Lekh Tandon

Star in the shadows

Print edition : November 24, 2017

Lekh Tandon. Photo: AFP

A still from the film "Prince", starring Shammi Kapoor and Vyjayanthimala.

A still from the film "Amrapali", starring Sunil Dutt and Vyjayanthimala.

Lekh Tandon (1929-2017) helmed several memorable Hindi films but remained an unsung hero all his life.

THE sun never shone on him bright and splendid. Shadows kept him company. He worked with the best and the biggest of stars, from Shammi Kapoor and Rajendra Kumar to Rajesh Khanna and Shah Rukh Khan, yet no aspiring hero ever mentioned his name as the director he would love to work with. He was never destiny’s favourite child and did not enjoy more than a few moments of fleeting attention. He gave us some of the best entertainers of the 1960s, a blockbuster in the 1970s and a memorable television serial in the 1980s, yet Lekh Tandon, a director of relentless enthusiasm with an abiding sense of self-effacement, remained an unsung hero.

Happy to cede space to his stars, he did not mind when the films he directed were sold under the name of the banner in which they were produced. Indeed, so self-deprecating was Tandon that often, when one called him up, he would end up speaking about his contemporaries like Raj Kapoor and Shammi Kapoor and not a word about himself. He considered the former his guru in ways more than one, and the latter was one of the most popular heroes of the 1960s who teamed up with Tandon for films like Professor and Prince.

But not once did Tandon remind anyone that cinema was essentially a director’s medium where actors carry out the director’s vision. He was always happy to stay behind the scenes, happy to let others hog the limelight. He was like an industrious worker who did his job, collected his wages, and worried about the next day. In his case, the next film.

This ability to blend with the shadows is particularly praiseworthy when one considers Tandon’s body of work. Besides the hits with Shammi Kapoor, he gave us Amrapali (1966), which was selected as the Indian entry for the Oscars. A more self-obsessed man would have been hungry for the spotlight, but not Tandon. He let Vyjayanthimala and Sunil Dutt, the film’s lead pair, be the talk of the town. And as the media talked endlessly about the film’s stars, music and dance numbers, it seemed that the director was almost incidental. Tandon was happy to be anonymous. Amrapali, in the common man’s mind, was a Vyjayanthimala movie with five superhit songs by Lata Mangeshkar.

Over a decade later, Tandon proved that he was no star-obsessed film-maker. He had given us Professor and Prince, Amrapali and Jahan Pyar Mile with Shammi Kapoor, Sunil Dutt and Shashi Kapoor, all stars blessed with charisma and who assured box office returns. In the late 1970s though, Tandon tapped into fresh talent for Rajshri’s Dulhan Wohi Jo Piya Man Bhaye. The film was also actress Rameshwari’s passport to posterity.

The film, like most Rajshri offerings, was released with limited prints, not more than two in a city, and even more limited publicity. After a slow start, it picked up pace and went on to complete a golden jubilee at cinema halls as upmarket as New Delhi’s Chanakya and as affordable as Chanderlok in south Delhi, where tickets cost just 50 paise. If the high-brow Chanakya brooked no noise from the audiences, preferring to let the viewers soak in the experience in peace and quiet, Chanderlok was quite the masses’ favourite. When the film’s popular song, “Le Toh Aaye Ho” played, it was not unusual for the masses to scream towards the projector room, “Bhaiya, ek baar aur chala de” (Brother, play it once again). With no tall claims or long interviews, Tandon had bridged the divide between the classes and the masses.

Showcasing the abiding values of Hindu society, the film’s songs were sung by Hemlata. Her success with numbers like “Le Toh Aaye Ho” and “Khushiyan hi Khushiyan” (with Yesudas), supported by the songs of Ankhiyon ke Jharokhon se, emboldened her to ask for a fee not less than that of Lata Mangeshkar.

As a professional, Tandon knew that Dulhan Wohi Jo Piya Man Bhaye had to be followed up with other films for him to remain a reliable filmmaker in the market. Professor (1961) was too far back in time and Andolan (1975) had proved a non-starter.

Unfortunately, his next offering, Ek Baar Kaho, again for Rajshri, did not click with the masses, and Tandon resumed his struggle to give cinephiles a memorable film. Success proved elusive, with his movie Sharada failing to deliver. But Tandon was not to be denied. His moment came soon after with Doosri Dulhan (1983), which tackled the subject of surrogate motherhood and caused quite a storm in social circles. The film was widely appreciated for its subtlety and the director’s ability to leave the obvious unsaid. Interestingly, yet again, for all the delayed appreciation of Tandon’s craft, the film industry, and indeed the viewers, talked more about Victor Banerji as the new talent in the industry and Shabana Azmi for her powerful portrayal of a prostitute. If Tandon could not move out of the shadows through a film starring Banerji and Shabana Azmi, he was much less likely to do so with his next film, Agar Tum Na Hote. It was a rarity for Tandon to have two films of his releasing the same year, 1983. That it took him almost 25 years to accomplish the feat says it all about Hindi cinema. Agar Tum Na Hote arrived at the box office riding on renewed hype around Rajesh Khanna, who sought to revive his past glory with films like Souten, Awaaz and Aaj ka MLA Ram Avtar.

Unfortunately, he was soon to discover that high noon comes but once in a lifetime. Agar Tum... made more news than money. Tandon, though, had the satisfaction of winning the Best Director Award from the Film Fans Association of India. It was a minor accolade for a director who deserved better.

Realising the fickleness of box office fortunes, Tandon shifted his focus to television, where he gave us Dil Dariya, which had Shah Rukh Khan in its cast. Shah Rukh was then very much a likeable small screen star, a few years away from becoming a box office star. Dil Dariya tugged at the heart strings and people took notice of Tandon’s ability to narrate a story without slipping into melodrama.

However, the cruel hand of fate intervened once again. As in cinema, on the small screen too, the hero hogged the limelight, leaving Tandon to bask in reflected glory. Tandon moved on, directing serials such as Phir Wahi Talaash and Farmaan. However, he was unable to repeat the success of his first serial.

But Tandon was not finished yet, and surprised many with his ability to reinvent himself. More than 15 years after Dil Dariya, he teamed up again with Shah Rukh, this time as a fellow actor for Ashutosh Gowariker’s film Swades. Shah Rukh was a top draw at the box office and Lekh Tandon, a man with more than 40 years of experience behind him, was just another name in the film’s credits. Shah Rukh brought with him the promise of youth, Tandon only a whiff of nostalgia. The saga was repeated with Chennai Express. Between these two films came his sole film with Aamir Khan, Rang De Basanti. He also starred in Amol Palekar’s Paheli, again starring Shah Rukh.

Paheli bombed, Chennai Express found it difficult to sustain momentum but Rang De Basanti whipped up magic. But Tandon’s fate remained the same. He occupied the shadows. If, as a director, he was always on the sidelines, he remained almost anonymous as an actor. Without hyperbole, a hint of melodrama or lofty statements, Tandon was quite the star in his own way. When the history of Hindi cinema is written, Tandon will deserve a “lekh” or a piece of writing all his own.

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