New Delhi: A pregnant scriptwriter who could go into labour any day, a production controller on crutches, a cinematographer with a twisted ankle, and a 24-year-old chainsmoker who wasn’t conventionally good-looking — this was the mismatched motley crew behind a wildly successful Indian Army TV show in the late 1980s. We know it as Fauji, but they experienced it as “hardly getting one night’s sleep in very many months.”
If there was ever a time to revisit Shah Rukh Khan’s origin story, this is probably it — the megastar, who lights up the Burj Khalifa with his name, turned 54 just last week. This year is also significant for his debut on his television in various bittersweet ways — the director of Fauji, Colonel Raj Kumar Kapoor passed away at the age of 87 in April, just a month before the show was to be picked up for digital streaming by Amazon Prime Video.
This year also marked 60 years of Doordarshan — the iconic broadcaster that changed the living room of the average Indian into a self-contained theatre. The 1980s, on the cusp of a liberalisation that was about to change India as we knew it, was also markedly distinct for the diversity of the TV it produced — amid the grandiose reverence of Ramayana and Mahabharata, lanky teenagers smoked cigarettes, chased girls, jumped out of helicopters and made their way through a military bildungsroman previously unseen on screen.
“What made the serial such a sensation was its underlying theme. It was, after all, a coming-of-age story, a precursor of the movie Lakshya, perhaps, with happy-go-lucky boys being whipped into shape to defend the nation,” Chandrima Pal wrote for Scroll’s DD Files in 2015.
“I was young and in college in Bombay at that time, and television itself was such a new concept, soap operas as such didn’t exist, but Fauji did,” says social activist Masooma Ranalvi.
“It was an incredibly fun show, with an energetic vibe, and brings back fond memories of what it felt like to be a younger person back in the 1980s and 1990s.”
Ranalvi also recalls that the show was one of her first exposure to what life might be like in the Indian armed forces. “I don’t have a family with a military background, so Fauji was a light, engaging window into the uniformed world of soldiers.”
And it’s this very lightness — a conscious decision to not take itself too seriously — that seems to be missing from the silver screen today. “See, we didn’t do any nationalist jargon in Fauji,” says Amina Shervani, who wrote, cast and acted in the show (as Kiran Kochar).
“It was about people training to become good professionals in the Army. There was no ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai,’ no ‘Vatan ke khatir marna,’ none of that jingoism was brought in.”
Now, nearly three decades after its release, the landscape of war films and celluloid patriotism has changed with movies like Uri: The Surgical Strike, and the rise of patriotic poster-boy Akshay Kumar — Toilet Ek Prem Katha (2017), Pad Man (2018), Kesari (2019) and Mission Mangal (2019). “It’s sad to see that nobody ever bothered to make adventurous, exciting, unconventional dramas after that,” Shervani says, adding that “it’s 30 years later and India is regressing, it’s so strange to think about.”
Shervani is a story-teller — in the span of half-an-hour, she has taken me back to “the small studio of Loy Mendonsa (of Shankar–Ehsaan–Loy) above his garage at home, where he’d fiddle on his new synthesiser to make the soundtrack for our production”.
Jugaad that almost led to jail & SRK the babysitter
If watched today, the show, which was extensively shot in Delhi, looks like an amateur production at best — the low video quality, excessively dramatic close-ups and boys-whistling-at-women scenes taking you through a social and technological time warp. But the fact is, for its time, Fauji “was an extremely expensive show to create”, Shervani says, adding that it cost about Rs 2 lakh per episode to shoot.
Battling a four-year delay in the launch of its pilot, the cast and crew of Fauji finally got together in 1988 to push for an early release the following year. After procuring the necessary permission from the Ministry of Defence, Doordarshan and the authorities at the Army headquarters, the small team scraped together their various talents and resources to pull this off — once, almost leading to Shervani going to jail.
“I remember the Army was supposed to give us sten guns and other equipment to use, but they didn’t let us touch anything. So, I flirted with a commando to steal a broken, defunct sten gun, and made a mould of it,” Shervani laughs.
“We made 12 aluminium moulds that looked quite real. And one day, I was carrying them back to set in an auto and the cops stopped me, and there I was — with 12 real-looking guns in a sack.”
A police van was called. “Isse arrest karo (Arrest him),” the cops exclaimed, and because Fauji hadn’t even launched then, no one quite believed that Shervani was making a show. “Fortunately, we had done films for the Delhi Police before that, so the Police Commissioner knew what we were actually up to.”
Significant features of the rest of the show also relied on last-minute jugaad. Give that Punjab was in the midsle of a violent insurgency, any fuel for demolition and explosion scenes had to be provided by Shah Rukh Khan’s late mother Lateef Fatima, who owned a kerosene company at the time. Even the dynamite was sourced from art-school friends with stone and mica mining contracts in the Aravalis, “so that we could make our own bombs”.
In the midst of this mayhem, Shervani gave birth to her child on July 19, “bringing a three-day-old baby to set; Shah Rukh and Vikram (Chopra) would babysit in between takes”, she reminisces.
The making of Shah Rukh Khan
With a net worth of around Rs 5,100 crore (2018) and close to 100 Bollywood movies under his belt, SRK needs no introduction today. In 1989, however, “Shah Rukh had this hair that he wouldn’t cut, he would keep smoking, and his mother was worried that nothing would come of his passion for theatre”, Shervani says.
“He was in and out of our homes, his mother told me ‘Iss ka kuch kardo, na toh yeh padhta hai, nah toh yeh likhta hai, bas din bhar cigarette peeta hai aur theatre karta rehta hai‘ (Please do something about this one, he does nothing, doesn’t study, just smokes cigarettes all day and does theatre”. “I had just had my baby, and now I was raising another one on set.”
What many don’t know is that Shah Rukh Khan wasn’t supposed to be the lead of Fauji at all, “but the camera chose him because it simply loved the boy,” Colonel Kapoor once said in an interview.
“There was romance, intrigue, humour, cute boys, action, and of course, there was Shah Rukh Khan, but at the time, he wasn’t yet Shah Rukh Khan,” Ranalvi reminisces. “But there was something incredibly appealing about him — his raw energy perhaps — and people took an instant liking to him. I still remember that bounciness, that vibe of SRK, and so I’d look forward to watching that show every week.”
“He thinks of his Fauji days as the first time he was really recognised for being an actor,” Anupama Chopra, noted film critic and author of King Of Bollywood: Shah Rukh Khan and the Seductive World of Indian Cinema, tells ThePrint. “He would tell me about how he would be going by on his motorbike and people would shout ‘Hey Fauji!,’ instead of his name.”
However, over the years, this close camaraderie didn’t hold. Fauji was wrapped up in 13 episodes, Shah Rukh Khan continued to climb the ladder of success and Shervani, who married Colonel Kapoor’s son Milind, diversified into other kinds of activism and film-making. Today, she is deeply disillusioned with the man who was once her child on set. “Shah Rukh played really filthy with us by the end of it,” she says. “He floated the idea of making Fauji 2, but he didn’t buy the rights from us, didn’t bother to call us or involve us. I’m not sure how he ended up getting the rights, perhaps Col Kapoor sold it to him, but it’s deeply hurtful.”
Things have changed beyond personal equations, too, be it in terms of the jingoistic tone and tenor of the way the forces are portrayed in popular culture today, or the slicker production values of spy versus spy movies like War. But for the Fauji generation, Colonel Narayanan’s “Koi shak ya sawal?” and commando Varun’s ‘I say, chaps!” are the light-hearted echoes of “How’s the josh” from 30 years ago.