Abbas and Nehruvian aesthetics in Indian Cinema

On the occasion of the 98th Birth Anniversary of noted film personality Khwaja Ahmed Abbas (7 June 1914 – 1 June 1987), we pay our tribute to the filmmaker, writer and journalist. Professional journalist and occasional documentary filmmaker John Dayal has been a human rights activist since the early Seventies. He can be contacted at john.dayal@gmail.com. This article was first published in  Deccan Herald on April 3, 1987. 

John Dayal

KHWAJA Ahmed Abbas’s consciousness has never been slave to physical frailty, or to anything else. There is something typical of the man in his latest struggle for life his heart weakened in 70 years of stress, a haemorrague and a clot in the brain, emerging out of a coma with oxygen and glucose tubes maintaining the body functions, a body wracked by pain and the afflictions of age, but yet his cathartic eyes and ever so fine a mind alive and in communion with his environment, recognising friends. Possibly also recognising the foes he has battled all his life: Cant and ignorance, exploitation and crudity, injustice and all that will seek to take away from man his basic dignity and the right to be alive.

Khwaja, as he is endearingly known to his countless friends ranging from teenagers asserting their first aesthetic consciousness, through middle-aged critics and intellectual contemporaries, was writing copiously when he was all but blind with cataract, was running around trying to make a film when he was lame. These were but minor embarrassments to a man who had dared to make films when he had no money, and more, had forged channels of radical thinking and a political cinema in a hostile milieu, long before radical cinema became popular, or Government agencies were created to help innovators of film.

As he struggles for life, it is time to speak of this one man’s contribution to Indian cinema, not as obituary reference but as tribute to the living man. For Khwaja Ahmed Abbas has in 41 years of film-making been pioneer. innovator, crusader and above all, a dedicated seeker for a composite Indian aesthetics in film that would be socially relevant, be linked with India’s rich cultural heritage and the starkness of its contemporary reality, but above all reflect and resonate India’s socialistic aspirations of food and shelter and confidence for all. Without naming it such, he himself has spoken of this as Nehruvian aesthetics, inevitable in his respect and affection, of Jawaharlal Nehru.

K A Abbas

Life & experience

This Nehruvian aesthetics has been apparent in the several major interventions that Abbas has made in the history of Indian cinema, and has evolved consistently even when Abbas has become party to mainstream cinema as script-writer for men such as Raj Kapoor. Each intervention has become a landmark; a seminal contribution. And almost every intervention has given Indian cinema a major actor or image. Awara created the now legendary Raj Kapoor hobo image. Dharti Ke Lal sloganeered unity despite famine, Saat Hindustani gave Amitabh Bachchan and then Mithun Chakraborthy, Do Boond Pani a new development verite. Munna a new concept in cinema with the child, even Bobby some sort of a new romanticism, and above all, Shahar Aur Sapna (The City and the Dream) which, despite the technical limitations of its time and the honest naivete of its maker, remains one of the most worthwhile pieces of realism and social comment in Indian cinema Long before the Indian new wave, and long before NFDC.

The fundamentals of this aesthetics evolved out of Abbas’s own life and political experiences. Born op June 7, 1914 Abbas himself doubts this is his real date of birth — in historic Panipat, he was from early years privy to the ferment of the freedom movement. In his autobiography, I am not an Island Khwaja recalls an encounter he had in school with a anglophile inspector of schools. The inspector was urging the students to count the boons of the British empire. “Shafa-khaney, dak-khaney (hospitals, post offices)..,” prompted the inspector. “Qaid-khane (prisons),” shouted young Abbas. The inspector was not amused.

Aligarh Muslim University, close association with radical literatti like Sajjad Zaheer and the poets Sardar Jafri and Kaifi Azmi, a strong anti-fascist training, and wide travels through Europe and later through China during the years when the continents were in violent ferment, honed his perceptions as a man and a ‘journalist. They also helped him formulate his ‘personal philosophy which remained strongly leftist, and an approach to literature and the still new art of cinema.

If in personal politics as reflected in his writings, he remained a strong votary of the unity of the Communist movement with the Indian national mainstream of the Congress, as a film critic for popular newspapers he identified social relevance and critical realism as the mainstays of any cinema, particularly of the cinema of an emerging tradition like India’s. Craftsmanship would have to take second place to the message and the argument and not become a vehicle for indulgence. Eventually, of course, the starkness of his films or their lack of technical finesse and technological exhibitionism was as much due to his convictions as the fact that he did not have enough money to waste on gilding the substance.

A still from Awara

His first three films either as writer or director blazoned forth his concerns. His China visit had inspired him to write about an Indian who was with Mao in the Long March. Dr. Kotnis Ki Amar Kahani was directed by V. Shantaram, who also played Dr. Kotnis in the film. Shantaram’s distinctive brand of acting and the theatrical roots of his direction may make Dr. Kotnis a stilted film in retrospect, but Khwaja’s script for the first time reflected the Indian political aspirations with rare strength and integrity an Asian solidarity in the struggle for freedom and emancipation, and secularism.

