‘A large-hearted man full of stories’

A scriptwriter recalls the 88-year-old filmmaker who died on October 15

“Lekh Tandon? Who’s he?” I remember thinking when I had first heard his name. The year was 2006. I was young. I was ignorant. I was also starting out in my career as a writer. Being inexperienced meant most filmmakers didn’t take me seriously. Work was hard to come by and I was getting desperate. At a common friend’s party, I was introduced to actor Pawan Malhotra who, when he heard I was a trying to be a writer, suggested, “You should meet Lekhji… Lekh Tandon. He is looking for a writer.” Though I didn’t know Lekhji, I confidently stated, “Sure. I would love to work with him”. A meeting was set up.
When I later googled Lekh Tandon’s filmography, it was to only to discover he was the director of Professor (1962) and Amrapali (1966). I had watched those two films on Doordarshan in my school days and Amrapali had made quite an impression on me back then. That evening, I bought the VCDs of Sharda (1981), Prince (1969), Dulhan Wahi Jo Piya Mann Bhaaye (1977) and Doosri Dulhan(1983) and watched all of them.

I was blown by the eclecticism of the man and the simplicity of his art. It is simple to be difficult but difficult to be simple as they say. When I went to meet Lekhji at his office later that week, I realised his office was different from any other office I had been to. Unlike most other filmmakers, who strategically place all their awards, trophies and posters at the reception to remind the visitors of their glorious achievements, Lekhji’s office had none of those frills. It was simple and classy.

A sprightly old man, with a white beard, wearing a Scottish cap, warmly welcomed me. As soon as we shook hands, Lekhji looked at me asked “Khana khayega?” This wasn’t the first thing I was expecting him to ask me. Before I could gather my thoughts, he led me to his conference room. He opened his steel tiffin box, saw tandoori chicken in it and his eyes widened in glee, like a true blue Punjabi. Over the shared lunch, he regaled me with stories of yore. And then promptly gave me a signing amount to begin work. That’s who he was. A warm, large-hearted man full of stories.

A versatile filmmaker, Tandon made films in almost all genres. If the Shammi Kapoor starrer Professor was a classic comedy of errors, the Sunil Dutt-Vyjantimala starrer Amrapali was a period drama. Dulhan wahi jo piya mann bhaye was a romantic comedy while the Sharmila Tagore and Shabana Azmi starrer Doosri Dulhan, was a relationship drama.

A closer look at Tandon’s films will reveal that almost all his plots have influenced and inspired movies of later years. Professor was the inspiration for a running (and frankly, the only funny gag), in the David Dhawan film Haseena Maan Jaayegi. Dulhan wahi jo piya mann bhaye inspired the Salman Khan-starrer Janam Samjha Karo. Another Salman Khan film, Chori Chori Chupke Chupke, borrowed its entire plot from his Doosri Dulhan. The plot of Sooraj Barjatya’s Prem Ratan Dhan Paayo shares similarities with Tandon’s Prince. His film Amrapali though awaits a remake.

After directing over a dozen films, most of them super hits, Tandon moved to television and directed many shows for Doordarshan. That he discovered Shahrukh Khan in Delhi and gave him his first acting job in Dil Darya is known to everyone. What very few people know is that Lekh Tandon also discovered lyricist Irshad Kamil.

“I was shooting in a village in Punjab and badly needed a dialogue writer on the set. Someone introduced Irshad to me and when I saw his work, I suggested he move to Bombay.” Lekhji narrated this anecdote to me later when Kamil dropped in to meet his mentor.

Though he was actively directing for television, even at 80, one could sense Lekhji was restless and wanted to direct a film. He confided in me that he had been chasing a senior star for over a year but still hadn’t got an appointment to give him a narration. “Phone kar karke thakk gaya yaar. Banda jawaab hi nahi deta,” he rued. We continued to meet sporadically over the next couple of months until the script was ready eventually losing touch.

Later, casting directors in Bollywood slotted him as an actor and one often saw him in movies, short films and commercials as the friendly, gentle old man. I am sure he must have been trying to put a movie together when death came calling. Now that he has gone, one can’t help but imagine him narrating his movie ideas to his childhood buddy Shammi Kapoor over whiskey and tandoori chicken, in another world.

The author is a writer and director working in films, television and digital space and has penned films like Dil toh bachcha hai ji and Mere Dad Ki Maruti and directed TV shows Gumrah, Yeh hai Aashiqui.
Source-The Hindu

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