By Neil Marks
He brought the stars to us, but Pradeep Samtani, who died Monday, was the real showstopper.
He came to Guyana from India’s prolific film city Mumbai and inscribed his name firmly along the corridors of entertainment, Indian arts and culture, business, and a sincere desire to help others. And he brought with humility and wicked humour.
Amid the social media debate about whether it is proper to say “chicken curry” or “curry chicken” he circulated a link to a video of the Irish comedian and singer Brendan Grace doing “Ring of Fire” about the effects of spicy curry : “…when I woke up my ass was on fire, and it burned, burned, burned, that ring of fire.”
He took that humour to his Facebook page and ended up on a morning show with DJ Casual, putting those who listened in stitches; but he made sure he threw in interesting titbits on history and the world.
Pradeep’s name is almost synonymous with Indian entertainment in Guyana.
The Liberty cinema on Vlissengen Road in Georgetown, which he owned and operated, earned iconic status owing to the release of the biggest blockbusters out of Bollywood, the Hindi film industry.
And if the movies were not entertainment itself, he added some more. For example, he introduced smoke special effects for the songs in 1995’s Rangeela when Urmila Marondka emerged as the new sensational heroine in Bollywood. Three years later, he reprised that added flare when the chart-topping song Chaiya Chaiya played in the Shah Ruk Khan starred Dil Se.
When piracy forced him to sell the cinema, many grieved. Liberty was not just a cinema that was packed from pit to balcony because of the craze for movies. it was a social hub where many a courtship took place – and where many rules were broken, such as when the canteen snacks at the cinema weren’t enough and I joined in a grand conspiracy to smuggle KFC disguised as a baby in a stroller for the opening of Dil to Pagal Hai in 1997.
Radha Motielall, now an editor at state broadcaster NCN, recalls meeting Pradeep when she ventured into TV shows playing Indian songs.
“When I first approached him, he acted as if he knew me for aeons – and it wasn’t just me I found out. He makes it so easy to talk to him no matter who you were,” she told me.
That led her to promote Liberty’s movies on her Sunday morning show on MTV 14/65 – and it landed her the enviable free pass to all shows at the cinema – in balcony, of course.
And who can forget the 1 p.m. slot on radios on Sundays when Filmi Duniya with Richard B. Mahase blasted on radios on Sundays with the beats from Apni To JaiseTaise from the 1981 Amitabh Bachchan starred Laawaris.
He pushed whoever needed push, simply just doing it, expecting nothing in return; he focused on doing good.
His movie business spawned his career in entertainment, bringing to Guyana the biggest stars including Shah Rukh Khan. Once there was a big Bollywood concert, you assumed Pradeep was behind it – such was the respect for this level of entertainment he commended.
Naturally then, when the world was shocked by the passing of Sri Devi in February, I called him to reflect on her visit to Guyana.
He was back in India, where he had gone for surgery and had spent some months recuperating. As always, he was gracious with his time.
Even then, he was bursting with ideas of what he will do next, insisting that I get involved in the work of the Indian Commemoration Trust (ICT), which he was asked to lead by business magnate Yesu Persaud, who founded the organisation.
His constant nag was: “You youngsters have to take over.”
“I have the experience of some promoters treating foreign artistes as if they are untouchables; but with Pradeep, there was no barrier. He allowed you easy access,” said Radha, quoted earlier.
“The gap between India and Indians in Guyana was minimised by Pradeep.”
No matter how trivial the issue would be, Pradeep spent his time to explain. When she couldn’t figure out what the word Gulaal from the Phagwah song MaldiGulaalMohe meant, Radha contacted Pradeep, who explained that Gulaal was the name used for the coloured powders, particularly pink, used in Phagwah celebrations.
Pradeep was responsible for organising the building of a permanent stage at the Indian Monument Gardens in the heart of the city and making the Gardens an open-air museum, educating the public about Indian indentureship, which saw the first arrival of East Indian plantation workers to these shores 180 years ago.
When I chose to write an article on the dying Bhojpuri culture in Guyana – the culture the Indians who first came brought with them – it was Pradeep who I reached out to for advice.
“Mr. Samtani was always a breath of fresh air – his calm personality paired with humour always brightened any room he entered.
“It was truly a privilege working along with Mr. Samtani as a member of the ICT,” said SuridaNagreadi, one of the young members of the ICT.
“He always seemed to have solutions, bursting with new ideas, very welcoming and more notable – always a smiling face.”
When Liberty closed, Pradeep was constantly searching for new projects and new opportunities even though he had three stores to run– Shoppers Paradise on Regent Street and Bhagwan’s and City Centre on Water Street.
“He wasn’t a boss; he was like a father,” said Sunita, who worked with him for many years.
“He treated us well and was always interested in teaching us everything.”
Had he been in good health, Pradeep would have been on the streets this evening judging the floats in the annual Diwali motorcade organised by the Guyana Hindu Dharmic Sabha; it’s something he did for many years.
Pradeep’s love for the movies moved him to produce his own – Rainbow Rani in 2006, which was set as a romantic comedy that aimed to dismantle barriers of racial identity, with the plot centred on a multi-racial band.
The film’s director, Mickey Nivelli, was in shock to describe the death of Pradeep.
“Pradeep came to Guyana. He saw beauty, fell in love, married, built an empire, conquered and now leaves a legacy to behold and inspire,” said Roshan Khan, the head of RK’s security, who had his first acting role in Rainbow Raani.
“Pradeep enlightened me about the vastness of diversity of Indian culture, something he hoped to document. I sure hope it did not die with him,” said Godfrey Naughton, the local playwright and actor.
“Passion of identity – that was Pradeep.”
Pradeep’s works extended beyond entertainment, business and culture.
When he served as President of the Rotary Club of Georgetown in 2010, he championed projects that he thought would bring the greatest good with what little resources were available.
That year, he took me to Free and Easy, the last village on West Bank Demerara – 14 miles south of the Demerara Harbour Bridge – to see that the people there had no access to potable water and that in the poorest section of the village, the people did not have water tanks to store rainwater.
Through the Rotary Club, On World Water Day in March that year, he handed over 450-gallon water tanks to those residents.
For him, access to clean drinking water was a basic human right.
A few months later, he was up on the East Coast Demerara handed over a bus that would serve as a new ambulance for the Cheshire Home, which caters for adults and children with special needs.
Of recent, though in ill health, Pradeep was adding to his business, introducing shoes under the Van Heusen, the brand of the shirts and trousers which his business was known for.
In addition, even though confined to a wheelchair, September last he promoted multiple shows in Guyana featuring the versatile singer Sairam Iyer.
On top of that, he was planning his new venture -Guyana and the Caribbean’s only car museum -which was due for opening last Sunday.
The last show he promoted was on October 26, featuring the singing couple Samir &Dipalee.
Pradeep celebrated his last birthday on November 2.
In his last interview with me on what it will take to preserve Indian culture in Guyana, Pradeep advocated the setting up of Indian cultural clubs, targeting young people especially.
“Everyone should research their culture, take the best out of it and bring it to one boiling pot of Guyana.
“Learn from the cultures of each other, but for that, you have to first know your culture.”
Pradeep was the recipient of one of Guyana’s highest national awards.
His loss would be hard to measure.