Promising star-kid lost entire family on his birthday; the tragic story of Kamal Sadanah

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·8-min read

“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death… I will face my fear.

I will permit it to pass over me and through me... Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”

― Frank Herbert, Dune

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He could have joined the ranks of starkids had life not thrown him off gear. His 20th birthday, on 21 October 1990, turned into a family funeral. In a scene more macabre than make-believe, Kamal Sadanah’s father and noted filmmaker Brij Sadanah, under the influence of alcohol, shot dead his mother Sayeeda Khan, sister Namrata Sadanah and later himself.

Kamal too suffered a bullet injury. Though the lead was removed from his neck, it stuck in his ‘heart’ forever. For years, Kamal grappled with the demons of his mind. But without resorting to self-pity or blame game. He holds no rancour towards his father. In fact, there’s palpable affection, which comes across in his interviews.

He never stopped believing in love either. He views his wife and his children as his ‘triumph’. Moreover, he made a short film titled A Moment of Pause, where he chronicled the tragedy that altered his existence. In that perhaps, he found a catharsis, a closure.

Ironically, the lesson Kamal values is the one which came from his father. “He (dad Brij) used to say that when you forgive, you don’t change the past, you change the future,” recalled the son in a past interview with Mumbai Mirror. Kamal has done just that. There could be no better tribute to his lost family…

Brij Sadanah
Brij Sadanah

Brij Sadanah was born in October 1933 in Gujranwala, now in Pakistan. His brother-in-law Devendra Goel encouraged him to join the industry. He debuted as a director with Nai Raahen (1959).

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Brij had a two-decade long spell in showbiz, his forte being romantic thrillers. Between the ’60s-’80s, his successful entertainers included Do Bhai, Yeh Raat Phir Na Aaygi, Ustadon Ke Ustad, Night In London, Chori Mera Kaam, Ek Se Badhkar Ek, Yakeen, Professor Pyarelal and Taqdeer.

Of these, Victoria No. 203 (1972) was based on theJames Hadley Chase novel There Is A Hippy On The Highway. Starring Ashok Kumar, Pran, Navin Nischol and Saira Banu, it was a blockbuster.

TROUBLED FAMILY

Brij married small-time actress, Sayeeda Khan. She had acted in fantasy dramas and thrillers like Modern Girl, Flat No. 9, Main Hoon Aladdin Sindbad Alibaba and Aladdin, Vaasna and Murder On Highway between the ’60s – ’70s). 

The couple had two children, daughter, Namrata Sadanah and son/actor Kamal Sadanah. As a person warm and as a filmmaker proficient, Brij Sadanah sadly would be a different personality after drinks.

The Brij household was ridden with strife. Brij and Sayeeda often argued over a ‘person’, whose identity remains undisclosed. The toxic environment at home left the children disturbed. Their ‘annual fight’, as daughter Namrata called their most vitriolic showdown, would reach ugly proportions.

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Once, during such a yearly bout in the ’70s, Sayeeda with her children left their luxurious bungalow, Jal Kamal, on 28th Road, Bandra. She went over to Oceana Apartments, their Carter Road flat.

 “Dad followed us, demanding to enter the apartment. Mummy refused to let him in. He was drunk and asked the watchman for a ladder so that he could climb the balcony. When the watchman refused, he removed a gun from his pocket and fired a shot into the air,” Kamal narrated the nasty affray to Mumbai Mirror.

Fearing a repeat of this incident and with graver consequences, Sayeeda reportedly lodged an FIR with the Khar Police Station and got the .32 bore Smith and Besson revolver seized from Brij. 

A decade later in the mid-80s, when Punjab insurgency was on the rise, the filmmaker, complaining of intimidating calls from terrorists, managed to get the gun back for ‘personal protection’.

During the same time, Brij’s career had turned stagnant, his past films like Magroor (1979), Bombay 405 Miles (1980) and Oonche Log (1985) having failed.

Quarrels between the couple, mostly surrounding the ‘third person’, were only getting nastier. Also, daughter Namrata was seeing a boy belonging to a different faith. Brij didn’t approve of that either. 

Finding no logic in her father’s resistance, he too having married a Muslim, Namrata was adamant about going ahead. This added to the simmering hostility in the household.

