My first job in what was then Bombay was with Air India. I worked there as an advertising executive from 1970 to 1981. Finally, I quit when I had to make a career choice between the job and directing Umrao Jaan. Air India was the flashiest job one could ask for, but equally stressful and challenging. On one hand, I was living a hand-to-mouth existence as all my salary went into covering the house rent but on the other, I was allowed to dream big. I loved the freedom and power it gave me. I could buy art for Air India or send people abroad. I could get a building made. Any wish I had was practically granted. Even though my interest in films had started earlier while I was assisting Satyajit Ray in Calcutta, it was at Air India that I got a working knowledge of filmmaking when I got a chance to commission an inflight film for the brand. Back then, I was preoccupied with painting. My first solo exhibition was in Calcutta in 1968, and my second one was at the Pundole art gallery in Bombay in 1972.
I directed my debut film Gaman (1978), while I was still at Air India. It was made on a Rs 3.5 lakh loan from FFC (now NFDC, National Film Development Corporation of India). We would jokingly call it the ‘lungi film’, a reference to its modest budget. Today, where can you find takers for such unconventional subjects? For me, it’s a bridge film, as it blurs my roots with my boots, so to speak. It is about the so-called City of Dreams which was pulling in millions of people like me. Gaman’s taxi driver protagonist Ghulam Hasan (essayed by the late Farooq Sheikh) was one of them. The Air India office was on the 18th floor at Marine Drive (incidentally, my rented apartment at the time, too, was on the 18th floor of a building called Palm Springs in Cuffe Parade). Every morning, when I would look out of the window, I used to wonder who was this guy under the yellow roof of the taxi? Baking in the sun and waiting for customers. Driving through the city, he must be experiencing the various facets of the city and all kinds of situations, people and problems. There was a certain anonymity about him. I wanted to have an underprivileged character like him as a hero for Gaman.