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November 15, 1997


The genial revolutionary

V Gangadhar

A K Hangal Click for bigger pic
Every time one talks to Avtar Kishan Hangal, one feel refreshed and a bit less dissatisfied with the universe. No matter that he discusses looming revolutions, poverty and worse. The thing is, you are happy that at least some one cares!

Another odd thing about Hangal is that despite his outstanding thespian skills, films and roles rarely figure in his conversations. A freedom fighter with secular views and Marxist leanings, Hangal is a multi-faceted personality. He has been associated with the path-breaking Indian People's Theatre Association besides having acted in more than 200 films.

When you get chatting with Hangal, be prepared to scour the depths of the communal problem, the decline of Communism across the world, the rights of workers and -- singularly disquieting, this - the prospects of a revolution.

"This country needs a revolution and I am sure it will come," Hangal asserted. "Otherwise, there will be anarchy in India, the secular movement and democratic ideals will fail."

We are sitting in the drawing-room of Hangal's small, simply-furnished flat at Santa Cruz where he lives alone. His wife and daughter-in-law are no more and his son lives in an adjoining flat. The drawing-room is lined with books on Marxism, memoirs, international politics and collection of plays. And piles of well-thumbed newspapers. He answers the phone himself and agrees to the chat easily enough.

Hangal is still in business, his career having picked up since the time in 1993 when Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray imposed a 'ban' on his films. Hangal's crime? He had attended celebrations of the Pakistan National Day at its local consulate. He had gone there seeking a visa for a brief return to the country of his birth where he lived the first 25 years of his life.

"I wanted to visit Pakistan and wanted to collect some material for my memoirs. Was that a crime?"

It was, for the Shiv Sena. Theatres withdrew films featuring Hangal. Producer G P Sippy even deleted scenes from his blockbuster Sholay, featuring Hangal. His roles in under-production films were tampered with and shooting schedules abruptly cancelled.

"I suffered mental and economic anguish for one year,'' sighs Hangal. And then Thackeray did a volte face, claiming he'd never imposed a ban. "In fact, I knew even his father (Prabhodhankar Thackeray), but then the mood in the city in those days was ugly."

The Bombay film industry may have been cowed down by the Sena threats in those days, but theatre groups across India and abroad stood by him.

"I was only a character actor,'' points out Hangal. "The film industry can choose to ignore me. No huge funds were blocked because of my absence. But theatre people from Kerala sent me some lovely poems, supporting my stand.

"Firdaus Ali who worked for the British television network, Channel 4, came out for me. The media, by and large, supported me," he says.

The early 1990s were turning points for the film industry, he says. And he feels the industry is still very secular. "We measure people by their success or failures, not on the basis of their caste or religion," he says.

Hangal should know, considering he's been keeping his critical eye on filmdom for nearly 50 years and is now recognised as one of the best character actors ever. He has played the father, father-in-law, village schoolmaster, retired musician, policeman, farmer, doctor, lawyer, everything with equal enthusiasm and aplomb. He has co-starred with all the leading men and women of the Hindi screen. Except Dilip Kumar.

Sholay is one of his favourite films in which he did He had the cameo role of a blind Muslim whose son was killed by dacoit Gabbar Singh. Hangal's performance impressed his co-stars Dharmendra, Amitabh Bachchan. Hema Malini and Jaya Bhaduri.

Didn't they mind a character actor stealing the limelight?

"I really would not know," he admits. "You see, in films, every actor or actress has his or her moments. They may be the lead pair or someone from the supporting cast. All these moments together make a good film. If someone tries to interfere with this process, he is doing an injustice to his fellow actors and the film itself."

When Hangal stepped into films first, his technique was a trifle loud, a reflection, perhaps, on his long stint on stage, where expressions have to be exaggerated so the back benchers got the point. But an intelligent actor learns quickly from his mistakes. And Hangal quickly shifted to a more natural style in films, ensuring he still remained within the confines of his character.

Playing mentor Click for bigger pic
"I was not satisfied with that too," says Hangal. "I felt acting should have a bit of spontaneity. Today, I follow a realistic style. I study the character I play, learn about his background, education, way of thinking and so on and then act out the role."

He gets animated when discussing films like Kora Kagaz, Bawarchi, Avtaar, Aandhi and Chitchor. Another favourite is Shaukeen, a comedy in which he shared honours with Ashok Kumar and Utpal Dutt. He did play the villain a few times, purely for variety, but audiences could not accept this bald and genial man as a crook.

His performances were often so convincing that he found praise in unexpected quarters. He narrates the time a Bombay policeman stopped his car at Bombay's crowded Crawford Market and asked him how he could start a policeman's union. Hangal protested he was an actor, not a trade unionist, no matter his Marxist leanings.

The policeman was bewildered. "But you were so good as the union leader in Namak Haram. That was why I thought you would be an expert on the subject."

Laughter over, we discuss modern films. Hangal agrees he is not getting good roles, the kind he was happy with. Where are the roles, he asked.

"We need good scripts, good storywriters." Hangal is not against sex and violence which he saw insidiously finding their way into cinema, but he feels they should be put in only if they are crucial to the plot.

What about the gangland's involvement in cinema? He smiles. "Unaccounted money has corrupted every sphere of life. Why should films be an exception?" he asks.

Hangal has one regret in life -- that he did not join films earlier. He began acting in the movies when he was in his early thirties. "I think I could have contributed more to films had I joined the industry earlier," he says.

His earlier years were devoted to IPTA, which was then obsessed with spreading the Marxist doctrine. Men like Balraj Sahni, Kaifi Azmi and Hangal produced meaningful plays highlighting the disparities between rich and poor and how the latter were exploited. They also targeted the loopholes in the country's social system. Today, IPTA has shifted to themes like crime, mystery, even comedy.

"Why not?" asks Hangal, on the defensive now. "Life has changed and theatre cannot isolate itself from life. We handle any theme, except those which are communal or crude. You can't go on propagating a revolution all the time."

In between cups of tea and salty biscuits, Hangal, proceeded to explain his Marxist ideology. Marxism, he said, was never dogmatic, but some of its followers in India had made it so. He was sure that the left movement will flourish in India since the new liberalisation policies had not helped the poor and downtrodden. So long as poverty and exploitation remained, he predicts the Left will survive.

Hangal is certain India is secular and that Hindu entities like the Bharatiya Janata Party cannot ensure support in the long run. He is confident that the judiciary will protect the secular fabric of Indian society.

He is also certain that art and culture can effectively break down communal barriers and sees himself as a cultural ambassador for his country. Once while he was returning from the erstwhile Soviet Union his plane was diverted to Karachi because of a technical problem.

He entered the Karachi airport restaurant and was mobbed by Pakistani citizens who sought his autograph and asked about Bombay's film stars. They were more interested in Bollywood gossip than the fact that Pakistan's then president General Zia-ul Haq had died in an air crash the same day.

That's clear proof, Hangal says, of the power of Art.

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