indian cinema heritage foundation

Knowing Ezra Mir: An Inspiration & A Gentleman

28 Feb, 2024 | Long Features by Auroskanda Vepari
From left to right- Ezra Mir and Mahesh N Vepari

What started as a professional relationship between famous filmmaker Ezra Mir and his lawyer, Mahesh N Vepari, soon grew into a lasting friendship that brought the latter’s whole family close to the inimitable gentleman and bon vivant.

A growing bond
My father, Mahesh N Vepari, was a practicing lawyer in Bombay with his chambers at the Bombay Mutual Building, an imposing art deco building at the intersection of Sir Pherozeshah Mehta Road and Dadabhai Naoroji Road in the Fort area, not far from the city’s principal courts where he usually met his clients. Among his more eclectic clients, was Ezra Mir.  His acquaintance with Mr Mir began at some point in the late 1980s, I reckon.  Like many of his clients, Mr Mir was likely referred by one of his other clients, possibly someone from the film industry or the Jewish community in Bombay who had previously availed his services. 

What began as a professional-client relationship, developed quite quickly into a friendship that brought our entire family close to him.

As a client, my father much appreciated Mr Mir’s custom and enjoyed servicing his legal needs. A thorough gentleman, Mr Mir frequently prompted my father to raise an invoice when even a small piece of work was completed, such as writing a letter on his behalf or such like. And the bills were promptly and diligently settled. In later years, I would see and learn how he looked after his personal staff generously and with consideration.

A few years older to my father, the two men certainly hit it off. Their friendship grew along with the increasing involvement of my father in Mr Mir’s administrative and financial affairs. My father would often recall his meetings with Mr Mir at the family dinner table and it was quite clear that they both enjoyed each other’s company.  

A generous legacy 
A few years into their acquaintance, Mr Mir instructed my father to prepare his will and also nominated him to act as his executor. Other executors nominated by Mr Mir included Bharat Merchant, and Moshe Saltoon, a friend of Mr Mir and a prominent member of Bombay’s Jewish community.  Mr Mir has left a rich legacy of work and significant contributions to the world of films, particularly documentary films in India. Besides this, he was also generous with the charities he supported, his friends and to all who rendered him service.

My father recognised that Mr Mir had confidence in his professional judgement and also placed a great deal of personal trust in him to handle his personal and financial affairs. Often, especially as Mr Mir’s health deteriorated, he relied increasingly on my father for many practical and personal matters which my father was happy to assist him with. 

As his health declined, Mr Mir stopped coming to my father’s chambers and they met mostly at his residence in Heliopolis, Colaba. After business was discussed, Mr Mir would usually call out to his personal attendant and cook in his inimitable and somewhat shrill voice: “Fernandes…saheb ke liye kuch peene ka lao” knowing that my father – mostly a vegetarian and a teetotaller - would very likely not join him for a drink, or partake in the accompanying “murg ka sina”. But it was a good moment to treat himself!

A storyteller with a wicked sense of humour
There is not a lot that I recall about Mr Mir’s early days, other than the fact that he grew up in Calcutta.  I seem to recollect that his father may not have been particularly encouraging of him pursuing a career in films. I remember him speaking about a sister, and he was very fond of her and remembered her often in his later years.

As his friendship with my father developed, Mr Mir began to invite us to visit him as a family. These were evenings my sister and I looked forward to when we were in Bombay during our holidays from school. On these occasions, he would instruct his personal attendant and cook, Mr Fernandes, to prepare a special meal and Mr Mir would regale us with many stories from his travels and adventures in the world of films. He was a funny man, with a wicked sense of humour and mischief, and an enthralling storyteller. 

Among the stories he loved recounting was a story he had written and had wanted to produce into a feature film. I don’t believe he ever made the film, but probably wrote a screenplay for it. He certainly had the screenplay in his mind. I do not remember the story, but the title may have been ‘The Daughter of India’ or something along those lines. He was very fond of the ending and, if I remember correctly, it involved the main female protagonist, an Indian princess, seated in her elephant top ‘howda’, in silhouette, against a setting sun looking forlornly for the hero, riding away on the horizon, and the elephant raising his trunk with a trumpeting sound – which was unfailingly reproduced by Mr Mir!

