Mansoor Khan, the accidental farmer

Re-making a life from filmmaker to a cheese farmer


Shreerupa Mitra-Jha | August 4, 2014

From left: Zayn, Tina, Mansoor and Pablo.
From left: Zayn, Tina, Mansoor and Pablo.

The trajectory of Mansoor Khan’s life has defied a predictable journey. Best known for his Bollywood blockbusters and for directing the debut movie of his cousin Aamir Khan, Mansoor today is preoccupied with his cheese farm in Coonoor and writing books on ‘de-growth’. That is as far as he has come from his Bollywood lineage.  

If the first-family-of-Bollywood tag is worth cogitating over, then Mansoor’s family does deserve a reckoning. His father Nasir Husain was responsible for shaping the careers of actors such as Shammi Kapoor and Asha Parekh through his well-known production house, Nasir Husain Films, followed by Mansoor, Aamir and Imran Khan emerging as major players in the Indian film industry. Given this background, Mansoor’s book, The Third Curve, about peak oil and the end of economic growth which was launched last year caught many off-guard.

I took a trip on a sailing ship
His formal education in engineering from IIT Mumbai and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), by Mansoor’s admission, has perhaps served him the least in structuring his paradigms. “I was caught with the techie sort of stuff but I liked the intuitive side of things more even as a child. So for me at that time there were these two parallel tracks: the intuitive and the intellectual, which were irreconcilable. Education, I believe, has nothing to do with enlightenment, especially the kind of western education we are used to which narrows your world view to fit into a particular slot.”

Mansoor describes himself then as a “confused, spoilt brat”. Enamoured with America, he did not want to settle in India, much less direct films, to the utter dismay of his father. But the wrap of destiny had both – India and films – in store for him.
“In MIT and Cornell, I took all sorts of coursework – from astronomy to anthropology.  Anthropology and other cultures interested me but I got disillusioned with a lot of things.” Mansoor dropped out of MIT. “I picked up sailing and I sailed with a crew of four from South China Sea back to India,” he recalls.
Making of the filmmaker
On his return from the US, he “pretended to assist” his father in films as an assistant director but would be found reading Ayn Rand. “I would rap my assistants if they did that,” he jokes.

The first film that Mansoor wrote and directed stayed away from public glare. It was a 100-minute film called Umberto. The film was autobiographical – about a boy who wanted to do nothing.

During that time, Mansoor started writing Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikander (JJWS) while his father, Nasir Husain, was writing Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak (QSQT). “My father was sure that he wanted to launch Aamir in QSQT and wanted me to direct it because he had watched Umberto but was not sure I would agree,” he says with a smile. The script of JJWS was taking its time to unfold so Mansoor agreed to direct QSQT, which later became a classic in Bollywood lore, establishing Aamir as a star and Mansoor as a much sought-after director. “I thought the script was very well-textured and I loved the prelude that was written by my father,” he says.

Speaking of his sudden success, he says, “I had seen my father and how he tried to outdo himself with every film and I was very wary of that aspect of success. In fact, after QSQT was made, I told my cameraman, Kiran Deohans, that I don’t want my name on the credit roll. My father misunderstood. I was too scared of making a name. It distorts your personality. You live for your name and chase your name. I find that very suffocating. I saw my father shattered after Zamane Ko Dikhana Hai did badly. He was trying to live up to his image and that petrified Nuzhat (sister) and me.”

Speaking of QSQT, Mansoor feels that the script had a sense of irreconcilability to it – a view his father did not share. Few know that QSQT was shot with two endings. Mansoor believed that unlike Bobby, a blockbuster of the  ’70s, QSQT could not have a happy ending. There was a certain foreboding of evil which worked through the film and its subtext. “But my father was very sceptical and insisted that I shoot a happy ending too. During our outdoor shoots he would call and ask if I had shot it. Happy ending means Goga Kapoor dies. What can be so happy about that? [Laughs loudly] But even when we were shooting the ending, people would laugh because it just did not fit in. Just as I would say “action”, Dalip Tahil would start giggling and the crew followed. This obviously indicated that something was just not working. Both the endings were screened. Aamir, Nuzhat and Farhat [Aamir’s sister] rooted for the tragic ending whereas the elderly audience liked the happy one. Finally, the younger generation won.”

Three films followed QSQT; JJWS, Akele Hum Akele Tum and Josh, after which Mansoor’s life was to take a rather unexpected turn. The only time that he worked in Bollywood again after that was as a producer for launching his nephew, Imraan Khan, in Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Naa.

The turning point
“We bought a plot of land in Mandwa in 1991 because I was sure I wanted to give up films and would live and die by the sea. By 1997, however, the axe fell; the government wanted to acquire my dream land in Mandwa to build an international airport designed after the Hong Kong model. My world was turned upside down.”

With an activist-friend, Ralli Jacob, Mansoor walked from village to village interviewing farmers whose land was to be acquired, in the process peeling off layers and layers of belief. “Privileged people, what do we know? My findings really shook me out of my stupor,” says Mansoor with a serious expression. He delved into research on land acquisition, issues of development and bumped into the concept of peak oil (which was to become the basis of his first book years later).

“I understood world movements and how we have been conditioned to suppress equity arguments and have absolute belief in the forward arrow of progress. The government said they will be providing jobs as compensation as if the people whose land was being taken away were jobless.

