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'We like fighting'

Mukul Anand and A K Hangal recall their association with the late Najibullah

Suparn Verma and Syed Firdaus Ashraf in Bombay

Award It was in the middle of a civil war that film-maker Mukul Anand took his unit and his cast including Amitabh Bachchan and Danny Denzongpa to Afghanistan to shoot for Khuda Gawah.

And it was the promise of total safety, personally tended by President Najibullah, that persuaded Anand to make the risky trip to the strife-torn country.

Four years later, Anand sits in his office, staring at newspaper photographs depicting the death by hanging of Najibullah. And muses: "This is uncanny - for on that precise spot, we had shot a hanging scene for our film."

Khuda Gawah was conceived at a time when the Russians were pulling out of Afghanistan, Anand recalls. And Amitabh being close to then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi was the factor that persuaded the latter to personally intercede with Najibullah and get permission to shoot in that country.

"Najibullah gave his word to Rajiv that if Amitabh comes personally to shoot, then his government would ensure maximum security," Anand says, recalling how, when he made the initial trip to the country to scout for locales, he was reminded of images from World War II, so visible and all-pervasive was the devastation. "Normally, I would have dropped the entire idea right there, but the warmth of the people there changed my mind," he says.

"Amitabh and Danny were the only actors who went to Afghanistan," the film-maker recalls. "I didn’t take Sridevi, for obvious reasons. And when we reached that country, the reception given to Amitabh was akin to the reception given to that the Pope would receive in a Catholic country - it was like the locals were welcoming god himself.

"We were pleasantly surprised," Anand recalls, "when after an official lunch Najibullah began singing Hindi film songs. We learnt later that he was also a very good poet - in fact, it is as poet that I remember today, not as president of Afghanistan.

"In the course of our conversation, Najibullah predicted that the war in his country would never end. He was a very good-looking man, as were his brothers - as good looking as movie stars… And his English and Urdu were both impeccable."

Medal Anand recalls how Najibullah awarded him a medal of honour(right), and how he, on returning to Bombay after the ceremony, showed the medal to Shiv Sena boss Bal Thackeray. "Thackeray told me then that it was a great achievement, for a Hindu to be decorated in a Muslim nation.

"For the seven days we were in Afghanistan, the war came to a standstill. Najibullah told us that the mujahideen knew we were there, and had given their word that none of us would be harmed. On the day we were leaving, Najibullah told us,'Thank god it’s over, now I can sleep in peace’. And I was touched that in the midst of the crisis surrounding him, he could still spend so much energy worrying about the safety of a film unit.

"I think it was after the Afghanistan shoot," muses Anand, "that Amitabh decided to take a break from acting. One morning, I remember, Amitabh was still sleeping and had not reported for shooting. I went to wake him up and he said, 'let me sleep, I plan to give up acting after achieving so much, I have met the president, everyone here has given me this fantastic reception, what more can I get out of life?' "

Anand remembers the awe with which Najibullah treated Bachchan. "The president told Amitabh once that he wished these were normal times and he, not a president but a normal guy who could just go up to him and say, I am your fan. He also told us, one day, ‘I am a prisoner in my own palace, I could die any minute!’"

Though politics was not discussed, Anand recalls once asking him why the fighting was raging in his land. "Najibullah told us, with a wry smile, 'We like fighting!'"

"I remember when we were leaving, they wanted to give us gifts to take with us, but Najibullah remarked that he had nothing to give us but guns and grenades. But nothing impressed me more than a painting by a five-year-old girl - a painting of a corpse being eaten by two dogs, one with the American flag etched on its back, the other with the Russian flag. That painting, by a child that young, showed me as nothing else could the futility of what was going on in Afghanistan," says the director.

Anand’s eyes return - as they have several times in course of our talk - to the picture of Najibullah meeting his death, dressed by the Taliban in Western clothes with a jacket and boots, and a cigarette in his hands. "America armed these men," Anand says, bitterness evident in his tone. "And America better watch out - because the huge amounts of weapons they have put into the young hands of those Taliban militants will one day be turned against them.

"Today, Afghanistan is peopled by a race of youths reared on war," Anand sighs. "The death of Najibullah is the tragedy of the world."

"His death saddens me," says actor A K Hangal in another quarter of Bombay. "He was a good friend of mine, and of India's."

Hangal met Najibullah when he went to Afghanistan with a team of film actors and journalists. "I remember him as a progressive Muslim, and a very hospitable, warm person. He invited us to dinner," the actor recalls, "and during the meal, a lady with a lovely voice sang for us. At the end of the meal, Najibullah asked us if the singer's voice didn't resemble Lata Mangeshkar's, and told us he was a fan of Lataji's."

Hangal's next contact with Najibullah was following the withdrawal of the Soviet troops from Afghanistan in 1988. "At that time, I wrote asking him to be careful, telling him that his life was in danger. And he promptly replied, saying that he would stand on his own two feet, that he was sure no one would harm him..."

Hangal, today, recalls that letter, and the response, with a sense of loss. "I cannot help but feel that ISI-backed terrorism, and the wrong policies adopted by the Americans, led to his death."

"I am ashamed to see that the Indian government is keeping quiet over this incident, it has not even come up with an official statement condemning the act. I don't understand," adds Hangal, "how the Taleban could act in this inhuman manner. They must have surely known that a person who seeks refuge is inviolate, safe from harm under Islamic tenets. And Najibullah was at the time sheltering under the umbrella of the United Nations."

Today, for Hangal, all that remains of Najibullah are a handful of memories - a couple of meetings, the odd letter passing two and fro. And, of course, a typical Afghan carpet, an outstanding example of that art. "That was during what turned out to be our last meeting," he remembers, "He gifted us with a carpet each, and zarda (a type of sweet). I told him I can expect this carpet, but what I will do with the zarda. And he said, 'If you don't want to eat it, fine, give it to someone who will appreciate good zarda from Afghanistan'. "

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