N. N. SIPPY - ACTION!by Aparajita Krishna August 10 2021, 12:00 am Estimated Reading Time: 16 mins, 41 secs
In a cool chat with Producer Pravesh Sippy and his sister Shabnam Pillai, Aparajita Krishna scans the history of N. N. Sippy Productions from its first film to where the production house is at present.
Say ‘N. N. Sippy Action!’ and a roll call of films roll out across genres! Superhits, hits make a big count as one attempts a career stock-taking of this very noted film producer, distributor, financer, some 15 years after his passing away at the age of 75.
To the young generation of 2021, the man behind some of the major film hits of the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s may or may not ring a bell. So all the more reason to reprise his filmography and celebrate those times and its contribution. His career straddled different eras of films and filmmaking. He backed subjects of different genres: fantasy, suspense, drama and action. Across the genres his films played with hit songs.
Shabnam Pillai, the eldest daughter of N. N. Sippy and son Pravesh Sippy contribute to this recall that is both personal and professional.
To start from the beginning. Many Sindhis got into film production and distribution back in the 1940s, 1950s. After India's partition, N. N. Sippy moved to Bombay, where he completed his college degree while working in the film industry. A formal education gave him the self-confidence that helped him deal with the wounds of partition, he later said. Any family memory-talks that you have heard through word of mouth?
Shabnam Pillai: Where do I start and what do I say about the best dad ever? He was totally ethical in his work. He learnt it all the hard way, hands on, complete dedication to the craft. So, let’s go back to his childhood. He was born in Hyderabad, Sindh and was the fifth born among his siblings.
My granddad was also N.N. Sippy. He was a distributor and theater owner. My dad used to go to his office and work on accounts after school. All was smooth until the partition happened. So they reached here (India) and dad started studying morning classes at Jai Hind College, Bombay, and interned with Mr. Munim (Tina Munim Ambani’s dad) in the account section. Mr. Munim was associated with Guru Dutt ji and dad would go for shoots and ditto with Dev Saab. He was associated with Baazi, Taxi Driver etc. Finally he tried to become independent. He and mom already had us, three daughters, by then. My brother Pravesh Sippy came later.
Pravesh Sippy: My grandfather was a distributor in Hyderabad, Sindh. Then they moved to Karachi where he also got into exhibition, but then partition happened and overnight as refugees they were in India. Babubhai Munim, Tina Ambani’s father, took him under his wing and set him up in Bhusawal, and he worked as a distributor representative travelling to centres, monitoring and taking stock of collection reports etc. That was the start of my grandfather’s presence in the movie business much before I was born.
As a producer N.N. Sippy’s first film was Qatil (1960), a swashbuckling fantasy drama like Robinhood that starred Premnath and Chitra with Mohammed Husain as director. His second film was another fantasy named Rooplekha (1962), with the director of his first venture and Mahipal in the lead. Did both the films do well?
Pravesh Sippy: Yes they did and that is how he had the resources to get into distribution and think bigger to move on to Woh Kaun Thi?
Shabnam Pillai: In 1957 he started Qatil with Premnath ji and Chitra ji as the heroine. It took him about three years to complete and release it. Next he started Rooplekha, which had Mahipal ji and Vijaya Chaudhri as the lead cast. Right from the first film he introduced newcomers in every film, irrespective of the different departments. His cast and crew were also always repeated.
He is said to have worked with Guru Dutt before he was hailed as a legend. Which film?
Pravesh Sippy: Around 1955-56 Guru Dutt had an office in Eastern Studios, Worli (opposite where Ramnord Studios existed until recently). My father worked as a typist and production manager on a film called Fareb, which featured Kishore Kumar.
He did not get stuck to the fantasy genre and experimented. The two-hallmark mystery, thriller genre films with most melodious and experimental music were, Woh Kaun Thi (1964), directed by Raj Khosla and music composer Madan Mohan, lyrics were written by Raja Mehdi Ali Khan. And Gumnaam (1965), directed by Raja Nawathe and music composer Shankar-Jaikishan, lyrics were penned by Hasrat Jaipuri, Shailendra - based on Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. These two films remain references even in the present. Woh Kaun Thi won three Filmfare Awards: Best cinematography, Best Actress and Best Music.
