Daughter of Jean, the man behind the Nehruvian make in India in Indian films , profiles her father...
My father, Jean
By Janine Bharucha
My father Jehangir Shapurji Bhownagary, aka Boogie, Bones, Bony, Simpin, Foo Ling Yu.
My father the most talented all round artist I’ve ever met : painter, potter, poet, engraver, sculptor, film maker, jewellery maker. A member of the Inner Magic Circle and the original IBM, the International Brotherhood of Magicians, whose stage name was Foo Ling Yu.
His act would begin with just his hands (oh, my Papa’s hands !) and bare arms emerging center stage, between the two curtains, with a poetic choreography of silk scarfs appearing, disappearing and changing colours. Once the audience was enthralled by this vision of pure beauty, the curtains would open to reveal a goofy chinaman and from then on it was pure comedy.
Papa was a born actor, verging on a born ham, with an innate sense of timing.
My mother, Freny Nicholson, before actually meeting him, had admired him on stage in one of Adi’s plays. She recognised him when he turned up on a bicycle at her house in Poona, wearing a humungus straw hat. They were soon married and known as the ‘Simpins.’
Papa embarked her in his dynamic world of Bombay theatre, where she also acted in quite a few plays.
At the time, in 1944, when Danny Kaye’s first film, ‘ Up in Arms,’ came out, the editor and journalist, Freny Talyarkhan had written « At last, Hollywood has found its Jean Bhownagary ! » Without knowing this, at the age of eight, on seeing ‘The Court Jester’, I fell in love with Danny Kaye. At the age of sixty five I’m still in love with Danny Kaye ! Oedipus Shmoedipus ?!
Jean and Adi were quite a team in the forties. They’d listen to jazz while writing revues, systematically reading the dialogue to Silla for approval. Forever under a creative spell, they’d work into the night. Mama would fall asleep on the sofa.
They’d created this Irani servant character who became famous : Aspandyar.
I recently met a charming elderly gentleman who had been a fan of Papa’s. He said that Jean had only to appear on stage for the audience to break up. He had to wait whole minutes for them to calm down before he could utter his first lines. Also something about Aspandyar sleeping on the stage floor and waking up by stretching his legs vertically and wiggling his toes and that would again get roars of laughter from the audience.
One of Aspandyar’s recurring lines that punctuated the plays was « Mané kaï bi ké, pun mané ghadera na ké ! » So much so that everytime his boss said « Aré, mouo ghadera ! » the whole audience would instantly retort with him « Mané kaï bi ké, pun mané ghadera na ké !»
There was an undeniable zaniness to the ambiance. Laughter and lightness of being were compulsory. The original gang, the old timers, included such great actors as Rusi and Mary Sethna, Minou Davar, Jehangoo Anklesaria, Aloo Dubash, Pesi Khandalawalla, Villoo Panthaky.
Unfortunately Jean chose to leave that crazy stimulating whirl of a world to come to Paris and be with his ailing French mother, Jeanne, and join UNESCO.
I was ten when we moved back to Bombay. There was no television at the time and the Films Division was the biggest documentary film organisation in Asia, second biggest in the world after the National Film Board of Canada. It produced two documentaries and one newsreel every week, screened in every cinema throughout the country. Jean took charge of it as Deputy Chief Producer, soon generating a ‘work is worship’ feeling in one and all and becoming friend, philosopher and guide to the entire staff.
My Papa was a man of great vision. His talent in discovering, choosing and trusting film-makers became legendary. He encouraged a cross-fertilisation of talents, inviting artists from different fields, musicians, painters, sculptors, dancers to join the creative process, resulting in the production of one masterpiece after another, bringing home many national and international awards for films by historical names such as Sukhdev, K.S. Chari, M.F. Husain, S.N.S. Sastry, Shanti Varma, Shanti Choudhury, Prem Vaydia, N.V.K Murthy, to name but a few.
‘Good work can only be done when one thoroughly enjoys it’ was Jean’s credo and he infused this approach to all his colleagues, converting the hearts of men with his own inimitable charm and sense of humour. He loved people and people loved him. He believed in people and they would bend backwards to deserve his trust. His creativity was boundless.
This thinny boumbli, elfin looking man could move mountains with Freny by his side at all times, only too proud to be ‘the lady behind the great man !’ Hah ! Behind ! How about ‘in front of’ woman !
Freny, aka Frenza, was this beautiful doe eyed, auburn haired Rita Hayworth look-alike, with high cheek bones and voluptuous lips. As a result the family had a little song adapted from the film ‘Gilda.’ We’d sing ‘So you can put the blame on Frenza !’ at the slightest excuse. Whether things went right or wrong.
My sister Asha and I lived a blessed chilhood and adolescence, loving and tenderly teasing our extraordinary free spirited mother, hero-worshipping our father, fighting to bring him his slippers when he came home after a hard day’s work, shouting ‘me first, me first !’ to cuddle and kiss him as he entered the house.
Where did all this undiluted happiness come from ?
Song time about blaming again, this time from the Jackson Five !
‘Don’t blame it on sunshine.
Don’t blame it on moonlight.
Don’t blame it on good times.
Just blame it on the Boogie !’
That’s him, our father, Boogie, Bones, Bony, Simpin, Foo Ling Yu.