Babu Ismail Sait, who had also hailed from Kochi, was best known as the producer of Chemmeen, which received the President’s gold medal, the first gold award in South Indian cinema. And, he still holds the record as the youngest cine persona to receive one. My Kochappa and friends were in a scene or two in his movie Ashthi. I had joined them during this shoot, and I still remember Babu Sait’s confident stride and his fancy Mercedes. But, sadly, his every fortune was gone by the time I met him the last. He had sold his cinema (Kavitha), luxurious house and even the fancy car. Living with his brother, he felt terribly lonely and depressed. He used to visit my studio in Mattancherry and would regret over what could have been.
Mehboob Bhai, the lovable bard of Mattancherry is still as popular as he was in the 1950s. Sadly, my first encounter with him was not very pleasant. On one Eid evening, he stopped my father on our way to the market and demanded money. He took the money from my dad, but then started yelling. It appeared that he was not happy with the amount. To my surprise, my father kept quiet and didn’t react to the curses. When I asked him, he replied: “that’s our Mehboob. Don’t worry; he will be fine the next time”. I could not believe that this was the man behind the melodious voice, as he was wearing dirty clothes and looking quite shabby. However, later, I had the privilege of enjoying his mehfils and cherishing several fond memories. He would perform for his friends and admirers, anywhere and everywhere – in streets, marriages, bars, political conferences, trade union gatherings etc. If you offer him money, he would sing a special song for you; it’s a personal mehfil – an exclusive performance as he would be singing this in your ears. In his last years, for a short period, he was working in a local mosque and would rhythmically offer Azaan (Islamic call for prayer).
My family had a long association with Yesudas too. Contradictory to the bohemian lifestyle of Mehboob, Yesudas took a professional, systematic and materialistic approach to music and life. Those years, the cine world was centered in Chennai, though now it is shifting to Kochi. But, it seems, replication and imitation of the 50s style cloud the market. There is no one to claim and protect the creations of the 50s maestros; copyrights is another critical subject to be discussed.
For one reason or another, I could never click a photograph of Babu Sait and Mehboob Bhai. I feel this as a layer of absence. In my digitally altered photo series titled ‘Untouchables’ (2005), I attempted to symbolically represent their lingering presence in my personal memory as well as the collective history of our region. In a way, this photographic series attempted to unshackle photography from the domains of documentation and journalism. These are the purviews within which this dynamic medium is so often chained and restricted.
Here, we have a different set of images and imagination – one image was shot during an actual event and the other was manipulated. Photographs are expected to propagate reality. It must inform, describe and illustrate the news or story. But, photographs have never been a tool to depict reality. A photographer always decides what to include and edits out the rest. Photograph only gives a partial view of a fleeting moment. It is more so in the digital era. In fact, after the advent of photoshop, the role of photographs as evidence has been negated even by courts. It is now quite easy to fabricate evidence by fusing together isolated places, people, and events. It is no longer difficult to have a photograph of MGR with Che Guera or Che Guera with Charlie Chaplin. One’s imagination is the limit. This changed the perception of photographs as a mere technique, which can be mechanically replicated and reproduced. Through imagination, photography becomes a tool for thought and self-expression. On the other hand, however, this quality could take photography unto the realm of art, too.