Famous for being an affable ‘Chacha’, AK Hangal will also be remembered for his opposition to Bollywood’s mindless entertainment. Rauf Ahmed pays tribute
NOT A typical Bollywood actor, Avtar Kishan Hangal was a genial father figure; his old world demeanour an antithesis of the Bollywood stereotype. Interestingly, he never thought that acting in films could ever be a haven for an actor in search of a creative experience. “They enter films,” he once said, “for the money it offers.” He had taken a while to come to terms with the movie camera. A bit theatrical in the beginning, he adjusted quickly to look natural.
Hangal made an entry into films at the age of 50. In a career spanning 40 years, he acted in 125 films, starting with Basu Bhattacharya’s national award-winning film Teesri Kasam in 1967 where he played Raj Kapoor’s elder brother. Around the same time, he also acted in Shagird, starring Joy Mukherjee and Saira Banu. However, he is best remembered for his performance as Rahim Chacha in Ramesh Sippy’sSholay (1975). He had researched carefully for the role and “learnt Islamic hymns and worked on my body language to make a convincing Imam”.
Hangal also made his presence felt as Jaya Bachchan’s loving, indulgent father in numerous films, including Guddi and Abhimaan. He was equally convincing as a lecherous old man matching wits with Ashok Kumar and Utpal Dutt, in Shaukeen, a brilliant departure from the stereotypical ‘Chacha’ he played in most films. Interestingly, the ‘lecherous old man’ also had to pay the price for digressing from popular stereotype. At a party in Delhi, when the host requested a young woman to drop Hangal home, she diplomatically demurred. She had apparently seen Shaukeen!
Such was the impact of his popular image that it often thwarted his efforts to experiment with characters, especially ones that had negative shades. In his 1999 autobiography,Life and Times of AK Hangal, he wrote: “My screen image made me so noble, that whenever I tried to do a bad man’s role, the film did not run. For example, Ramanand Sagar’s Prem Bandhan and Ved Rahi’s Kali Ghata.”
Hangal was born in Sialkot (Pakistan) in 1917. The family then moved to Peshawar. In 1936, he joined a theatre company, Sangeet Priya Mandal, and regularly acted in plays. A tailor by profession, he would take a cut in his salary to be allowed to leave early every day to rehearse his plays. After his father’s retirement, the Hangals moved to Karachi. Even after the Partition, he decided to stay in Pakistan, despite having participated in the freedom struggle. But after being banished in 1949 by the Pakistani government and serving a sentence for three years for being a Communist, he had little choice.
Moving to Bombay, however, opened new doors for Hangal. He met and later became friends with fellow Marxist actor Balraj Sahni and writer/poet Kaifi Azmi, which inevitably led him to the Indian People’s Theatre Association, where the trio was involved in staging a number of plays.
While he did earn praise, Hangal was also at the centre of a controversy in 1993 when he participated in Pakistan Day celebrations at the Pakistani consulate. It led to a major face-off with Shiv Sena who demanded his scenes be deleted from the films he’d already completed and urged filmmakers not to sign him for new films. “For two years I was without work,” said a bitter Hangal, “but I didn’t give in. All I wanted was to visit my birthplace to collect material for my memoirs. When I had gone for my visa, they invited me and I accepted it.”
Hangal was unhappy that Indian cinema was losing its social relevance in its quest for mindless entertainment. In him, the masses found a stock character they could come to adore as well as a crusader for everything that constrained Bollywood’s collective imagination.
Ahmed is a senior film journalist