“All my friends were on the other side and said that I was simply saying this because it was my land that was being taken away. But why not?  After all you go to a doctor only when your tooth aches. But that marked a coming-out of my shell and thinking about these farmers and fisher folk who were being impoverished in the name of development.”

Mansoor traces another incident in his life that marked a paradigmatic shift in his world view. Medha Patkar, the firebrand leader of Narmada Bachao Andolan, was one of the people who visited the farmers in Mandwa. “At that time, I thought of her only as an ally who would help me get back my land rather than a tireless leader of the underprivileged and the dispossessed. I was also not aware of her campaigns against big dams. But anybody who knows her would find it difficult not to be moved by her sincerity.” Curiosity took Mansoor to the Narmada valley. His experience at the valley was to shape much of his work from thereon. “Global civilisation is like too big a baby for a mother; it will abort,” he says of his experience.

The wild cheese farm
The demise of Mansoor’s parents within a short span of time made him desperate to leave Mumbai. Mandwa did not work out for logistical reasons, making him shift to Coonoor in 2003. “I had gotten into a financial mess, lost my parents and was clinically depressed. It was not as if I was running away but I decided that it was time for me to change my life drastically. Of course, it was unfair and very hard for Tina (wife) and my children, Pablo and Zayn.” he states. Theatrical as it sounds, Mansoor packed his bags and drove to Coonoor with his dog, sans wife and children.

He stayed on his own for a year, thinking of ways to convince his family to move with him. This is when he came up with the idea of cheese farming to keep Tina and himself occupied in the hill station, otherwise beautifully picturesque but with limited business opportunities. He also built cottages to rent out as farm stays. Thus was born Acres Wild, a 22-acre organic cheese-making farm and farm stay which houses, apart from Mansoor and his family, 10 jersey cows, ducks, chicken and geese. In quick time, their cheese-making courses were rated as the best for gourmet cheese in India.

It was not easy for the family to adjust to this drastic change of lifestyle of running a farm stay. “The service industry is difficult. Tina was reluctant since she is a private person. It took a while for her to adjust to this sudden invasion in privacy and the quiet life in Coonoor. But she adjusted,” Mansoor says, visibly proud of her.

The Third Curve             
The laid-back life of Coonoor gave him more time to research on peak oil and the reality of the descent of fossil fuels. Mansoor published his first book called The Third Curve last year. The idea of the book burgeoned from delivering a lecture to a small group of people at Percept, an advertising agency in Mumbai. “There were these young, well-paid advertising kids who were wondering what on earth I was
talking about,” Mansoor says. His book argues that growth has become a religion which has come to assume a sacredness of sorts. However, it is not possible to perpetuate these growth-based systems since our resources follow a bell-curve – they go up first but when half of the resource is over, they start falling.

Mansoor argues, “What I am saying is not a personal prejudice or a moral choice. I am just stating a fact that rather than examining the idiocy and lethality of the growth model which was only possible because of cheap fossil fuels, we are insisting on perpetuating it. Edward Bolding has said growth for the sake of growth is the model of a cancer cell. And this is apparent in the multitude of crises we see around us – dying forests, disappearing species, dropping water level, climate change, financial collapse, etc. But our education system doesn’t show us the connection between all these. And that is our perpetual growth model.”

Mansoor says his book is not only about energetics and growth; he questions the cultural mindset which disregards limits and the essentially finite character of the earth. “I don’t know how but ‘exploit’ has become a good word – exploiting resources, exploiting the earth, etc.” He believes there might be a spike in growth with the new government but that will only be a temporary phase. “What they will do is open up more of the commons meant for everybody, displace more people, soften environmental norms, open coal mines.... But there is a high energy cost for all of this which we, or any other country in the world, is not in a position to pay. We are talking of opening up coal fields, which is the most dangerous of fossil fuels from the climate change perspective. We don’t mind doing it to perpetuate growth. It’s the behaviour of a rock star on heroin who wants three great compositions, even if he dies in the process. Even the alternative energy brigade is wrong. For making alternative energy, we need fossil fuels which are limited – we simply convert fossil fuel energy into electricity.”

Small is still beautiful
In implementing his beliefs, Mansoor says that his quest for many years has been to simplify life. “To give you an example of the growth model, when I started the farm stay people asked me why only three cottages, why not 25 and why not different tariffs for foreigners. I was not running the farm stay for more and more turnover. Even our cheese is like that; we only make as much cheese as is possible from cows that can live healthily on our land. These changes towards living within limits have to come over several generations,” he says.

Having said that, Mansoor admits that he is “sinfully aware” that he has money in a fixed deposit which accrues compound interest – the false notion of value that Mansoor is trying to contest in his book – but he is gradually dropping his dependency on this money. “Even if I am indulging in double talk, reality will deal with me,” he avers.

Mansoor feels that his Bollywood image has sometimes hindered the acceptance of this book. He says, “The fact is that I have very little Bollywood strain in me. This sort of research work is more me than films are. I respect Bollywood and am glad to have been a part of it, but I am also limited by its consequences on my present work.”

Currently, he is busy writing his second book focusing on civilisation as a collapsible culture which intrinsically violates other cultures – his experiences from Narmada and learning from his long research on development models.

Kurt Vonnegut once said, “Of all the words of mice and men, the saddest are, ‘it might have been’.” That is one sadness that probably will not beset Mansoor Khan.

The story appeared in the August 1-15, 2014 issue of the magazine



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