The man who knew us

As we celebrate the birth centenary of Khwaja Ahmad Abbas, let’s look back at the life and times of the master storyteller who knew the pulse of the nation.

Updated - August 07, 2014 04:27 pm IST

Published - August 07, 2014 04:25 pm IST

The film star, Raj Kapoor, in a scene from the film "Shree 420".

The film star, Raj Kapoor, in a scene from the film "Shree 420".

At a time when progressive rhymed with communist in popular imagination, Khwaja Ahmad Abbas walked the tight rope between brackets. The rope was well-oiled and his soul searching acts over the rich-poor divide proved to be entertaining and probing at the same time. At a young age he wrote to Mahatma Gandhi to revisit his ideas on the relevance of cinema for the society. When Hindi cinema was busy romanticising the ills plaguing the society, Abbas used his pen like a scalpel. As the challenges remain the same, several publishers and Khwaja Ahmad Abbas Memorial Trust are trying to resurrect Abbas in public imagination during his birth centenary year. Om Books has recently launched two books: Sardarji and Other Stories and An Evening in Paris and Other Stories. Edited by seasoned documentary filmmaker and critic Suresh Kohli, they take us close to the craft of the master practitioner of prose . Kohli says he usually wrote his film scripts as novels and novellas and ‘Mera Naam Joker’ was one such attempt which was published as novelised version. Harper Collins has brought it back as ‘Mera Naam Joker’: The Complete Story and has put Bobby’s love story between covers.

Deeply aware of the syncretic traditions of our culture, Abbas’introduction to stories happened by reading Premchand and Ratan Nath Sarshar in Urdu. When he went to Los Angeles in 1938, his aim was not to see Hollywood but meet writer Upton Sinclair. A much feted alumnus of Aligarh Muslim University, he had to spend nights on the pavements of Bombay. Years later, the contradiction reflected in his writing and his choices as a filmmaker. Not as a protest but as an attempt to make sense of who we are. In the process he rubbed many, including some of his progressive writer friends, the wrong way. After Partition when Abbas wrote that every community should look within they found him anti-people, only to apologise later.

Much before ‘Naya Daur’, he talked of ‘Naya Sansar’ (1941) where the protagonist was a radical journalist like him. Today’s generation might know him as the crucial member of Raj Kapoor’s dream team but before ‘Awaara’, Abbas had shown his literary prowess in cinematic writing with V. Shantaram’s ‘Dr. Kotnis Ki Amar Kahani’ and Chetan Anand’s ‘Neecha Nagar’. A member of IPTA, his house was always open for strugglers and one of them happened to be Dev Anand.

With Raj Kapoor he struck a chord with the masses with series of films starting with ‘Awaara’ and ‘Shree 420’ and it continued till ‘Ram Teri Ganga Maili’ and ‘Henna’.

Veteran filmmaker Lekh Tandon who worked closely with Abbas and Raj Kapoor during the making of ‘Shree 420’ says Abbas provided the ideological centre to Raj Kapoor’s vision. Though he had seen life from close quarters Raj ji had little formal education. He used to say Abbas sahib provided a voice to his socialist ideas. And Abbas admitted that Raj had the knack to touch the core of his thought and give it a glamorous cover with his showmanship.

Film historian and author Nasreen Munni Kabir who has compiled a book on the dialogues of Awaara believes the socialist vision of Abbas is more apparent in ‘Shree 420’ than in ‘Awaara’. However, in ‘Awaara’, the mix of romanticism and socialism is very modern and interesting. His radical idea was to question whether the morality of a man is based on nature or nurture and that presupposed equality among classes, beyond caste and religion.

In a marked departure from the Parsi theatre roots of Hindi cinema, she says his lines reflect an every day spoken Hindustani – more Urdu than Hindi. His ability to switch from romantic talk (think of scenes between RK and Nargis) to what the youth aspire for in the decade after Independence was credible. The courtroom declaration of RK still gives goose bumps.

Interestingly, Abbas first took the script of ‘Awaara’ to Mehboob but he wanted to cast Ashok Kumar as jailor and Dilip Kumar as his son. Abbas had written the script with Prithviraj Kapoor, his friend from theatre circuit, in mind. At that time Raj Kapoor was looking for a subject and one thing led to another.

Saba Bashir, who has analysed the socialism in the films of Khwaja Ahmad Abbas in a research paper, observes that he was well ahead of his times. He made ‘Dharti Ke Lal’ much before ‘Do Bigha Zamin’ or ‘Pather Panchali’ and his comment on fair skin in ‘Chaar Dil Chaar Rahen’ is still relevant. So is his reflection on urban poverty Shehar Aur Sapna where the protagonists live in a water pipe. Remember it was almost a decade before the New Wave took root with the Benegals and the Nihalanis. The stark reality of Do Boond Pani and The Naxalites continue to haunt us, she notes. He was close to Nehru but his films didn’t fawn over Nehruvian socialism like Naya Daur. In fact he presented a critique of Nehruvian ideals through tongue-in-cheek remarks, says Bashir.

However, in the last decade the mainstream media has lost touch with his legacy. Part of the reason is that his works are not easily available. When I was researching for the paper I could not find many of his films in Delhi, she adds.

Kohli says stars were always available to him but he worked with them as long as they worked as actors with him. When stardom took root, he decided to cast fresh faces. He was hurt by the way some stars treated him after the moderate success of ‘Chaar Dil Chaar Chaar Rahen’.

All through his life he kept on grappling with the brackets that his contemporaries tried to fit him in. Perhaps that’s why he chose to name his autobiography I Am Not An Island: An Experiment in Autobiography where he describes himself as the communicator of ideas. Simple!

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