A three and a half hours long discussion. About connecting Bollywood with India’s very own Pneumococcal Conjugate vaccine. Pneumosil. In its birthplace, Maharashtra. Over a few cups of Irani tea. On the ground floor of iconic Alfred talkie.
The septuagenarian became excited to listen to my intentions. He brought out his works from a simple plastic packet. Simple like him. Ongoing, unfinished and finished works. Describing the tedious process. I was amazed. I told, ‘La jawab, Chacha’.
He looked up. ‘La jawab? These works? Then you didn’t see my Ustaad’s works.’ I asked who is he? He paused for few seconds. Touched his right earlobe. And told, ‘M. F. Hussain. I am his shaagrid.’ The disciple who worked with his guru for nearly one and half decades. ‘Even my best of the works, those received accolades from others, didn’t even come closer to his worst works. He is the best cinema poster painter in the history of Bollywood.’
I asked him, ‘can I get one of your work?’
The old man, with cataracts in his both eyes, looked to my eyes. With a quirky smile he said, ‘aap toh samajhdaar ho. Le jao’.
So I asked which one he would prefer to give. He told, ‘Mughal-e-azam. It’s not here. I finished it last night. My father first painted the poster of Mughal-e-azam and I assisted him when I was a kid.’
‘I need your signature in the painting. I have seen there are few works without your signature.’
‘Why? Won’t you sell it?’
I was wondering. Asked, ‘why should I sell? This will be an asset for me.’
He smiled. Didn’t reply immediately. Then slowly said, ‘people, including artists, asked me to paint posters. And they exhibited them or sell them with their names in the paintings. I don’t want to take their names. But I know they did it. And they are still doing it.’ He paused for a while. And told, ‘what’s in the name? I’m still working. My hands are still functional. I’m still painting every day. Christmas is coming. So I’ll gift my Christian friends the paintings of Jesus and Mother Teresa. I’m still alive with my works.’
I understood his initial quirkiness. And the true meaning of ‘Samajdar’.
‘But I need your signature’, I insisted.
Chacha smiled and nodded. ‘Achha, thik hai. Aapki marzi. As you are insisting.’
‘But how much does it cost?’
‘Arey, kachra hai sab. Le jao. What I have to do with these garbages?’
‘But still. I should pay you. It shouldn’t be free.’
Out of the blue, he suddenly asked, ‘do you have cigarettes?’
I take out the packet of cigarettes from my pocket. And handed it over to him. In return, the old man smiled like a child. And asked, ‘pura packet? Are you really giving me the whole packet?’
He told, ‘then it’s done. Now whatever you want to pay, which satisfies you, pay me. You’ll get it tomorrow.’
And the next day, after completion of the photo shoot, I got Mughal-e-azam in my proud possession. By Bollywood’s last living cinema poster artist Seikh Abdul Rehman. Popularly known as S. Rehman. When I put a few hundred rupee notes in his pocket, Rehman Chacha asked, ‘but where are my cigarettes?’ I once again handed over the packet of Navy Cut. Chacha again smiled like a kid and whispered, ‘but don’t tell to my family about these cigarettes, okay? They will scold you.’ We both laughed. Loudly.
And then with a lighted cigarette and his plastic bag, Chacha disappeared in the alleys of Saki Naka.