This item is a video file.

Rani Bagai on "Ram Bagai"

Part of a video interview of Rani Bagai conducted on June 3, 2013. In this section, Bagai primarily discusses her mother, Leona Bell Parr, and father, Ram Bagai, the youngest son of Vaishno Das Bagai and Kala Bagai Chandra. She discusses her father's role in subtitling and screening Hindi films in the U.S., as well his encounter with Jawaharlal Nehru in Los Angeles.

Date: June 3, 2013
Subject(s): Rani Bagai, Ram Bagai
Type: Oral History
Language: English
Creator: Emily McNish
Contributor: Ben Maizell
Location: Los Angeles, CA

Transcribed by Sweta Haldar

Edited by: Alisha Cunzio

Rani Bagai (RB) (0:00): My parents met, let's see, around - it was just after the war - in Sandusky, Ohio. My mother worked for an Indian photographer, his name was Shanti, and she was his assistant and she would go with him to places where she would help set up the lights, and the cameras, and you know film, and whatever he needed she was there to hand it to him or whatever. And my father belonged to an Indian society of some kind - I don't know what the name of it was - but they would have dinner together as a group, and I think they decided one night to commemorate their group by taking some photos, and having this photographer come and kind of formalize this setting. I think they were all sitting down at a table, and facing the camera - it’s a very kind of formal, kind of old-fashioned kind of photoshoot they were doing.

(1:07) And so, Shanti was there with his cameras and my mom was there, and I guess my dad basically wanted to meet her, and introduced himself and got to know her there at that dinner. So, it was from that time that I think they started dating. And then he said - I think they decided pretty quickly that they were made for each other. He wanted her to move out west with him, and meet his mother and his stepfather at the time. So they came out, and my father goes up upstairs to where his mom is living and says, “Mom, guess what? I found the girl I want to marry.”

(2:04) And she says, “Really?” You know, like, “Wow, this is great. This is all a big surprise. Who is she?” And so he tells her, “Her name is Leona. And you know, she's from Ohio,” and blah, blah, blah. She says, “Oh, that's great. Well, so is she in Ohio? Where is she?” And de says, “No, actually she's down in the car, she's sitting in the car in the street.” My grandmother says, “Well, bring her up!” Like, let's meet her. I mean, like, bring her in. So he does, and of course my mom is very shy and very nervous about meeting her, but my grandmother instantly took to her.

(2:49) They became very dear to each other. And, you know, I think my grandmother could have perhaps been a little wary that - you know, she might have wanted her son to marry an Indian woman, or take him back to India to get married, and she might have maybe had it a little bit against my mom or something. But she loved her, and she treated her like her own daughter. In fact, I think she gave her the nickname that I heard her use so often, which is Tara, which in Hindi means star. So, that was what she would call my mom. And she taught her to cook Indian food. She became a great cook. And it was really, I think, a very happy relationship with my parents and the in-laws. Something you don't often find.

(3:42) My father got his undergraduate degree at Stanford in like a chemical engineering kind of specialty. And that's what he did - I think he graduated in the late 30s, and he kind of went into that during the war. So he traveled around the US, he mixed chemicals, and worked for different companies. And then he went on, actually, to get his master's degree in cinematography at USC. This is at a time also, you know, when it was just in its fledgling stage, and movies were still made with kind of hand cranked cameras. But my father was in love with the movies - really longed to be in the business.

(4:37) And what he did do with it - though he never attained the kind of success or work he wanted to do - what he did do was he brought movies from India to the United States. And they were mostly art films, designed for small art theatres, that sort of thing. One of them was a real classic old time Indian film called Two Eyes, Twelve Hands, and my father loved that film. And he invested quite a bit of his own money in adding subtitles to it - which actually my mother helped him with - all on his own and marketing it. He tried to market it to an American audience, who really is not used to Indian movies with all that sort of song and dance, but he thought that the theme of non-violence - which was a big theme of this movie - would kind of grab - idealistically, he thought - the soul of the American public, and that they would just be drawn to it for that reason.

(5:48) Well, American public is not known for its soul - in movies - or intellectual capability, and so the movie was, of course, not a success, as you can imagine, in America. But it was really beloved in India, and there are a lot of people who remember it quite fondly, and you know, light up instantly when he talked to them about it. But it didn't gain that much of an audience here.

(6:12) But from then he went on to join the Foreign Press, and he was actually very successful in that. He wrote a lot of articles about movies and-- my mom too, actually, she was kind of a budding journalist, and she would help write up things with him. Eventually, in 19... the early 50s, he became president of the Foreign Press, which you know, now is the Golden Globes-- or they give out the Golden Globes. And so he did that. In fact, I have a picture with my--my mom, actually handing one to Walt Disney for an awards night one night. So, yeah, they met a lot of celebrities, I have a lot of their autographs and stuff from them, but that was about as far as he went with that.

