This Sunday, on the same afternoon, I encountered two versions of spirituality – one, at a Pujo organized by the Mukerjis, one of the great film families. And the second, at a talk with Ma Anand Sheela, erstwhile personal secretary of Bhagwan Rajneesh, and post the Netflix documentary Wild Wild Country, a figure of endless debate and fascination.
The Mukerjis (some members also spell the last name as Mukherjee) have been organizing the Durga puja for over 70 years. Erstwhile actor Deb Mukherjee (father of director Ayan) took me through the sprawling pandal and gave me a quick history lesson – the pujo was started by his father Sashadhar Mukerji. He said Bimal Roy and other noted Bengalis working in Hindi cinema joined soon after. Over the years, the celebration has grown into a carnival with stalls and thousands of people milling around, dressed in festival fineries. More than a 1000 people were seated on rows of parallel tables and were being fed the choicest Bengali delicacies. On occasion, Ayan’s cousins, actors Rani and Kajol, would serve the bhog themselves. I also met Kajol’s mother Tanuja and the rest of the extended family. And it struck me that while nepotism has stunted the Hindi film industry, it has also given it a continuity and legacy. I wish someone would archive the rich history – imagine the stories that would emerge from this Pujo alone!
Ma Sheela is also a great storyteller. She was in conversation with Faye D’Souza, who has mastered the art of asking tough questions with a smile. Ma Sheela has done time in prison and dark rumors swirl around her – like she was involved in the death of her first husband. But she deflected the more difficult queries with practiced ease. She said that she still loved the Bhagwan and she was astounded that Melania Trump could get a residency in the US as a person of exceptional talent but that they had not extended the same to Rajneesh, who was in fact a person of exceptional talent. To which Faye responded, without missing a beat, ‘Well, it takes a special talent to be married to Donald Trump!’
I’m also in the throes of prep for the Mumbai Film Festival, which begins on October 17th. Few people understand the work it takes to put together a film festival – I didn’t either until I started working for one. One of the most traumatizing aspects is deciding the seating for the opening ceremony. It’s an impossible task of balancing names, relationships, egos, practical considerations (the Excellence in Cinema winners should be seated closer to the stage). All of which is only complicated by the fact that few people in the Hindi film industry show up on time. One of my favorite memories is a leading actor walking in half-an-hour late, wearing a dress that was so large that two additional seats had to be vacated to accommodate it. Looking back, I laugh but at the time, it created serious panic. This is the stuff that has given me white hair.
So the diary will take a break for the next two weeks as the festival unfolds. I’ll see you all in November. Happy movie watching at MAMI and Happy Diwali!