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January 17, 2001

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Anvar Alikhan

Shyam Benegal has been rather coy about the story of his new film, Zubeidaa.

Zubeidaa "It's purely a work of fiction and there should be no doubt about that," he told India Today not long ago.

But the fact is that there was a real Zubeida, who happened to be scriptwriter Khalid Mohamed's mother. And with a life story like hers, who needs fiction?

It had all the romance, drama and tragedy of a Hollywood spectacular.

I never met her myself, but her second son, Tutu, was a childhood friend of mine.

Zubeida was very beautiful. She was born into a Muslim showbiz family.

She herself was an aspiring actress, and if things had happened differently, she may have -- who knows? -- become another Madhubala, Suraiya, Meena Kumari or Nargis.

But a domineering father apparently pushed her into an unhappy marriage with someone she had never met. She had a son. And the marriage obviously fell apart in the aftermath of Partition.

It was then that she happened to meet Hanuwant Singh, the dashing young 20-something Maharaja of Jodhpur. He was a keen horseman, shikari, pilot, and amateur magician.

He was, of course, enormously wealthy, being the ruler of what was India's third largest princely state.

They had a passionate romance... which the Jodhpur royal family looked on with grim disapproval.

But then, things became serious and Hanuwant Singh stated making disconcerting noises about wanting to marry Zubeida. This was something that the conservative Jodhpur royal family could not tolerate.

First of all, he was already married. Second, Zubeida was all wrong: She was an actress, she had already been married. And, perhaps worst of all, she was Muslim. Having her as a girlfriend was bad enough... but as a Maharani?!

Manoj Bajpai and Karisma Kapoor in Zubeidaa There was a confrontation with the family. But the headstrong Hanuwant Singh finally had his way.

He married Zubeida, and the two of them were forced by family pressure to leave the art deco Umaid Bhawan Palace and move into the 15th century Mehrangarh Fort (perhaps a more appropriate setting for a romance like theirs, anyway).

Hanuwant Singh was evidently an impetuous and immature young man who had been thrust onto the raj gaddi by the sudden death of his father, when he was barely into his 20s.

In the run-up to Partition, he had seriously considered acceding to Pakistan -- thanks to the blandishments of Jinnah, for whom a large Hindu state like Jodhpur would have been a major political coup.

And he had even dramatically pulled out a pistol and threatened Sardar Patelís emissary during negotiations with the Congress Party.

He had also, significantly, inherited the Jodhpur royal familyís passion for flying. As somebody commented in the 1930s, "There are probably more Jodhpur royals in the air than on the ground at any given point in time." It was essentially thanks to this royal passion that Jodhpur became one of the earliest international airports in India, an important stopover on all flights to the Far East.

This passion for flying was to play a tragic part in the story of Hanuwant Singh's -- and Zubeida's -- lives.

In 1952, Hanuwant Singh got involved in politics and stood for the Lok Sabha elections. After the polling, it was clear that he was going to win by a huge majority. (Feudal loyalties run deep in this part of the world.) In a celebratory mood, he took Zubeida up in his private plane for a spin over the Marwar desert .

He was known to be a reckless flyer at the best of times, fond of performing dangerous stunts. On this particular day, nobody knows exactly what happened.

One theory is that he saw a tonga driving along on a little desert road below and tried to "buzz" it, for the sheer devilry of it. He swooped down low, didn't see a telephone wire running alongside the road, and went smack into it. Both he and Zubeida were killed instantly.

The film ends there, perhaps, but I guess the story doesnít.

Just before she died, Zubeida had a baby son by Hanuwant Singh.

This kid, Tutu, was then, ironically, brought up by the Rajmata of Jodhpur -- the very woman whose marriage had been broken up by his mother. It must have been a strange relationship, a strange childhood.

I remember Tutu as a very wild, very mixed-up, yet very sweet-natured, kid who had been chucked out of one school after another, before finally coming to roost at Mayo College.

I lost touch with him after school, but used to hear stories over the years, through mutual friends, of his reckless ways.

Khalid Mohamed Then, in the early Eighties, I was saddened to read in the newspapers one morning that Tutu had been murdered, in the most gruesome way -- beheaded and dumped in the streets of Jodhpur.

What was the motive? Some jealous husband? Sanjay Gandhi's Youth Congress politics? Or just Jodhpur's feudal politics?

As far as I know, the case was never solved. And, sadly, nor did anybody seem particularly keen to see it solved.

This story has a rather grisly post script. Some years ago, I met somebody from Jodhpur, and mentioned -- undiplomatically, perhaps -- that I was an old friend of Tutu's.

He smiled a grim, tight smile. "Ah, yes, Tutu," he said, shaking his head. "He was a naughty boy. I used to warn him: Tutu, donít be naughty, because there are people who can be even naughtier than you. He didnít listen. And look what happened. He lost his head."

Zubeidaa is supposed to be the concluding part of Khalid Mohamed's trilogy that began with Sardari Begum and Mammo.

But, given the facts, it could, so easily, be the first part of a two-part saga: Zubeidaa and Tutu.

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