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Star Quality

Snehprabha Pradhan

After the visits to sari makers etc Sneh took to taking me round other parts of her world including the film studios. I was readily accepted by the actors, directors, musicians, and the various technicians involved. Never having been on a film set I was surprised to see how gigantic some of them were and how simple some others.

Sneh had recently been in a film where her brother had given her a goodbye kiss on the cheek. No kissing had been seen on the Indian screen before! It created a great furore. Even in the national press and she had to explain herself. Quaintly (it seemed to me) she explained that the shot was made by careful use of camera angles and that, at no time, were they closer than "a pair of pidgeons could have flown between them". Even one of her most faithful fans wrote her a letter saying that she had let herself down. This man had written to her ever since her university days and although she had never met him she wrote to him once in a while commenting on this or that in his previous letters. I had never thought that film stars thought anything of their fans.

On that subject; what is star quality? I had never seen it before but Sneh certainly had it. It was brought home to me some years later in England. Wherever we went she turned heads. Why? It is difficult to pinpoint the reason. People would pull me aside and say "Who is she?" Something about her demanded attention and when she got it she responded graciously to her 'subjects' and so the mutual 'I demand attention' and the 'I want to admire? you' were self perpetuating.

She walked like some queen and almost imperceptibly inclined her head accepting the inevitable compliment. She always had a bevy of male 'drones' in attendance. Women were conspicuous by their absence. This did not at first strike me as odd because of my growing infatuation but it later became a matter of some importance. In our private relationship her natural instinct was to submission in a way that I had not previously encountered but as with her relationship with her God, she could produce a myriad of occasions (some apocryphal) when I had failed to meet expectations. This situation is well understood by most husbands, for this is what I was becoming in everything but law.

Unexpected reactions were to be expected in such a difference of cultures. One day during a film 'take' I was sitting on one end of a charpoy (bed) at the other end of which Sneh was discussing her future with the hero of the film. "CUT!" It seemed to be far louder than need be but the director is an important man! Sneh, the hero, director and the entire crew made their way to another set about 20 yards away for a short take that was to be the last of the day. I was naturally keen to get home and glancing down saw her sandals at my feet. She had kicked them off as the scene was barefoot. I picked them up and silently crept to the other part of the set, keeping well out of camera shot but as I approached she caught sight of me out of the corner of her eye. Giving a strangled little cry she stopped acting and ran over to me, took the sandals from me and threw them down. With a backward imploring look at me she resumed her place with an apology to the director and crew.

As soon as shooting was finished she ran over, slipped into her sandals, we jumped into the car and the chauffeur drove off. She looked at me with her eyes brimming with tears. "Oh! Sparkie, you shouldn't have humiliated yourself by bringing my sandals.' 'What am I to do with you?" It seemed that I had done something unbearably humble by picking up her footware. I had so much to learn but there was another occasion when I regretted not having learned that lesson.

Although Indian film music is more accessible to the Western ear than the classical, it still needs a sympathetic attempt to appreciate it. Between takes one day, I was chatting with the orchestra and commented that, with the immense amount of improvisation and the sophistication of the tabla (two tuned drums, played by left and right hands) playing they would easily be able to produce a jam session. There was an immediate response in a burst of laughter from all of them and I wondered if, once again, I had committed some ghastly faux pas. Seeing my discomfort the leader waved a 'silly boy!' disclaimer and nodded to the tabla player who started up an unbelievable riff. The others joined in and until shooting commenced they played along in a pure ecstasy that carried me along with it. It was quite wonderful and I bet myself money beyond avarice that the Western World would soon realise the immense potential of Indian music.

I am still waiting and so, I imagine, are many others. Yehudi Menuin tried to bring Ravi Shankar to the notice of the West but it seems that the drums of Africa are quite adequate for easy assimilation! After that session I always had a wink or a wave from the band members. Without our knowledge the film crew had been taking shots of Sneh and me together and of me on my own. At regular intervals Sneh would be shown recent takes, a regular occurrence in the film world and we would sit in the big sofa that sat alone in the middle of a studio cinema. One day the screen came up with the surreptitious shots. I had never seen myself on the screen and was amazed at the facility of the camera man. Sneh, however, was furious and demanded that the film be destroyed. I could see her point but the director turned to me and said "How would you like to get into films." Sneh was incandescent. "The moment he goes into films I get out!" I wondered what the stage directions would have been for her exit but with a shrug and a wink at the director, I followed her. His eyebrows almost met his hair and his eyes tried to follow them as he shrugged back.

It would not be long now when I should not have the freedom that I had. The refresher course prior to going to Ferry Command was nearly half completed. We were to fly any single engined aircraft wherever they were required and we had already done most of our homework. There was no ferry headquarters in Poona but I hoped to get to the one at the Bombay airport at Santa Cruze. My friendship with Sneh had not gone unnoticed but as far as my RAF compatriots were concerned they would do anything in their power to help me. She had met most of them at the mess on the few times that I took her there and they were, to a man, enthralled. One Canadian made the unusual comment that she was as cute as a bug's ear. In spite of my knowledge of the location of the hearing organs of insects etc I finally realized that the remark in itself was 'Kinda cute'.

One problem with introducing her to the mess was that she occasionally saw the seamy side of service life as on one night we dropped in at around 23:00 hrs and found that the only officers there were completely legless. She took it quite philosophically as one of the horrors of service life. There was also the little item that in her household was an over amiable gentleman who looked after the mango ripening room and was treated with great respect by the servants. I, like everyone else, called him 'Mamman' but later divined that he was some kind of an uncle and his amiability was probably due to his addiction to 'Toddy' a palm wine.

Much later I was to watch it being made. It is the fermented juice of one of several palm trees but at the time there was no opportunity to find the definitive Latin names. The best type is made from a palm that looked more like a gigantic fern but gave itself away by producing a great fruit on the end of a long stem. The fruit was cut off and the stem placed into a huge section of bamboo which served as a bucket into which the juice dripped. It fermented readily and was then ready to drink. This particular palm was known as the Toddy Palm in Arjuvedic medicine, well documented in the ancient Sanskrit texts The Vedas.

The whole plantation was run by a foreman who sat on a raised bamboo platform. He offered us a drink but his eyes were so formidably glazed that he seemed to have opaque, milky cataracts. One problem with Toddy is that it is so easily identified and readily detected on the breath. I never enjoyed it even when a pea of opium was dissolved in it but that is another story.

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Edward Sparkes ©1999