Remembering Ali Peter John: Veteran film journalist known for his compassion for ‘strugglers’
John was well-known among the film fraternity — actor Anupam Kher referred to him as the “Dilip Kumar of film journalism” on a condolence post on Twitter on Wednesday
Ali Peter John (72) was a chronicler of the Hindi film industry, but it was also the world he inhabited. The veteran film journalist and blogger died on June 8 following a short illness.
One June 2, he posted on social media platform Facebook: “The eyes tell it all, the end seems to be at hand and it is finally time to go.”
John was associated with Hindi film magazine, Mayapuri, and also authored several books, including Witnessing Wonders. He worked for Screen, a film magazine of the Indian Express newsgroup, for over three decades and wrote a popular column, Ali’s Notes.
John was well-known among the film fraternity — actor Anupam Kher referred to him as the “Dilip Kumar of film journalism” on a condolence post on Twitter on Wednesday; film critic Khalid Mohamed called him the first celebrity film journalist — but it was writer Suketu Mehta’s definitive book on the city, Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found (2004), who captured John’s role in the city fabric. It was in Mehta’s account that we read of filmmaker Mahesh Bhatt’s description of John as the “god of the strugglers”.
Over a call from New York, Mehta said, “The very first time I met him I spent hours with him and I knew that I have met a natural storyteller. There were a lot of movie stars like Anupam Kher and Mahesh Bhatt who knew him before they became successful and still respected him.But many of the strugglers who came from villages would go to Ali and out of the kindness of his heart he would try to get them roles here and there and listen to them patiently. He always had time for people. I was struck by that. He was one rare person in Bombay with lots and lots of time.”
“Ali had a keen eye for the stories of the film underworld. Here was something like a Bollywood confidential. Ali seemed to know everyone’s secret life. And he told me a lot more than what I could put in my book,” Mehta added.
“I have been reading him since I was a child. He had a very genial and compassionate style. I think he was the first celebrity journalist. When we would go out to some locations people would approach him for autographs,” filmmaker and journalist Khalid Mohamed said.
John, who started as a crime reporter in Mumbai, saw his career take off after he started writing on Hindi cinema. “I wanted to be a bus conductor. I wanted to be a Roman Catholic priest. I was advised to be a stenographer, but Abbas Sahab changed all my plans and showed me the writer in me and led me on my path,” John wrote in the introduction to his 2014 book, Witnessing Wonders, referring to writer and director Khwaja Ahmed Abbas.
John had friends across the industry. When he suffered an accident in 2016, newspapers reported how Bollywood superstar Shahrukh Khan paid his hospital bills. But, as Mehta pointed out in his book, John was most at ease among the “strugglers”.
“Everyone in the film industry knew about him and his column. He had a very original and personal style of writing and was never critical about his subjects,” film journalist and historian Bhawana Somaaya said.
“Listening to Ali, you get the impression of a man who is haunted by the struggling actors who have come to Bombay and failed; he retains special solicitude for women. Ali says that of every hundred girls who come to the city to become actresses, “ten are lucky, ninety are doomed.” The auditions are often held in places like the Hotel Seaside in Juhu, which Ali has renamed the Hotel Suicide, because of what it drives some of the female strugglers to after an audition in one of its rooms...,” Mehta wrote in Maximum City.