Ever since I consigned myself to Mumbai life after graduating from the FTII in 1992, the city has been a dungeon for me. Multiple efforts to break free have failed. Finally, after 18 years of incarceration I finally broke the chains and decided to go to New York for a screenplay writing course at the New York Film Academy (NYFA). With boarding and lodging logistics sorted, I had a four month stay in NYC all worked out and was so looking forward to it. This was sometime in 2010.
But most importantly, I was raring to go in the city of Woody Allen. Yes, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Hannah And Her Sisters, Alice and Annie Hall had happened to me. I also realized that a neurotic Allen in New York was so close to a neurotic Mumbaiker. Woody Allen for me encapsulated all that I was going through and all that I wanted to ever depict in a film. He was a new God one had started to follow. And then with Manhattan, the film sealed Woody Allen for me. An absolute masterpiece and my personal favourite, Manhattan left me gaping. And I was super excited to be in Woody Allen’s Manhattan – wanting to experience every street, every apartment, every diner and every cinema. This was the city the master had refused to leave to attend Cannes Film Festival and the great Godard had come all the way to New York to interview Allen. Mr Allen had redefined the promise of NYC for me. I must confess I arrived at JFK in awe of Allen and determined to meet him somehow. I have no clue where my determination came from. Several e-mails to his office and agent were dispatched. I never got any reply. One had heard that he plays the clarinet at a Manhattan pub but which one exactly no one around me had any clue.
At NYFA, I was almost scorned for being a Woody Allen admirer. After all, he stands for everything that is NOT Hollywood. A filmmaker whose films talk a lot hence not cinematic enough. A man obsessed with the prototype of a child woman hence not approved by feminists and of course, the Americans have never pardoned him for the Mia Farrow scandal. My script pages were mostly marked in red with the remark, ‘too Woody Allenesque,’ and I had to rewrite and rewrite more. But even as I went through the pangs of writing my script, I never gave up on meeting Woody Allen. Not one teacher at NYFA knew where Mr Allen plays or where his office was. Some said he had migrated to Europe. I walked through the entire Central Park twice just hoping to see the great man walk. It seemed all futile and maybe even naive and silly but somewhereI was sure that I was not leaving New York without at least a glimpse of Mr Allen.
And then one day, I bump into a Turkish-German Indophile. Lo and behold, he turns out to be a Woody Allen enthusiast who never misses an opportunity to see Allen playing the clarinet for a Jazz Band at Hotel Carlyle, where he played every Monday. December 27, 2010 was the last Monday of the year and the last time Woody Allen would be playing there for some months to come. I knew I had to make it. The man at the box office at the Carlyle declared only bar stool tickets were available. I did not think twice and went for the $110 ticket. This was my last chance to see the man and no way was I going to let it go.
New York had a white Christmas that year and Manhattan was covered with snow. In a borrowed suit (yes, there was a strict dress code), I was at the Carlyle entrance at 5 PM sharp to be the first in the queue for the performance. Greedily, I wanted to sit at a vantage point and absorb the master play jazz. Needless to say, the bar was sold out.
And then in walked the man, the filmmaker, the auteur, who till that moment, I had only seen on screen back in India. There he was there in flesh and blood in front of me in his crumpled corduroys with the trade mark narrow leather belt and cotton shirt. And as he played, Woody Allen was easily the piped piper of the evening. But I have to confess that to me his presence and his cinema were more mesmerizing than his music though I have to admit he plays the clarinet very well.
I am otherwise a reluctant photographer but that was a different evening. All of woody Allen’s 90 minute performance I spent clicking pictures. I wanted to capture the master in all his moods and expressions.
Once the performance was over, the members of the audience all rushed for a photo opportunity towards the back exit. A Japanese family, a New York couple and some Brazilians were thronging him. He asked his friend and her family to wait for him. I opened the book I was carrying for his autograph and quietly announced my name. “I am sorry I can’t personalize it.” Woody Allen replied as he signed the autograph. Me: “We study your films in India, at the Film School.” Woody Allen: “Oh really?!” And the master walked away, as I struggled to click a picture with him. There was excitement all around. Everyone was sharing the few words Mr Allen had with them and showing off their autographs. It was a moment for posterity for all of us and each one of us were not prepared to let go of the evening.
I was smiling from ear to ear. My first trip to a foreign land was heady enough. There I found myself standing in front of Van Gogh’s Starry Starry Night, The New York Philharmonic, The Broadway Musicals, R&B at Harlem’s Cotton Club, Bobby McFerrin live, watching Al Pacino as Shylock from the 4th row and I had thought New York has offered me all that it had to but the ultimate experience of meeting Woody Allen in the flesh remains right at the top of my list. As my host in NYC said, the intensity of my desire to meet Woody Allen saw the wish come through.
Thank you New York. But more importantly, thank you Woody.
Sharad Raj is a filmmaker based in Mumbai.
Header photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons