K.A. Abbas: Standing at the crossroads
In Abbas' best works, progressiveness grapples with the complications of the real world
In an early scene in the 1959 film Char Dil Char Rahein, a man named Govinda (Raj Kapoor) stands at a crossroads, under a four-pronged sign. The high-angle shot is framed so that we can see all the place names on the signpost. One of its “arms" points towards Ram Kund, an orthodox village still riven by caste discrimination. Another towards Sultanabad, which we will soon learn is a colonial-era kingdom about to lose its princely status to the government of independent India. There is also Hotel Parbat, described later in the story as a “Holiday Home For The Elite".
And the fourth sign—the one facing us, the audience—simply says “Nav Bharat". New India. It is a pointer to the heavy symbolism of this narrative (all the characters in the story will come together to help build this road), but also a reminder that the film was made by a man whose production company was called Naya Sansar, and who stood for forward-looking ideals throughout his writing and film-making career.
Char Dil Char Rahein is one of the films being shown at the K.A. Abbas retrospective from 21-25 May at the India Habitat Centre in Delhi. It didn’t do well commercially, but it is one of the most structurally interesting Hindi films of its time, with separate stories coming together through the device of the crossroads and the personal journeys of the characters passing it. It is, literally and otherwise, set at the intersection between tradition and modernity, between old roads and a new one. In one story, an upper-caste boy shakes up his village by trying to marry a dark-complexioned, “achut", or untouchable, girl. (“Bhayankar naye vichar!"—“Terrifying new notions!"—exclaims the temple priest, half-genially.) In another, a courtesan is torn between her love for a driver, her responsibilities to her mother, and the patronage of an insomniac Nawab who is depressed about his fall in status. And at Hotel Parbat, we are reminded that while Nawabs might be disappearing in the new India, there are other varieties of “saab log", and the class divide is here to stay.
Flipping through Abbas’ writings, including the recently published compendium Bread Beauty Revolution, one repeatedly encounters the loaded word “progressive". One possible definition of the word comes from Abbas’ recollection of meeting Jawaharlal Nehru and being told that to bring about great change, it was imperative to keep asking questions. “Never believe anything—whether it comes from your father, grandfather, from your professor, from a leader, a Pandit…"
For a creative person, progress can mean other things. It can mean not having the time to dawdle; you work swiftly, move from one project to another. (Abbas wrote 74 books, in addition to his journalism and film scripts.) It can mean being distrustful of anything that is established or popular: Abbas was often disdainful of commercial cinema, even as he worked as a writer on glamorous films such as Mera Naam Joker and Bobby. In the films he directed, he opted for atypical subjects, cast newcomers and made interesting decisions: for instance, in Saat Hindustani (1969), the titular characters were written and cast to avoid the usual stereotypes about people from different parts of the country; the Malayalam actor Madhu would play a Bengali, while the sophisticated Jalal Agha would be cast as a Maharashtrian powada singer.
Of course, any life that tries to grapple with grand concepts like progress and equality must also deal with the many thorny complications of the real world, and this friction often comes through in Abbas’ work—both his films and his writings.
“My complaint against the youth is not that they are disobedient to their parents," he said in a 1982 interview, “but that they are not disobedient enough." But as a counterpoint to this, consider another anecdote related in his memoir I Am Not An Island. Casting for Saat Hindustani, he interviewed an intense youngster who introduced himself only as Amitabh and seemed just right for the role of Anwar the Muslim. The deal was almost done when the long-limbed young man revealed that he was the son of the poet Harivansh Rai Bachchan, one of Abbas’ acquaintances. Whereupon the director said the contract could only be signed once he had the father’s written permission, because “I wouldn’t like to have a misunderstanding with him".
Temporarily at least, the idealist who advocated youthful disobedience and the forging of one’s own path had become an avuncular, stick-wielding figure who needed to ensure that the youngster sitting in front of him hadn’t run away from home. Among the things that make Abbas’ work so interesting is this acknowledgement of the gap between ideology and lived experience.
Above The Line is a fortnightly column on Hindi cinema and how it presents the world.