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How many A K Hangal films have I seen?

August 29, 2012 09:52 IST

Character actor A K Hangal was flawless in over 200 films, but was given little opportunity to shine, mourns Aseem Chhabra.

How many A K Hangal films have I seen? The question had nagged me for the past two days since I learned about the nonagenarian actor's death

I went on, but the exercise of looking at the list of 200 plus movies, mentally counting the ones I had seen got complicated. At some stage, I messed up the counting process and gave up, saying to myself that I had seen a substantial number of his films.  

I do not know much about Hangal's theatre career at Indian People's Theatre Association, although it must have been a special time working side-by-side with the likes of Balraj Sahni, and Kaifi and Shaukat Azmi.

A couple of obituaries I read said his first role was in Basu Chatterjee's Teesri Kasam, playing Raj Kapoor's brother. That confused me, since I do not remember if Kapoor had a brother in that brilliant film. But now I learn that Hangal's scenes were deleted from the final cut of the film (much like Kevin Costner's debut role in The Big Chill).

The veteran actor joined films rather late in life -- he was already 50. I do remember thinking where had such a natural, warm actor come from, and I wondered why we had not seen him earlier in films. I particularly remember the 1970s, the time when Hangal seemed to be in practically every film -- Guddi, Sholay, Bawarchi, Abhiman, Aap Ki Kasam, Anubhav, Parichay, Jawani Diwani, Aandhi, Kora Kagaz, Chitchor, Aalap, Des Pardes, Namak Haram and many more. And that was just a sampling of his films in one decade.

He was always good, dependable and recognisable. He seemed to play each role with a pizazz, honesty and dignity, as if it was the first time he was playing the character. But it was not until he acted in Shaukeen with Ashok Kumar and Utpal Dutt, that Hangal got a chance to play out of his type, a good intentioned, but somewhat of a lecherous man. Otherwise Hangal was typecast in every film role he accepted.

He was always the sweet, polite, gentle older uncle, father, domestic help or a man of principles. His performances were flawless in each film, but for a man who came from such a rich tradition of theatre, the Hindi film industry really did not give him much opportunity to shine, to be bright, exceptional and a surprising actor. Instead the industry, not known for taking risks, pigeonholed

him and used him in the same form again and again.

We are blessed to have seen Hangal in so many films, but I am certain our experience would have been so much more rewarding, if the actor in him had been challenged to play less predictable and more nuanced roles. 

A couple of years ago we learned through Hangal's son that the actor was unwell and he could not afford to pay for his medication. The Hindi film industry genuinely seemed shocked and stars like Aamir Khan, Jaya and Amitabh Bachchan and Mithun Chakraborty stepped forward to support the veteran actor.

And in what seemed like an odd gesture -- although laden with good intentions -- designer Riyaz Ganji had Hangal walk the ramp (in a wheelchair) at his spring fashion show in Mumbai.

Images showed a very frail Hangal wrapped in a shawl looking terribly confused and surrounded by a host of young attractive and elaborately dressed female and male models. Hangal's presence seemed strange on the ramp. Ganji was generous to donate some money to Hangal, as did his models, but there was something rather peculiar about a man -- a lifetime member of the Communist Party of India, who seemed to live by simple values -- suddenly in an over-the-top capitalist setting.

The news of Hangal's financial troubles left me thinking that there was something gravely wrong with the Hindi film industry. How can a man who was in over 200 movies be so broke, unless as I suspect, he was paid very little money for his work? The Hindi film industry -- as with other national and international film entities -- is driven by the star system. Supporting actors do not have the power to run the system to their advantage.

Hangal acted in 16 films with the late Rajesh Khanna. One should not talk ill of those who have departed from this life, but why does it seem to me that Khanna's salary must have been a substantial part of those films' budgets. An earnest man like Hangal would have been satisfied just to be getting work at a time when most people are preparing for their retirement.

Hangal's situation should be a wake up call for the Hindi and other regional film industries of India. Much like Hollywood's Screen Actors Guild and other film trade associations, there is an urgent need to develop a retirement system and also medical insurance policies for the veteran actors who have played significant supporting roles in Indian films. 

Who knows how many more Hangals are out there barely surviving in their last years of lives? And most of them would not have the connections to reach out to Khan or the Bachchans for support.

Aseem Chhabra in New York