Thursday, December 5, 2013

The Dacoits of Decor: Introductions and a Tour



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. 
I caught up with the dacoits in their underground bunker (lair?) in Mumbai, recently, to find out why they do what they do, how they would describe what they do to the uninitiated, and just how many laws of space, time, copyrights, and fashion they are breaking by continuing to do what they do.

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.
FC: So, tell me about yourselves. I know why I'm here, but tell me in your own words why my readers might find you interesting.

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.
Zeena: For 45 years, our father built the halls of kings, gilded the thrones of villains, and dressed the homes of the champions...all for the people of this country to gaze upon and imagine and hope for. He was a dream spinner. But he died in a government hospital, with naught but 25 rupees to his name.  Our father was a great man, but nobody knew it. And he was not the only one. Countless artists in the film industry must have suffered the same fate . . . their work and their name simultaneously disappearing from history.

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
Zeena: [Exceedingly dryly] We are thieves, apparently. Did you know that, Natya?

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. 



Natya:
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 AgenciesParshotam 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. 



Zeena:
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. 



Natya:
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)



Zeena: Some films are greater than their sets or decor. Some are great in spite of a paucity of any production budget. Don (1978) perhaps fits in this category. And then . . . some decor is far better than the film it finds itself in. Saawariya's set was a magical place. The story that happened there . . . however. . . practically spit upon its beauty. In the case of many older films, I have acquired objects so that they will not be forgotten . . . so that the story they tell will live on. In the case of Saawariya, I "acquired" certain rugs and other set pieces so that they will finally achieve the place of honor they deserve . . . and outlive their tainted origins.

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. 

Note

If 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).

4 comments:

  1. My question about these dacoits of decor is do they ever travel to the future and "preserve" things from there? Certainly there are things in the future that will be forgotten entirely just as things in the past have been. And, just another point of curiosity, do they leave a calling card? If they don't then other, innocent people without the benefit of time travel may take the fall for these items going missing.

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    1. You bring up some excellent issues with the dacoits' actions. I didn't want to get too deep into the legal drivel of it all, but since you asked . . .
      I saw some copies of an informational form on Zeena's desk. Something about, "You have been banditized by The Dacoits of Decor for the purposes of history and science . . . please sign and tear off the release form below and send it to the following address if you would like to receive compensation or would like photo documentation of your object(s) whereabouts for your records." However, I highly doubt Natya working alone would ever take the time to distribute that form, no matter who's reputation might be at stake.

      The Dacoits of Decor are admittedly rather biased toward the objects and curios of the past. Perhaps their time machine's gears are stuck in reverse or something? You make a good point about the need to preserve the future. . . and yet, I doubt Natya or Zeena give two sighs about things people may or may not create in twenty years. That's the job of a dacoit team with a home/time base somewhere fifty years from now, I suppose.

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  2. Thank you for your answers, but I fear even more curious inquires have risen in my mind. Are there other such time travelers and do any of them seek to preserve decor from other types of cinema, such as Hollywood films or the classics of British cinema? Because just as surely as certain objects from Hindi films deserve to be preserved, so also it would be, I dare say, a crime for various items from films around the world to disappear and be forgotten completely.

    I have many other such questions plaguing my mind, but for now I shall only ask one more. How do you, Filmi-Contrast contact these dacoits of decor? Do you send a bat, or rather, dacoit signal into the sky? Do you have some special sort of phone or pager? Do you have a pre-agreed upon meeting place where you rendezvous every month or so? I apologize if either you or the dacoits of decor are offended by my invasive questions, but I must confess that these matters intrigue me greatly.

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    1. I think you can find the less-biased travelers you were looking for here (http://wonderfloniumonthebrain.blogspot.com/)
      . . . we'll see if the Pack Rack and the Pink Pirate continue to expose themselves to outside interviews.

      I wish I could tell you how I get in touch with the dacoits . . . but then our meetings might be subject to surveillance . . . and we couldn't have that ;) I will say that it involves a secret handshake, a password from a filmi song, and a promise that I will always bring a selection of my sister's signature waffles to each meeting (I'm not opposed to offering baksheesh).

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