(Compiled from conversations with Mr. Ali Peter John, Mr. Tinnu Anand & Mr. Dilipraj Paidipati)
‘Free, Frank and Fearless’- ‘I write as I feel.’ These were the mottos of the man who penned one of the longest running columns in the history of Indian journalism, ‘The Last Page’ for the Blitz weekly. The man also made films that shook the social consciousness of his era and scared the government. He was a socialist to the core and a close friend of Pandit Nehru. He is also remembered by many for being a mentor (or guru) to them and the man who introduced Amitabh Bachchan to the Silver Screen.
Khwaja Ahmad Abbas -was one of the most incandescent gems, not only in films but also in journalism and literature that India has ever produced. His multi-faceted personality saw him equally at home as a film director, novelist, screenwriter and a journalist who wrote in Urdu, Hindi and English. His column ‘Last Page’ (‘Azad Kalam’ in the Urdu edition) began in 1935, in Bombay Chronicle and from 1947 onwards it was continued in Blitz till his death on the 1st of June 1987. Abbas saheb was no ordinary man. He was a powerhouse.
His close and dear ones remember his boisterous voice which reverberates in their ears even today and teases their hearts with fond memories. “When I first met him he sounded like a lion!” is what Mr. Ali Peter John says. There was another trait of his which they still remember - his temper. “When he used to shout, the walls would shake!” exclaims Mr. Tinnu Anand.
Abbas saheb was born on the 7th of June 1914 in Panipat (Haryana). He was the grandson of Khwaja Gulam Abbas who was one of the martyrs of the mutiny of 1857. His father was Ghulam-Us-Sibtain and Masroor Khatoon his mother. His father would command him to recite the teachings of the holy Quran. His family tree traces back to Aiyub Ansari who was a companion of Prophet Muhammad.
For his early education, Abbas saheb went to 'Hali Muslim High School', which was established by his great grandfather and renowned Urdu shaayar Khwaja Altaf Husain Hali, a shagird of Mirza Ghalib. He studied in Panipat till the 7th class, finished matriculation at 15 and later, completed his BA with English literature (1933) and LLB (1935), from Aligarh Muslim University.
Abbas saheb began his career as a journalist early in life. He joined National Call, a New Delhi based paper right after his BA and soon after started the Aligarh Opinion, one of the country’s first student publications.
In 1935, after passing out from the Aligarh Muslim University, he joined the Bombay Chronicle where he was soon promoted as the editor of the film section where he worked till 1947. In 1936, he landed in films as a part time publicist for Bombay Talkies, a production house owned by Himanshu Rai and Devika Rani. He wrote and sold his first screenplay Naya Sansar in 1941 to the same company.
Khwaja saheb debuted as a director in 1945, with a film he made for IPTA (Indian People's Theatre Association). It was named Dharti Ke Lal (Children of the Earth) and was based on the Bengal famine of 1943. In 1951, he founded his own production company called Naya Sansar, which produced films of social relevance like Anhonee (1952).
In 1953 Abbas saheb made Rahi (1953), a story by Mulk Raj Anand, depicting the plight of workers in tea-plantation estates. His next film, Munna, (1954) so impressed Mr. Jawaharlal Nehru, then Prime Minister, that he specially requested that a print be sent to Delhi. After watching it, Panditji was so impressed that he expressed a wish to meet the child actor of the film, Master Romi.
Before writing Neecha Nagar (1946) for Chetan Anand, he had finished writing V. Shantaram’s Dr. Kotnis ki Amar Kahani (1946). This film was based on his own story 'And One Did Not Come Back' which is, in fact was based on the life of Dr. Dwarkanath Kotnis.
Abbas saheb also wrote over 73 books in English, Hindi and Urdu in a span of five decades. He was considered a prominent figure of the Urdu literary circuit. His most acclaimed piece of fictional writing is Inquilab, which dealt with the issue of communal violence. Many of his books, including Inquilab have been translated into many Indian, and foreign languages, like Russian, German, Italian, French and Arabic. His autobiography, I Am not an Island: An Experiment in Autobiography; was first published in 1977 and re-released in 2010.
Khwaja saheb had a long association with the great filmmaker Raj Kapoor for whom he wrote who many successful films like Awaara (1951), Shree 420 (1955), Jagte Raho(1956), Mera Naam Joker (1972) and Bobby (1973). RK banner’s Henna (1991), which was directed by Randhir Kapoor, was also based on one of Abbas saheb’s stories. Abbas saheb also wrote the beginning and end of Raj Kapoor’s Ram Teri Ganga Maili, a fact that not many people know.
