July 05, 2020
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The Spooled Alleyways

Peshawar preserves a Bollywood in its midst: the ancestral homes of the Kapoors, Dilip Kumar and Shahrukh

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The Spooled Alleyways
Mohammad Sajjad
The Spooled Alleyways

Dilip Kumar Under illegal occupation, his house is a warehouse.    Raj Kapoor Lying vacant, owner says turn house into a museum.

Anil Kapoor Father’s house not standing. Mother’s has survived.   Shahrukh Khan His cousins live in his ancestral house, top floor demolished.

Whenever Pakistani actress Feryal Ali Gauhar gazes upon the old city of Peshawar, she’s transported to a time she has heard of only in folklore or read in passing in a  textbook. The walls of the old city, their plaster peeling off, narrate to Feryal, in whispers, the stories of those who lived and died here, who nurtured their dreams in these confines and went on to conquer the world, and who, having reached the tallest heights of fame, came back to the city to express their gratitude. Perhaps these walls also beseech her to save them from the sickness of rampant commercialisaton, false notions of modernity and tragic forgetfulness. So much of the past has already been destroyed or defaced in the old city of Peshawar.

It is to save this past, this history in brick and mortar, that Feryal, a member of the National Conservatory Board, and her friends have launched a campaign to conserve the ancestral homes of Bollywood’s legendary and famous actors—Prithviraj Kapoor, his son Raj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar, Shahrukh Khan and Anil Kapoor. Nuggets of their prehistory spring from unexpected nooks and crannies of the city, from its bustling alleys, symbolising the common civilisational links between Peshawar and Bombay before the cartographer placed the two cities in two separate countries.

Main bhi SRK Shahrukh’s cousin Noor Jahan with husband Asif and son Shahrukh
(Photograph by Mohammad Sajjad)

It was from Peshawar that the Kapoors migrated to India, settling down in Bombay to storm the Hindi film industry and rule it for decades. The house Raj Kapoor was born in has defied time’s merciless bulldozer, and Feryal is keen that it is declared a national heritage building. Dilip Kumar’s house in the city has survived likewise. A branch of Shahrukh’s family is still in Peshawar, taking immense pride in his worldwide stardom. Anil Kapoor’s father, Surinder, had migrated to India at the time of Partition, and though his house has been pulled down, Anil’s maternal hearth has survived.

When Dilipsaab visited Peshawar, the whole mohalla wanted to invite him for a meal.

Occasionally, these stars or their children have succumbed to their innate desire to return to their roots, and come to Peshawar perhaps to fathom the many inexplicable ways in which it shaped their lives. For Feryal, though, their visit, however fleeting, has a different meaning. As she asks, “Why would I want to ask the Kapoors and Shahrukh Khan and Dilip Kumar to visit the homes of their ancestors in the city of my ancestors? Because essentially we are the same people, we owe it to each other to look after what we left behind. It’s a question of honouring the past in order to respect our future, our joined futures.” A thoughtful pause later, she wonders aloud, “Could it be that the multiculturalism of another era seems to me to have been a much richer way to live?” Her musings are a telling echo when the Taliban has made it their project to efface from Pakistan’s culture traces and influences of its non-Islamic past.

Tracing these Bollywood links in Peshawar, we find ourselves at Prithviraj Kapoor’s house. Located atop the mound of Dakhi Nalbandi, the city’s highest geographical point, it is a testament to the prestige the Kapoors commanded in this colony famous for goldsmiths. A five-storey structure constructed in 1890, the top floor collapsed years ago but 60 rooms of different dimensions survive. The roof provides a panoramic view of the city. This was where awara Raj Kapoor was born.

Dilip Kumar’s house in Doma Gali Around here, he played with swords on the streets
(Photograph by Mohammad Sajjad)

After the Kapoors finally left it all in 1947, their house was declared evacuee property and auctioned in 1963. Though the owner, Haji Ali Qadir, shifted out from here in 1984, he turned down lucrative offers from property sharks to buy out the historic house. “We are mindful of the fact that the Kapoors are the sons of Peshawar,” says Qadir. “This house enables them to continue to nurture their link with the city.”

