribute to him, doesn’t let things slide into the negative or the morbid.

(This article was first published in National Herald on Sunday.)

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Published: 26 Dec 2021, 10:58 AM