A believer of destiny and a pursuer of patience, Pahlaj Nihlani is a man who lives to love, laugh and ensure that the Indian cinema evolves to touch greater heights. In the Hindi language, Pahlaj is defined as the first born. As the first born in his family, Pahlaj ensured, time and again, that he was the first one to do things differently, be it home or work.
Even though he came from a generations old yarn business, running from much before the Independence of the country and was born in 1950, he had seen the nationalist fervour and sentiments early-on.(His date of birth needs to be removed. As it claims that the 1954 movie Fun2sh was the first one he marketed.)
His passion for films and music started at a very young age in the heartland of Bollywood: Bombay. An eight-year old Pahlaj saw his first Sindhi film called, ‘Abana’ featuring Sadhana and got mesmerized to the journey that he could be a part of, while looking at the silver screen.
An eight-year old Pahlaj started to watch movies with his school friends. In a busy household like his, he could take money from home without asking anyone and go watch a movie. Till one day, his father found him taking the money and called the act, ‘chori’. An innocent boy he was spanked left, right and centre, making him wonder about the crime he had committed.
(He doesn’t feel about it because this taught him business and he could take care of it when father died. Also, learnt the importance of earning and then following passions)
Next day on, he was asked to accompany the father to work after school and that was to be his life. But, his love for cinema was not to be chained.
The basic learning of Cost Price and Profit inspired him enough to make for his watching films. How? Pahlaj’s first business came about when he started selling snacks to his classmates in school and of what he made, he watched movies for that. “Every day I would buy some sweets and snacks from the shop outside school and sell it to my friends and classmates at a marked up price and that’s where I earned to watch cinema,” an excited Pahlaj explains. “And then I would skip school to watch the 6 am shows of films at Lalbaug’s Jayant Cinema,” he recounts.
These morning shows were for the mill workers and it was here that he saw Madhumati and that was a big impression on his psyche. It was here where he learned early on the flavour of entertainment and how masses perceived cinema.
Destiny played its role and in August 1960 Pahlaj’s father died of cancer when he was about to turn 10. Shaken but undeterred he found himself taking the reign of the business from next day, “The only reason why I could handle the yarn business at that time was because I had been going to work for two years and had learnt the nitty-gritty of the trade. I believe if that accident of being caught taking money to watch films would have not happened then I would have been left clueless at the business and would have been unable to handle it all.”
His father’s towering reputation helped him carry ahead the business and he was greatly supported by his father’s friends and associates. This taught him the relevance and contribution of friends and family in the success of an individual.
With responsibility came independence as he could work, make money and watch movies as he grew. But his time to school was cut significantly and as it did, he raised funds for school and managed to earn attendance in return with charity shows. Dev Anand’s Funtoosh was the first in order which was screened at a theatre and raised money which was parted to the school authorities to help with odd things. Knowingly-unknowingly this was the start of his career in Bollywood at the age of 11. He learned how distribution functioned, how profits of were earned and spread over various costs and added another fleet of film distribution as a wing under his business. Knowingly-unknowingly, he also satisfied his ‘social worker side’ which always wanted to help people, which was later in life going to become a bigger side of his character.
In 1964, he wanted to buy ‘Phool Aur Pathar’ but was highly discouraged by the family. This Dharmender and Meena Kumari starrer was priced at 6Lakhs. In those days, it was a huge sum of money which if went into losses would affect the joint family’s combined finances. He gave in to the pressure at home and didn’t buy the movie for distribution but as the fate would have it, ‘Phool Aur Pathar’ was a huge success.
This made him trust his decisions and instincts far more. With new found confidence, he decided to quit the family home to focus on film distribution as a business. Right then he added another venture of manufacturing polythene bags to expand his prowess. His younger brother Mahesh got involved to give him a helping hand at it.
Soon Nihalani got married to his love of seven years, Neeta in 1973: A yet interesting love story full of passion that ends with fate’s call. The two had dated from school days and kept growing in love, but the two faced resistance as Neeta’s mother was not convinced with their relationship. She kept them from tying the knot. They both went to the same school and Nihalani would usually go on drives around her house. The mother thought he was a loafer but the daughter fell in love with the cute smile and big eyes. She would tell her daughter, “As long as I am alive you can’t marry him.”
