Omarjee Suliman

Filmmaker of the Location

"Asalaamu alaikom," Omarjee home from school greeted his mother. Usually, she answered, Oh, you're back, Walaikom Salaam.  But today, she did not give him her usual smile and actually avoided his eyes.  "But Mother, what's wrong?"

"You know your father says he's got a lucky son that made his eyebrows to burn."

"God forbid, I did nothing. I was at school. What happened?"

"What have you got in that room?"   She was referring to Omarjee's laboratory - a disused latrine, cleaned out and converted into a tool room, which Omarjee used for his experiments with projectors, films, and other mechanical and electrical items.

"I had film on that little projector that I made the wheels big and I bought more film."

"Your father was upset. He says you are wasting your time. You mustn't be doing this kind of thing. He took all that and he went and threw it in the big drum."  They used the drum to burn up waste. "Then he lit a match and threw it in." Apparently, the match fell right to the bottom and the film took a little time to catch alight. When Mr Suliman, wondering why the stuff was not burning, leaned forward, there was a sudden flash and flames leapt up and burnt his eyebrows clean off. Mr Suliman was not aware of the highly flammable nature of nitrate-based film.

Mr Suliman regarded Omarjee's obsession with technology as worthless; he was ‘wasting' so much money on useless toys.  First there were the magic lanterns that his son bought in the bazaars to put on ‘film shows'.  When Omarjee discovered that by inserting images printed on glass into the lantern and switching on the light he could throw the pictures onto a screen, he turned the yard into a little bioscope where he entertained his friends.  Then he began experimenting with toy projectors. He saw that when you turned the handles, the filmstrip inside moved and gave the illusion of action. But the filmstrips in these projectors were too short to satisfy Omarjee. As he wanted to create much longer moving pictures, he decided to make everything bigger. He took empty paraffin tins, cut bigger disks and made large reels. Then he went to the "Doll's Hospital" in African Arcade where he bought film that was sold by the yard and rolled the film onto the reels. When he projected the pictures on a sheet and turned the reels to make the images move, he was able to entertain his friends with longer showings.

Despite his father's objections, Omarjee, driven by his interest, continued studying film manuals, especially the illustrations. His mother tongue being Gujarati, he learned from drawings rather than instructions in English. He was careful not to let his father see how many pounds he was spending on his books.  As it was money that he had saved or that his mother, who colluded in the deception, had given him, he didn't feel too guilty. Nevertheless, to avoid confrontations with his father, he tore the covers off the books to make them look old.  When his father asked where he'd bought them, he told him that they were from a second-hand bookshop where no book cost more than a shilling so his father couldn't really get angry.

Mr Suliman, however, could not reconcile himself to his son's interest in film and continued to nag him. He wanted his son to become a trader like himself.  He believed that trade was trade and labour was labour. Trade had no barriers; labour, fit only for the lowest caste, had limitations. He believed that his son's interest in electrical engineering would make him a labourer. "There is no future in an occupation as a technician." 

Mr Mohammed Essop Patel, his father's friend, who lived across the street, didn't agree. "The planes that you see flying over the Asiatic Bazaar, where do they come from?"

"From the airport of course," replied Mr Suliman.

"Who's flying them?"  Mr Suliman wasn't sure where this was going, but Mr Patel was confident that he had made his point. "There must be people to do different, different work."

Mr Suliman wasn't convinced. "Show me one Kanamia boy that is doing this. Why does he always do different things?"

Though Mr Patel, who was to become Omarjee's father-in-law, was sympathetic to Omarjee, he himself was a very strict father. His children lived in fear of him.  His daughters had to come straight home from school; were not allowed out alone; were not allowed to answer the door; were not allowed to speak to other people. When Mr Patel's eldest daughter, Amina, was about sixteen, it was time for marriage so she had to leave school.  A marriage was arranged between Omarjee's parents and hers. Even though the Patels and Sulimans were neighbours, Omarjee and Amina didn't know each other. Amina, who had seen Omarjee at school, he was in a higher standard with her brothers, regarded him as a complete stranger.  Suddenly she was told that he was to be her husband.

They were married in 1942. 

To her surprise, Amina entered a new life that gave her great freedom. She had married into a very small family, just Omarjee and his parents.  Preoccupied with his experiments, Omarjee didn't exercise the authoritarian control typical of an Indian husband and left her free to develop in her own way.  So in addition to her duties as housewife, she assumed responsibilities that probably were her husband's.  She took over management of the properties that the Sulimans owned in Cowie and Sixth Streets, collected the rents from hawkers who had hired the stables on these stands and handled their complaints. In fulfilling these duties, she helped to shield Omarjee from his father's frustration.