At home in Heliopolis
His apartment was a sprawling flat in a very distinctive building in an affluent south Bombay neighbourhood.  The building is called Heliopolis, possibly named after its distinctive building style, and is, no doubt, a building of architectural significance in Colaba. His flat on the first floor had many interesting architectural features and a lot of nice furniture. It was also full of photographs and chests of photographs, books, film materials and memorabilia. The flat contained living quarters for his attendant and cook, Mr Fernandes. Fernandes lived there with his daughter, Ms Irene Fernandes and her son. I believe Irene had a day job in the city as a secretary, but she also assisted Mr Mir with administrative tasks and often typed up his letters. Although I seem to recollect he had a typewriter in his room or a table and did type some of his own letters.   

Charmer to the core
While I don’t have many insights into his social life, etc., I seem to recall that he spoke about coming close to getting married a few times. He seemed to have had a colourful life and that seems hardly surprising given his charming manner. I think he left a trail of broken hearts in Hollywood and in India, and some digging might reveal some prominent names! I was too young to pay attention to the important details, unfortunately!

An inspiring journey
I find it fascinating that as a young boy in the early 20th century, growing up in Calcutta, Mr Mir knew about Hollywood and developed an interest to pursue a life in films, notwithstanding his father’s reservations.  The story as I know it is that he won some money at the lottery and bought a one-way passage to America.  He landed initially on the East Coast, then made his way to Los Angeles and found work in Hollywood! Mr Mir’s journey is quite a remarkable story of believing in oneself and taking chances.  

One of the evenings we spent with him, he pointed out a photo of a large crew assembled for a typical group photo with the director and actors at the centre, and a large crew around them. In front of them, two boys were kneeling and holding a slate board between them. One of them was Mr Mir, and the other, he pointed out, was Ronald Reagan. He made friends during this time with Reagan, both young men labouring arduously in their early years in the industry.  The rest, as they say, is history and Reagan went into acting and Mr Mir rose up the ranks in the production chain.

Unfortunately, I have not had the opportunity to watch a lot of his films and work, but having known a little of his personality, I imagine that he brought a new and different perspective to the industry at the time.
Old age and good karma 

With age, his health became increasingly frail and his memory, an unreliable aid. During this period, he rang my father regularly for anything that was worrying him.  Often the issue would be resolved over a conversation on the phone, and sometimes my father would go and see him to talk through his concerns in person.

He missed his late sister. And when he did, he would ring my father requesting him to immediately make enquiries with the police because she had not returned home.  His late sister was married to Mr A Raptakos, one of the two founders of the pharmaceutical business Raptakos Brett & Company.  So he would entreat my father to check in at their Worli offices on his way home, to find out if she was there. He could be quite insistent that no stone be left unturned to find her, and sometimes my father would have to go to his apartment after work and feign calling the police to ease his anxiety.

On another occasion, he suddenly remembered he had deposited some money in a bank account in the US and wanted it back. He handed my father some documentation – remnants of a bank account statement, or deposit slip. As it turned out, the bank itself was no longer in existence. This was a most unusual and daunting request with rather uncertain prospects of recovery. However, after many months of relentless pursuit, and scores of faxes back and forth, the account was finally identified at the successor bank. Mr Mir’s credentials as the beneficiary were presented and approved, and I believe a sum of money was received into his account while he was still alive.

Unfortunately, the number of Mr Mir’s health problems also increased and he soon found himself mostly bedridden.  Mr Mir’s bedroom had windows all around, high ceilings and fine furniture as usual. Among them was also an ornate ceiling fan. Unfortunately, one day, the fan’s brackets gave way and the fan fell on Mr Mir, injuring his shoulder. My father rushed to see him, and I had accompanied him on this visit. Luckily, he escaped a more serious injury but he was in much pain and needed immediate medical attention which we arranged for him.

It was telling of his personality and good deeds in healthier times, that when his health was failing him, those whom he had stood by were there to help him with loyalty, care and affection.

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About the Author

Auroskanda Vepari, son of Mr Vepari, who grew up in Pondicherry and Bombay in the 1980s, got to know Mir through his father’s association with the filmmaker. Auroskanda, who lives and works in London, shares insights into the personality and life of Mir, gleaned from his family’s interactions with the renowned filmmaker over several years.