What do films like Professor (1962), Amrapali (1966), Jhuk Gaya Aasman (1968), Prince (1969), Dulhan Wohi Jo Piya Man Bhaaye (1977) and Agar Tum Na Hote (1983) have in common? Very little in terms of genre, plot, budget, stars and storyline but more importantly, they were all directed by Lekh Tandon who gave more than fifty years of his life to the Indian film industry.
Born on Februaray 13, 1929 in Lahore, Tandon stepped into films differently. His father was a close friend of Prithviraj Kapoor and his brother, Yograj Tandon, was Prithviraj Kapoor’s secretary and a director. It was Prithviraj who encouraged him to enter the film line and Lekh was inspired enough to take his advice. He joined Prithviraj Kapoor’s son, Raj Kapoor, as an assistant director in the 1950s. Tandon always acknowledged that it was from Raj Kapoor that he picked up the elements of filmmaking. In an interview given to The Hindu in 2011, he recalled, “Raj Kapoor was never an autocrat at work. Though he was firm on his convictions, he always took suggestions from his assistants and even implemented many of them giving due credit to each. Working at RK was like a school as well as college for me regarding cinema direction.”
Tandon finally got his first independent break as a director with producer FC Mehra’s Professor, starring Shammi Kapoor and newcomer Kalpana. The film was scripted by Tandon’s good friend, Abrar Alvi, who had written it originally sometime around 1960 for Guru Dutt to produce, Shashi Bhushan to direct and Kishore Kumar and Waheeda Rehman to star. Guru Dutt had even announced the film as the story of a man too young to be a teacher and too old to love. But it never took off. Professor was an extremely enjoyable comedy which stands out as a milestone film in Shammi Kapoor’s career. He has great fun with his two avatars in the film – the youngster who romances the leading lady and the older professor in disguise who is hilariously courted by the girl’s strict aunt (Lalita Pawar)! The Filmfare Award winning music by Shankar-Jaikishan was another major reason for the film’s success with some extremely catchy compositions like Ae Gulbadan, Main Chali Main Chali, Awaaz Deke Humein Tum Bulao and Khuli Palak Mein Jhoota Gussa among others.
Professor was remade in various languages – in Telugu as both Bhale Mastaru (1969) and Peddinti Alludu (1991), in Tamil as Nadigan (1990) and in Kannada as Gopi Krishna (1992). Shades of the film were also used in the Salman Khan-Madhuri Dixit starrer Dil Tera Aashiq (1993) with a gender twist with Madhuri impersonating an older woman and in David Dhawan’s Haseena Maan Jaayegi (1999) where spinster Aroona Irani falls in love with the ‘older’ Govinda.
Tandon’s follow up film was the grand period drama, Amrapali, also produced by FC Mehra. It was Vyjayanthimala’s dream role and she gave it her all in the titular role as the court dancer of the kingdom of Vaishali. Amrapali, fed up with the futility of war, gives up her love for Ajaatashatru (Sunil Dutt), the king of a rival kingdom, Magadha, and finds solace in the teachings of the Buddha. Though the film was beautifully made with outstanding production design (MR Acharekar), beautiful camerawork (Dwarka Divecha), lovely music (Shankar-Jaikishan) and a great central act by Vyjayanthimala, who also danced divinely, it failed at the box-office. It is said that Oscar winner, Bhanu Athaiya, traveled to the Ajanta Caves, to seek references in Buddhist frescoes of the era, to create the period costumes for the film. Amrapali was India’s official selection for Best Foreign Film for the Academy Awards in 1967 though.
Following the Rajendra Kumar- Saira Banu starrer Jhuk Gaya Aasman, based on the Hollywood film Here Comes Mr Jordan (1941), Tandon reunited with Shammi Kapoor, Vyjayanthimala, FC Mehra and Shankar-Jaikishan for one of his most enduring film, Prince. Shammi Kapoor played the title role of an irresponsible, alcoholic, and womanizing prince, who ultimately sees the error of his ways and redeems himself. The film again had some great music by Shankar-Jaikishan especially the ever popular Badan Pe Sitare Lapete Hue.
However, Lekh Tandon’s biggest hit of his career and a film to remember him by for all time to come was one without big stars or lavish production value. It was the charming domestic drama, Dulhan Wohi Jo Piya Man Bhaaye (1977) with FTII acting alumnus Rameshwari in the central role. This is especially significant if we place this film in the context of films released the same year and how DWJPMB stood out even in the midst of severe competition. Some films released the same year were Manmohan Desai’s Amar Akbar Anthony and Dharam Veer, Nasir Hussain’s Hum Kisise Kum Naheen and the Vinod Khanna-Amjad Khan thriller Inkaar. Not only was the film a golden jubilee hit, but Tandon also shared the Best Screenplay Award from Filmfare the following year sharing it with Vrajendra Gaur and Madhusudan Kalekar. The film was later remade in Tamil as Marumagal (1986).
Tandon’s filmmaking post DWJPMB was disappointing. While he continued to make movies, the only film of his that had some impact was the Rajesh Khanna-Rekha-Raj Babbar starrer, Agar Tum Na Hote (1983). The film was a convincing love triangle with its title song proving extremely popular. It was also one of the films, along with Avtaar and Souten that year, that gave a fresh lease of life to Khanna’s then floundering career.
Fortunately for him, even as his feature film career dipped, Tandon discovered his romance with television and went on to helm umpteen popular serials like Phir Wohi Talaash, Farmaan, Ladaai, Khushi, Kahin Der Na Ho Jaye, Kurukshetra, Yaarana, Milan, Zameer and Aisa Des Hai Mera. He also gave many actors their first break.
Tandon it goes, discovered Shah Rukh Khan, when he cast the young actor in his television serials, Dil Dariya and Doosra Kewal. Recalling his casting of Shah Rukh Khan, in an interview to rediff, Tandon remembered, “When I was making my television serial, Dil Dariya, I had left a message at Sushma Seth’s home that I would like to work with her daughter, Divya. So she sent her daughter to the producer’s house. I was sitting on the verandah. Divya Seth got down from her car and the driver was Shah Rukh Khan. He dropped her off and was leaving when I asked her to call him back. When he arrived, I told him that if he cuts his hair, I would give him work in my serial.He asked, ‘What if I cut my hair and you don’t give me the job?’ I told him to cut his hair and come and we would see. He cut his hair and I gave him a role in Dil Dariya… After Dil Dariya, I cast him in Doosra Kewal because he was very talented.”
He later also acted in the Shah Rukh starrers Swades (2004), Paheli (2005) and Chennai Express (2013).
Lekh Tandon passed away with at the ripe old age of 88 in Mumbai on October 15, 2017.