“No, I won’t narrate to his assistant. Main kahani Raj Kapoor ji ko hi sunaoongi.”
Even as a newcomer trying to break through in the late 70s, veteran writer Kamna Chandra was at her assertive best with his secretary Harish Bhibhra while she was trying to persuade him to get her an audience with the famous director.
It’s not everyday that you have a story you want to narrate to none other than the legendary showman. A story you feel needs to be brought to life with his direction alone. A story you stick to your guns for. The ‘kahani’ in question was a real-life story she had heard from her mother; one that had been in her mind for a long time.
It went on to become Prem Rog, one of the biggest romantic hits of Hindi cinema. And Chandra, one of Hindi cinema’s rare women writers in the 70s and 80s, received her first Filmfare Award nomination in 1983. She faced some credible competition that year, with Nikaah and Bazaar, before losing to Samaresh Basu for Namkeen.
Now over 80, Chandra went on to write more stories that became trailblazing hits in the Hindi movie industry.
One of them was the Sridevi-starrer superhit Chandni, directed by the romance king Yash Chopra. “His wife Pam called me to ask if I had a story and this was what I had in mind.”
She also wrote Kareeb and both the story and screenplay for the hit movie 1942: A Love Story. Her latest is the story for the 2017 movie Qarib Qarib Singlle, directed by her talented daughter Tanuja Chandra, who is known for women-oriented Dushman and Sur. “I wrote it long ago for radio. Tanuja and Gazal gave it a contemporary flavour,” she says.
Writing began long ago for Chandra, who never imagined ever being associated with the Hindi film industry. She grew up in UP, in a home where ‘padhai likhai’ held great value and where a daughter’s education was given equal importance to the son’s.
A 1953 Graduate in English Literature from Allahabad University, she married young. “In fact, my BA results came out on the same day as my marriage, so when the baraatis (groom’s family) arrived by train, they were very happy to know that their bahu was a BA pass!” She says with a hearty laugh over the phone when we speak.
Navin Chandra, her husband of 64 years, worked in the corporate world and has been her rock through these years. Their relationship, love and respect for each other deepened over time, something that reflects in her stories.
Romance in Chandra’s writing can be gradual, finding its way with a slow but sure footing. “I like her treatment as well as love for human emotions in her stories,” Tanuja reflects. “It’s that which draws viewers in to her stories along with the simple but sweet sense of humour. It’s tough being funny in a natural kind of way. That’s what she does well. Most importantly, she brings her life experiences and her own personal sense of humour into her writing and that is the most valuable lesson I’ve learned.”
Chandra had been writing since school and through her marriage and motherhood, for well-known magazines of the day like Vama and Sarita. But it’s Mumbai that gave her writing wings to fly. Chandra’s work really took off in the late 70s and early 80s, when her husband got transferred there and she started writing plays for All India Radio and Doordarshan (DD). DD in Mumbai was going through its best creative phase. Not many know that she wrote Trishna, an adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice. “I met Meena Vaishnavi of DD and she asked me to adapt it in the Indian context. We worked together and I wrote 13 episodes, they were hugely successful.”
Trishna was a super hit, especially among young women and Chandra went on to tell more stories, create more original works, including Kashish, yet another romantic DD hit from 1993.
With cinema, she mostly wrote the main story and preferred to let the director and their story department take over the screenplay and dialogue, as she did for Prem Rog and Chandni. “I never felt insecure about it. Mujhe lagta tha jo bhi karenge achcha hi karenge,” says Chandra, who agrees back then they had a simpler way of doing things in the film industry.
Chandra wrote the screenplay for 1942: A Love Story though, at director Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s insistence. Once again, she had approached a director because she liked his work and felt there was a story for him. “I was visiting my daughters in USA, where they were studying. We watched Vinod’s film Parinda together and were blown away by it. My daughter Anupama (who went on to marry Chopra) suggested why don’t you approach him with a story and I did.”
Back then, Chandra had never expected a call from Raj Kapoor. Within a week she did. “I met him in RK Studios and it was a wonderful meeting. He made me extremely comfortable and heard the story of Prem Rog with rapt attention for almost two hours. When the movie released, I had single credit for the story. He was a gentleman to work with,” she remembers fondly.
Chandra was based in Hong Kong with her family when Prem Rog released in 1983 and returned to India only after that year. The movie had given her recognition for her work and there were enough offers. She wrote Chandni for Yash Chopra soon after. It was his first hit after four or five flops.
Yet her focus was always home first. “Meri priority ghar aur bachche thhe,” she says with absolute conviction. Chandra managed to balance both work and home to the extent that made her happy.
“My mother insisted I study, even after my father’s death. In those days I stayed in a boarding during high school and completed my BA. I wanted to utilise that education, which was rare for a woman in the 50s and I’m glad that I did. The work that came my way ensured I did something creative, put my education to use and at the same time got the satisfaction of managing my house.”
Her pride in her family is hard to miss and is peppered through her conversation as she fondly talks about her supportive husband and the three children who seem to have inherited her talent – Tanuja the director, Vikram Chandra, the writer and Anupama Chopra, the film critic.
Chandra’s stories have always had strong women in them, whether it was Manorama, the character played by Padmini Kolhapure in Prem Rog, Sridevi’s title character in Chandni or Manisha Koirala’s Rajjo in 1942: A Love Story. “I wrote about women because I am one and I know the most about myself,” Chandra simply says. “I agree I was one of the few women writers around but I didn’t grab the opportunities that came my way.”
The circumstances in Chandra’s stories may be unusual but they are relatable. “They come from the lives people live. Which is the reason for their longevity,” thinks Tanuja. Though she and Ghazal made Qarib Qarib Singlle contemporary, it’s her mother Kamna’s original story which is the core of the film. “That story works even today.”
Prem Rog remains Tanuja’s favourite film from her mother’s oeuvre. “One can still watch it and get totally sucked into the fascinating film made by the great Raj Kapoor. It’s as relevant today as it was then because traditional prejudices very much exist in today’s India even though they may appear different. I also like 1942 – A Love Story.”
Chandra’s journey as a writer, for radio, television and Hindi cinema has been quiet but impactful. She is thankful for the chance to work with legends but remains largely unfazed by it all. “I am very warm in my approach to people and was excited to work with big names but I was never intimidated by anybody,” she says.
If anything, she wears her success lightly. In this day and age of instant celebrity and PR culture, she represents a grace and old-world charm that’s rare to find. Despite having worked with some legendary names in Hindi cinema and being the writer behind some blockbuster movies, she remains down to earth and approachable, even downplaying her achievements to an extent. “I have been very lucky that I got the chance to work with big names and meeting good people but I’m a lazy writer. I took this more as a hobby and have been fortunate.”
And we, the audience, have certainly been fortunate for the stories.
By Reshmi Chakraborty
This story first appeared in Silver Talkies, an online magazine for young, spirited seniors