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Muzaffar Ali carries on his shoulders the weight of his earlier films: Gaman, Umrao Jaan, Aagman and Anjuman. All four were based on Awadh, the area around Lucknow, and were critically acclaimed. To Ali goes the credit of portraying Awadh truthfully on cinema; the only other claimant being Satyajit Ray in Shatranj Ke Khiladi. Any film less artistic will be unacceptable to viewers. That’s why Ali has gone 25 years without a release. “I have laboured hard to create an ambience for a renaissance of Indian cinema, liberating it from the stranglehold of Bollywood and positioning it globally,” Ali makes no attempt to hide his contempt for mainstream Indian cinema.
But now he is readying a comeback. “I have evolved a few scripts and structured projects, and am hoping for investments. Something will happen soon.” Ali says the production values he has in mind cannot be achieved by Bollywood actors and technicians. And getting talent from abroad will cost money. That perhaps is the only hurdle that Ali, now 67, needs to cross. The subject he has in mind is Awadh after the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny till 1875-78. This is when Wajid Ali Shah, the last Nawab of Awadh, had been banished to Kolkata. The old order at Lucknow had given way to the new one. “The colonial regime changed the whole cultural mooring; the embers of this period resurfaced in 1947,” says Ali. “What Hollywood did with the Holocaust I can do with the Awadh of that time.”
Awadh and Lucknow are familiar territory for Ali. He comes from the princely state of Kotwara which is located 100 miles from Lucknow in the Lakhimpur Kheri district, and has studied in Lucknow. He has even played Wajid Ali Shah on television, though the dissimilarity wasn’t lost on the viewers: while Ali was lean (almost gaunt) and elegantly covered, Wajid Ali Shah was corpulent and a rake — the neck of his kurta would have a cut deep enough to show one nipple! Though Wajid Ali Shah’s debaucheries did not stop in Kolkata, Ali calls him a “symbol that is rare and valuable, which gave the first war of Indian independence in 1857 its emotional thrust” and “the most poignant character in Indian history who celebrates art and its sharp sense of secularism.”
Lucknow poetry is well represented in Jahaan-i-Khusro, the annual assembly of Sufi singers organized by Ali in Delhi (the next edition is slotted for March), as well as smaller events like Jashn-i-Bedam (a Sufi mushaira), Jashn-i-Waris and Bazm-i-Dilbaran (on 100 years of the poet Majaz) that he holds in Lucknow. And Lucknow finds expression in the Kotwara range of Indian clothes Ali designs with his wife, Meera. Fashion designer Raghavendra Rathore finds Kotwara “one of the few brands that cover a healthy spectrum. It can be worn by anyone in formal as well as semi-formal settings.” He calls Ali “one of the most aesthetically sound people” he knows. Rina Dhaka calls the Kotwara line “timeless” and “classic”, and praises the wide-leg pajamas and Ali’s signature anarkali kurtas that have “revived the traditional look”.
Ali has tried to look beyond Lucknow in the past. He had many years ago started a film called Zooni with Vinod Khanna and Dimple Kapadia. It was to be shot over four seasons in Kashmir. Ali managed to finish some work in spring and winter but had to drop the project and leave the valley after he was threatened by the Jammu & Kashmir Liberation Front. “About 40 minutes of work was done,” Ali says. He now wants to revive the project, and maybe use those shots in flashback. Of course, both Khanna and Kapadia have now become senior artists. So Ali has to look for contemporary actors. “But the issue is still relevant. There are 20,000 half widows in Kashmir who don’t know where their husbands are,” Ali adds.
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Before any of that, Ali is ready with the next edition of Jahaan-i-Khusro. There are many new voices this time, with whom Ali has rehearsed. The programme will be presented by Abida Parveen. Jahaan-i-Khusro, Ali says, has singlehandedly created the new-found interest in Sufi poetry and music in the 10 years or so it has been around. “It has expanded the frontiers of rendering Sufi music with international inputs, synthesis of instruments, blending of ragas with maqaams and global forms of musical renditions, introduction of hitherto unheard poetry and Sufi kalaam,” says he. “Every festival has introduced new singers and this has expanded the frontiers of Sufi singing into social and cultural life. Many weddings have a Sufi night, Bollywood has Sufi numbers and every singer is also a Sufi singer! It’s great as long as compassion rules society.”
Punjabi folk and Sufi singer Hans Raj Hans feels “very fortunate” to have been a part of Jahaan-e-Khusro in 2011. “This is the biggest Sufi music festival of the country.” He is, of course, all praise for Ali. “Ali Sa’ab has had a long association with Sufi music... he has ensured that the festival spreads the message of love and peace, and not just entertainment. That is what Sufism is about.” He calls Ali a “legendary personality” who is involved in every step of the process. “He rehearses with the artists and oversees everything from the lyrics to the compositions.”
But there have been bruised egos as well. Zila Khan, for one, has a bone to pick with Ali. While Khan participated in the festival from 2001 to 2005, she refuses to be a part of it anymore. “Aliji should give due credit on the CDs produced from the festival to artists such as me,” she says referring to the album, Secrets of The Divine. “The album carries my ancestral compositions and I have proof of the recordings,” she says. The credit for the compositions on the CD, however, goes to Ali. “This is copyright infringement,” she claims. “Instead of clarifying the issue, Aliji spread the rumour that I am a difficult person to work with whenever anyone invited me to participate in the festival!” Khan believes that other artists too have suffered a similar fate. “But they will not raise their voice because this festival is their bread and butter.” she says. Still, she praises the festival for its positive impact on Sufi music. “The festival has encouraged artists like Manjari Chaturvedi... she has made a wonderful mark in Sufi music.” The copyright, Ali says in defence, is with Jahaan-i-Khusro. “I make them (the artists) sign it,” he says. “I introduced her (Khan) to Sufi kalaam. She should be grateful to me. Anyway, a Sufi singer shouldn’t have an ego.”
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Even before Jahaan-i-Khusro, Ali has his political duties to discharge. As he has joined the Congress, he is busy canvassing for thee party in the ongoing Uttar Pradesh polls. “What pains me is all here (in Uttar Pradesh,” says he. “People have become callous. They don’t see a future for themselves.” Politics is not new to Ali. His father was an MLA from 1936 to 1952. Ali had earlier aligned himself with Samajwadi Party. “I left it 10 years ago. I helped the Congress in the last elections also. Now I am a member,” says he.