Raj Kapoor banked heavily on him. He called him ‘meri awaaz.’ After his biographical venture Mera Naam Joker flopped at the box-office, Raj Kapoor was caught in financial crisis. Abbas saheb, just to help the extraordinary director; compromised on his principles. He wrote a sassy teen-romance flick Bobby. And it was a superhit! Raj Kapoor again sailed high.
But even in Bobby, Abbas saheb managed to slip in his socialistic standpoint and progressive thoughts. He nailed them in the very theme of the film. Have a look again at Bobby. Under its glossy surface, it has the conflict of the rich and the poor. It talks of class differences and inter-caste marriages!
On the family front Abbas saab was a bit lonesome. His first wife Muji Apa died early of cancer. He had only one daughter named Ushi. He would normally wake up at 5 am and have a stroll but would not eat his breakfast until he had written an article or a story. From 8:30 AM to 12:30 PM he would go on with his writing.
He would write at a great speed. Once, Mr. Dilipraj was sitting beside Abbas saheb who was writing something and noticed that he would not even pause to think. He innocently asked “You don’t even stop to think, Abbas saheb!” The man replied “Why? I think at night and put pen to paper the next morning! I pre- conceive all of it a night before.”
His office was gifted to him by Inder Raj Anand, father of Mr. Tinnu Anand and a celebrated writer of more than 60 films. He was also one of Abbas saheb’s closest associates and considered him his guru. This is how Mr. Tinnu Anand has known Abbas saheb as a family member. He would be on and off on his film-sets and was the apple of his eyes. Khwaja saaheb loved him and his brother Bittu so much that Inder Raj Anand was used to quip, “These are not my sons but Abbas saheb’s.”
Tinnu also acted in Khwaja saheb’s film Naxalites (1980) which also had Mithun and Smita Patil and which won him the national Gold Award for direction. Asmaan Mehal (1965) which had Prithviraj Kapoor, was based on an idea by Mr. Inder Raj Anand. Another close of friend of Khwaja saheb was V.P Sathe who used to be his co-writer in Raj Kapoor’s films.
Abbas saheb himself was a great admirer of Mr. Jawaharlal Nehru and had a warm kinship even with other members of the Nehru family, including Indira Gandhi. Mr. Tinnu Anand quips how his father used to tease Abbas saheb by saying something against the Nehrus and he would jump in to have a spat. But this closeness never held him back from reacting fiercely against any unruly state policy. He could even call up the ministers and say whatever he wanted.
There are many interesting stories which come about when one speaks of Saat Hindustani to Mr. Anand and Mr. Ali Peter John.
Nina Singh a struggling model was Tinnu’s friend. She had a photograph of Amitabh which she wanted to show to Abbas saheb but could not work up the nerve to do so. She asked Tinnu for help and one day when Abbas saheb was in a good mood Tinnu showed him the photo. Abbas saheb was impressed and wrote to Amitabh and called him over.
Mr. Bachchan was told “Come only if you are willing to bear the expenses of the journey.” Nobody had yet made the connection between Amitabh and Harivansh Rai Bachchan who was known to both Tinnu Anand and Abbas saheb. The young lanky lad, Amitabh, came to Abbas saheb’s office and Abbas saheb liked him. He told Tinnu to offer Amitabh the sum of Rs 5000 for the entire film. Tinnu met Amitabh and made the offer. Amitabh at once thought that Tinnu was taking a commission (something that he confessed to Tinnu years later while making Shahenshah) and asked to meet Abbas saheb personally. At this meeting, Amitabh informed Mr Abbas that he was the son of Harivanshrai Bachchan. Abbas saheb said “Hold on!” Harivanshji was one of his friends and he immediately called him up. The two greats chatted over the line while Amitabh and Ajitabh looked at each other in distrust. Abbas saheb said to the poet-father, “Your two sons are in my office and one of them wants to act in my film. I just wanted to make sure that he hasn’t run away from home!”
Ultimately, Bachchan got his first film. Initially Tinnu Anand was to play Bachchan’s role and he was to portray the friend of the poet. But just before the shooting could finally take off, Mr. Anand got a letter from Satyajit Ray offering him a chance to be his assistant. He took permission from Abbas saheb and went on to pursue his dream to learn under the master.
Earlier, Nina Singh who was finalized for the female lead couldn’t turn up for the shoot. She had gone to Delhi taking Abbas saheb’s consent but then literally disappeared. It made him livid and Mr. Anand had to face his wrath. Three days before the unit was to leave for Goa, Abbas saheb was heard screaming at him, “Look what your friend has done to me! Now where do I get another girl to act in my film?”