Shabnam Pillai: About Woh Kaun Thi, so many stories are told. There were many highs and lows in his career. For example Madan Mohan not getting the Filmfare award for Who Kaun Thi. ‘Lag Ja Gale’ is still an anthem for every newcomer. If they haven’t sung it for a reality show or weddings or for cover versions then they have not arrived.
Pravesh Sippy: I was one-year-old then - my first visit to a set-on-location in Goa with some great talent. I still have a terrific relationship with Mr. Manoj Kumar.
Shabnam Pillai: Next on the anvil was Gumnaam. Then came Shatranj (1969), in which he collaborated with the bigwig of the South, Vasu Saab (SS Vasan). After Shatranj he also concentrated on his distribution firm - Janta Film Distributors - for a few years. He then started Paras and then with a little gap Haarjeet. I started working with him then. I was of course put through the grind. ‘Go wake up Sanjeev Kumar and see that he is ready and reaches the sets on time and sticks to his diet’, ‘Sweep the stage,’ so on and so forth.
The 1970s saw a spate of N. N. Sippy productions. Most did very well. Paras (1971), headlining Sanjeev Kumar, Rakhee and Shatrughan Sinha, Haar Jeet (1972) with Rehana Sultan, Anil Dhawan, and Fakira (1976) with Shashi Kapoor, Shabana Azmi were films directed by CP Dixit. Chor Machaye Shor (1974) with Shashi Kapoor and Mumtaz was directed by Ashok Roy, Kalicharan (1976) starring Shatrughan Sinha, Reena Roy and Premnath, was directed by Subhash Ghai, Devata (1978) with cast led by Sanjeev Kumar, Shabana Azmi, Sarika was directed by S Ramanathan, Ghar (1978) was director Manick Chatterjee’s film with Rekha and Vinod Mehra, Sargam (1979) with Rishi Kapoor and Jaya Prada was helmed by director K Vishwanath. It is a wonderful list of assorted subjects. Most of the music was chartbusting.
Shabnam Pillai: Then he decided he would launch three to four films within a few months of each other. So started Chor Machaye Shor, Fakira, Ghar, Kalicharan, Phir Wahi Raat etc. Only he had the guts to give Shatrughan Sinha a villain’s role and then a few years down the line also make him a hero. Only he could give Sanjeev Kumar shorts to wear with a singlet and then dress him in a three-piece suit. Only he could decide to make Rehana Sultan wear saris when she was then known for being scantily dressed in her films. Each film of his had a different story to tell.
He gave a break to Mr. Subhash Ghai as director in Kalicharan (1976).
Pravesh Sippy: Kalicharan defined their relationship. It was unlike what we have in our filmmaking community. The trust, the encouragement, the support, getting things done, to nurturing and backing Mr. Ghai continuously while allowing him his independence was the essence of that relationship! It was unlike today’s multiple film contractual obligations that are enforced.
Before Kalicharan multiple stories were not acceptable. Mr. Ghai ran out of subjects and found a back entry for the umpteenth time using the good offices of my mother - she requested my father to give him one last chance and he came over to narrate Kalicharan - a script that had been rejected by several top-notch directors/producers like Prakash Mehra. The rest is history. Then several movies later, during which they were associated as distributor or financier or both, came the film Hero. I was an assistant at the Waman Guru editors. I happened to work closely with Waman Saab and would sit in on sessions when Mr. Ghai came to the edit suite. I learnt a lot. What I learnt most was that the film and with it also Jackie Shroff were going to be super hits.
I would come home every night and urge my father to reach out to Mr. Ghai and acquire Hero for distribution. The rest is History. Here started a personal equation with Mr. Ghai and myself. I had grown up. During the making of Kalicharan, I was 12 years old and in 1984 I had brought them together and a blockbuster into the organization. I urged my father yet again to ask Mr. Ghai, who was by now established with his own production house and had stopped doing films outside of it, to come in as a director for hire. Mr. Ghai showed immense grace in coming over for dinner and it took him an instant to say ‘YES let’s do a film for the N. N. Sippy banner again’.
We had the Meri Jung script. We were working with Javed Saab (Javed Akhtar) then on Arjun and Joshilaay as distributors and financiers. We all agreed to reach out to Mr. Bachchan. That was not destined to happen but Anil Kapoor’s life was about to change for the better. What’s interesting for me is that my father asked Mr. Ghai to execute the production as well and deliver the film. But it had me walk straight onto the battlefield, dealing with production - my first film and a credit of Associate Producer.