To Omarjee, Amina was a gem. Without her support he would not have been able to give free reign to his creative spirit. His father tried to restrain him but his wife made it possible for him to follow his own interests. "I have a wonderful wife. She was my secretary, my treasurer, and she gave me all the time in the world to move about. When we no longer had horses, we converted the stables into a workshop and I would work there till late at night. At about ten, she would bring tea and sandwiches. At two, sometimes three in the morning, she would tap at the window. Come on, it's getting late." Even today, in their home in Laudium, he has his own den in which he keeps all his recording equipment and video and audiotapes. Amina never intrudes into this private space.

"She was the big help in my life. Rich people have servants to serve them. God gave me a wife who did all my work. Today, I think back to how she and her sister would walk all the way to town to do the shopping and then walk back from town. The poor wife has arthritis. Recently, she had knee-replacement surgery and is now walking freely. God has helped her. But for safety she uses a crutch; she cannot risk a fall that could break the joint replacements."  So this Kanamia boy who did everything differently and had the knack of creating his own freedom, had, in the process, allowed his wife to find her own.  

Would it have been so had he remained in India? 

Would Omarjee, who was born in 1922 in the village of Paguthan in a farming community near Bharoach in India, have been able to pursue his passion for mechanical and electrical engineering?  In Paguthan, people grew cotton, wheat and vegetables and Omarjee and the other children did chores on the farms. They also went to school and madressa and played all kinds of games. One of their games - galidunda - was brought to South Africa where it became known as kennetjie. In India, they played galidunda in trees as well. One player was left on the ground while the others climbed into the trees.  Then one of the climbers hit the little stick as far as he could and the fielder below had to find it, climb up and catch one of the others. The first one he touched had to go down to field. The game depended on the ability to climb, and they climbed high up but stopped just short of where the monkeys were; the monkey hordes could be quite vicious.

Though it was a typically rural environment, it was in this little village of Paguthan that Omarjee's interest in engineering was awakened. Colonisation had brought the industrial revolution even into this remote spot and Omarjee saw machinery and equipment appear magically before his eyes.  Suddenly there were trains, mills and other strange things.  Giving little thought to the struggle going on around him to free India from British rule, he allowed his curiosity to feed on these new phenomena.  He wanted to know how they worked so he began to invent games that reflected this interest. In one game, his friends formed a train and had to pass a signal that he had created. His signalling system consisted of a piece of wood with a little arm and a cotton reel pulley with string around it that he operated from behind a bush. When the signalling arm was up the train had to stop. His games were really little scientific experiments. While the rest of the country was experiencing British Imperialism as negative and disempowering, the introduction of things British into his environment had catapulted Omarjee into new worlds and ideas and was liberating his creative energy. 

For this Kanamia boy things were always different.

But the political revolution in the country was coming closer to his home.  When Mahatma Gandhi came to Bharoach to speak of Deshi Kapra (Weave our own cloth), Omarjee's mother took him to the rally where he heard the great man speak of Britain's monopoly of the cotton industry that had reduced many millions to poverty and brought famine to the country. When Gandhiji, who wanted them to produce their own cloth and not be dependent on Britain, invited people to throw whatever British goods they had on a bonfire right there in Bharoach, little Omarjee was confused.

He was finding himself in European technology. 

 Such dilemmas, however, would soon be left behind. Omarjee was leaving for South Africa, the land of opportunity where Indians who had emigrated were doing so well that they were able to send monthly contributions to their families in the village. Omarjee's father, already in South Africa, had bought four properties in the Asiatic Bazaar; three adjoining stands in Cowie Street and a fourth in Sixth Street. There were two yards with about fifteen stables that he rented to fruit and vegetable hawkers.  Mr Suliman, a fruit and vegetable merchant with stall number 21 at the market in Church Street, bought from wholesalers and supplied hawkers. 

It was his plan to bring his two youngest sons to live in South Africa.  When Omarjee's older brother turned fifteen, Mr Suliman, who had returned to Paguthan to fetch him, became involved in supervising the building of a mosque in the village and stayed longer than he had planned.  As his son turned sixteen before he was ready to leave, he could not bring him back with him. South African immigration laws did not allow Indian children over the age of sixteen into the country.

Omarjee was more fortunate.

In 1932, when he turned ten, he set out with his mother to join his father in South Africa. They left Paguthan for Bombay where they would board the passenger ship, Takliwa.  To while away the hours before departure, they went to the movies and Omarjee had his first experience of the cinema.  But he had never been in a big city before and being exposed to so many new, ingenious things, the cinema was just one among many wonders that he was trying to take in. When they eventually got to the harbour and went aboard, Omarjee had to be on the ship's main deck so he could inspect and examine everything. As he moved about, his mother, terrified that he would fall overboard, kept hold of him by the back of his shirt.

