Director's cut

KA Abbas, ‘biggest bulk buyer of tickets’ of his own films and eternal dreamer

The medium was always the message for the celebrated writer, filmmaker and columnist.

“Love me if you can”: The last will and testament of Khwaja Ahmad Abbas (June 7, 1914-June 1, 1987).

Trying to love Khwaja Ahmad Abbas may be an unusual path towards the life and work of this writer-film maker, which is signposted by 13 films that flopped, several written for Raj Kapoor that were runaway hits, 74 books, 89 short stories, and one of the longest running journalistic columns in India. But it is also an easy path. Abbas can be found all along it: sitting inside a drainpipe, pondering over the life of footpath dwellers before making a film on them; celebrating that none of his cast or crew was paid less than Rs 200 or more than Rs 400 for Dharti ke Lal; sharing the proceeds of his award-winning Shehar Aur Sapna equally between the 15-member cast and crew.

KA Abbas, Courtesy: Indiancine.ma.
KA Abbas, Courtesy: Indiancine.ma.

Abbas called himself not so much a film-maker as a “communicator”. He moved between journalism, fiction and cinema with ease, treating each as a welcome break from the travails of the other. From anti-imperial politics to a passionate belief in socialism; from involvement in the leftist movements of his times (the Progressive Writers’ Association and the Indian People’s Theatre Association) to support for the Nehruvian vision – his life and work were informed by so many concerns that contemporary critics found him hard to classify.

“I am not an island,” replied Abbas through the title of his autobiography. Read along with his many texts – his political writing, fiction, interviews, or autobiography – his film-making journey is a bit like eavesdropping on the heartbeat of history.

Salt of the earth

Abbas made his debut as a director-producer with the powerful Dharti ke Lal (1946), about the notorious Bengal famine of 1943. Featuring a cast of IPTA legends Shambhu Mitra, Tripti Mitra, a young Balraj Sahni and his wife Damyanti (a bigger star at the time), with music by Ravi Shankar, the film had many scenes that prefigured the lyrical back-and-white beauty of Bengal countryside that we associate with Bimal Roy. It followed a peasant family reeling under hunger and exploitation by the moneylender and the landlord who migrate to Calcutta and end up starving. At the end, the family returns and the village finds its resolution in collective farming.

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Dharti ke Lal (1946).

The same year, Abbas co-wrote the story for Chetan Anand’s directorial debut Neecha Nagar (1946), a searing indictment of upper-class greed from a slum-dwellers’ point of view. The movie shared the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival. Based on Maxim Gorky’s Lower Depths, Neecha Nagar focuses on an Anglicised businessman (called Sarkar in an obvious allusion to the British rulers) who diverts a dirty drain to a settlement of poor villagers for profits, and their resistance. The film had music by Ravi Shankar; Kamini Kaushal made her debut as a satyagrahi protestor.

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Neecha Nagar (1946).

The two films showcased the main themes of Abbas’s lifelong work in cinema: the forces that oppressed his countrymen; the cruelty of the socially and economically privileged; the essential heroism of the masses but also the depths to which suffering could push them; the strength and inspiring potential of women; the ruthless realities of the city. And always, a hope for the future that lay in collective endeavour and mutual solidarity, which rose above personal identities and differences.

The Indian Tramp

“In Bombay, you have to give a deposit for the privilege of sleeping on the footpath, and as for this footpath, it’s absolutely soft!” (Shri 420, 1955).

Abbas wrote the story and dialogue for the Raj Kapoor films Awara (1951), Shri 420 and the dialogue for Jagte Raho. These films gave shape and voice to Kapoor’s iconic underdog-tramp persona and to his vision of class conflict in which the underprivileged were essentially innocent while the rich were mostly heartless. Awara fought the heredity versus environment battle, claiming that if people went wrong, it was because of their social conditions and not because of their blood. Shri 420 was a moral fable, showing the fall of a young man who is manipulated by big money till realisation dawns.

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Shri 420 (1955).

If city life was an unfolding irony in Abbas’s Raj Kapoor films, in his own films, the pathos was more solemn. In Shehar Aur Sapna (1964), Abbas showed a homeless couple (Dilip Raj and Surekha Parkar) who have to make home in a drainpipe (he made the newcomers rehearse crouched under a table in his house). The madman’s figure of Manmohan Krishna provides – as so often in Abbas films – a kind of Greek chorus to the proceedings. There is a haunting sorrow in the songs written by Ali Sardar Jafri and sung by the actor without any accompaniments. Abbas’s only film to win the Gold Medal at the National Film Awards, Shehar aur Sapna was made with funding from friends and an understanding of equal partnership between the 15 member cast and crew. The money came about Rs 15,000 each.