Coming from a well to do background, Neeta’s family owned Cinema Halls in Hyderabad Pakistan before partition, and when they came to India, they bought cinema halls in Bombay. But there was a filmy connection in Pahlaj’s life and they had to get together. Destiny took its turn and in 1972, Neeta’s mother left for the heavenly abode. The next year they decided to come together and decided to live happily forever and ever.
So far, Nihalani was still making his niche in the film distribution. He would personally ferry prints of Dara Singh’s action films and other popular releases from Naaz building in Mumbai’s Grant Road neighbourhood, once home to Bollywood’s most powerful distributors and financiers.
Nihalani was blessed with two boys: Vishal and Chirag. True to their name, Vishal brought with him the magnificence and Nihalani launched his first distribution company after his elder son Vishal’s name in 1975. This year the tables turned, as films became his first business and plastic factory took a secondary seat. He sold Hathyara, Chor Sipahi, Jaani Dushman, Muqabla, Asha, Ghayal, among others from 1975 to 1979. All of them went to be super hits. The joint family also expanded into a hospitality business, and started Nagina at Grant Road, Premiere Hotel at Dhobi Taloan. But as recently as 2010 they discontinued operations in both these properties.
In 1979, pulling the producer’s strings he started work on ‘Haathkadi’ which was directed by Surender Mohan, that was Shatrughan Sinha, Rakesh Roshan and Sanjeev Kumar, and Reena Behl. This turned to be a super hit movie but it was not an easy task.
Only after three days of shooting, Sanjeev Kumar suffered a heart attack and refused to not shoot the film given his deteriorating health condition. But Pahlaj was adamant and upon his convincing, Sanjeev Kumar agreed to shoot even though his health was not better. This greatly inspired Pahlaj on work ethics and commitment. He was supremely touched by Kumar as Kumar only took his payment after the movie was done and released.
“It was the encouragement and love from the actors that fuelled me to make films and stick to the same people. You see the team would become a family and would be far more driven for collective success.” A hit after another hit and Nihalani’s card in Bollywood started to shine. Like the sheen of the gold, he touched actors and made them stars that shone to the best of their glitz and glamour. With this third film, Illzam in 1986, he launched the very versatile and popular Govinda which broke records! Then came another favourite character, Chunky Pandey, whose acting career was launched with the 1987 multi-starer film Aag Hi Aag opposite Neelam Kothari.
In the 1980’s an enterprising Nihalani also founded, Association of Motion Pictures and TV Programme Producers (AMPTPP) which is now renamed as The Indian Film and TV Producers Council (IFTPC) . It is a trade association in India of which Pahlaj was the president for 29 long years!
The one who loves to work behind the camera and keep doing good work, Pahlaj’s interest in social work drew artists to the stage for a charitable purpose. “Before I started this concept, there were only musical nights by Kishore or Rafi. Some for entertainment only, some had a purpose beyond entertainment. I was after that.” It started during the shoot of Aandhi Toofan in 1983, in Nepal. “I was touched by the condition of the police workers there and it was then when we thought of doing something. We set up an artist night and got actors to perform for public. Charged them and gave the benefit to the police there.”
Soon he brought this to his beloved Mumbai and started doing this for the Mumbai Police who has forever been supporting the film industry and making everyone’s lives easier and safer. “We also supported the Tsunami, Orrissa Cyclone, Bhuj Relief Fund, everyone that we could.”
Nihalani explains, “No actor used to charge back then. It was heartfelt charity but now things have changed. The industry only runs on money even in the name of charity. This is unfair. I hate how everything has become a business. There is no art, no love,” laments a die-hard romantic in Nihalani. Inspired by the silver screen and a responsibility towards the society, Nihalani took to the position of the Chairperson at the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC).
Ask him about the controversies around his leadership and he has only one thing to say, “At its apex it is my moral and professional duty to up the standards of films in India. This is how I have lived my life. Working for this industry, ever since I can remember how can I ever do wrong?”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
A development Sector Professional who started her career in journalism with names like TOI and Tehelka. What inspires Megha the most are the stories of people who learned to fight, to make it large. As an editor for India’s Most Inspiring Success Stories, her aim has been to bring out the stories that inspire to aspire. And for her, it has only reaffirmed her faith in dreaming and achieving.