Friday, May 19, 2017

Chaar Rahein - K A Abbas at the junction between tradition and progress

[Did this for Mint Lounge. A Khwaja Ahmad Abbas retrospective is part of the Habitat Film Festival in Delhi this month, starting from May 21. Schedule here]
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In an early scene in the 1959 film Char Dil Char Rahein, a man named Govinda stands at a crossroads, under a four-pronged sign, wondering which route the woman he loves has taken. Govinda is played by one of the era’s biggest stars, Raj Kapoor, and the high-angle shot is framed so that we can see all the place names on the signpost. One of its “arms” points toward Ram Kund, an orthodox village still riven by caste discrimination. Another toward 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 film’s audience – simply says “Nav Bharat”. New India. It is a pointer to the heavy symbolism of this narrative (near the end, 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 filmmaking career.

Char Dil Char Rahein is one of the films being shown at the K A Abbas retrospective in New Delhi from May 21. Despite the presence of such stars as the Kapoor brothers Raj and Shammi, Meena Kumari and Nimmi, it didn’t do well commercially and it’s hard to find a good print today (which is also the case for much of Abbas’s other work). 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. Two years earlier, Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s debut film Musafir had used a house and its landlord to link three discrete narratives. If the “makaan” in that film represents a society made up of many types of people, Char Dil Char Rahein is about the tradition-modernity conflict facing a nation; it is, literally and otherwise, set at the intersection between old roads and a new one.

Thus, 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; meanwhile the boy’s father berates him for having forgotten about their customs after having picked up new-fangled ideas during his stay in the big bad city.) 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” being served by minions, and the class divide is very much here to stay.


Flipping through Abbas’s writings, including the recently published compendium Bread Beauty Revolution, one repeatedly encounters the loaded word “progressive”. It often occurs in the discourse of the Left-leaning artists involved with the Indian People’s Theatre Association in the 1940s – people who had a strong, egalitarian vision for independent India and brought their sensibilities into the literature, theatre and cinema of the period. One possible definition of the word comes from Abbas’s recollection of meeting Jawaharlal Nehru for the first time 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 or seemingly approving of the social status quo: Abbas was often disdainful of commercial cinema and the star system, even as he worked as a writer on glamorous, larger-than-life films such as Mera Naam Joker and Bobby (both of which he also subsequently novelized, with very mixed results). In the films he directed and had greater control over, he opted for atypical subjects, cast newcomers and made very
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’s 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 to Suresh Kohli, “but that they are not disobedient enough.” He was speaking in the context of young people being too respectful, not doing enough to move away from the hoary ideas of their progenitors – an echo, perhaps, of Nehru’s words about the need to question everything.

But as a counterpoint to this, consider another little anecdote related by Abbas 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 (partly because, in keeping with Abbas’s vision of “scrambled casting”, this actor was not a Muslim himself). 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’s acquaintances. Whereupon the director said that 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 in the world 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’s work so interesting is this acknowledgement of the gap between ideology and lived experience.

1 comment:

  1. "..... this acknowledgement of the gap between ideology and lived experience." Excellent summation, and a very important point for all to bear in mind in general.

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