A pioneer

His Dharti Ke Lal, which he directed in 1945 at the height of the communal tension the film was released in Bombay in 1946 on the day the communal riots started in the city became a deeply moving document of its times, and is still relevant. The film won him awards and international recognition. Film critic, founder of film societies and member of the Indian People’s Theatre Movement, Abbas suddenly found himself one of the pioneers of the emerging cinema. His contemporaries and co-conspirators were Chetan Anand with Neecha Nagar, writer V.P. Sathe, and others. It took him four years to pay off of debts, pan of which he paid off by writing the last page of Blitz, the wolrd’s longest one-man column.

As he was writing his next film Anhonee, Abbas wrote a film for Raj Kapoor which would change the course of the history of Indian cinema This was Awara. Its roots were in Charlie Chaplin’s strong little misfit, but its roots were also in Nehru’s slogan of equality and’ Socialism. The poor could not just dream. They could aspire. The fairy tale of poor man in love with rich princess was reinterpreted as a socialist document.’ An inspired Raj Kapoor synthesised the Abbas script with some sterling poetry and music, and a rare lyricism. The black and white camera work would match N Sica’s in realism of ambience. The poetry would touch a common chord in differing men. Awaara Hoon became a battle cry from Trivandrum to far off Moscow and Tashkent, or for that matter, the Indian districts of London.

Aware was the point from where Raj Kapoor took off. In several ways it prophesied commercial and aesthetic success for films which were not like the costume dramas and moral plays of the times. Songs of hunger and yearning and love spoke of the undergod. For Abbas it marked a fruitful co-operation with Raj Kapoor which would help finance Abbas’s own sparse ventures. Abbas once chased this critic several times around a room, half laughing, half ‘angry, for asking him why after writing Dharti Ke Lal and Awara, he went on to write the teeny-bopper romance, Bobby. “So that I can finance Do Boond Paani and Saat Hindustani and Naxalites.”

Awara also did another thing for Indian cinema. It introduced vast international audiences to an Indian image beyond the snake-charmers and elephants, the face of universal man within an Indian idiom. An interesting exercise would be comparison with the images that Satyajit Ray presented in the Apu trilogy, stark Indian images in an international idiom. “Communicative cinema can be commercial cinema It can be successful. But non-communicative cinema cannot,” Abbas said of himself.

Khwaja carried the Awara images further in Shri 420, to some extent vestiges of the hobo were visible in the father of Bobby and in several other films. He explored it with full gusto in a film that he produced and directed himself, under the banner of Naya Sansar (The New World), working out whether environment or heritage real man. For the born socialist the deducation was never in doubt.

Abbas’s first major international controversy came with his film based on the Mulk Raj Anand story, Two leaves and a bud, on the reality of the British-owned tea gardens. The film, starring Dev Anand, Nalini Jaywant, Balraj Shahni (playing an English doctor in Abbas’s revenge for British film-makers getting English actors to caricature Indian roles), was not shown in England because the British planters launched an agitation and complained to Nehru. “I met Nehru and asked him what was the British reply when India had protested against anti-Indian American films running in England.” They wrote that England is a free country and subject to normal censorship, any picture can be shown. “Then repeat the same message to them, Nehru told the Foreign Office”, recalls Abbas.

The next film, Munna, he rates as his most satisfying. At a time when Cinematheque in Paris had thrown out a few hundred Indian prints for being nothing but songs and dances and fights, Munna was without a song to embellish or camouflage the essence of its story of a child and his mother.

Though films like Saat Hindustani, a simple film propagating patriotism and an aggressive secularism, later assumed historic relevance for the maiden appearance of a tall and scrawny youngster called Amitabh Bachchan, Abbas’s’ epochal film was Sahar Aur Sapna For really the first time a major film was being made presenting several major contemporary social crises without the sugarcoating of glamour and without the balm of cinematic fireworks. Sahar Aur Sapna was on the rural-urban conflict as much as it superficially was on the housing crisis in a megalopolis like Bombay. But more than all that it was on the struggle for survival and the strength of the basic Indian psyche in the midst of the Brutalising environment of slums. Without stars, with a simple narrative, Khwaja made a statement that Dharmarajan’s Chakra could barely repeat, despite Smita’s presence, two decades later. It could well have been a documentary as it would have been true of the life that millions in Delhi had to undergo when their slums were demolished and they were relocated during the Emergency. Sahar Aur Sapna’s thematic integrity and its acceptance scored a signal success for cinema verite, and prepared the way for the FFC-sponsored new wave.

Stickest film

In about the same way, Bombay raat ki bahon mein politically explored the new get-rich-quick ethos. Abbas rates this film highly despite its utter failure with the audience. For an introspection into the seamier side of life, the ugly face of Bombay, and into the dehumanising pace demanded in that rat race Bombay raat ki bahon mein was Abbas’s slickest film of that time.

Abbas’s film-making declined after Aasman Mahal, a film memorable for the theatrical, larger-than-life, presence of Prithviraj Kapoor as a vestige of India’s feudal past resisting logical death in modern society. Saat Hindustani and Faslaa, or Naxalites, were made in a time when modern Indian political cinema had begun to establish itself. A new language had been born, owing filial loyalty to Abbas’s own vocabulary of old. But the contrast was too much. Technical finesse was now an integral part of political statement. Abbas, innovator and brave experiment or that was, was definitely out of place. Naxalites particularly earned him opprobriums from the large number of youth who had been in the movement themselves. Abbas did not understand them, they said. Abbas was very keen to understand them, for he remains a keen student of the nuances of Indian polity. Only now he writes of them on the last page of his magazine, and not in scripts.

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