How did Mr. N. N. Sippy process and deliver his work? He obviously had a keen ear for music.
Pravesh Sippy: Yes he worked very hard on the music. He inspired the team to give its best. Such was his charisma. In Sargam, in the original situation, Jaya Prada imagines the hero to be her lord and worships him and garlands him head to toe in typical southern style. But dad insisted on the song Dafli Wale Dafli Baja, which Mr. K Viswanath was vehemently opposed to.
Shabnam Pillai: Sargam (1979) celebrated a golden Jubilee.
The 1980s and 1990s also saw N. N. Sippy or Pravesh Sippy produce and co-produce assorted films, which were of different makes. The trend was changing. Phir Wohi Raat (1980) and Ghazab (1982) directed by CP Dixit and starring Dharmendra and Rekha, Meri Jung (1985) directed by Subhash Ghai starring Anil Kapoor, Meenakshi Sheshadri and Nutan), Aag Se Khelenge (1989) directed by Bhaskar Shetty and starring Jeetendra, Anil Kapoor and Meenakshi Sheshadri), Aaj Ka Goondaraaj (1992) directed by Ravi Raja and starring Chiranjeevi, Meenakshi Sheshadri and Raj Babbar, Teesra Kaun (1994) directed by Partho Ghosh and starring Mithun Chakraborty and Chunky Pandey, Daayara (1996) directed by Amol Palekar and starring Nirmal Pandey and Sonali Kulkarni, Silsila Hai Pyaar Ka (1996) directed by Shrabani Deodhar and starring Chandrachur Singh and Karisma Kapoor. These films were a mixed bag. How did he keep up with the times? Did he feel that working in the industry had changed?
Shabnam Pillai: The small and big ones were flowing smoothly. Then came Aag Se Khelenge, Daayra, Ghazab, Meri Jung, Tesra Kaun, Aaj Ka Goondaraj and Silsila Hai Pyaar Ka.
Pravesh Sippy: Aaj Ka Goonda Raaj happened quickly - we saw the original in Telugu titled Gangleader and two days later were in Chennai. Having acquired the rights, we met Mr. Chiranjeevi and started the project with a completion date scheduled. It went on with swish precision and we had a blockbuster out.
Aag Se Khelenge was ill fated and had several hiccups - mainly with the demise of the young director Bhaskar Shetty, which threw the film off track in many ways. Then bringing it back together under compromised circumstances was only due to good will and herculean efforts. Teesra Kaun also has a story - we actually had a fantastic script by Laxmikant Sharma, which was to feature Mithun and Sridevi. The climax was not satisfactory on paper and my father decided to drop the film and let go of the dates. Mithunda honored his commitment to doing a film for the banner. Dad distributed Mrigaya and they had a great relationship thereafter. And a quick turn-around happened. ‘Let’s make some money with a commercial project’, was the spirit of the trend in those days and this film was quickly set up.
Two blockbusters we missed out on - luck was not on our side in these times - Daag The Fire with Raaj Kanwar was our film with Ajay Devgn, Rishi Kapoor and Madhuri. Let’s not get into what happened. It did not work for us. That’s the key statement. And Tezaab with N Chandra was ours and Sachin Bhowmick wrote it for us. Again, a story of changing times - let’s leave it at the fact that N Chandra went on to make it for himself.
The relative non-success of Silsila Hai Pyar Ka at the end of his career - had more to do with happenings off screen - disturbed him considerably so yes he was affected by it in many ways through the process and entire journey. Times had changed. He found it difficult to deal with it, as he was not allowed to take control like he was used to doing. It was about the circumstances more than any individual.
He is said to be the kind of a producer who never interfered or forced his vision on his directors. That must have been such a blessing for the directors.
Pravesh Sippy: No he never interfered or crossed the line on the set. He was thorough in the office and knew the shot breakdown and all requirements etc., in advance and once approved expected them to deliver on set. He stood with a keen eye to ensure they adhered to what was discussed and nothing went unnoticed by his sharp eyes. He certainly took control on the edit - it was understood that the producer’s cut would be the final cut over the director’s, but he would not cross the line. He would discuss and get the director convinced on his point of view. He rarely had discord with his directors on anything at any time. It was a healthy respectful relationship he maintained with all of them.
