KA Abbas An Island In Himself
Reassessing the work of her estranged husband, the late Uma Anand described Khwaja Ahmad Abbas, in her book Chetan Anand: The Poetics of Film: “Abbas was a valuable friend and a patron to innumerable young hopefuls during these years (1944-45) of hectic activity.” Her brother-in-law, the famous star-producer, Dev Anand who enjoyed Abbas’s hospitality for six months after landing in Bombay from Lahore reluctantly acknowledges it in his autobiography Romancing with Life: “Abbas was a very famous journalist…and later my association with him was a matter of great pride for me…(he) had good contacts with some important film folks.” It was Abbas giving him break in his play Zubeida that opened doors for his entry into the big bad world of Bollywood.
Abbas is today known more for having given Amitabh Bachchan break in his Saat Hindustani . Bachchan has confessed elsewhere that he would have gone back to Calcutta and restarted to work in his old company had he not got that break. In his Foreword to the new edition of Abbas’s autobiography, I am Not an Island, Bachchan observed: “Abbas Saheb was a principled individual. Forthright and honest. He was never tempted by great commercial expectations or desires. He existed in his minimum requirements and never craved for more, or deliberately work towards it. He was one that would sacrifice his own, to assist the other…He was also one that gave freely without return. But his greatest quality was that he never asked for it. If he had it he gave, if he wanted he never asked.”
No book on Indian cinema, especially Hindi cinema can be complete with reference to the man who came to be recognised as an island by himself. Yves Thoraval, a Paris-based curator-cum-writer observed in his book The Cinemas of India: “Khwaja Ahmad Abbas was a major influence in the film industry…The first great Indian realistic film was KA Abbas and his film Dharti ke Lal which was acclaimed in the Pravda by Pudovkin…the first cinematographic ‘manifesto’ of Indian ‘realism’.” And BD Garga, one of the country’s most eminent film scholars and founder member of the National Film Archives, and almost a devotee of Abbas, counting him amongst the greats of Hindi cinema observed in The Art of Cinema: “Abbas’s faith in the final victory of man is undying. He is an inveterate optimist who believes that come what may, ‘We shall overcome’. His cinematic credo is closer to that of John Grierson than Godard and, like Grierson, he uses cinema as a pulpit to project his vision and propagate his ideas.”
Abbas had been more successful as a script-and-dialogue writer than a filmmaker, and even though many of his productions won national and international awards, none of them were as successful at the box office as the ones he wrote for other directors, notably V Shantaram and Raj Kapoor. In fact, the latter is on record having said “Abbas saheb taught me how to use my voice.” Together they worked magic with films like Awara, Shri 420, Boot Polish, Jagtey Raho, Mera Naam Joker, Bobby, and partially Ram Teri Ganga Maili and Henna. Filmmaker MS Sathyu emphatically stated that “the credit for meaningful films coming out of certain political and ideological leaning goes to Abbas saheb who could be dubbed somewhat of a pioneer.”
Kishore Valicha wrote in Dadamoni, the only authorised biography of Ashok Kumar who was also at one time a partner in Bombay Talkies: “A film did catch attention in the ‘40s. It was also a war-effort film, and was the clever work of an astute journalist named Khwaja Ahmad Abbas. KA Abbas, as he was better known, was a journalist attached to the Bombay Chronicle. He had scripted Naya Sansar (this later became the banner under which he made his neo-realist films) for Bombay Talkies in 1941 that had attracted notice. It was seen as one of the first of the progressive films to come from the commercial film world. Abbas got an image overnight. He was seen as a new revolutionary with mild leftist leanings.” The film starred Ashok Kumar and Renuka Devi and was directed by NR Acharya.
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 this writer from his sick bed when Ek Aadmi had been nearing completion, in his last interview, published posthumously in Filmfare (June 16-30, 1987).
His was a curious case. He was a path-breaking journalist and columnist, short story writer, novelist, political commentator, film scriptwriter and a filmmaker. He would often joke that the hardcore scribes would describe him as a better short story writer than a crusading journalist; the filmmakers found him to be a better scriptwriter than a filmmaker, and the creative writers he was better at everything except producing creative fiction. But he did not mind any of these labels. He said his purpose was to communicate and he used every medium to convey his message.
Carol J Slingo, bemoaning Abbas’s death, wrote in Jump Cut (USA): “Politically, Abbas was part of a generation who were cultured in socialist and communist thought and organizations, and who had to make sense of the vast changes taking place in their own lifetime, most dramatically focused before, during and after national Independence.”
May his soul rest in peace.
By Suresh Kohli