Indeed, if Qadir is to be believed, the Kapoors have soil shipped from Peshawar every time a member of the family builds a house or performs an important ritual in Bombay. Shashi Kapoor was here in 1998, only to find hundreds of people eager to welcome him in Dakhi Nalbandi. “He was so happy,” recalls Qadir. “That fat man climbed up the narrow stairs with much difficulty to see the entire house. I invited him and other Kapoors to be my guests in Peshawar. Their visits can remove the iron curtains drawn between the people of India and Pakistan.” Qadir says he is willing to give his consent to have the Kapoors’ ancestral house converted into a museum—the only way perhaps to save it from crumbling and collapsing.

A few miles away from Dakhi Nalbandi is the Doma Gali, where another Bollywood legend left behind a house and pieces of history. Locals say one Haji Lal Mohammed Khan illegally occupied Dilip Kumar’s house, the reason perhaps why it survived the rapacity of developers; most of the old buildings here have been torn down to build spiffy plazas. Lal Mohammed refused Outlook entry into Dilip Kumar’s ancestral house, which he has converted into a godown for storing hosiery. But old-timers say the decor inside bespeaks a quaint elegance you wouldn’t find these days.

“We’re the same people, we owe it to each other to look after our past, our joined futures.”

There are still people in Peshawar who were part of Dilip Kumar’s childhood days and recall them for you as though it were yesterday. Abdul Rauf Simab, 86, who owns a pottery shop, has vivid memories of the actor participating in school dramas and theatre and playing with swords on the streets of Mohalla Khudad. “He was noticed by an Indian film director for his good looks and talent and was chosen for a role,” Simab says. The Bollywood legend studied at the primary school in Mohalla Khudad, and revisited his alma mater on the two trips he made in the ’80s. School watchman Ghulam Habib says Dilip Kumar tried to talk with the children in broken Pashto, and donated money for the purchase of uniforms and books for the poor. “A huge crowd turned up to catch a glimpse of him,” Habib recounts. “He was showered with rose petals and people in the mohalla wanted to invite him for lunch or dinner but it wasn’t possible because of the crowds.” Peshawar continues to have an irresistible pull for the thespian—two years ago, he wrote a letter to schoolmaster Shamshad Khan expressing his desire to visit the city once again.

Our next port of call is the locality of Shah Wali Qataal, where Shahrukh Khan’s father, Mir Taj Mohammed, lived till 1946. Apparently the British pressured Mir to leave Peshawar for what is India now. The reason was decidedly political. Mir’s elder brother, Ghulam Muhammad Gamma, was a staunch supporter of a united India, participated actively in the Quit India movement, and was arrested on several occasions for his links with Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan’s Khudai Khidmatgars. Says Simab, “Gamma used to deliver speeches against Partition and once we threw him in a pool of water after he spoke against the Muslim League leadership.... Only Shahrukh’s family was attached to the Congress in the whole locality.”

Shahrukh’s ancestral house is inhabited by Gamma’s daughter, Noor Jahan aka Munni. The top floor of the building was demolished because repeated bomb blasts here had weakened the structure. Munni and her husband, Asif Shahab, are effusive as they greet us, deriving warmth from their nostalgia of the past. srk accompanied his father as a gawking 14-year-old on a trip to Peshawar in 1978; he was back again a year later with his sister Shahnaz.

When Munni and Asif returned the visit in Bombay in 1997, they were met by the actor’s driver at the airport. Could it be that the star had become haughty, forgotten his cousins from Peshawar? “But he came home only at 1.15 am, from the shooting of Duplicate,” recalls Munni. “I saw tears of joy in his eyes as we hugged. He had a very busy schedule those days but he would take time out one way or another to be with us.” srk said he would love to wear Peshawari chappals. Munni sent those as soon as she got back to Peshawar. Those were the chappals, she claims, he wore in Kal Ho Na Ho. Adds Asif, “We also sent the Peshawari shalwar-qameez suit, locally known as China Boski, to him. He looks so smart in that attire in his film Kuch Kuch Hota Hai.”

As we wind down our journey through the old city, we realise the importance of Feryal’s endeavour to preserve and celebrate Bollywood’s bond with Peshawar. For instance, there are no traces left of Bollywood producer Surinder Kapoor’s ancestral house. That of his wife, mother of Anil Kapoor, though, remains intact in the city’s Quisakhwani area. Again, there are no traces of Bollywood beauty Madhubala’s family. Her father was a Pashtoon and worked in Peshawar before shifting to Delhi. Feryal’s campaign could help Peshawar draw inspiration from its reclaimed past—and its forgotten story of plurality. It’s a natural antidote to the poison of the times.

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