At that very moment, Shahnaz, daughter of the famous comic actor Agha, had come to see Mr. Anand. Abbas saheb caught a glimpse of her and said in a loud voice “Will this girl act?” This is how Shahnaz, who later married Mr. Tinnu Anand became a part of Saat Hindustani.
When Amitabh Bachchan had become a big icon, youngsters from all across the country started flooding Abbas saheb’s office aspiring to audition for his next film. They would all be sporting the same hairstyles and the first question which Abbas saheb would throw at them was “Where are your ears?” Similarly, if a young writer would come to his office aspiring to become his assistant he would not ask “What have you written?” but would question “What have you read?”
But the fact that he was outspoken and found it hard to keep his cool, doesn’t mean that he was cold-hearted. In fact he was very affectionate. At one point, when Saat Hindustani was being shot in Goa on a very restrained budget; his unit, especially actors, got fed up of living on potatoes, rice and daal. The next day, they all conspired and as a protest came late on the set. Abbas saheb was handed a letter. He read it and started the shooting. In the evening after pack up, he got into his car and drove many miles to the nearest town to pick up a Chicken for the unit. He told the accompanying Tinnu, “If my unit wants Chicken, then it is my duty to get them Chicken.” He insisted on doing a job he could have entrusted to any of his unit hands or to his cook.
One can say that his writing outshines his popularity as a director. When he made his films he saw only what he wanted to make and was never concerned about its commercial outcome. He sold the rights of Saat Hindustani for peanuts to get a can of negative to shoot its unfinished portions. His writing fees for Raj Kapoor often were surrendered for the hire of the R.K. Studios and equipment. Abbas saheb’s passion was film making. His process was simple: make money through writing and then put it into films.
His association with Raj Kapoor was a commercially successful combination. Raj Kapoor had an approach where he depicted his subjects as larger-than-life. Abbas saheb was deep-rooted in realism. And he also agreed that they both were different on many grounds. He once said “If I were to direct the films which I have written for Raj Kapoor, they would have flopped!”
But even the films he wrote for Kapoor had a strong social theme, be it Awaara or Shree 420. For him, it was the film itself which was of importance; not its monetary rewards.
He lost everything while making Chaar Dil Chaar Raahein (1959) and had to sell his bungalow and car. But this did not bother him. He considered that his primary job to convey a message through his film was being performed. He could hold onto his grounds and sail through all such financial calamities. So strong was his conviction that he fought till the Supreme Court to get approval for his banned documentary Char Shehar Ek Kahani (A Tale of Four Cities) (1968). He fought the case for many years at his own expenses and then, finally won it. This case is still regarded as a benchmark when it comes to censorship in India. Lawyers refer to it time and again.
K.A. Abbas was internationally famous. He knew many legendary personalities like the Russian Prime Minister Khrushchev, American President Roosevelt, Charlie Chaplin, Mao-Tse-Tung and Yuri Gagarin.
In fact in Russia, he was already quite popular as a writer before Raj Kapoor’s films took the country by storm. His pairing with him did enough to rule every heart in Moscow at that time. Abbas saheb’s association with Russia and its ethos as a country went much beyond. He went on to receive the Vorosky Literary Award of the Soviet Union in 1984, and the Soviet Award for his contribution to the cause of Indo-Soviet Friendship in 1985. In early sixties, he even wrote a book on Yuri Gagarin named Till We Reach The Stars: The Story of Yuri Gagarin. Tinnu Anand fondly remembers the preface of the book which reads - ‘Dedicated to my nephews Anwar and Tinnu’.
Abbas saheb never rested on his laurels. He just went on and on with his mission. Making films, writing films, writing books and contributing to his column; till the end of his life.
His film Shehar Aur Sapna (1963) won the National Film Award for Best Film which was also actor Dilipraj’s first film. He had played the lead role and slips into nostalgia while accounting his experiences related with the film. It saw many difficulties in making and the journey till the Gold Medal wasn’t easy. The shoot started in 1960 but then got delayed after a few days due to lack of funds.
Abbas saheb approached The Film Finance Corporation (later to become National Film Development Corporation, NFDC) for help. But it was of no use. The authorities didn’t like the fact that he had no intentions to include songs in his film. They thought it was a requisite.
Then a year later, fifteen of Abbas saheb’s close friends pooled in money and helped him out. Khwaja saaheb, as a matter of principle, never disclosed their identities to anyone. The shoot started again in 1962 and one year later the film came out. After a screening, actors Meena Kumari and Waheeda Rehman, both actually forecasted that it was to win many awards. Shehar Aur Sapna was a milestone and made international critics take notice of this Indian director.
