Forty years after his death, K.A. Abbas (1914-87) is remembered as a highly talented writer and journalist who wrote columns and reviews for leading newspapers as well as short stories and novels in Urdu, Hindi and English. His column Last Page appeared with continuity for over four decades, first in Bombay Chronicle and then in Blitz.
He interviewed some of the world’s top leaders. His short stories were translated into so many languages that he lost count. Yet it is his contributions to the world of cinema which remain his most enduring achievement. As World War II ended and India was moving closer to freedom, the social turmoil was reflected in the world of cinema and some memorable films of social concern were being made or planned.
As a 32-year-idealist, Abbas was deeply involved in three of the most important of these films. Dharti Ke Lal was an exceptional film on the Great Bengal Famine. Probably nothing like this had ever been attempted before or after this.
There were many problems and the film was completed with difficulty. This remains a rare and realistic documentation of one of the most tragic episodes of the 20th century. Abbas was involved as producer, director and story-writer. Around the same time (1946) Abbas was writing the screenplay of Neecha Nagar, a remarkable film about the injustice and prejudice against slum-dwellers, which went on to get a Golden Palm at Cannes.
Simultaneously, Abbas was writing the screenplay of Dr. Kotnis Ki Amar Kahani, an inspiring film about the selfless service and death of an Indian doctor in China. Neecha Nagar was directed by Chetan Anand while Dr. Kotnis was directed by V.Shantaram. Earlier Abbas had sold his story Naya Sansar to Bombay Talkies for a film carrying the same title. So in his early thirties, he had already established his credentials with some of the best filmmakers while also testing the ground for film-making on his own.
However even better contributions were to come as in the heady first decade after independence Abbas embarked on the most creative phase of his remarkable film career. His burst of creativity flowed with abundance in two different streams. On the one hand he started his own film unit Naya Sansar which made several films of deep social commitment and relevance. These included Anhonee (1952), Rahi (1953), Munna (1954), Pardesi (1957), Char Dil Char Rahen (1959), Shahar Aur Sapna (1964), Bambai Raat Ki Bahon Mein (1967), Saat Hindustani (1969), Do Boond Pani (1971) and Naxalites (1980). Rahi was based on the problems of tea garden workers. Munna looked at issues through the eyes of a child.
Pardesi was an Indo-Soviet co-production which recalled the friendship based on a traveller’s relationships. Shahar Aur Sapna made in the face of severe financial constraints won the best National feature film award for its deeply sympathetic portrayal of the problems of homeless people and their dreams for good and secure housing. Bambai raat… looked at urban relationships and issues including crime from the perspective of a struggling journalist. Saat Hindustani, also known for introducing Amitabh Bachchan, won the best film on national integration award for its portrayal of involvement of persons from different parts of India in the freedom struggle of Goa.
Do Boond Pani won the same award for its portrayal of attempts to resolve the water crisis in desert areas of Rajasthan. Other themes taken up by Abbas included problems of trafficked women set against hypocrisy of society and rural discontent linked to inequalities. This was the first stream of the cinematic work of Abbas. However, these films generally did not do well in commercial terms, even though the music of some became quite popular. The second stream of the work related to the stories, screenplay and dialogue Abbas wrote for the RK films of Raj Kapoor.
Some of these became the biggest commercial hits of all time besides also getting critical acclaim for their social relevance and good qualities of film-making. These films included Awara (1951) and Shri 420 (1955) in the early days and Bobby (1973) and Henna (1991) in a later phase. He also wrote Jagte Raho (1956) and Mera Naam Joker (1970) which may not have been big hits but were widely praised for several aspects of good film-making. In between Abbas found time to contribute to other films including Achanak, a rare film against capital punishment, while also making acclaimed documentaries like Eid Mubarak and Phir Bolo Aayen Sant Kabir.
Taken together, the contribution of Abbas not only shows continuity of high quality work in difficult conditions for nearly four decades, but also unwavering commitment to justice, equality, communal harmony and national integration. His portrayal of oppressed people is deeply sympathetic and he upholds their dignity and humanity in the worst of circumstances.
He was also known for his scathing exposure of injustice and hypocrisy. He introduced a lot of newcomers and many flowered because of his encouragement.
(The writer is a freelance journalist who has been involved with several social movements and initiatives)