In Mombassa, intrigued by electric lights, he observed how they were switched on and off.  Though he touched nothing, he was waiting for a chance to work them. When they arrived at Delagoa Bay Harbour, his father, who was there to meet them, took them to stay a few days with an uncle in Lourenco Marques.  Omarjee saw the lights in his uncle's house, but didn't try to work them as he did not wish to appear forward. From Lourenco Marques, the Sulimans took the train to Pretoria.  As soon as Omarjee arrived in his new home, the first thing he did was to find the light switch.  Then he stood there switching it on and off, on and off, on and off; he was going to find out how it worked. He always needed to know how things worked.

Clearly, Omarjee's path was going to deviate quite markedly from that of his father.

Then Omarjee went to school.

As he could not speak a word of English, he was put into Grade I.  At ten years of age, he was the biggest child in the class at the church on Cowie Street in the Cape Location, which accommodated the first two grades. There was no building for the English school so different grades were accommodated at different places. Some grades were at the Tamil School, some at the mosque and others in the Royal and Orient Bioscopes. In his early teens, Omarjee found himself constantly on the move from one venue to another in his pursuit of a primary education. 

In the afternoons, after English school, Omarjee went to madressa at Moulana Siddiqi's house. Here, he studied the Qur'an and learned Urdu. In the evenings, he attended night school - first with Mr Patel, then Mr Shah, and later, Mr G. Kala.  At night school, he learnt English and studied Gujarati, his mother tongue.  Though he soon became quite proficient in English he could not manage Afrikaans and that would eventually force him to drop out.

Nevertheless, it was high school that inadvertently helped to prepare him for his career in technology. When he was in Std. Seven (Grade Nine), because of his interest in mechanical things, he was given the task of fixing door locks. Before going home in the afternoon, the principal would give him the keys to the rooms where locks needed attention. He would take the locks home, clean and oil them, and if necessary, sandpaper them. When he took them back, they worked as good as new.  So he became the school's locksmith and handyman.

He was gaining many useful skills - some he actually acquired in the classroom. He became proficient in lino cutting and printing, bookbinding and cardboard modelling - constructing model houses and buildings. 

One day his English teacher, Miss Manley, a very artistic woman, who painted and decorated bottles, saw Omarjee cutting pictures out of a book. "Omarjee, don't cut up the books."

"But, Madam, this is a nice picture."

"I'll show you how you can draw it." She showed him how to make drawings

using a grid. This trick came in very handy when he began making displays for cinemas after he left school.

But the ones who actually propelled him into the film business, again unwittingly, were his schoolmates. "By the Grace of God, I got into a company of boys, Hindus and Muslims, who were from very rich families." Amongst them was Ismail, about whom one of his friends remarked: "You know, Ismail, you are not walking straight. You got a funny walk."  This worried Ismail.  He had to see for himself so he bought an eight-millimetre movie camera, a projector and screen and asked his friends to film him as he walked about. Omarjee took on the job of cameraman with alacrity. The others knew nothing of filmmaking, whereas he had been studying manuals, knew how to use the camera, how place people and objects and how to create illusions.  So they were happy to follow his lead.

Their experiments with the camera created such a buzz among the other students that they began to see themselves as moviemakers and that led to a momentous decision: they would make a film.  What had begun as a way to help Ismail improve his posture had turned into an exciting venture into cinematography.  They chose a story from one of Ismail's Gujarati magazines.  As it was about a person who helped poor people, they called their film Garib Kabeli (The Philanthropist). Ismail wrote the script and played the main role, that of Saint Luxmidas's son. Since Luxmidas was a rich Hindu, they had to depict life in a Hindu home so they decorated their set with icons of Rama and Sita. 

It did not trouble Omarjee and the Muslims in the group that they were involving themselves in a story about Hindus. In Paguthan, Omarjee had lived with Muslims, Hindus, workers and untouchables. Since the Mosque in the village was right next to the Hindu Mandir, it had been his custom after prayers at the Mosque to visit the mandir with his friends. As they entered, they would call out to an old caretaker, "Bhapuji, Bhapuji" and he would answer, "Chokra Ho, be careful. Don't knock things over."  Unlike a mosque, which has no icons, a Hindu temple has many statues and lamps. After the boys had taken a turn around the temple, they would leave. They were simply curious children, quite confident in their religion and culture.  Visiting a temple posed no threat to their beliefs.

Similarly, Omarjee and his friends in the location, confident of who they were, had no qualms about their film project. They were concerned only with the logistics of production. Since Luxmidas was a rich man, they had to reveal him in all his opulence. They showed him in a Buick owned by G. Kala whose son was in the group. But that was not sufficient. They needed to show that the owner of the Buick lived in a palace. The Asiatic Bazaar with its tin shanties had nothing to offer. Undaunted, Omarjee decided that they would use the Union Buildings as the palace in their scene. His friends couldn't believe this.