But back home, the depiction of untainted reality brought him problems. Morarji Desai, then Minister of Finance, wanted to ban it. He was against the portrayal of the lead characters living in a cement pipe. He dismissed it as unrealistic. Abbas saheb wrote to him and challenged him to go around the streets of Mumbai with him. He offered to show him actual people living in such a fashion.
When the film finally won the Gold Medal, Khwaja saheb found his telephone buzzing constantly because now everyone wanted to congratulate him. The entire unit of the film went to Delhi by train to receive the prestigious National Award. Abbas saheb would say “It’s as much their film as it is mine”. The award also carried a cash complement of Rs. One lakh. Khwaja Saheb went on to share the prize money equally amongst his entire team.
This was probably the most astonishing thing about Khwaja saheb. He lived his ideology. His socialistic concerns were reflected in his every move. For instance, the entire unit on his film sets would eat the same food. There was no discrimination among the stars and the junior artistes, or the director and the crew members. He wasn’t two-faced like many other socialist leaders and self-proclaimed thinkers who fail to instill their beliefs in their own lives. Abbas saheb carried out his belief in socialism to the T. Not only his associates but even people who have just known him as a public figure, second the opinion that it’s almost impossible to see another man like him in the film industry. He is admired to the highest degree and respected to the core.
His films Saat Hindustani (1969) and Do Boond Pani (1972), both won the Nargis Dutt Award for Best Feature Film on National Integration. Neecha Nagar (1946) managed to garner international acclaim and was a winner of Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival while Pardesi (1957) was successful in being nominated for the same awards. Apart from scores of medals and awards which his films won for him, he was also awarded the Padma Shri in 1969, by the Government of India.
Some of the other recognitions he received were - Haryana State Robe of Honour for literary achievements (1969), Ghalib Award for his contribution in Urdu literature (1983), Urdu Akademi Delhi Special Award (1984) and the Maharashtra State Urdu Akademi Award (1985).
Abbas saheb’s last film was Ek Aadmi (1988). Even though he had suffered two heart attacks he insisted on doing everything including conducting the dubbing himself. “The film should not stop at any cost.” was his claim. It’s a memory which still wrenches Mr. Ali Peter John’s heart. The film was released after his death. Khwaja Ahmad Abbas saheb passed away in Mumbai at the age of 72, on June 1 st, 1987. He continued to write for The Blitz till his last days.
Abbas saheb is hailed as one of the torchbearers of parallel or neo-realistic cinema in India. As a screenwriter and director, his contribution to Indian cinema is immense and also inspirational. As a journalist, his role of a nationalist thinker and a visionary is unrivaled. In literature, his mark as a prominent writer in Urdu is beyond words. Abbas saheb was a school of thought and the niche which he had carved for himself is phenomenal. The body of work which he has left behind is a thing of national treasure. His footprints will continue to show us light, direction and sense.
(Mr. Khwaja Ahmad Abbas’s filmography can be reached through the following link.)
(Renowned journalist Mr. Suresh Kohli has been a long-term associate of Mr. Khwaja Ahmad Abbas. Mr. Kohli, now settled in Delhi, also helped Mr. Abbas to edit and compile his autobiography, I Am not an Island: An Experiment in Autobiography. The FWA thanks him for sharing with us some excerpts from his articles.)
K. A. ABBAS
As in life, so also in death Abbas’s work has merited little deserving critical attention. His handful of insightful novels, considerable repertoire of seemingly simple intense short stories, his record-breaking crusading journalism, over a dozen neo-realism inspirited films, all seem to have been confined to the dark abyss of history. Sadly, the credit for the success of professed ideals of Nehruvian secularism that he infused in the screenplays of some of his memorable films has gone to directors like V. Shantaram, Raj Kapoor, and Gulzar. The only one of his own over a dozen productions, Saat Hindustani is remembered even today because one of the most successful actors of the Indian screen, Amitabh Bachchan, featured in its credits and not because of the message of unity in diversity that it sought to convey. His two major novels, Inquilab and The World is My Village dealing with the freedom movement and partition, hardly come into reckoning in the critical analysis of fiction in that genre. Even his brilliant autobiography, I am Not an Island – the story of his fascinating journey in life – does not appear in footnotes of dissertations on autobiographies.
