Twins by birth, partners in crime, and raiders through time. Ask them anything, but do NOT question their mission, OR mention their mysterious resemblance to 1970's bombshell Zeenat Aman.
|Natya, in a candid pose captured during our visit.|
The two ladies promptly asked me to sit, drink a bit of chai, and generally make myself at home. Zeena, the shortest, oldest sister, sat across from me, sari draped gracefully around her shoulders, Gujarati style. I think this reflected more her sense of decorum rather than her origins, however. She asked me graciously about my journey, while her sister, the tall and energetic Natya, bounced around in the curtained kitchen in a neon mini-dress . . . dubious clanging and banging sounds bursting forth every dozen seconds or so.
|Zeena, somewhere in Central Asia, 1980.|
Zeena: Forgive me for saying so, but your spotlight should not be turned upon my sister and I, but rather the artifacts we discover and catalog. And above those artifacts, the men and women who created them. Those artists and designers are the unsung heroes of the Mumbai film industry.
Natya: LITERALLY UNSUNG! [shouting from the kitchen]. EVERYONE GETS A SONG BUT THEM!
|Natya, Mumbai, 1976.|
FC: Some people would call what you do, um, "stealing." What do you say to those people?
Zeena: [Rolls her eyes] I don't say anything to them. We remember. They forget. That is the only difference between us.
Natya: [enters with a platter piled high with samosas] Kya hua? What did I miss?
|Zeena. Photo taken during a self-described "serious" phase,|
[Gosh! What would that be like?] on a trip to Mumbai c. 1978
Natya: [Irreverently breaks into a song I only recognized later] chor chor, chor Chor, Chor Chor, CHOR CHOR . . . !
FC: [Scrambling to regain the conversation] I meant no offense. Only that . . . your chosen profession . . . traveling through time in order to acquire objects and set pieces that appear in Mumbai films . . . well, apart from being rather dangerous and unusual, some might call it unethical.
Zeena: [Coldly] Well to those folks I say, mubarak ho. Congratulations on the occasion of your bilkul ignorance. And to you, representative of "Filmi~Contrast," whatever that means, I say . . . have a look at what we've managed to accomplish before you judge us.
Natya: [Struggling to hide her amusement] I think what my sister means to say, o' guest of ours, is, "Would you like a tour?"
I don't know what I was expecting when Natya originally invited me to their lair (the story of how we met must wait for another time). Maybe a vault? Or a massive cavern filled with loot a la Hollywood treasure-hunting films? You know, like the finale of National Treasure (2004) or The Goonies (1985) or something. But no. What I saw is best described as a mix between a domestic arrangement filled with wildly different styles of decor . . . and a casually curated museum. It will take me a long time to catalog and comment on it all for you . . . so today I shall just mention some of the first artifacts the dacoits showed me along with their explanation of the objects' significance.
Two Chai Cups, painted to look lipstick-stained. Acquired from the set of Aap Ki Kasam (1974) without permission.
I don't know if these rather simple cups were dreamt up and provided by one of the faceless set decorating agencies, or lifted by a PA from the set's beverage table, or belonged to one of the actors. No idea at all. But this is one of my favorite pieces. It's happy and sad and subversive all at the same time. It's happy because the two characters you are rooting for finally act on their love in this scene. But it's sad, because they don't stay together. The matching set is eventually going to be separated. And it's subversive, because the cups tell us the truth about this scene--that the characters are engaged in some major making out. Just look at the lipstick on BOTH the cups.
Credited Faceless Set Decorating Agencies: Parshotam Agencies (set decoration), Premier Furnishers (set decoration) (as Premier Furnishing & Deco. Pvt. Ltd.), and Sipla Interiors (set decoration).
A set from Namak Haraam (1973), reassembled with original furniture and reproduction wall paper.
My father built this set . . . which is supposed to be the apartment of the rich industrial heir (played by Amitabh Bachchan). To my eyes, this represents my father's brilliant eye for using decor to psychologically manipulate and influence the audience. In the film, Amitabh's character is oblivious to the living situation and plight of the manufacturing workers in his his father's company. His selfish impatience at waiting a few extra minutes for his friend (played by Rajesh Khanna) . . . whom the audience knows is going through a profound awakening of social consciousness . . . is underscored by the obnoxious combination of elements in the set.
White-washed stone walls; plush chairs that look as if they have never been sat upon in a god-awful imitation of "royal" purple; a prominent bar complete with a mirror, stools, and liquor. . . over which (significantly I think--as it points to the owner's priorities) hangs the only light fixture in the room. The lighting itself is almost in clinical in tone--casting a bleached, antibacterial glare over all the polished surfaces.
This room is tasteless by any standards. But, in the context of the story, it makes us feel as if this fellow, Amitabh's character, leads a useless, wasteful, and tasteless life.
Credited Faceless Set Decorating Agencies: Unknown.
Courtesan's Sitting Room, Mere Huzoor (1968): original pillows, light fixtures, and library.
When I visited Mere Huzoor's set, it just looked like the cozy parlor of a somewhat wealthy person. In fact, I think they were just filming at some vacationing politician's flat. The story of the film seemed silly. . . . the location was a bust . . . I was VERY bored and I was whining to Zeena that we should leave.
But then the set dresser walked in. I never caught her name, but I've seen her in photographs with my father. She sauntered up to the wall on the right of the bookcase, pulled out a screwdriver, and like the plucky thing she was--just ripped out the wall lamp! Then she hung some picture, it didn't matter what. The important thing was that it was a little dull. Everything in the room was a sort of sleepy and comfortable. The only thing that made me interested in staying to watch the scene was how carefully that set dresser went about her business. And how she stood back and smiled slowly at it all before the actors filed in to start shooting. She knew exactly what she was doing, and I wanted IN on the secret.
And then I realized the purpose of it all. All the focus . . . all the glow surrounds the seated courtesan. The one lamp shines above her, like a warm beacon to Jeetendra's restless character's soul. She is the source of poetry and mystery and possibility. Everything else in the room is merely a frame for her personality.
So then, when the shooting wrapped, of course I stole whatever wasn't bolted down. And a couple of things that were bolted down.
Credited Set Decorator: Y.H. Bisley
Elaborate rugs from Saawariya (2007)
Natya: Hamesha, hamesha Zeena will complain about this film. I just wanted something pretty for my bedroom floor.
Credited Set Decorator: Omung Kumar
Since our most recent visit . . .
Currently, Zeena and Natya can be found scouring the years of 1967-68 looking for a better print of the film "Aamne Samne" to preserve in their collection. I'm going to try to catch them in between trips and document A LOT more of their stolen decor. I still don't know how I feel about the rightness of their actions, but I do feel that their hearts are in the right place. After all, if I had the chance to be a dacoit for such a good cause . . . perhaps I would take the ethical and physical risks and do the same.
|Zeena and a temporary co-dacoit, Central Asia, 1980.|
NoteIf you happen to know any REAL details about the costumes or sets or locations mentioned in this post, or the artists behind them, feel free to inform in the comments below. Zeena and Natya and Filmi~Contrast would be much obliged!
Other Photo Sources: 1. Zeenat Aman in Ajanabee (1974). 2. Zeenat Aman in Alibaba Aur 40 Chor (1980). 3. Zeenat Aman in Chhailla Babu (1977). 4. Zeenat Aman in Don (1978). 5. Zeenat Aman in Alibaba Aur 40 Chor (1980). Header photo: Still from Kucche Dhaage (1973).