Kader Khan’s career in Hindi cinema seemed split into two — the screenwriter and the actor; further when it came to acting, there were the villains he played as against the comedians; and, in terms of the star eras, there was the Amitabh Bachchan phase that led later into the Govinda years. Through all the years, encompassing hundreds of films, Khan remained at the top of his game, specially as a writer.
He died on Monday, at the age of 81.
Khan would be best remembered as the influential writer who defined entertainment in the 70s and the 80s and guided film-making of the time in his own way. So Amitabh Bachchan may have been the face of Prakash Mehra’s Sharaabi (1984) but look closely and the film is sustained on the streetside lingo and dialogue baazi that Khan wrote.
Khan was prolific in his output which traversed many genres — family, social, political, action, comedy, romance.
Born and raised in the midst of poverty in Kamathipura, a lot of his early struggles, the deprivation and pain, also made its way into the scenarios of films like Laawaris (1981) and Muqaddar Ka Sikandar (1978). The graveyard scene in the latter draws from his own childhood when he used to run away to the cemetery to sit between the graves and enact scenes from what he saw and experienced during the day and declaim random lines.
It was there that he was spotted by theatreperson Ashraf Khan and steered towards the stage.
An engineer by training and a professor of civil engineering, Khan often claimed that his first love had always been theatre. “I used to teach the theory of structure, hydraulics, strength of material, RCC steel, but my subjects which I used to like were theatre, Stanislavsky, Maxim Gorky, Chekhov, Dostoevsky — these are my other teachers. So my life was split into two,” he said in an interview to Connie Haham, author of the biography “Enchantment of the Mind: Manmohan Desai’s Films ”.
Producer Ramesh Behl of Rose Movies approached him to write a film and so Narendra Bedi’s Jawani Diwani (1972) marked his debut as a writer. He claimed to have written the film in four hours flat and the shoot for it started within three days of him having wrapped it up, a record of sorts. He got Rs. 1,500 for the film, a royal sum considering he hadn’t earned more than Rs 500 before that. The dialogue for Khel Khel Mein (1975) earned him Rs. 10,000, he had recollected in the Haham interview.
Khan’s words were witty, satirical, dramatic. His signature style was all about the use of colloquial idiom, street patois and everyday language and speech. All stitched perfectly to the character. It was what endeared him to filmmaker Manmohan Desai. As per the Haham interview Desai gifted him a Panasonic TV, a golden bracelet and Rs. 25,000 on hearing the narration of Roti (1974) and increased his writing fee from Rs. 25,000 to a lakh.
Like Salim-Javed, Khan was a star-writer of the times. He was also a rare one to have balanced himself between the two big Bollywood camps — of Desai and Prakash Mehra.Amar Akbar Anthony (1977) Dharam Veer (1977), Coolie (1983) and Ganga Jamuna Saraswati (1988) on the one hand and Muqaddar Ka Sikandar (1978), Laawaris (1981) and Sharaabi (1984) on the other.
He wasn’t just divided between the two. There was also a third force that came to work later. He was also much sought after by the South production houses — like Padmalaya — and filmmakers like K. Raghavendra Rao, K. Bapaiah, Dasari Narayan Rao, D. Rama Naidu — to do the script and dialogue for the Hindi remakes of their films, like Himmatwala (1983), Justice Choudhury (1983), Mawaali (1983), Tohfa (1984), Haisiyat (1984), Naya Kadam (1984), Singhasan (1986). He didn’t just translate the original films into Hindi but transposed them into a new North setting, culture, context and language.
Khan’s innings in acting kicked off with Rajesh Khanna’s romantic court-room drama on bigamy — Daag (1973) — where he played an attorney. A lot of the strength of his performances emanated from the timbre of his voice, the easily identifiable baritone. In fact one of his films Benaam (1974) is all about the voice. He is the title character but not present in the film, only heard. In his later years he formed a formidable comic pair with Govinda — be it the many No. 1 films, specially Hero No. 1 (1997) or a Dulhe Raja (1998).
Khan also directed his home production Shama (1981) when the director left it mid way. However, he never took the credit for it.
He confessed in the Haham interview to have got fed up of filmdom, specially with the coming in of a new generation. “There was a gap of thoughts and feelings. I worked with one or two but could not continue… Unke thoughts vo saare imported hain. They’re all imported thoughts. I belong to this soil. I belong to Kamathipura. Unless I find an atmosphere of that Kamathipura I can’t act or I can’t write,” he had said, adding, “The technique is very much advanced. But the literature, they’ve lost. There are no writers here. They don’t write. Because to become a writer, you have to pass through some boiling [sic] episodes of your life.” Unfortunately, in keeping with the times, his own writing had also begun to border on the bawdy.
So Khan went back to teaching, the education of Muslim community in particular. He was disturbed by the anti-Muslim sentiment the world over. “… People say they have spoiled the peace of the world, but to be frank, there is no peace in their own houses… No respect for each other,” he said of the poor, illiterate Muslims. He wanted to educate them, “listening to them in their miseries, helping them in their problems, gradually entering into their houses and then into their hearts, in their families, into their thoughts”. “It will take time,” he said, “But I think I will be successful.”
Filmmaker David Dhawan on Kader: He was amazing as a writer and an actor. He has given a lot of hits with me but he has not got the credit that he should be getting. He was too big an actor. To give an actor a role, he performs. But his contribution was too big to the roles.
I have great memories of him. He used to create the scene for me. A lot of times I used to get stuck and he used to ask me why I'm looking hassled. I used to say, " Bhaijaan, mazza nahi aa raha hai iss scene main (I'm not enjoying this scene)", so he used to say, " Das minute dey phir mazza ayegatereko (Give it ten minutes)". Then he would do the scene, change the line and then perform it. People remember him for comedy but his emotional strength was very strong. He could make you cry, that was his power. At one stage, all the producers were at his feet. A one-man show it was. This can happen only because of the dedication of an actor.