Abbas raised a silent furrow in his vast attempts at creative communication. He was an unabashed admirer of Ernest Miller Hemingway’s narrative of combining fact with fiction to tell some simple, direct, humanistic stories without being moralistic or judgmental. There is nothing epical or ephemeral about the narratives that are generally full of pathos, dealing with everyday mundane experiences, and are characterized by understatement. And even though some of them have seemingly been culled out of journalistic reports, they are apolitical, but reflective of the times. That’s why Mahatma Gandhi and the freedom movement inadvertently find their way. If one scans through the pages of his autobiography, I am not an Island or his two monumental novels dealing with the freedom movement, Inquilab and The World is My Village the feeling of Hemingway’s adventurous trait resonating through the narratives.
So far as serious fiction is concerned his output was limited. And in that sense the latter years were less productive. The only other long narrative that comes to mind is the novella, The Walls of Glass and less than a hundred short stories. There are some other novels as well, and even though they are replete with characteristic social moorings, and somewhat socialistic in temperament, a tag that stuck to him until the very end. Other narratives, like Boy Meets Girl (possibly the first novel which could be called the harbinger of what I plan to call ‘Bollywood in Indian English fiction’), Maria, Bobby, Distant Dream, Divided Heart, Mera Naam Joker, When Night Falls, and The Naxalite that was to be the last in the series, can be consigned to category of commercial fiction. They had all actually been screenplays of various films converted into novels to fund his neo-realistic cinematic experiments.
Commenting on some of his stories, the trailblazer of Indian English fiction, Mulk Raj Anand observed in a letter meant to be an Afterword: “The lyricism is never quite absent from your pieces and it is this quality in your fiction which distinguishes your short stories from much of the pedestrian naturalism that still survived in the Urdu short story. I think it cannot be too much insisted upon that the art of the short story, emerging from the conventional abstract narratives of the moral tale, in the ‘Yoga-Vasistha’ and in ‘The Arabian Nights’, is now entering upon a phase where the individual human being becomes the hero…. The short story, like the poem, is a personal art: it takes its raw material from the accepted truths and facts of life…The strength of your short stories, my dear Abbas, lies in the fact that you have grasped the weaknesses of your characters amid their strengths. You seem to have an uncanny, instinctive awareness of the dark side of the ‘moon’ coupled with a passion for the light.” Unlike most other writers of his generation, including the progressives, Abbas was a bilingual (which makes it difficult to ascertain which story was first conceived or written in what language – Urdu or English or vice versa) and had a greater awareness of the changing scenario and growing reality around him. His stories had compassion devoid of any romanticism that characterized the work of his contemporaries. Each character in his stories, consciously or unconsciously, had a reason for his action.
The stories are both in rural and urban settings and provide an insight into his thinking both as a writer and a journalist with a social awareness. In his preface to one of his early short story collections, he observed: “A few stories may provoke high-brow critics living in isolated ivory towers to utter the dread word ‘Propaganda’. But these stories are basically not about plans, projects, or policies of the government. They are about men and women, our contemporaries, the people of a new India, and how their subjective ‘inner life’ (their moments of tenderness and passion, frustration and exultation) are inexorably being changed by the dynamics of life, in which the positive values of socialism (even where hesitantly and half-heartedly adopted by our government) are playing their own part…there are no heroines or villains in these stories which are primarily concerned with the loves and hates of the people, their urges to work, to fight for their rights, even to commit violence in fits of blind passion, of ordinary human beings – men and women!”
There are two studies of Abbas’s work, Ahmad Hasib’s The Novels of Khwaja Ahmad Abbas (1987), and Hemendra Singh Chandalia’s Ethos of Khwaja Ahmad Abbas (1996). Though valiant efforts, but being doctoral dissertations, they fail to rise above the surfeit level, fail to look beyond the obvious. And that, indeed, is the tragedy of Khwaja Ahmad Abbas in all three modes of creative expression that he sought to communicate through. So there is obviously a need for a more probing look at his work – as a journalist, a film maker and a writer of realistic fiction.
Much of Abbas’s shorter fiction is contained in six now almost extinct volumes, though the same stories are shuffled from one to another. The first, Rice and Other Stories (1947), according to Elena Y Kelinnikova shows the author’s concern with “political and social problems as well. He is very much concerned with the theme of starvation.” There is a big question mark here because some sources believe that his first collection of stories in English was called Not All Lies, and it was published in 1945 but although there has been a jumble or repetition of same stories in various volumes, many like ‘Mother-in-Law India’, An Interview with the Viceroy Bulls’, and ‘Air-conditioned’ do not find a place in any collection (?_. The theme is further carried forward in the next, Cages of Freedom and other Stories (1952). The third was called The Black Sun and Other Stories (1963), the fourth Four Friends (1977) and the fifth Thirteenth Victim (1986). H S Chandalia shares Mulk Raj Anand’s observations that this aspect of his work “presents the problem of poverty and hunger in a peculiar ironic manner characteristic of Abbas.” The issue of caste, the uprising of the untouchables, and their exploitation forms a major part of the collection, The Gun and other Stories (1985).” Apparently, his last story was ‘Mother and Child’, about the Bhopal gas tragedy, which appeared posthumously in the 21 June 1987 issue of The Illustrated Weekly of India though he had given it a different title.