BRUTAL BIRTHDAY

It was son Kamal’s 20th birthday on 21 October 1990. Sayeeda and Brij had already had an altercation that morning. Used to the everyday wrangle, Kamal left for his birthday celebration and returned home at around midnight with his friends.

Kamal Sadanah
Kamal Sadanah

The boys were in Kamal’s room on the first floor of the bungalow when they heard gun-shots emerging from the hall downstairs. They ran down to see Kamal’s mother Sayeeda and sister Namrata lying drenched in blood.

Consumed by alcohol and anger, Brij then trained his gun at Kamal. The third bullet brushed past Kamal’s neck, nevertheless injuring him. Brij fired a last shot, the fourth one, which hit Kamal’s friend Harry on the wrist.

It was half past midnight. A numb Brij returned to his room. Kamal’s friends rushed the victims to Bhabha Hospital. Sayeeda and Namrata were declared dead on admission.

Bhabha Hospital did not have operating facilities for a bullet wound. So a bleeding Kamal was driven to Hinduja Hospital at Mahim. The news of his mother and sister’s demise was kept away from him as it would have added to his trauma.

“I remember going into the operation theatre and saying that I was worried for dad. It didn’t seem right, leaving dad in the room all by himself in that state of mind,” he was quoted saying. After the surgery, at 3 am, Kamal was put on a sedative.

Back home, Brij realising the irreparable damage he had caused, put the nozzle of the revolver in his mouth and shot himself.

HEAL THYSELF

For a good part of the 1990s, Kamal turned a recluse, held hostage by the unrelenting memories. “Suddenly, I had no responsibilities. I even stopped pretending to look for roles. This began to pinch by 1997,” he reportedly said.

He sought refuge in spiritualism but it offered no succour. “I found no answers that could give this incident a closure: there was a certain person about whom my mom and dad had fought about... I had to reconcile with the fact that my dad was responsible for his actions and no one could be blamed (Mumbai Mirror),” said Kamal.

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Trying to get his life back on track, he debuted with Kajol in Bekhudi (1992) and did Rang (1993) with Divya Bharti. After a sabbatical, he returned to acting in the television serial Kasam Se (2006).

He launched his production company, Angath Arts. Kamal appeared opposite Suchitra Pillai in the fidelity drama Karkash (2005), which he produced and directed. 

Victoria No 203: Diamonds Are Forever
Victoria No 203: Diamonds Are Forever

In 2007, he produced the film Victoria No. 203: Diamonds Are Forever directed by Anant Mahadevan. The frame-by-frame remake of Brij’s similarly titled 1972 blockbuster was perhaps a commendation to the father and filmmaker. Though not a runaway hit, it made decent money.

In 2014, Kamal wrote and directed Roar: Tigers Of The Sundarbans about a team trying to outsmart the infamous white tiger, looking for her cub. The film was produced by Abis Rizvi, Kamal’s close friend and also the person his late sister Namrata wanted to marry.

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 Abis Rizvi was killed in a terrorist shootout at a nightclub in Istanbul on New Year’s Eve in 2017. “I lost my entire family in one night. I thought I’d seen enough loss and tragedy to see me through this lifetime. I was wrong. There’s no end to the pain. Now I’ve lost my friend. Abis was engaged to my sister before she was killed by my father,” revealed a shattered Kamal to DNA.

CLOSURE

Kamal somewhere found a way out of the emotional labyrinth when he married make-up artist Lisa John in January 2001. They have two children, son Angath and Leia Namrata. 

“I have a loving wife and two gorgeous kids. I am raising a wonderful family… my biggest triumph is my family (Mumbai Mirror),” he said.

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Almost two decades later, during a workshop organised by the New York Film Academy, Kamal had to make a short film. Drawing from his personal tragedy, Kamal shot the seven-minute long, A Moment Of Pause (2013). It reconstructed the events of the fateful night in 1990. Prem Chopra graciously agreed to play the role of his father Brij in the film.

“It was an extremely painful experience recollecting the chain of events. But I had to get it off my chest. It was a kind of catharsis for me,” said Kamal (DNA), who’s uploaded the film on YouTube.

Another metaphor of regeneration is the fact that their bungalow Jal Kamal was brought down to pave way for Raheja Kamal – a swanky high-rise. Kamal resides in one of its plush penthouses surrounded by photographs of his family. 

He doesn’t believe in denying or negating the memories. Rather he’s learnt to look them in the eye.

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