In Mumbai, lacking space, it is rare to find a wall of books in the middle of a restaurant. Even rarer to be able to enter and browse exclusive photo books, coffee table collections and special editions that belonged to a powerful couple from Bollywood – Nargis and Sunil Dutt.
Neatly arranged on either side of a wall at Café Mommyjoon, a Bandra restaurant co-owned by the youngest daughter of late couple Priya Dutt Roncon, are Sam Shaw’s iconic photo book, The Joy of Marilyn: In the Camera Eye, Yousuf Karsh’s Portraits of Greatness, a tome on the work of Edvard Munch, among many others – each bearing a small, oval-shaped stamp that reads “Dutts, Nargis-Sunil Library, Bombay”.
The collection makes a delightful revelation of the passion with which Nargis and Sunil Dutt have collected a wide range of books over the years. “My mother was an avid reader. My father was an avid collector of books. Mum would finish a book in a few days while dad took more time because he read very carefully and emphasized what he liked, ”recalls Dutt Roncon, who inherited their rich collection.
Before Café Mommyjoon opened last year, she browsed through piles of her parents’ collection before choosing around 1,500 titles to keep at this Bandra café that specializes in Middle Eastern cuisine.
These books are kept on both sides of a wall built in the center of the interior space of the cafe. “In fact, the cafe is designed with book placement in mind,” says Dutt Roncon, adding that since she has around 1,000 more titles at home, she plans to spin the books. “It’s a restaurant open all day. We want to encourage visitors to spend the afternoon time with books and coffee or Iranian chai, ”she said.
Dutt Roncon says his parents’ deep interest in culture and popular figures is reflected in the choice of their books.
On the shelves of the cafe, besides books on Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe – the couple are known to be fans of the singer-performers – are a number of titles on personalities from different fields, including The Greatest: My Own Story. by Muhammad Ali. , The Films of Akira Kurosawa by Donald Richie, Steinbeck: A Life in Letters, Michael Jackson: Dancing the Dream, Luis Bunuel by Ado Kyrou and The Westerns by John Ford.
It is clear from their collection that the Dutts were interested in a wide range of subjects: history, sports, music, gastronomy, theater, the arts and photography, among others. There are several fiction and thriller titles, including Ian Fleming’s James Bond series and James Hadley Chase’s page-turners. “Both of my parents were interested in history. Mom was also a voracious reader of fiction. Reading was the mother’s way of educating herself, ”says Dutt Roncon of Nargis, who joined the industry as a child actor.
However, it emerges from their stock of rare and excellent cinema-related books that the Dutt couple passionately followed international cinema and the various aspects of cinema. There are scripts of several classics such as Marlon Brando-starrer On the Waterfront, Blow Up by Michelangelo Antonioni kept alongside The Screenwriter’s Problem Solver by Syd Field, How to Act, Handbook of Film Production, Making Movies: From Script to Screen , Color in Your camera and a cinema of solitude. There are several books that trace the history of cinema such as The American Cinema, The Japanese Movie, Italian Cinema, Today and A Pictorial History of the Silent Screen.
The cafe has at least two different biographies of Swedish actress Ingrid Bergman as well as her autobiography, titled My Story. Were the Dutts a fan of the Casablanca actor? “Yes. Dad thought mom looked a lot like Bergman,” Priya recalls with a laugh. Other big-name titles include The Films of Paul Newman, The Films of Frank Capra and Bogart by Allen Eyles.
The cafe moved into the same space that was once the office of Ajanta Arts, the production house of Sunil Dutt who has directed films such as Mujhe Jeene Do (1963) and Reshma Aur Shera (1971). Later, as he turned to politics and joined Congress, the space served as an office for him and Dutt Roncon, both of whom were elected to Lok Sabha.
The Dutt couple chose books from their favorite haunts. “My parents used to buy books from the Nalanda bookstore which was at the Taj Mahal Palace (Colaba) hotel,” Priya recalls, remembering having accompanied her father to a small bookstore in Bandra.
While reading was encouraged, the Dutts did not force their children, says Dutt Roncon. “During our childhood, the family hung out in the library room. My mom bought Nancy Drew’s book collection for my sister (Namrata), ”she recalls.