He was born and raised in the historic city of Panipat, Haryana, India which in literary terms is associated with the name of his great grandfather, Urdu poet and reformer, Mohammed Altaf Hussain Hali whose life and work also seem to have influenced his grandson Ahmed Abbas in his formative years. That’s, perhaps, why the northern Indian landscape is omnipresent in his early stories. After leaving high school he moved to Aligarh for graduation and law studies, working at the same time as a self-styled editor-publisher of a university newsletter that often raised issues that were uncomfortable and often unpalatable to the administration. At the same time he started sending out short articles and letters to the editors using different pseudonyms to avoid identification. But it was not law that was to be his calling before leaving for Bombay (now Mumbai) like the next port of call to pursue a career in journalism.
At the same time the involvement with youth affairs that was to take him to different shores, and which became the basis for his first major novel, Inquilab determined the future course of his journey. It was also around this time that he briefly went back to Panipat and got married to cousin Mujtabai Khatoon (Mujji) in 1942 while pursuing journalism and writing as means of livelihood in the city of dreams, as Mumbai has come to be known, and having joined the now defunct Bombay Chronicle as a reporter-cum-sub-editor. It was also during this time that he came into contact with leaders of the Indian freedom movement under the stewardship of Mahatma Gandhi. This was also the beginning of his long affair with Jawaharlal Nehru whose liberal socialism was to greatly influence the young Abbas. He wrote his first play, Zubeida in which he gave an aspiring actor, Dev Anand, a role in the stage production for IPTA, and also authored the screenplay of Dr Kotnis ki Amar Kahani in 1943 that was made into a landmark film by V. Shantaram. It was sometime in 1948 that he wrote a second immortal story, ‘Sardarji’ (the fist being ‘Sparrows’ which found a place in 100 Great Stories of the World) for which he had to face a court case because it was declared anti-Sikh. It will be interesting to read his version in the interview at the end of this first volume of his resurrected stories which has been no easy task.
Abbas elaborates on his life, marriage, career, adventures, moments of tears and joy, disappointments and hopes, failures and triumphs in his resurrected autobiography, I am Not an Island, and pleasant and unpleasant details following his death on 1 June 1987 in this writer’s introduction to the book as well as elsewhere. This attempt at resurrecting his forgotten short fiction is in gratitude to his benevolence that one received in plenty. No specific yardstick has been deployed in once again bringing alive these humane stories encompassing hopes, aspirations, emotions and concerns desired for any civil society. In conclusion, to quote Abbas from his autobiography: “My stories into the sanctified field of literature and even into the rarefied field of cinema have been described, and dismissed, as only the projections of my journalism. Literary critics and film critics jot down the word ‘journalese’ (which one of them spelt as ‘journaleese’ obviously to rhyme with cheese!) even before they have had time to read my book or see my film.
“Personally, I have never much cared for the subtle distinction between journalism and artistic cinema. Realism in painting was once ridiculed as ‘Colour Photography’ and realism in literature as ‘journalism’. But good, imaginative, inspired journalism has always been indistinguishable from realistic, purposeful contemporary literature. There was a special correspondent called Karl Marx whose despatches to New York Herald Tribune are now a part of the scriptures of communism. Both Hemingway and Steinbeck wrote his Grapes of Wrath as he scoured the United States to investigate the causes of the great depression. Hemingway wrote For Whom The Bell Tolls as he covered and fought the Spanish Civil War.” He couldn’t have set the tone to his work better.
- SURESH KOHLI
MEMORIES OF K.A.ABBAS
This is an abridged edition of Khwaja Ahmad Abbas’s autobiography, I am Not an Island, originally published in 1977.
Abbas liked to describe himself as a communicator - of ideas – and, perhaps, therefore, deployed - with reasonable success - all means of expression. As a journalist, short story writer and a novelist he drew inspiration from Ernest Hemingway; his films were influenced by the Russian neo-realist directors and inadvertently got incorporated in the kind of screenplays he went on to author for himself and others. He was a great human being, helpful and generous to a fault. He seldom compromised with his social or political thinking which, at times, made him a crusader of sorts. He liked to take these little battles to the bitter end. “My motivation (despite commercial failure of films) remains the same- To communicate my thoughts to as large a public as possible.” He told me from his sick bed when Ek Aadmi had been nearing completion, in his last interview, published posthumously in Filmfare (June 16-30, 1987).
