by Carol J. Slingo
Cut, no. 33, Feb. 1988, p. 99
Khwaja Ahmed Abbas died on June 1, 1987 after 41 years as the most prominent voice of the left in Indian commercial films. While other political filmmakers addressed their work to educated viewers, he spent his life trying to reach the mass, more or less uneducated, audience of millions. To this end, he incorporated songs and dances, last minute rescues, character types, and other ingredients of Hindi popular cinema. But he subverted the plot devices that required raped women to commit suicide and wronged heroes to kill or die for useless reasons, and junked the usual cathartic, ritual denouement in favor of a just, socialist view of the future.
Politically, Abbas was part of a generation who were cultured in socialist and communist thought and organizations, and who had to make sense of the vast changes taking place in their own lifetime, most dramatically focused before, during and after national independence. In the cinema he was part of a generation of song and scriptwriters who came from the area which later became Pakistan and who had much influence in 1950s Indian cinema, though they were never an organized movement. Like many Communist Party and other left participants in the Indian film industry, Abbas made commercial films and consciously brought in progressive politics.
Only one of his 14 films was an important hit in India; most were financial failures. Still he worked doggedly, and as he grew older, he became an institution. A friend wrote,
The director once commented,
Now that Indian video stores have followed Indian families to North America, even into the suburbs of Chicago, it is possible to see the idiosyncratic, nagging, and generous work of K.A. Abbas.
Abbas, born into a Muslim family of Panipat, graduated from the University of Aligarh. Throughout his adult life he supported himself as a journalist and as a writer for a range of Hindi films from Raj Kapoor's socially incisive AWARRA (Vagabond, 1951) and SHREE 420 (Mr. 420, 1955) to the fluffy LOVE IN GOA (1983), while his weekly column in Blitz magazine and over 70 books made him a name, a gadfly, a public figure. His work in Russian translation was adapted for the screen and honored by a major literary award. He became a cultural ambassador between the Indian and the Soviet film industries, eventually making a Russian-Hindi co-production, PARDESI (Traveller, 1957), which failed in his own country, he thought, because the love of an Indian woman for a foreigner was not acceptable to Indians.
Abbas directed his debut film DHARTI KE LAL (Sons of Earth) with actors of the Indian People's Theatre Association playing farmers struggling to survive the Bengal famine of 1943. George Sadoul wrote:
"It was released … in one theatre in Bombay," Abbas said, "and on the same day the communal riots started [Hindu-Moslem caste conflicts]. Our first show was full, all the shows were fully booked … The second show never got started…"(3) An attempt to revive it was a failure; after Independence, audiences demanded light entertainment.
Abbas worked for five years to pay off his debts, and when he began his second feature, he combined social realism with stars. But by 1959 it was clear that this strategy was not financially sound when the actors of CHAAR DIL CHAAR RAHEN (Four Hearts, Four Roads) went to court for immediate payment. "They said probably this man will run away," explained Abbas. CHAAR DIL was in fact headed for box office disaster. Abbas made heroes of stock support characters (the Untouchable, the Prostitute, the Hotel Waiter). Fans for superstars Raj Kapoor and actress Meena Kumari were not ready for this, never mind that the songs were catchy, the story gripping. Abbas was worn out. He began to cast his films with unknown artists exclusively. He had one big money maker, SHEHAR AUR SAPNA (The City and the Dream), which won a National Award, but because it had no stars, it, like his other films of the 1960s, is not in the video stores.
Amitabh Bachchan, on top of the box office for over a decade, made his debut with Abbas. The patriotic melodrama SAAT HINDUSTANI (Seven Indians, 1969) is thus available here in a subtitled version. As usual, sure-fire box office material — escapes, torture, fights — is blended into a plot that is part FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS (such borrowing is common in Bombay films), part history (a team of guerrillas is sent to destabilize Goa in advance of the Indian troops) and part plea for national unity. The anti-Portuguese scenes are subordinate to the conflicts between religious and linguistic factions that raged in the late 1960s. Abbas deliberately cast all the actors against region and religion: Malayalee actor for Bengali character, Muslim actors for Christians and Hindus, and Bachchan, the son of a noted Hindu poet, as the greenhorn Muslim who gets no respect until he has proven himself many times.
In 1972 Abbas completed DO BOOND PANT (Two Drops of Water), in which the traditional desert people of Rajasthan help to build an immense irrigation system. "It is a privilege for the Indian cinema to be the chronicler of this great and historic, dramatic and exciting, transformation," Abbas wrote in "Social Realism in the Indian Cinema" (Filmfare, June 2, 1972). With formidable settings, inspirational melodrama, and a magisterial score by Jaidev, DO BOOND PANI may be the most important of his later films. It, too, was a box office flop.
FAASLA (Distance, 1974) was far less costly, a simple tale of a playboy sent to an asylum when he changes his life and sides with his workers. Shabana Azmi, who has been seen in the West in films of Shyam Benegal and Mrinal Sen, made her debut as the hero's supporter and lover. (It should be noted that women's roles run from the decorative to dismal in most Hindi films. Abbas wrote strong, positive women's roles.) THE NAXAL1TES (1981) is an anecdotal history of a Marxist-Leninist movement in parts of India. Scenes of graphic bloodshed alternate with the domestic lives of militants and tribal ethnography. It was considered within the industry to be a bizarre failure. MR. X combined actors of New Cinema, low budget special effects, animals, and James Bond material with questions about science.
Abbas' health began to fail in the 60s, when he suffered his first heart attack. Later he had a more serious attack and a mild paralytic stroke. He also had cataracts and an accident in which a camera trolley injured his legs; nevertheless, he found money to make EK AADMI (One Man), and went on working until his death. However he may have felt about the rejection of his work by its intended mass audience, he nevertheless wrote in one of his final columns for Blitz: "…see any of the pictures I produced — and you will meet me."
1. S. Ghosh, "K. A. Abbas: A Man in Tune with History," Screen (Bombay), June 19, 1987, p. 14.
2. Dictionary of Films (Berkeley: U. of CA Press, 1977), p. 84.
3. This quote and the next from a lengthy interview with Abbas in Vasudev and Lenglet, eds., Indian Cinema Super-bazaar (New Dehli: Vikas, 1978).
4. Of all the Abbas films I have watched on videocassette, only two had English subtitles. These were SAAT HINDUSTANI and ACHANAK (Suddenly, 1973), directed by Gulzar, which is an atypical story of a soldier who handles his private life as an extension of war and is hanged for the murder of his wife. It should not be difficult to rent Hindi films from any established store. Many groceries carry prints behind the counter, even if they are not advertised, and in cities with large Indian populations, there will probably be several stores that rent by mail to people with established accounts. The quality of the prints and tapes will vary beyond belief.