Ismail exclaimed, "Are you joking?"

"You can't do that, man," another said, "everyone will know it's the Union Buildings."

"No, man," Omarjee dismissed their objections, "we are not going to show the towers and main features of the Union Buildings."

He had already reconnoitred the area and knew exactly where they would shoot. There was a secluded section at the back that they could approach by a quiet road. This part of the building with its pillars, little fishpond and beautiful decorations was perfect for their needs. They were going to shoot an accident scene against this backdrop. Omarjee, with knowledge gained from American movie magazines and books on filming, knew exactly how to do it.  He held the camera upside down, put the accident victim next to the car wheel, had him get up and walk backwards with the car going in reverse and the spectators walking back six steps. When they showed the film at school, everyone was amazed, especially by the accident.  It looked so real that even the principal, Mr Pickles, couldn't believe his eyes. He wanted to know exactly how they had done it.

Despite his obvious talents and abilities, Omarjee left school at the end of Std

Seven (Grade Nine) because Afrikaans was a compulsory subject and he knew he would never master it.  He went to work with his father in the market and then got married. But he spent all his spare time reading about films and hanging around cinemas watching technicians at work.  Soon he began doing little display jobs around the cinemas. His work with projectors had taught him the secret of animation. He had noticed how each frame of film captured a separate step of a movement so he made a series of drawings based on the same principle. After arranging them in sequence, he flipped through the drawings, saw that the figures appeared to move and was delighted.  When he began to introduce animation into displays advertising forthcoming attractions at the cinemas, people were amazed and Omarjee became known for his ability to create unusual mechanical and electrical effects. 

He also put to good use the skill he had learnt from Miss Manley, his art teacher, that of copying pictures using a grid.  To advertise the film Rainbow on the River, he made a huge image of Bobby Breen's face that went up to the ceiling at the Empire bioscope. Bobby Breen was the young star of the film. Omarjee set up a loudspeaker and record player to create the illusion of Bobby Breen's voice, singing the title song, issuing from the mouth of the image. He also devised a flashing sign of the title over a riverboat with a wheel that turned. Every time the lights came up these images appeared, to delight and amaze the audience.

.           And recognition of Omarjee's talent was growing.

Habib Velshi Keshavjee, owner of the Empire Theatre, was so impressed with his work that he commissioned him to decorate the Jamatkhana, the Ismaili mosque on Boom Street, for the Aga Khan's visit in 1945.  The Aga Khan, the spiritual head of the Ismailis, who was on a tour of Ismaili communities in Africa, would arrive in Pretoria in August and his followers in the Asiatic Bazaar were planning a regal welcome for their Imam.  Habib Keshavjee, a prominent member of the Ismaili community, persuaded the Pretoria Ismaili Council to entrust the task of decorating the mosque to Omarjee. The Council had already obtained quotes from a couple of European (white) electrical contractors but Habib considered them mere tradesmen doing a routine job. They wouldn't look upon it as an artistic challenge. "They will just come here and put up a lot of globes and that will be it." He convinced the Council that Omarjee was a better bet as he would bring all his creativity and skill to bear on the project and would produce something outstanding for the occasion.

When Habib offered Omarjee the job, he said, "I am sure you will come up with a brilliant idea. Think of something to make this building really stand out." Excited by the challenge, Omarjee immediately set about designing something that would have special meaning for this community of Shia Muslims. He asked Habib for the symbol that denoted the community and was given a letterhead with a logo showing a decorated turban. After he had fashioned a massive reproduction of the logo and outlined the symbol with small three-watt torch bulbs, he hooked this circuit to a transformer that fed it with low voltage. And voila! A huge highlighted signature of the Ismailis in Pretoria. 

Then he got busy with a welcome sign.  He recalls with pride, "In those days you couldn't buy machinery for automation but I spotted something in Royal Bioscope one day in the operating box. They had a big drum-like thing with fingers and while the name was going on and off outside, this drum would be turning catching different letters. I thought I must make something like that but small. So I bought a tin of Lactogen - baby food. It was a nice size. I emptied it out, put insulation material on top of it and cut out the fingers from a paraffin tin. I made the whole automatic machine and I used a motor and lever from a radiogram to make the tin turn slowly."[1]  And the end result - a flashing sign on the mosque to welcome the Aga Khan to the Jamatkhana!  Omarjee then got permission from the people across the street to set up floodlights on their buildings to light up the mosque.

And it was a spectacular display - nothing like it had been seen before in the location. The Ismaili community was delighted.  To show their appreciation, the Council invited Omarjee into the mosque t