Sholay Redux 02 – A K Hangal aka Imam Sahib
“Itna sannata kyun hai bhai?” On the surface, the epochal dialogue of the blind Imam sahib, was just a progressive movement in the scene leading to the discovery of his young son’s corpse. Delve deeper and it vocalizes about the able-bodied kneeling to despots, with the enduring silence only encouraging persecution and not preservation. Sacrifice is imminent; if not you then your neighbors. He articulates what the cowardly sighted of the community witness. A K Hangal, expressing the crushed, collective conscience in Sholay, attempts to offer vision to the villagers with this often parodied line.
Working as master cutter tailor, the profession he chose was in revolt to his family who served the British. At one time, he was the highest paid cutter in undivided India.
Besides, he was fond of wearing good clothes as confirmed by a famous actress’ in the seventies, responding to who was the best dressed actor, “Why Hangal, of course, the most dapper man in the industry. He even cuts his own suits.”
Padma Bhushan Avtar Kishan Hangal (01 Feb 1914 – 26 Aug 2012), a Kashmiri Pandit was born in Sialkot. Impossible to comprehend, but in school, he was the captain of the hockey and football team.
Also keen on classical music, he accompanied Bade Ghulam Ali on the harmonium at a ‘mehfil’ once but then gave all up for acting.
Involved with mythological plays, he moved to Karachi but continued with amateur theater. “I started as a loud actor. It was in vogue those days. The audience accepted it. Then a new generation cropped up and tastes changed. In order not to find myself rejected by them, I adapted to the new conditions.”
Joining the struggle for independence, much to the chagrin of family, he served almost two years in jail. Strangely, he never wanted to come to India after the Partition and was virtually deported by the Pakistan government. In one of his last interviews given to Filmfare in 2011, he said “I came to India from Karachi in 1949 with just thirty rupees. I was tadipar (banished) from Pakistan when I refused to bow before them. My progressive views, secular and communist leanings didn’t suit them.” Imam sahib was a loose cannon once!!
Coming to Bombay after the partition, he joined IPTA (later was its Vice President). As his awareness grew he got involved in social and political plays. He also directed the ‘Thakur’ Sanjeev Kumar (playing an old man) in his first IPTA play, Damroo.
When his colleagues Balraj Sahni, Shailendra and Salil Choudhury joined films he resisted till an age when other people retire and then decisively debuted in ‘Teesri Kasam’ aged 53.
“My motive for joining films was not money. If that was the case I’d have started earlier. Now I like the medium of the cinema as the magic eye of the camera catches every nuance of expression on your face. We can’t do this on the stage. My psycho-technique or natural type of acting was just right for the screen. Hrishikesh Mukherjee said after my first shot in Guddi, “You are the first actor from the stage who has no complex about the camera.”
“I had to play a blind man realistically. I went to a blind school and talked to blind people. The most powerful urge of a blind man is to ‘see’. He tries to do that through every part of his body – touch, sound, smell. Ashok Kumar once had a feeling that he was doing a scene all wrong. Then it hit him, he didn’t know what to do with his hands. In my case, all my limbs work automatically in tune with the character I’m portraying and I shouldn’t have to think how they function separately.”
As a character artiste he was in distinguished company – Ashok Kumar, Om Prakash, Dr. Shreeram Lagoo, Utpal Dutt, Om Shivpuri, Pran and others, all extremely competent actors who could play a range of roles. Yet when performance sans pretentiousness was demanded, he held his end with brief, memorable roles in Bawarchi, Daag, Namak Haram, Aandhi, Hum Paanch, Des Pardes, Kalyug, Tamas and right upto Lagaan.
Offered to play domestic help or benevolent father/teacher, his acumen for comedy was exploited only sporadically in Chit Chor, Bawarchi and Shaukeen.
“For instance, after Sholay I received dozens of offers for similar roles. I turned them all down but my roles are not always of my choice. To live, I have to accept them.” In his biography, Life and Times of A. K. Hangal, he mentions, “My screen image made me so noble, that when I tried to do a bad man’s role, like Ramanand Sagar’s Prem Bandhan and Ved Rahi’s Kalighata, it flopped. Perhaps I look like a gentleman and cannot hide that; the stage offers no money but chances to portray totally different kinds of characters. In Ibsen’s ‘Ghosts’, I portrayed a vicious character, something I seldom do in Hindi films.
On his Craft:
“As an actor, my powers of observation are keen and I quickly absorb the subtle shades of feeling in a person. I don’t accept characters at face value. Delving into his background, family and circumstances, I try to isolate what influences the behavior. Like a medic, I draw up a case history. I like to watch people, society, the conflicts and changes within. Then I let the character develop without losing myself in the role. Some driver should always be there.”
On popular cinema:
“Films are for the masses. If the people don’t understand them, then it is of no use. I don’t believe in those directors who make one for their own intellectual satisfaction. There is only a certain extent to which you can introduce subtlety in cinema, especially for an Indian audience. In theater the effect comes from the heightening of events and gestures though of course acting should be natural.”
A veteran of 230 films, he died of many reasons: illness, bankruptcy and neglect But what killed him in the end was indifference of the very industry claiming to be one big Johar type family and again raised the timeless issue; welfare of senior, retired film professionals. He was 98. Actors making forty crores per film couldn’t spare forty thousand for his treatment. Having closely worked with him in ten films, only Jaya Bachchan came to his aid. A case of too little too late. Come January 2014, Imam saheb will get us misty eyed in 3D.