29 May 2017

The Romantic Realist

My Mirror column:

KA Abbas, who left us 30 years ago this June 1, spent a lifetime seeking to turn the dross of city life into fictional gold.

The opening scene of Bambai Raat ki Baahon Mein has the hero Amar Kumar (Vimal Ahuja) wading carefully into aswamp, his eyes fixed to the viewfinder of his camera. He takes a few shots – people washing in the dirty water, or attempting to clean their clothes on the edge. When he’s done, some locals ask if he has observed the poverty and pollution in which they are living. “Yes, I saw, and the eye of my camera also saw.”

KA Abbas wrote and directed Bambai Raat ki Baahon Mein (‘Bombay in the Arms of Night’) in 1967, creating a romantically-named suspense thriller charged with his characteristic ethical quandaries – here in the shape of a journalist who finds himself in an ethical dilemma. Amar’s expose of the pitiable condition of workers in Daleriawadi catches the eye of the factory owner Seth Sonachand Daleria, who invites him to Delhi and tries to buy him off. What Daleria offers Amar is much more than a bribe: he holds out the salary and perks of what is essentially a corporate communications job – a free house, free car, and tickets to New York, London, Paris.


The scene between Amar and the usually mild-mannered AK Hangal as the wily Daleria is one of the best things about the film – partly because Abbas, who would have known Hangal personally from the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA), could see him as a slightly sleazy old man long before Shaukeen (1981), and as a seasoned businessman long before Garam Hava (1974). But also because of the wryly convincing detail with which Daleria sets up the terms of Amar’s quandary: “Beinsaafi sirf mill mazdooron ke saath hi nahi ho rahi, tum jaise kaabil journaliston ke saath bhi ho rahi hai. Itne acche lekh likhne wale ko sirf 500 rupaye mahina? Usmein se bhi 50 rupaye income tax aur provident fund mein kat jaate hain... [Injustice is not being done only to the factory workers, it is also being done to a capable journalist like you. Only 500 rupees a month to a writer of such fine pieces? And of that too, 50 rupees goes to income tax and provident fund...].”

It is no coincidence that Abbas spent much of his working life as a journalist. Born in Panipat as the great-grandson of Muslim poet and reformer Mohammad Altaf Hussain Hali, Abbas started bringing out a university newsletter while still a student of law at Aligarh Muslim University, while also writing articles and letters to the editors of various publications -- “using different pseudonyms to avoid identification,” according to his translator-editor Suresh Kohli.

Law did not work out, and he moved to Bombay, taking a job at the Bombay Chronicle. Even after he started to write plays (beginning with IPTA’s Zubeidaa) and then film scripts (starting with Dharti Ke Lal, also IPTA, and like Zubeidaa, involving Balraj Sahni), Abbas remained committed to journalism, writing what used to be the longest-running weekly column in India: 'The Last Word', in Russi Karanjia's Blitz. The column also appeared in Urdu under the title Azad Kalam (‘The Free Pen’), which is the name of the newspaper at which Amar works in Bambai Raat.



Although he was the director of 14 features, Abbas’s directorial abilities were uneven and most of his films sank at the box office. Perhaps partly as a consequence of this, until a few years ago, I thought of him as primarily a scriptwriter for Raj Kapoor films, including one of my all-time favourites, Shree 420.

A film that captured the Nehruvian zeitgeist like few others, Shree 420 also centres around an honest hero whom the big city tempts sorely, a young man torn between his genuine feeling for Bombay’s poor and the attractions of the high life. Watching Bambai Raat for the first time at an Abbas retrospective at the Habitat Film Festival in Delhi this week, I could see the same dynamic in action quite clearly. There are other recognisable tropes – the evil capitalist is called Seth Sonachand in both films, while the young lovers find romantic fulfilment in the 10 paise ki chai on the street. The high life – and the lowness of that high life – is embodied in the figures of various women, and often mocked for its hypocrisy: in Bambai Raat, there is a “Dance, Dinner and Fashion Parade” organised to raise money for the Bihar famine, under the shadow of an exceptionally fine linocut of starving peasants, likely by the great artist Chittoprasad.

Despite its noirish aspirations – rain-slicked streets, fast cars, chases, party girls and even the stylish debutante Jalal Agha as a tragically hopeful party boy — there remains something prosaic about Bambai Raat. Abbas was well aware of his limitations -- but didn’t see them as such. In his autobiography he wrote: “My forays into the sanctified field of literature and even into the rarefied field of cinema have been described, and dismissed, as only the projections of my journalism... But good, imaginative, inspired journalism has always been indistinguishable from realistic, purposeful, contemporary literature.”


Published in Mumbai Mirror, 28 May 2017.

Note: Two other recent columns on journalists and journalism in Hindi cinema, here and here

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