The fraught love-hate relationship with Bombay emerged explicitly in Bambai Raat ki Bahon Mein (1968), in which Johny (debutant Jalal Agha) is caught in a trap of greed. The end has Johny’s dead body covered with wads of money in a gutter, his car “which was the symbol of the beauty and power of Bombay, upturned like a cockroach, its wheels still revolving”.

A new tomorrow

Abbas was of the generation that had “danced with a hundred thousand others on the streets of Bombay on the day of freedom”. The dream of building a new India out of economic and social inequalities was the cornerstone of his work. His first script for Bombay Talkies was called Naya Sansar (1941), as was his production house. Yet, this was a man who had seen violence during the Partition and had been left shaken. He did not shy from showing the contradictions in the people.

In Dharti ke Lal, the childless Damyanti Sahni nearly murders the infant son of her sister-in-law, and the villagers find it hard to get over their histories of bad blood. In Shri 420, Raj Kapoor is seduced by the easy charms of money and glamour and even agrees to cheat poor slum dwellers. In Saat Hindustani, the erstwhile patriots give in to the regional and religious identities tearing the nation apart. Yet it is from these very – Abbas’s uncommon man – that the heroic and the hopeful arises.

His movies end on a note of optimism, even when the end is not a happy one. Dharti ke Lal has the villagers forming a collective. The heroes in Awara and Shri 420 go to prison but find redemption. In an optimistic experiment, Abbas cast all the actors in Saat Hindustani (1969) against their regional and religious identities. Bengali stalwart Utpal Dutt played a Punjabi, Malayali actor Madhu a Bengali, Mehmood’s brother Anwar Ali was a radical Hindi activist; and Amitabh Bachchan played a Muslim poet. All of them had gone to help in the liberation of Goa from Portuguese colonial rule.

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Saat Hindustani (1969).

Abbas called Jawaharlal Nehru “my long love affair” and believed in his vision of a state-led planned economy, nurtured by roads, steel plants and dams. Char Dil Char Rahein(1959) took the stories of a Dalit woman (daringly casting Meena Kumari painted a bit too black) who is unable to marry her upper caste lover (Raj Kapoor); a prostitute’s daughter (Nimmi), and a waiter (Shammi Kapoor) too poor to marry his love (Kumkum). Towards the end, a labour leader convinces Meena Kumar’s character that the solution to not just her oppression but also her personal sorrows lies in working on the road being built under the five-year plan. Abbas was inspired by the coming of the Rajasthan Canal to the desert and made Do Boond Pani (1972; starring Simi Garewal and Jalal Agha), but now he had to include a frustrated comment on bureaucratic delays.

11,000 girls and more

In 1962, motivated by the news that Bombay had a female labour force of 11,000, Abbas made Gyarah Hazaar Ladkiyan (Bharat Bhushan and Mala Sinha), a plea for India to look out for the vulnerable women “improving the future of a new India”. The title song shows hundreds of young women working in factories, offices, hospitals and schools, and is infectious in its spirit of creating a new icon.

Women played exceptional roles in all Abbas’s films. In Dharti ke Lal, the farmer’s starving wife Radhika (Tripti Mitra) is forced into prostitution to feed her infant, but the film does not treat this as the end of her life and her love story with her husband continues. In Char Dil Char Rahein, Nimmi plays a prostitute’s daughter whose lover (Ajit) refuses to give a home to her “fallen” mother. She spiritedly refuses to accept his condition.

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Char Dil Char Rahein (1959).

From the Gandhian Rupa (Kamini Kaushal) of Neecha Nagar to the honest Vidya (Nargis) of Shri 420, and the heroic rape survivor and freedom fighter Maria (Shehnaaz) of Saat Hindustani, Abbas portrayed young female protagonists as transcendental voices of conscience and indomitable spirits.

Medium and message

Abbas’s films suffered from a perpetual lack of funds, mostly featured newcomers, and were made only with like-minded colleagues. This may explain, up to a point, why his ideas worked so well when directed by others but not when he was at the helm himself. Beyond that point lies the problematic of cinema with a message.

In the service of the message Abbas was so keen to present, his characters often emerged as fully fledged representatives of a type – evil rich man, hard-hearted city dweller, committed labour leader – devoid of complexity. In his fiction, Abbas created some beautifully nuanced stories, but this mostly failed to translate to his cinema. He added what he acknowledged were “gimmicks” to make a point, such as interspersing scenes of slum demolition with shots of with Nazi tanks. The intentions were honourable but the effects exasperating.

Yet, the filmmaker was clear that for him there was no difference between writing a film and writing an article for Blitz as long as his message got through. He was even sympathetic to the audience who abandoned his films: “If there is an improvement in other things, I think there will be an improvement in the appreciation of good films.” Most loveably, he confessed when in his 60s, “I am still the biggest bulk buyer of tickets of my own films! It was so when my first film was premiered in 1941 and the feeling is just the same today…”

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