Khwaja Ahmad Abbas - Was he over-rated?
|Dr. Bhagyalakshmi Seshachalam|
I have immense respect and affection for Khwaja Ahmad Abbas, the celebrated writer, journalist, filmmaker, and scriptwriter. But as I happened to read about him and as I watched some of his movies, I had this nagging doubt. I have tried to be as analytical as possible but please forgive me if at any point in time I sound less objective.
1. June 1, 1987 was the date when K A Abbas passed away. It has been 32 years since his death.
2. In 2014, his centenary celebrations were in the news. Suddenly people started remembering him.
3. I read two of his stories that are available on the net - "One thousand nights on a bed of stones" and "Sardarjee". The stories were ordinary and there was nothing exceptional about them. Like Sudha Murty's novels, the literary merit in these stories is suboptimal (spelling mistakes, failure to use the right syntax and grammar...).
4. "One thousand nights on a bed of stones" was published as a serial story in "The Blitz". Abbas later made a movie "Shehar Aur Sapna" based on this theme. The film won a National Award in 1964. But when I saw the movie it was a gross disappointment. The idea of a couple living in a drainage pipe is no doubt a creative one. Abbas got this idea during a rainy evening on Mumbai's Crawford market. He saw a couple taking shelter on a water pipe. He himself was forced to take shelter in one of the water pipes. It was here that the script of "Shehar Aur Sapna" was conceived.
5. "Shehar aur Sapna" dovetails the trials and tribulations of pavement dwellers in Mumbai. But the language used by Abbas in the serial story is far from satisfactory. Thanks to You Tube, I watched the movie on 1st June 2019. The movie was mainly shot in 1962 in Mumbai in Juhu. Some portions of the movie were shot in the studio. Abbas lived in Shivaji Park near Dadar and the lead actors in this movie (Dileep Raj and Surekha Parkar) had to rehearse the scenes under the table in Abbas's office.
6. It is very clear why Abbas was a failure as a director. His directorial competence is shallow. To consider that he made 14 films is a real wonder. A good writer need not be a great director. The narrative in “Shehar Aur Sapna” has so many flaws and appears disconnected in most places. Characters appear all of a sudden from nowhere and bad men seem to change all of a sudden. Yes, it is heartwarming to see the Bombay of the '60s but this does not compensate for the languid pace of the film. Now how do you expect a common man to spend his hard earned money on a film that moves at a pace that is slightly more than a snail's pace?
7. I wanted to see "Shehar aur Sapna" for a long time but when I actually saw the movie the one question that arose in my mind was - Was the film overrated? How did the film manage to win a National Award? The intent behind the movie is appreciated - to show the problems of housing in Mumbai fifty years ago. But is this the way to direct a movie? You expect the audience to assume so many things. There are so many loose ends in the movie with poor characterization of the lead actors. Nana Palsikar playing a violin is jarring and so is David Cheulkar unconvincing as a wrestler. Instead of calling it a movie, Abbas could have labeled it a documentary.
8. As I read more about K A Abbas it became clear why he won all those awards. His close proximity to Jawaharlal Nehru and his daughter Indira Gandhi made sure that his films won awards that they did not deserve. Secondly, why should government bodies finance his films that had no draw at the box office? Not a single film of Abbas was a hit at the box office though the stories that Abbas scripted were super hits (Awara, Bobby, Heena). I recall watching Asman Mahal (1965) on Doordarshan and literally fainted after witnessing Prithviraj Kapoor's theatrical style acting. As you would have guessed it, Asman Mahal was directed by K A Abbas.
9. I had plans to watch the 1967 release "Bombay Raat Ki Baahon Mein" that starred Vimal Ahuja, Surekha, Madhavi, A K Hangal, Jalal Agha and Persis Khambatta. But I don't think I am interested now. The film was, as expected, a damp squib at the box office. The plot was intriguing but under K A Abbas’s direction, the film fell flat on its face.
10. Why do we deify people in India? I am at a loss to understand this. Abbas was a socialist and a great human being. But there is nothing spectacular about his writings or his films. He introduced Amitabh Bachchan in “ Saat Hindustani” another box office turkey but Bachchan never acted in any of his movies again. Why?
Dilip Raj, son of old-time actor Jairaj never chose to act under the direction of Abbas after the 1965 release “Aasman Mahal”. Even Surekha Parker, the well known Marathi actress who grew up in Byculla did not act with him again after "Bombay Raat Ki Bahon Men". His films were made under a shoestring budget and most of the time they were crowd funded. His actors may have received a pittance. Why make one film after another, when you know the audience is not interested in watching them? Dev Anand and Kamal Haasan too fall under the same category. They kept dishing on inane fare one after the other unmindful of audience tastes and preferences.
The sad part is that the films made by K A Abbas do not fall under the category of “art” films too.
11. Did Raj Kapoor adequately compensate K A Abbas? Why was the latter forever in need of resources for making films? Why did he rely on state bodies for funding his
movies? Why should tax payer’s money be used to satiate someone’s creative urges knowing fully well that the return on investment would be nil.
12, Incidentally, Abbas died on 1st June 1987 and Raj Kapoor died on 2nd June 1988. R K Films made and released Heena in 1991 but was Abbas paid for it? I am not so sure!
13. I also read Abbas' controversial story "Sardarjee" and I still can't understand why Abbas had to use such derogatory language against Sikhs and then claim that it was the character in the story who thought so about Sikhs and that the story was a satire. Clearly, Abbas had abused the freedom of expression and today publishing houses are milking this controversy. The story is good but not a classic as it is projected to be. Even his story "Sparrows" is a simple story but it has become one of the world's best short stories (!)... Inscrutable indeed!
To sum up
KA Abbas was a creative genius and a good writer (but not an exceptional one). He wrote good scripts but his directorial abilities were mediocre. The only film of KA Abbas that I could relate to was: "Do Boond Paani" but again it looked as if it was a film that was propaganda for Indira Gandhi government’s policies.
It is only in India that we end up deifying people who have limited abilities. It is true that Abbas wrote a column for Blitz for 46 years at a stretch but then his English language skills are far from satisfactory and I am not sure how his column was received by readers of the newspaper.
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