Rasul Mir – India’s First Telefilm

Sudhir Tandon
“Rukiye Janab!” The rasping sound with a hint of boom stopped me in my tracks towards the exit. I turned around.A tall, middle-aged man was approaching us. His order and his brisk approach alerted the CISF sentries guarding the Srinagar Doordarshan gate, two of whom came and surrounded us.
It was the summer of 2010 or 2011. I was visiting Kashmir after a long time. It was both natural and compulsive for me to revisit the Kendra where I’d worked about 35 years ago. While I was meeting some cameramen who had been junior to me in service, Rafeeq Masoodi, the Director of the Kendra, saw me and came over. After an exchange of greetings and without further ado, he ordered his staff to immediately shift me and my wife from the hotel we were staying in to his vacant suite in the DDK premises. Our protestations fell on deaf ears.

The names of the crew and cast are as under :
Rasul Mir
Year of Production: 1975.B &W. Duration 75 mts.
Represented Doordarshan in international TV film festival Golden Prague at Prague Czechoslovakia in 1978.
Written, produced and directed by Bashir Budgami.
Photography.Sudhir Tandon
Audiography: VinodKalra.
Editing .R.G Breed.
Lyrics: .Rasul Mir.
Cast. Gani Khan, Shama and Others.
Singers: Ghulam Hasan Sofi, Raj Beum and Naseem Akhtar,
G.M Rahi and Ali