I think it is time to recall what I wrote soon after his death. “There is always a seamy side to even the most courageous, or powerful people in the world. Abbas was no exception. While he was capable of waging a lonesome battle on any front, his personal loneliness, coupled by family and other betrayals, eroded his psyche on another front. He was a child at heart: sensitive, hypersensitive, in fact, and emotional to the core. And he made no deliberate effort to hide his feelings. Yet, he never harboured malice towards anyone. A gripping emotional scene from a film, or narration of a tale of woes would bring tears to his eyes. No amount of printed space would suffice to recount such moments even if one restricts it to personal memories stretched over a period of nearly two decades that wasn’t bound by any constraints, but was governed by liberal licence.
“Khwaja Ahmad Abbas was the most ungenerous seeker despite being an uncompromising individual. While anyone in his position of influence could have hoarded millions, and lived in luxury, Abbas preferred his hand-to-mouth existence. During the last few years of his life he spent more money – disregarding the time and energy that went into it – in keeping up his Last Page (in English) and Azaad Kalam (in Hindi and Urdu) in Blitz for which he got a paltry sum of Rs 1,500 a month as salary. Abbas was paranoid, and not without reason, that the publisher will drop the column the moment he asked for more money. But prudence could never take precedence over commitment. He dared Russy Karanjia to sack him (Indian Express, Bombay, June 20, 1987).” Karanjia who had once written, in 1982 – “The joke about BLITZ is that everybody reads it from the LAST PAGE to the FIRST! While its thrust is at the pin-up in various stages of glamour and undress, there is no doubt that Khwaja Ahmad Abbas’s LAST PAGE has been one of the journal’s main attractions over some 35 years…Abbas has his own simple, beautiful, humanistic style which has endeared BLITZ’s 5,000,000 and more readers to the LAST PAGE” – feebly tried to cover up the matter in a brief rejoinder that convinced no one because his labour of love was being, occasionally at least, replaced by contribution from others.
He was indeed an island “whose shores and earth have been touched and used and defiled by numerous people at some stage of their lives and careers or the other; the travelers who lost their way in the vast sea of humanity; the adventurers and vagabonds who needed a place to rest their tired limbs; the sinners who needed a hideout; the struggling, the starving, the ambitious and the opportunists who used it as a launching ground for their future activities and for the firing missiles of their success; the genuine lovers of the sea, nature, landscape and freedom who in reality are the only ones who have continued to frequently visit this island and found solace for their restless souls from the traumatic and hectic experiences in their bizarre daily lives (The Sunday Statesman April 10, 1977).”
During the last few years of his life, Abbas had started to be disillusioned with the socio-political scene. The ‘Return of the Red Rose’ that he had sought and hoped for in Mrs Indira Gandhi had started to wilt and with it the continuance of Nehruvian India that he so lovingly cherished. He sought to communicate these feelings in his last book It Was Like Any Other Day which began with the description our car ride to All India Radio for the recording of my interview with him on 31 October 1984. Although the supposed live interview was duly recorded, it was kept in abeyance as we were told, in hush hush manner, about the firing on her by her Sikh guards. His words still reverberate: “It is sad, shocking, but I am not surprised.”
Twenty years is a long time in the life of a nation. And if Khwaja Ahmad Abbas had lived through this disillusioning period, he wouldn’t have been engaging Gods in a mythological discussion but in a debate on the deplorable public life that the body-politic of this country has degenerated into. He was an incorrigible nationalist, a practicing secular who celebrated Eid and Diwali with same fervour, whose concern for social justice and unending fight for it had become a sort of manifesto of sorts, not only for him but also those around him. And despite overt liberal leftist leanings, he did not decry the rise of materialism. He was as much at home scripting box-office hits for Raj Kapoor and others of his ilk as he was making his own brand of socially relevant films that failed to deliver at the box-office. I guess he was more betrayed in death than in life because the dead do not retaliate.
And the betrayal began even before his death, when he was still battling not really age-related problems. He had been a frail man most of his 73 years, living really on a frugal diet in the last decade or so though he still enjoyed a shami kebab every now and then. Most of his precious belongings had started to disappear (read shipped to Pakistan, though some say they were sold in Chor Bazaar market) during the first phase of hospitalization itself. The balance in bank accounts, or whatever little there was, nose-dived to a big zero largely through forged signatures. His signatures had become so illegible that even the banks stopped bothering about it. Timely help, though ostensibly for the completion of his last film, Ek Aadmi, came from Amitabh Bachchan. Unfortunately, much of that loan went into his treatment rather than the completion of the film. He must be uncomfortably shifting in his grave, yearning to return the money that he did not really know about.
