The story of Nazir Ali

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Gopalkrishna Gandhi

Jagriti, made in 1954, is remembered today only by those like me, in their mid-70s, who saw it in their childhood, mesmerised by the acting of Abhi Bhattacharjee as the school teacher who takes a group of his student-wards on an all India excursion by train. Abhi-babu sings, during this journey (in Hemant Kumar’s voice), a song penned by Kavi Pradeep that pulls at the heart strings.

Aao bachcho tumhein dikhaein jhanki Hindustan ki is set on the moving train that takes the children through great sites in the country ranging from the Himalayas to its oceanic south. The film’s hero, the young boy played by Ratan Kumar, with the other children, joins in singing the song’s refrain Vande Mataram with gusto. Old legends, myths and modern facts – the Jallianwala Bagh massacre among them – meld in that song which is dedicated to India’s greatness. Like many other boys at the time, I saw myself in Ratan Kumar and Ratan Kumar in me.

Ratan Kumar was his screen name. The home-given name of this boy, born in 1941, in Ajmer, was Syed Nazir Ali Rizvi. With the family moving to Bombay, Nazir made it to cinema. And just as Bombay turned Mohammad Yusuf Khan into Dilip Kumar, Mahjabeen into Meena Kumari, it morphed Nazir Ali into Ratan Kumar.

And jewel he was. He was first featured in 1952, at age 11, as the child Baijnath in the musical “megahit” that made Bharat Bhushan famous – Baiju Bawra. And then, at age 12, as Kanhaiya in Bimal Roy’s Do Bigha Zamin which had Balraj Sahni and Nirupa Roy as Kanhaiya’s parents. When he turned 13, Ratan was cast by Raj Kapoor in Boot Polish and the same year, in Jagriti as Shakti, a poor and disadvantaged boy.

I do not know how or when exactly or why his family decided to leave Bombay for Pakistan. Ratan, all of 15 years, left India for Pakistan with his family. It was Nehruvian India’s high noon. And Pakistan was seeing a political eclipse, its civilian administration breached by two military men, Iskander Mirza and Ayub Khan. So, why? On arrival in Pakistan, the family was in for more than the usual problems of adjustment. The child of discord became brother to dilemma – a piquantly resolved dilemma – when his elder brother Wazir Ali decided to do a film: Jagriti, in reverse. Translated into Urdu, Jagriti is Bedari or Wakefulness. A film was made, Bedari, with Nazir Ali, two years older, singing the same song, same tune, in a train – same andaz, same josh, same sifat, same fiza, but words and sites changed. The new song was Ao bachcho saer karaein tumko Pakistan ki.

Bedari was an instant hit in Pakistan. All because of the song, and – Ratan Kumar aka Nazir or Nazir aka Ratan Kumar. But fame is
fickle.

July 14 – July 20, 1970 Ratan came to act in other films as a young adult, then a hero. He married, raised a loved and loving family. But life was not the same. In Jagriti, Ratan Kumar, as Shakti, dies in an accident. Now, in real life, Nazir lost his daughter in an accident. He was never to act again. Moving to the USA in 1979 – the year ZA Bhutto was executed – Nazir said goodbye to the subcontinent. There was great dignity to that move, and his other Jagriti song Chalo chalein Ma, kanton se dur kahin phoolon ki chhaanvon mein… came alive then.

Nazir Ali died three years ago. His family would know if he found phoolon ki chhanv there; one prays he did.

Nazir in India and Ratan in Pakistan are born, re-born in every generation. The bachche are one and the same. What are they being taught to think of each other? Is anti-magnetic, mutually countering patriotism their lot? Nazir Ali’s life story will tell them life is bigger than nationalities, home unbound by borders. And they could, Nazirs and Ratans both, laugh together at a third version of the song, a jingle that went: Ao bachcho tumhe chakhaein toffee Mangharam ki.

(HT Media)