Mahanati: Antiques collector reveals how his treasure trove was used to add authenticity to Savitri biopic
Faisal Ali Khan, a Hyderabad-based antiques collector, lent his belongings to the makers of Mahanti for that old world charm
There’s a wave of nostalgia that hits you while watching Nag Ashwin’s Mahanati, the biopic of iconic actress Savitri. It’s not just in terms of how well the team behind the film recreated several classic scenes and songs from Savitri’s filmography, but also the world of Mahanati, which itself is filled with gadgets and props that lend an authentic feel to the whole setting. For instance, the first time Gemini Ganesan meets Savitri at Gemini Studios, he clicks a portrait of her, which eventually leads to a few roles in the beginning of her career.
It’s a crucial scene in the film since it’s the first time that the two characters come face to face. To make it seem more authentic, the team had been looking for a Ross London camera model. A few weeks later, the team chanced upon an instagram account of Faisal Ali Khan, a Hyderabad-based antiques collector who happened to have the original camera which Gemini Ganesan had used in the 1950s. If this isn’t destiny, then I don't know what is. "I had bought that camera several years ago from Gemini Studios in Chennai, but little did I know that it would be used in the film. The amazing part of my association with Mahanati was that I never thought that my passion for antiques will come in handy for a film like this. It was as if I was preparing to play a small part in the making of the film.”
It wasn’t just that particular camera alone from Faisal’s collection that found a place in the film. The 35-year-old antiques collector and interior designer, who was credited under ‘Special Antiques’, brought along scores of old cameras, gramophones, typewriters among many other things which were used throughout the film. Talking about how he got involved in the project, Faisal says, “A friend of mine (Olga Shabelskaya) had shared a photograph of a portable gramophone from my collection, and Priyanka Dutt, one of the producers of Mahanati, chanced upon that picture. Few days later, when we met, Priyanka and her team shared a mood board about all the antiques they were looking for. Surprisingly, I had nearly everything they wanted. And that’s how I got involved.”
Faisal confesses that he has been collecting antiques for the past 20 years, a trait which he picked up from his father who used to collect books and pens, and this is the first time that he has given anyone access to his collection, let alone a film crew. “We didn’t even use 5 per cent of my entire collection,” he laughs. The first camera he ever bought was a Kodak box camera, before he laid his hands on a Linhof Master Technika. “Whatever I used to earn from my work as a graphic designer since class 10th, I’ve invested in buying such antique stuff. In the beginning, I used to buy things for as cheap as Rs 50 or Rs 200 from people who had got them from other people’s homes, before I explored further in flea markets in Hyderabad, Mumbai, and Chennai. One time, I found a boxed piece of Nikon F3HP and Nikon F, which were so rare, that I spent Rs 2.5 lakhs for it after selling my car. My passion had turned into an obsession,” he laughs.
Currently, Faisal has four godowns in Hyderabad that are filled with huge containers consisting of 700 cameras, 60 typewriters, gramophones, and sewing machines among many other things. “After a point, I stopped counting what all I’ve bought over the years. I’m obsessed with the evolution of technology more than the product itself. Every antique piece I’ve has a story of its own and I feel that I can communicate with them. Whenever I look at an old camera, I know all about its history, technology behind it, how it’s supposed to be handled,” Faisal says.
Apart from sharing some of these items for several scenes in the film, he also worked in the art department of Mahanati. “I must give credit to the costume and whole art department for making the scene look authentic. Nowhere have we used something which isn’t from that era. Besides, it’s not enough to place an antique gadget in the hands of an actor. They have to also understand how to use it properly, if you are striving for authenticity. My research over the years came in handy while working on the film. Photographers of the bygone era were highly professional and very precise with their job. Unlike digital photography which gives you the scope to click hundreds of pictures within a few seconds. Back in the early days of photography, they used to get one chance to get it right. Legendary photographers like Raja Deen Dayal, who clicked a lot of portraits of the Nizams, even had a prescription of what they were supposed to eat and do to prepare themselves to pose for a picture. I’ve always been fascinated with the origins and evolution of technology,” Faisal Ali avers.
Ask him if he’s going to open the doors for his collections for other films in future, and he says, “I’m not sure. A lot of these antiques are so rare that if they are mishandled or broken, they can’t be replaced. It’s not about money. The time and effort to fix something is too much and you can’t even find spare parts, or people to repair them so easily. Thankfully, it all worked out well with Mahanati team because I saw how passionate each one of them was about what they were doing. ” So, was there anything from the original list of antiques that the team wanted but couldn’t find in his collection? “Yes! I didn’t have an old style staple punch from the list (laughs),” Faisal Ali Khan signs off.