Ace film director Anjali Menon writes on her association with vehicles in her life and films. Smartdrive exclusive.
“What is this obsession with automobiles?” Asked Binduraj.
“Obsession? What obsession?” Asked me.
“The vintage cars, the bikes, the rickety matador and now the Volkswagen minibus!”
“Oh that. You forgot the miniature vehicles.”
“How could I? Tell us about why automobiles enter your stories.”
I told him that it is probably an inherited obsession. And that is where this article started off.
Almost everyone in our family is crazy about vehicles and all of it started with my Achan (father) T.M.Nair. When he arrived in Dubai in 1959 there were very few vehicles around – most of them of British or German origin. Please remember that this was a time in GCC when water was delivered on mules! When the petrol boom came around there was obviously the need for more automobiles. Achan & a friend Abdullah Hassan Rostamani who were both employees of Al-Owais realized the potential of the coming oil boom.
Achan felt strongly that the Middle East would be a great market for automobiles and convinced Mr.Rostamani of the same. Result was that Mr.Rostamani quit his job to start a new business and offered Achan the main position on his team. A lifelong believer in start-ups, Achan took up the job with fierce ambition and coined the company name – Arabian Automobiles. He reached out to the well known company Nissan in Japan and secured the agency representation of Datsun cars in UAE. It was the first time that Japanese cars were arriving in the Middle East. Soon several premium brands like Michelin, Gulf Oil, Castrol, TATA were represented by the group. In Oman, the original BMW dealership deed signed for National Automobiles still carries Achan’s signature.
The other day I overheard some NRI Malayalees have a conversation about the contribution of Malayalees to the growth of UAE and one of them said – “Did you know that it was a Malayalee who brought Japanese cars to GCC– yes, he was called Datsun Nair!” Yes Achan was known that way for many.
As a child I remember visiting Achan’s office, sitting on his rotating chair and circling around – running through the showrooms full of the latest models of cars. Achan believed it is important to show one’s faith in one’s own product so every year the latest Nissan model would be our family car. It would be an exciting time for my brothers & I to go over the features of the car and discover new things. I remember fondly the 120 Y, 280 E, Cedric, Maxima, and other models of our childhood. He would tell us why Japanese cars are most suited for this market for the simplest reason. Unlike Europeans & Americans, the common man here was smaller built – more like the Japanese. When that factor was combined with the economically priced and easy maintenance nature of these models, it made complete sense. Hence it was no surprise at all when the 120Y & later Nissan Sunny became the highest selling model of the market in no time.
In those days Achan would travel to Japan very often staying there for months together. I still treasure the postcards he would send me from Tokyo. From his interactions in Japan in the 80s he became aware that the automobile giant Suzuki was in talks with Sanjay Gandhi for a collaboration of a new low-cost Indo-Japanese model. He was very excited with the prospect and knew well how the success in the GCC model could easily repeat itself in India. Hence he mooted the idea of launching an automobile company in India. He founded Indus Motor Company in Calicut, Kerala, partnering with his long time friend Haji PA Ibrahim. From a small two shutter unit that housed Birla Yamaha generators, Girnar scooters, Escorts Rajdoot, Gulf Oil and some products, Indus grew to be known best for the Indo-Japanese model Maruti-Suzuki that solely ruled the market till late 90s. So when I shifted to Kerala for college it was a shift from Nissan to Maruti!
Karimka from Ustad Hotel has several qualities of my father. Despite setting up so many successful businesses, he was never really motivated by profit. For the longest time every rupee earned from Indus was ploughed back into the company for its growth. He would say – “The greater reward is that we are supporting hundreds of families through the people we employ”. He believed that first generation NRIs who were tax exempt had a duty to help in the growth of the country through investment in private enterprise.
Alongside I grew up with brothers who were avid collectors of Matchbox cars. I was quizzed about the models right through those years! Today when my nephew shows me the same cars and says – “Mema, do you know my father used to play with these cars?” I can only smile and remember how much care I took of those little gems so that my brothers could return from boarding school and play with them – often buffing them and giving some a fresh coat of paint with nail polish. Possibly my love for vintage cars & miniatures comes from those models. For Bangalore Days we managed to collect all the miniatures we needed but it was proving to be impossible to find a motocross bike miniature. Finally I turned to my miniature mentor – my brother… And resourceful as always, he found one!
Right through college days in Pune, bikes were all around and the thrill of a great ride never ceases to amaze! RDs, Royal Enfields, Yezdi and today the more grown up Harley Davidsons can make me go weak in the knees. That scene in Bangalore Days where Dulquer is awed when he visits the vintage motorbike space was exactly my feeling when I visited Vintage collector Dr.Ravi Prakash’s collection in Bangalore. He is the President of the Federation of Historic Vehicles of India and his place is a treasure trove! All our vintage vehicles from Bangalore Days were sourced through him.
When I learnt about motocross racing I was so fascinated that it just had to be in the film. I love the sheer madness of flying bikes in the air! Those riders have real grit and live in the moment of that ride. The bike scenes in Bangalore Days are done without a stunt person. They were real riders on the bikes and they knew what they were doing. I found Dulquer & Fahadh to be similarly obsessed so we had a great time staging those. Santosh CS & Arvind KP, both national champions were real stars for how much they helped us with the shoot. We shot all the practice sessions and a big part of the race on Santosh’s track Big Rock close to Bangalore. I am so thrilled that since then both of them have raced at Dakar Rally and grown to international stature. Some day I want to film the real action on those bikes.
Maybe my upbringing in the midst of all this is why vehicles become important parts of the narrative when I write the stories. In Koode it has been the most crucial because a big part of Joshua’s imagination & “Jenny” springs alive within the van. We had a wonderful time putting it together. I knew the model I wanted but it was proving very difficult to get a van of the early 70s in good condition to drive in the hilly regions. Finally I turned to my husband Vinod Menon who is even more crazy about vehicles and he scourged around the vintage network until he found the perfect vintage van! This van was then restored and our Production Designer Arvind Ashok Kumar & restorer Sajith (Bangalore) took special care about every texture & fitting. While watching the film it may seem easy but for every shot besides the actors and the dog, there were at least 5 more people in the van! The poor van was stuttering by the end of the shoot!
The Volkswagen microbus was is remembered to be the quintessential hippie van of the 70s that signified the roaming gypsy spirit of living in the moment. Since that is an important thought in the film, it seemed the ideal space for Joshua to find a liberated himself/ Jenny.
Most films we see are in some way or the other about travel – from one point to the other. The journey may be physical, psychological, emotional or temporal – but travel it is. And the vehicle is like the medium of the message. Like Marshall McLuhan said, sometimes the medium is the message. Vehicles are a great tool to communicate about their driver/rider.
I am told that such an article cannot be complete without a mention of the vehicle I drive. Well, besides the Nissan & Maruti models other brands have obviously come into the home stables. But my personal favourite is the oldest car in our family… a 15 year old Honda City that my father had gifted me just before he passed away. These vehicles are not just about movement mechanics – they carry with them emotion, feel, association, values and of course memories.
Copyright: Smartdrive magazine, September 2018