For most of his generous life, Abbas, and trying times, were inseparable. More so, I think, in the decade of 1977-1987 during which he managed to just about make two feature films, two documentaries, and a short film in which me and Tinnu Anand featured as actors. All these turned out to be non-events really even though The Naxalite boasted of Smita Patil and Mithun Chakravarty in the cast. But until then they hadn’t acquired their respective cult status in diverse kind of cinema. Mithun had been a struggling actor with a violent past, as a real life Naxalite, behind him, and the thinking woman in Smita hadn’t betrayed any infatuation for commercial cinema. The other film he somehow managed to complete before death, courtesy Hrishikesh Mukherjee as Chairman of National Film Development Corporation, was Ek Aadmi which had, amongst others, Anupam Kher, Saeed Jaffrey and Sharon Prabhakar.
Based on his own short story ‘June in December’, Ek Aadmi might have become a milestone Hindi film had the film maker not suffered from bouts of ill health and hospitalization and made it the way it had been conceived. “It is a simple story though the technique of narration is somewhat odd because it is full of flashbacks which do not follow any familiar line. If anything, it follows the ‘streams of consciousness’ of a dying man. I have not yet tasted death but this is how I feel that a dying man’s consciousness would lead him from one incident to the other. The protagonist is a professor of Sanskrit and is known as a man with an ideal character. During the last moments of his life he recalls his youth, and finds that he has made many compromises. He has been a victim of many temptations – money, women. In his own final judgment, therefore, he is not as ideal as his students think he is. His confidant is his young grandson to whom he reveals the true facts of his life, extracting an oath from him that he will not follow in his footsteps. “No, it is not really autobiographical; though some lived moments have inadvertently come in. I don’ think I would let anyone know my weak moments in life. Moments that I am, perhaps, trying to relive in the film. I am not strong enough to make public my own guilts,” he confessed in his last interview.
Abbas’s first directorial venture under Naya Sansar, Anhonee starring Raj Kapoor and Nargis had been a moderate hit. For his second venture, based on Mulk Raj Anand’s Two Leaves and a Bud, Abbas zeroed down on a struggling Dev Anand.
Almost all the non-star cast films that Abbas made under his Naya Sansar banner ran into financial trouble, especially towards the end. To raise necessary funds both his creative and journalistic activity would pick up pace. Printed inlands letters would then be sent to all friends and well-wishers for interest-free loans ranging from Rs 500 to Rs 5,000. That the responses would be poor was a foregone conclusion. But this seldom dampened his spirits, and money would somehow, however scantily, tickle in by and by and the film completed, though not without major compromises. No actor or technician got more than Rs 5,000 as remuneration, sometimes months after the film was completed. He would never accept any money from me. My job was always to raise money through royalty advances from publishers. He has described the perils of working with stars, and why he stopped working with them in the ensuing pages.
Though he never really lived in a palatial house, whether in Shivaji Park or Juhu, his house and help was open to anyone, and he never grudged if his favours were never reciprocated.
Abbas’ last few books did not really have any major takers. The sequel to his epical novel Inquilab– a mélange of sorts – The World is my Village, and a book examining the consequences of Mrs Indira Gandhi’s assassination, It Was Like Any Other Day literally went unnoticed. He was actually working on the Urdu version of the latter, and had embarked on the next phase of semi-autobiographical narrative. Unlike a lot of my generation who simultaneously work in different directions and dimensions, most writers of his generation had a set pattern. They woke up early, and set about the task of writing in right earnest. That’s how Abbas worked on his Urdu writings, fictional as well as non-fictional. For his film scripts, and writings in English he first dictated them to his loyal secretary, Abdul Rahman who would take it down in both long and shorthand, type out a draft on an old rickety typewriter. These would be corrected and edited by the boss before they were retyped and sent to editors, publishers, and producers.
The name of Khwaja Ahmad Abbas brings back innumerable memories despite the passage of time. Those memories need to be resurrected, and probably would get space in one’s future endeavours, including a forthcoming book of one’s memoirs, tentatively called Inside Bollywood. But it seems for most others he is already a forgotten chapter. His books and films are forgotten, so also his legacy. And this reissuing of his “Experiment in Autobiography’ a feeble attempt at cherishing some of the values he stood, and fought for.
- SURESH KOHLI