A.K. Hangal -- 1917-2012 - Communist, tailor, actor, purveyor of senescent charm

Like Benjamin Button, Avtar Krishan Hangal seemed for generations of cinemagoers to have been born old.

It didn’t matter whether it was in landmark films such as Sholay, Namak Haraam and Lagaan or somewhat offbeat ventures such as Shagird and Shararat. Never mind whether he was called Rahim chacha, Masterji or Imam sahab. A.K. Hangal, whose roles often demanded a careworn fragility and a gentle but unwavering righteousness, was the very embodiment of senescent charm. He was cast in roles that demanded piety, playing characters that carried the burden of their virtuous poverty with a quiet and kindly dignity. That these roles mirrored the ups and downs of his own life made their portrayal all the more easy.

Perhaps it had something to do with his face that filmmakers were loath to offer him a villain’s part. Yes, of course he did break the mould sometimes, as in Shaukeen, where he played, along with Ashok Kumar and Utpal Dutt, a lecherous old man. That he acted with conviction is reflected in the following anecdote. Hangal, well into his 90s then, had finished a leisurely dinner at a five-star hotel in Delhi and needed to be dropped off at a friend’s place. A girl in her 20s was assigned the task of driving him. She whispered in trepidation to her boss: “Sir, I have seen Shaukeen!” Finally, a man had to be commandeered to drive Hangal where he wanted to go.

If the girl was guilty of mixing reel with real, the film industry did no better. While everyone wanted to cast him in the role of a kindly old man, nobody spared a thought for the old man himself. Not even when he did Gurudev Bhalla’s Shararat, a film about old age home inmates, did it strike anyone that Hangal could be facing a crisis himself. It was only a couple of years ago, when his son Vijay announced there was no money for the treatment of Hangal, who suffered from multiple medical problems at the time, that the film world awakened from slumber. The industry rose like one, with Jaya Bachchan, who had acted with Hangal in Bawarchi, Guddi and Sholay, offering to pay for his treatment. So did others such as Mithun Chakraborty and Riyaz Gangjee, who incidentally, got Hangal to ‘walk’ the ramp on a wheel chair a little more than a year ago. Earlier this year, Hangal made a comeback of sorts, shooting for the serial Madhubala on Colors.

That was one of the rare times Hangal occupied the centre-stage. For the most part, he was on the sidelines. He did a number of films with Rajesh Khanna, a few significant ones with the Bachchans and many others. When this correspondent reminded him of his roles in a variety of films such as Tapasya, Avtaar and Sharaabi, he seemed dismissive. “Bahut role kiye hain. I have seen only 50 films of mine.” (He did 225 in all.) But he did remember Sholay. “I researched for the role, learnt Islamic hymns and tried to perfect the body language for the role of an imam,” he said.

It wasn’t an easy life for Hangal. He spent three years in jail in Karachi before coming to Bombay in 1949 with all of Rs. 20 in his pocket. Left-leaning, a member of the Communist Party, he spent many years working for the Indian People’s Theatre Association. Such were the vicissitudes of life that Hangal at one time had to take up a tailoring job to make ends meet. Like everything else, he excelled at it. Born in Sialkot in 1917, he was a late comer to the film industry. He signed Shagird when he was almost 50. But he had done plenty of theatre by then.

Films brought him stability and a degree of respect. It did not, however, translate into a comfortable house or a bank balance. His origins would haunt him now and then. Once he was dubbed anti-national by right-wing forces in Mumbai for attending Independence Day celebrations at the Pakistan Consul-General's office. He was boycotted by filmmakers and remained out of work for two years.

Although things returned to normal, the incident left him deeply hurt. He complained: “I had come to India leaving behind everything in Karachi yet was dubbed a Pakistani!”

A lifelong Marxist, he renewed his membership of the Communist Party of India earlier this year. “I clearly remember the day Bhagat Singh was arrested, and the day he was hanged. Pathans cried and everyone walked the streets chanting ‘Bhagat Singh, Bhagat Singh’,” he told Open magazine, speaking proudly of his earliest associations with the Left.

In his autobiography, Life and Times of A.K. Hangal, he lamented Bollywood’s tendency to ignore the “complex social fabric of society” and make stereotyped films. “[Honestly] speaking, even after working in about 200 films, and getting name and fame, I often feel I am a stranger in this world because of my ideological and political background, sensitiveness and social commitments.”

On Sunday, the realities of his age finally caught up with the old man of Hindi cinema.

A.K. Hangal, actor, died on August 26 aged 95. He was born in Sialkot, now in Pakistan, on February 1, 1917.

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A.K. Hangal of iconic film Sholay passes awayAugust 26, 2012