He saved my life 61 years ago: Mickey Nivelli
Revered today as the Father of West Indian cinema, Mickey Nivelli aka Harbance Kumar, asks Sunday MiD DAY to trace the family of the man who gave him food and a job when he collapsed from hunger outside Oval Maidan as a homeless pauper in 1952
Half way across the globe, sitting in his plush home next to Times Square in New York, Mickey Nivelli had tears in his eyes when he read SUNDAY MiD DAY’s cover story on his laptop last week. As he read about Syed Mohsen Mirjalili, the rich Iranian youth who was rescued from a footpath in Chembur and reunited with his family by good Samaritans, Nivelli, often referred to as the Dada Saheb Phalke of the West Indies Film industry, was forced to roll back the years and recall his own life story which also began on the streets of Mumbai.
The Indian expat, better known as Harbance Kumar, now in his mid-’70s, is often credited with pioneering the art of filmmaking in the Caribbean, way back in 1969. Maker of noted West Indian movies such as The Right and the Wrong, The Caribbean Fox and Girl from India, the award-winning film maker however has one regret in life — he could never thank the man who saved his life when he was a homeless teenager from Quetta in Pakistan, roaming the streets of Mumbai in search of his next meal.
Hardships in Mumbai
“I was about 15 years old, in 1952. Post Partition, I was forced to leave my home in Quetta (now in Pakistan). Looking for a job, homeless and hungry on the streets of Mumbai, I used to roam around Basant Studios in Chembur, after being promised a job by its owner JBH Wadia. With things moving very slowly, I decided to try my luck at a leading publishing house in South Mumbai. With no money in my pocket, I remember travelling ticketless to Marine Lines station. Mid way through the maidan near Metro Cinema, the days spent without food finally took its toll and I collapsed,” recalls Kumar.
The good Samaritans
Kumar remembers everything going blurry for a while, until he saw a “priest-like figure” standing over him. “The priest lifted me up and asked me what happened. He took me to his house, which was on the second floor of a nearby building, and even before entering, called out to his wife to start preparing something to eat,” he remembers, as if it was yesterday. Regaining his strength after a hearty meal, the topic of conversation moved to his future career plans and his dire economic condition. “The man promptly handed me a note addressed to one of his followers in Chembur, who ran a coffee bean shop. I remember it was on the left side as one goes from RK Studios towards town. The owner respected the priest’s wishes but told me that he could only offer me Rs 5 per week. This was big money back then, enough to ensure I did not go to bed hungry,” he recalls. In a few weeks he finally found a room at the Salvation Army home in Byculla but his duress was far from over. “I soon joined Basant Studios and worked for a few months as a peon and a watchman, but when one of their mega projects produced by Homi Wadia, Rajputani, failed at the box office, the studio suffered huge losses and I was fired. I was just 17 then,” he remembers.
Rags to riches
Luckily, SL Puri, the manager at Filmistan studios, was moved by the plight of the young lad and offered him a job as a junior artiste. Kumar (then known as Mickey Nivelli) even did a cameo in Naseer Hussain’s Tumsa Nahi Dekha, starring the late Shammi Kapoor. By 23, he joined the late Sunil Dutt’s staff, and finally in 1969 moved to the Caribbean where he made history as the Farher of Cinema in the West Indies.
The man with no name
In the years that followed, Kumar made his name and fame. Accolades followed. But even happy reunions would kindle in him that eternal question: Who was his saviour, the man he had forgotten to thank? “Tracing the Salvation Army was easy and I am happy that I could make a sizable donation to them to help the poor. But my dream is to return to India and track down the priest or his family and the coffee bean seller from Chembur. I just cannot recollect their names after 61 years but I owe them my life. My intense desire to meet and thank them personally has been rekindled after reading about the Iranian man in your paper. I hope and pray that MiD DAY and its readers help me fulfil my wish,” he signs off.