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When Kidar Sharma went to Hollywood

On his 107th birth anniversary (12 April), we revisit Kidar Sharma's journey as part of the first delegation from India to Hollywood and England in 1945 to learn from legends like Walt Disney and Cecil B DeMille.

Sonal Pandya

Director of films like Chitralekha (1941), Arman (1942) and Vish Kanya (1943), Kidar Sharma was brought over to Bombay from Calcutta by Ranjit Movietone's boss Chandulal Shah. Soon after the Second World War, a delegation of the Indian film industry was formed to visit the British and American film industries. Sharma was part of the five-member team which also had Sundar Rajan, Roop K Shorey, PN Roy and KS Hirlekar. Roy, however, returned early after visiting England.

In his biography, The One and Lonely Kidar Sharma, the filmmaker recounted his momentous yet harrowing journey abroad at a time when his youngest child, Ashok, also known as Billy, was in hospital with diphtheria. At that time, Bombay did not even have a formal air terminal. Passengers had to come to the hangar at the old Juhu airport and check if the weather conditions were favourable for travel.

Sharma recalled in the book, 'The air journey was very uncomfortable. There were only about sixteen passengers in the plane and we were seated on a bench, as one sits on a railway train. Eight on either side facing each other. The plane had to land several times to fill gas, before we were to reach London. We hit many air pockets as we flew over the hot desert, the plane plunging several hundred feet, like an elevator out of control.'

Kidar Sharma faced many difficulties finding vegetarian food in London. As it is, rations were scarce and food was expensive at the time. He watched several English movies there and was present for the filming of Caesar And Cleopatra (1945), starring Vivien Leigh and Claude Rains and directed by Gabriel Pascal at the famous Pinewood Studios. The delegation furthered their education, meeting technicians and directors.

Sundar Rajan, KS Hirlekar, Kidar Sharma and
Roop K Shorey with an American studio executive.
Courtesy: Bluejay Books

After England, the delegation travelled to America. Kidar Sharma decided to stay in New York for a few days, living at the luxurious Waldorf Astoria Hotel, before joining the others in California. He toured some of the Hollywood studios under the tutelage of Universal's chief cinematographer, Irving Glassberg. The delegation also met filmmaker Cecil B DeMille, who talked about his landmark film, The Ten Commandments (1923), which he later remade as a talkie in 1956.

Cecil B DeMille with Rajan and Sharma. Courtesy: Bluejay Books

Kidar Sharma, who was known for his wit, couldn’t resist teasing the famous director for a bit. When DeMille was going on about his accomplishments, Sharma chimed in, "But you also rested on Sunday?" To which the American filmmaker smiled and hugged him, replying, "Mr Sharma, we were told that Indians are only good at snake charming and know very little about literature. But you surprise me. How many people in your industry have the same skill and humour as yourself?" Kidar Sharma then told Demille about his friends and colleagues Prithviraj Kapoor, Debaki Bose and Chandulal Shah.

Sharma came away from the international trip feeling impressed, especially with the professional attitude of the actors and actresses in England and Hollywood. Actor Ray Milland, the Academy Award-winner on The Lost Weekend (1945), would show up on the sets early in the morning for a noon call time.

Kidar Sharma also met Walt Disney, and the great showman and cartoonist gave him an autographed drawing of Bambi. Sharma recounted that Disney told him, "Mr Sharma, I do not believe in reincarnation, but somehow I feel we were once brothers."

Walt Disney's autograph for Kidar Sharma. Courtesy: Bluejay Books

The trip changed Kidar Sharma’s worldview as he returned home armed with a lot more knowledge and newfound experience of the international ways of filmmaking. He even brought back a projection machine from Paramount Studios with twin projectors that synchronized and sharpened the image. However, he found that his employer, Chandulal Shah, was severely in debt owing to his gambling habit and had mortgaged the studio to honour his debts. The machine, sadly, remained at customs.

The delegation’s trip was reviewed by FilmIndia magazine. Editor Baburao Patel’s ‘Bombay Calling’ column, written under the pen name Judas, constantly picked on Sharma’s distinctive voice, calling it feminine, and strongly insinuated that he was a mediocre director for Ranjit Movietone in his Q&A with readers.

Patel's November 1945 column, under the heading, ‘You’ll Hardly Believe’, stated:

That Kedar (sic) Sharma has returned to India after a cup of tea with Cecil B. De Mille in Hollywood and now all Ranjit pictures in future will have the Hollywood finish in sex and spectacle.

That Sardar Chandulal Shah has decided to close down the Ranjit studios for three months to enable the entire staff to hear Kedar (sic) Sharma’s yarns from overseas now in an internationally sexy voice.

That Walli-a-la-Mumtaz, HMV Chaturbhuj and Marwari Indra have not a dog’s chance now, for a period of three months, to catch the Sardar’s ear, as both the ears will be held tight by the little Kedar (sic).

That the Sardar should not be surprised to hear that there is not one like Kedar (sic) Sharma in the whole of Hollywood. How can you get that size and that voice together?

That Walt Disney was so fed up with his Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck that he was on the verge of suicide when the Indian ‘Experts’ visited him. Seeing Hirlekar he decided to live again and now we shall get Disney Cartoons of Hirlekar in place of Mickey Mouse and Kedar (sic) will officiate for Donald Duck.

That Walt Disney was so thrilled with the strange phenomenon of a man having a woman’s voice that he asked Kedar (sic) Sharma to stay back in Hollywood and sell his voice to Snow White.

Well, as the saying goes, you can't win them all.