It was the day following when we were exiting the DDK compound that we encountered that cracking order to stop. The spunky man closed in, looked intently at me and purred, “Tandon Saheb!” Though the man looked familiar – didn’t he guard the DDK gate ? — I couldn’t recall his name. Rahman?Mohd.Sultan? … He began telling the CISF men and some others who had gathered by then something to this effect, “you don’t know what he has done for our Kashmir!” He went on to talk about the film Rasul Mir.
In March 1975, I was posted to DDK, Srinagar as the head of the camera department. Two things about the Kendra had struck me acutely: the dingy, filthy and slushy canteen, and the highly literate and articulate staff, particularly the programme people,including some camera assistants, who took pride in debating on myriad subjects and issuesin English. This level of awareness and articulation in a large band of colleagues hugely surprised me since I hadn’t come across many such people even in the established Delhi Kendra which had boasted of many luminaries. Notwithstanding, and as (with apologies to G.B. Shaw) indiscretion has been better part of my valour when it came to professional matters, I made a detractive comment in the programme review meeting about the way an address by the then CM Sheikh Abdullah had been filmed. Many staff members were up in arms at the temerity of a mere cameraman, and that too an ‘outsider’, to cavil at the work of an influential producer. In fact, one of my own assistants threatened me of dire consequences at my effrontery. But as film and TV production calls for team work, the apparent signs of acrimony turned over time into an undercurrent.There is a reason why I’m harping on this imbroglio. In fact, it is at the heart of this piece. That reason I shall reveal later.
Bashir Budgami, a programme producer in Srinagar Doordarshan, came up with the idea of making a film on Kashmir’s “greatest romantic poet of the 19th century”, Rasul Mir. He naturally wanted it to be shot by a favourite local cameraman. But, as Bhushan Kaul was busy with another project at that time, I came in as his substitute.
Rasul Mir was in love with a Kashmiri Pandit girl named Kongmal of his native village Duru in Anantnag district. Being his muse, she was an inspiration for Rasul’s immortal poetry. Mir even mentioned her name in his poems which was quite unusual in those days.
Bo veer-na-gai he-maiza-gai
La-gai mot gaerzaan
Pooli to Cheena-gundkyadrengi,
I’ll look for you at Veernag,
in the garb of an unknown mendicant,
at Pooli, cheeni-gund,
Drengi. Give me a glimpse, Kongi.
But after Kongmal was married off to someone else, Mir wrote some unparalleled poems of separation and longing.
With this basic storyline in mind, we took some crucial decisions about our film.As the story was primarily about unfulfilled love in a small village, we decided not to have any dialogues; the feelings, emotions and the pain of separation would be conveyed through the protagonists’ expressions, metaphors and visual motifs and songs that represented some of Mir’s most well-known verses. Moreover, logistics constraints settled the matter. To go dialogue-less was a daring gamble to take for the first ever feature film to be made in Doordarshan, and possibly the first telefilm in India. And because the location had to be rural Kashmir, we had to film most scenes outdoors as power supply,essential for indoor shooting,was erratic and deficient in these parts. Actual conditions, however, were worse. There was hardly any electricity most times. Even when it was there, the voltage was so low that we couldn’t use any photographic light for shooting. Unlike today’s video cameras which can work under low lighting conditions, our 16mm film cameras required a lot more light. So the only recourse for us was to somehow reflect sunlight indoors with just two rudimentary reflectors and supplement that light with any available mirrors that a household might have.
Because, the director came from Budgam, we chose that village as our location. Naturally enough, we got a lot of co-operation from the residents — each day our lunch was hosted by a different household. Yet, on most days, I nearly went without lunch or had just a morsel. I was the only vegetarian in the unit. In the non-vegetarian spread that is lavishly laid out for important guests, which host would think ofincluding any vegetarian stuff? There were, then, some embarrassing moments for both the host and me. Hurriedly, a glass of milk or a boiled egg or some biscuits would be effectuated.
Working on a measly budget, we could not afford to hire locations or local props or pay for any services. Perforce, we had to enlist the local people for crowd scenes. Though Gani Khan and Shama were new comers, they got literally mobbed as they were respectively playing the roles of Rasul Mir and Kongmal.
Even though, no dialogues were exchanged between the doomed lovers, the suffering luminosity of Shama’s (Kongmal) eyes, tired of waiting for Rasul
Tha-rah tha-rah chham ma-rah sha-yad
shar meh ji-gu-rook drav-nai
Khoshyi-von nunda-bon, ve-si-yae
Myondil-bar aavnai
I am all ashake,
I may die/my heart’s wish has seen no fulfilment
that lovely, pleasing, my heart throb/he hasn’t come, ah Dear!
and the mobility of her face which, like a flower making a quiet turn toward the Sun, would light up on stealing a glance at Mir – a shimmer now, and then gone. On the other hand, the inner torment, the lingering pain of Rasul,
Ye tulip faced, thee I’d hold, by neck to heal my pain/sans thee, Rasul the flower bed, is a thorny seat for me.
the hopeless flights of Gani Khan’s Rasul Mir across the countryside, criss-crossing streams, groves, flower fields…now in light, now in shadow..
Ath Sombal Bagas wan me ditty,
Ravarim sari doh.
Yim Ashkatongal pam tatiy,
Lo lati lo
For several days, I looked for you,
Everywhere in the hyacinth garden.
The embers there ignited my fire of passion
Oh my love!
or the palpable strains in his body against the curb of stillness, and, of course, the picturisation of the seven songs which were set to music by the well-known visually challenged composer Ghulam Hasan Sofi were lapped up by the village audiences. The songs sung by Sofi himself, the legendary female singers Raj Begum and NaseemAkhtar and noted male singers G.M Rah & Ali Muhammad Nishtar were instant hits.
Working at a breakneck speed, the film was got ready for its telecast on the ensuing Independence Day in 1975. Meanwhile, it was decided to have a press show before the telecast. Although, some colleagues had seen bits of the film during the post-production stage leading to afavourable buzz, it was the press screening that put paid to our anxiety. Rasul Mir got not only complimentary reviews from the press and the TV audiences alike, but also brought salvation to me. Soon, the environment of hostility and resentment that had relentlessly shrouded me gave way to appreciation and regard. The doors that had suddenly been slammed shut on me were thrown open equally suddenly. The psychological interval between these two moments was long. Very long. Though inexplicable, the U-turn was welcome.
I remained in Srinagar only for a couple of more months. But the affection of Kashmiris followed me. Even decades after the screening of Rasul Mir, former colleagues and Kashmiris, some of whom I had not even met, would upon meeting me, talk about the shots and compositions in the film: that silhouette, Rasul Mir dragging himself in a windstorm [I was told that windstorms are rare in the valley; in fact, it occurred while we were travelling and on the spur of the moment I improvised the shot], Shama’s faint smile like clasped hands or her tip-toeing around a chinar tree et al. I have been surprised time and again by the vivid details related by these ‘fans’ — the details and the shots some of which I had evenforgotten. What is this about Kashmiris? Why do they retain admiration for a thing for so long?I have worked in many Kendras and on many a prestigious project. I have many firsts to my credit. But the recognition for all those achievements, including for winning a coveted international award has not been as generous. So what is it about Kashmir and its people? Why should a security guard remember me even after 35 years and proclaim to the world that I contributed ‘something’ to Kashmir and its culture. It is inexplicable. It is incomprehensible that Rasul Mir will be 45 yearsold on 15 August, 2020 and is still alive in the memory of many Kashmiris.
Go, my friend, my love stays far away.
I have to nurture the fire of love every day.
(The author is a former ADG, Doordarshan and founder Executive Director, Lok Sabha TV.)