Dolly Thakore's Life in the Theatre


Those lines from Hamlet immediately sprang to mind when I read Anmol Vellani’s sms telling me that “Zul Vellani – the Voice had been silenced” on the last day of 2010.

For more than a decade the first poster that caught one’s attention in my flat was the sepia head of Zul Vellani as Hamlet directed by Alyque Padamsee in 1964.

Pearl Padamsee did the Costumes for that Production. She despaired and turned to the Director to say “I can’t put Zul in tights. His legs are too splindly”. Alyque in his usual dismissive dictatorial voice said: “I don’t care. That is your problem. You are the Costume Designer.” Pearl then made him wear four pairs of tights one on top of the other. He looked so good. But nearly died of heat!!!

And that head portrait contained all the sensitivity, handsomeness, poetry that was Zul Vellani…one just has to mention Hamlet, and Gerson daCunha as the King and Usha Katrak as Gertrude go into memory zone immediately.

Many of you may not even have hard of Zul Vellani – but he was a judge at Thespo IV.

Zul’s voice and talent ruled our Films Division documentaries and stage. But to a great extent it is his legacy that we have inherited.

I first heard of Zul in 1965 when Partap Sharma’s play ‘A Touch of Brightness’ directed by Alyque Padamsee was banned from going to the first Commonwealth Arts Festival by order of the State Government of the time. And the troupe’s passports were impounded on the eve of their departure for London. He was playing Banarsi Baba. Eight years later it was restaged with a different cast. I was Suraksha in it.

I then saw him on the Bombay stage in 1969 when he played Henry Lawrence in Gurcharan Das’ play ‘Larins Sahib’ directed by Deryck Jeffreis.

And soon after, when I moved into my present residence adjoining the now defunct Hill Grange High School on Pedder Road, Alyque regaled me with grandiose stories of ‘Othello’ which Zul had directed and staged in 1956 -- on the open-air stage of the school now demolished by a rapacious builder. This was Zul’s most famous production, featuring all the rising stars of the English-language stage – Zul was Iago to Gerson daCunha’s unforgettable Othello. It also had a young Alyque Padamsee in the cast. The huge and magnificent all-white set was constructed by the film producer K. Asif of Mughal-e-Azam fame. It boasted staircases running up to a platform at a giddying height, and an even higher tower leading up to Desdemona’s bedroom. Never before had Bombay seen a production on such a gigantic scale.

Zul belonged to the age of the classics in India. There was not much Indian writing in English at the time. English theatre relied on Britain…So all the plays he participated in were Shakespeare, or Bernard Shaw et al.

He played Henry Higgins in Bernard Shaw’s ‘Pygmalion’ – and continued to be respected and revered by all aspiring actors and documentary film commentators who emulated and modulated voices to his style…but none came even close. He was an original. His soft timbre, his gentle movement, his calm attractiveness slayed them all.

Young Alyque emerged as a Director, and cast Zul as Marchbank in Shaw’s ‘Candida’ opposite Usha Amin now Katrak, another stalwart of the English stage.

His repertoire includes Orpheus in Jean Anouih’s ‘Eurydice’ directed by Ebrahim Alkazi – the theatre giant of the National School of Drama.

In 1974, he played Uncle Eugene in Slawomir Mrozek’s ‘Tango’ directed by his son Anmol Vellani in which he showed exceptional talent for comedy, and in 1977 he played the lead in Vaclav Havel’s ‘The Memorandum’ also directed by his son.

I first met Zul in 1969, on the film set of K. Vasudev’s ‘At Five Past Five’ about the Gandhi trial in which I was an extra in the Court scene, and told him that I was getting married to someone from East Africa, Zul told me he had been born in Mombasa. And was so influenced by the African Movement and Jomo Kenyatta, that years later, he wrote ‘No Other Way – The Flaming Spear’, a play on the Mau Mau Uprising against colonial rule in Kenya between 1952 and 1960. Zul produced, directed and acted in the play in the 1950s.

And later he translated it into Hindustani as ‘Africa Jawan Pareshaan’. It was produced by IPTA in the early 1960s (with Shaukat Azmi in the lead) to mark the freedom that African states had achieved. The text of the play is taught as part of the syllabus in Ugandan schools.

Ever since then, the Kaifi Azmi home had been his Juhu home each time he visited the suburbs.

Handsome, gorgeous, gentle Zul never had a vicious word for anyone, nor any malice in him. He had one riveted with his anecdotes. He was never embarrassed to tell us the story of how he used to stammer as a young boy. He was farmed out to live in Japan with his father’s elder brother. His uncle was a cruel man who used to whip him. This childhood trauma caused him to stammer.

It was only after his return to India - where a sympathetic school teacher advised him to participate in the school’s theatre activities that helped him overcome his stammering – and developed his lifelong passion for the dramatic arts.

In his professional life, he never stammered on stage or on the microphone. Sometimes it asserted itself when he was tired or stressed. He regaled us with a story about his stammering. He was once interviewing the Chief Minister of Kerala, E M S Namboodripad, who was a well-known stammerer. At one point, Zul stammered out his question to the Chief Minister, who stammered back, “Are you trying to imitate me?” In reply, Zul stammered, “No. I suffer from the same problem.”

Zul was somewhat of a Lotharia, and had women falling for him all the time. And we have grown up on stories of retaliation akin to Play Misty for me.

But we forgave him everything. And a play can almost be written on his Return to Belvedere Court where many a soirees were held with hospitality that had the table groaning with food!

Today Zul is best remembered for his work in documentary films. Well-known among them are ‘Khajuraho’ and ‘Man in Search of Man’. A large number of these films won national and international awards.

His voice remains memorable on the HMV record featuring Lata Mangeshkar singing from the Gita and Gyaneshwar. HMV resisted paying his professional fees but the Nightingale was adamant. And Zul won the day.. immortalizing him forever on that album!

He became ‘The Voice’, and was known to be Indira Gandhi’s favourite commentator. On October 31, 1984 - the morning Indira Gandhi was assassinated - two mysterious men turned up at his home and insisted that Zul fly to Delhi immediately. No official announcement about her death had yet been made. But there was a chartered plane standing by for Zul.

The Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had left a message that if and when she dies, she would like Zul to do the voice over for her funeral.

And so he did. And now that voice has been silenced forever.