Shabnam Pillai: He was a very fair person. In fact generous to a fault, but would not tolerate laxity at any cost. He would be the first to arrive at the studios. Most of the time there would be no one to even open the door. All his work was mapped in his brain. He knew exactly what he wanted and why. He would sit out the nights with the editors and he had a very keen ear for music. He would stop the recording if even one beat went awry. Everything was discussed, rehearsed well in advance.
Which were his films closest to him till the end and the stars? He passed away in 2006 at the age of 75. His passion must have stayed with him till the end.
Pravesh Sippy: I believe he was equally passionate and proud of every single film he was involved with, in whatever capacity. He was gutsy, visionary, passionate and a gambler. Shatranj was the first co-production back then (Gemini Studios and he collaborated) and it was made at a budget of Rs 1 Crore. He believed in himself, therefore a film like Chor Machaye Shor was made - who else would have the courage to make a film with a flop hero, flop director, new music director and other such combinations that the trade perceived as negative forces.
Every film has stories that distinctly are to his credit - he was self-made. He took the responsibility and hence the success and failure was attributed to him, as everyone knew he did exactly as he had wanted to. He made films on his terms, released it on his terms. He was Hon. Treasurer of Film Federation of India (FFI), on the executive committee Indian Motion Picture Producers Association (IMPAA) and President for 20 consecutive years of Indian Motion Picture Directors Association (IMPDA).
Shabnam Pillai: Working with Nutanji was a high for him, or giving Rekha one of the best music scores in Ghar. He knew every stitch and color of his film costumes and sets. He would flesh out the pronunciation of the dialogues to the T.
He taught my brother Pravesh and me to never waste a producer’s time and money especially with stupid excuses like a costume is not ready or an artiste has not come because someone forgot to inform him or her of the change in timing. Also no one was sent hungry from his sets. Nobody’s problems were ignored either. Someone’s angst had to be listened to and a solution found in a meeting held once a week. I am so proud that he got the Dadasaheb Phalke Award amongst many others. His relationship with each artist was perfect. At all the times I was his shadow and so I can say that I’ve never heard any artist say anything unbecoming about him. Our home was an open house.
Those were simple days of making films - methodical in their own way. Happy outdoor holiday shoots. Single shifts. Play games after pack-up, have musical evenings. He picked up talented newcomers from everywhere, from out of the blue. Each of them would get repeated even if some came back to the fold after years.
Mr. Pravesh Sippy, one gathers that after studying film at the San Francisco Art Institute and assisting the renowned editor duo Waman-Guru, you produced 5 Hindi films. You also forayed into international co-production ventures. Do inform of your plans for the future in relation to your father’s legacy.
Pravesh Sippy: We are continuing to make high quality content. The library has been upgraded into 4k to cater to changing times and what is the need of the hour. The films are in circulation on premium channels and will remain in circulation for a long time - you can always see our films on an OTT, TV Channel and Internet - on some reputed platforms. The negatives and other memorabilia are deposited at the Film Heritage Foundation, an international foundation that restores, preserves and stores material in very scientific and qualitative ways. So yes our films will be alive and available for non-commercial purposes in a pristine manner for a long time. This foundation has Mr. Amitabh Bachchan, Christopher Nolan, Martin Scorsese and such names supporting it.
Currently, a film produced by us, The River of Love, has won 16 awards and is still in the circuit garnering reputation and accolades and some business has been initiated. This film has been affected by the pandemic. France theatrical release is pending subject to their lockdowns even though the film was delivered earlier this year. I am the Executive Producer on a very important film, The Invisible Visible - (Ek Koshish), directed by 6 time National award winning director Kireet Khurana. This is going to rattle a few for sure and we hope to make people aware of the plight of the homeless.
Shabnam Pillai: At the end I would say, “RIP Dad. You are missed. Hope you and your friends (up there) are making the likes of Devata, with you telling Hari Bhai (Sanjeev Kumar) ‘Hari, kale 10 waage aavanu che’. And Hari Bhai saying ‘Nariiiiiii!’” But he would be there at even 4am for a sunrise shot if need be. And I hope he and Panchamda are making music, or, he and all his friends are laughing as they look down at us from heaven.