(7:05) And then he went into personnel development - kind of, you know, working with companies to-- as far as their hiring, managing people, letting them go or firing - you know, if there were personnel issues, he dealt with that. He was really a good people person. He simply loved dealing with people, and so I think that was a good fit for him. Even if he couldn't ultimately do what he so much wanted to do, he was--he was happy at that.

(7:36) My dad had a really-- as I said, he was very extroverted, very social - and he had this loud voice. There was no subduing his volume on his volume knob - it was turned up. And so, when he'd be sitting in his little den or study at home - that's where he kind of conducted all his business that had to do with his films and his other side businesses - I would hear him on the phone, and he'd be explaining to someone who he was. He would say, “The name is Bagai! Ram Bagai. B-A-G-A-I. Bagai, you know like bug eyes?” And you know the total exaggeration of it just would crack me up, and he would go through that constantly. So that was-- I mean when I think of like spelling my name I automatically think of my dad and how he sounded doing it.

(8:31) My dad's political ideology was with Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Cesar Chavez... He was a huge, strong follower of Gandhi and non-violence, and he always felt that that was a movement that was introduced, but it never… and it was- no I mean, I don't want to say it wasn't successful. It was hugely successful in India, because it worked, didn't it? But he thought, you know, “Why can't this work everywhere else in the world where there's wars?” And he was totally against-- you know, anti-war, anti-violence - and, you know, I think he was quite a bit of a idealist, how that could be accomplished. But-- He just loved to tell stories, and talk about Nehru, talk about Gandhi, talk about--he had a few experiences with them, actually in person, where he met them, and he just held them in complete reverence.

(9:54) So, even now, you know-- Nehru, I have some photos that my dad took and blew up of when Nehru came to Los Angeles. This was in the early 60s and I was about eight years old... This is kind of another tangent, but he came in the early 60s and landed at LAX with his daughter Indira, and at that time Sam Yorty was the mayor. And somehow my father arranged it that he was on this welcoming committee-- or not he, well, he was maybe a peripheral part of it - but I was like the flower girl and I was supposed to present him with a bouquet of flowers as he came off the plane. And this was outside on the tarmac, you know, with the plane right in the background there and the group of them standing there posing for photos, and so the mayor was there, and I was there, and so they took some photos of me with Nehru bending down to kiss me and I'm presenting him the flowers and also Indira. And I still have those. They're very sweet. I’m in a little party dress with little white gloves. So it's kind of a neat thing, but I don't really remember any other interactions with anyone else after that, as far as meeting any other dignitaries.

(11:21) The story I want to actually tell you about, though, is the time my dad traveled with Nehru on a speaking tour he was giving - he was traveling from village to village. And this was a spur of the moment thing. My dad was interviewing him for an article, and Nehru gave him an interview and said, “Well,” looked at his watch and said, “I'm leaving in an hour to go on this train trip to stop in these villages and speak, and we're scheduled to go. Would you like to come with me?” My dad just: “Yes!” And just decided, ‘I must go like, I can't pass this up.’ Grabbed a bag, grabbed, you know who knows, a toothbrush, met him at the train, train takes off.

(12:14) Train takes off and it begins pouring rain, and the train is delayed and has to stop - I don't know exactly why, maybe because of the bad weather - so they're gonna be delayed. But the time, I think, Nehru was supposed to speak was like early in the evening - maybe 6pm, something like that. They're not gonna make it, so they don't--let's see, they're still in the train I think at midnight. And as they're going, my dad says to Nehru, “You have to call this off. I mean, no one's gonna be there. I mean, look at it outside. It's ridiculous. It's pouring rain. No one is going to be there.” Nehru says, “Don't worry about it. Don't worry, it'll be fine.”

(13:05) They get in, I don't know at two or three in the morning, and as-- even before they're pulling into the village there are people massed along the rail tracks. They're waiting, and they're waiting to see Nehru. And they're not even at the place where he's going to give the speech - they just want to be there as he passes by. And my dad looks out, and he can't believe-- there's thousands and thousands of people out there, in the rain, waiting. And this is a thing that they call in Hindu philosophy, “Darshan,” where being in the presence is enough. And they don't have to hear him. They don't have to hear what he's gonna say, or, you know-- they're not really there for the speech. They're there, more to be in his presence than anything.

(14:02) And they're showing their commitment to that, and to how they believed in him and how much they loved him and revered him. My dad just was dumbstruck and he, you know, looked at Nehru, and Nehru is like “What did I say? What did I tell you?” But he hadn't been worried at all. He knew, I think that you know, that this was going to happen. But the train stopped, they got out, they made their way to whatever this, you know, platform was. Nehru gave a speech, and they continued on. And it was the same kind of performance at each village, where the people were just thronged en masse to see him. And I know it made an incredible impression on my father. Just that alone - that feeling that he got from it, that commitment - was like nothing I think he had ever experienced and it just lasted. You know, he always remembered it and he told us that story.

Donor: Emily McNish
Item History: 2013-08-21 (created); 2020-07-29 (modified)

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