Most fans of Hindi cinema would immediately recognise Khwaja Ahmed Abbas as the director of films like Dharti ke Lal (1946, famed as India’s first social-realist film), Pardesi (1957), and Saat Hindustani (1969, which introduced Amitabh Bachchan to Bollywood). Many would also recall that K.A. Abbas’ screenplays played a major role in the commercial success of many of Raj Kapoor’s films, right from Awaara (1951) and Shree 420 (1955) to Bobby (1973), as well as in the critical acclaim that films like Naya Sansar (1941), Neecha Nagar (1946), and Jaagte Raho (1956) garnered. It may however, come as a surprise to many that Abbas was a film journalist at a time when the field was not even in its nascent stages and that he wrote a number of short stories, all of them set within the celluloid world of Bombay.
Sone Chandi ke Buth (literally, “Idols of Gold and Silver”) is the English translation of Abbas’ Urdu book by the same name published in 1986. Translated by Abbas’ niece Syeda Hameed and the film studies scholar Sukhpreet Kahlon, the book is divided into three sections: short observations on famous film personalities (“Funn aur Funkaar”), short stories (“Kahaaniyaan”), and a series of articles on various aspects of Indian cinema. This book also carries a selection from Abbas’ journalistic writings published in The Bombay Chronicle.
Abbas was active in the Hindi film industry from 1935 until his death in 1987; he was witness to many of the sweeping technological and ideological changes that transformed the very look, sound, and feel of Hindi cinema. It is, therefore, not surprising that the profiles that form the first part of the book are on a range offilm personalities across generations: directors like Satyajit Ray, director-actors like Shantaram and Raj Kapoor, lyricists like Sahir Ludhianvi, and actors like Prithviraj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar, Meena Kumari, and Amitabh Bachchan.
A distinct voice
Across all these sketches, one can identify a voice typical of Abbas: a voice that is blatantly, and often uncomfortably, honest. He could, for instance, ask of Dilip Kumar why he was “making these inane films: Azaad, Kohinoor, Dil Diya Dard Liya, Ram aur Shyam” (page 21), and could point out that in his later films, Shantaram did not confront social issues as he had done earlier.
It is a voice that flows easily between personal reminiscences—Abbas recalls his meetings with Shantaram and Amitabh Bachchan, and his sketch of Sahir Ludhianvi is almost entirely a personal recollection—and sharp critiques, evidenced best in the epithets he gives his subjects: Satyajit Ray is “Mahapurush”, Amitabh Bachchan the “Himmatwala”,and Balraj Sahni “The People’s Artist”.
It is also a voice that is deeply empathetic and sensitive as in his touching portrayal of Meena Kumari and her dedication to her profession. Yet what connects these vignettes is the underlying belief in the inherent value of cinema as simultaneously an art form and a medium of social criticism. Indeed, this is the yardstick with which Abbas seems to measure the people he describes; in his own words cinema is “a cultural force destined to produce a revolution in the mind of man” (page 208).
Caste system of the film world
It is perhaps Bombay cinema’s failure to fulfil this role that is at the centre of many of the stories Abbas chose to anthologise in this book. The stories are peopled with characters from different rungs in the celluloid ladder—what Abbas would in his article “Film Industry: A Mirror of Our Society” call the caste system of the entertainment world.
We meet heroines who will go to any lengths to appear young and beautiful, heroes who throw tantrums, directors who try all possible avenues to get money from financiers, mothers who sedate (and in the process, kill) their babies so they keep quiet on the sets, and selfless doctors who treat actresses bent on dying. As in his sketches, Abbas’ stories, too, carry a strong indictment of an industry that is far too concerned with superficialities and far too given over to capitalist enterprises.
The empathy that Abbas, a member of the Progressive Writers’ Association, felt for the underdog is evident in nearly all the stories; and the underdogs in many cases are women—women of different classes, women at different stages in their celluloid careers, women who have internalised the superficial values of the system, and women who are sensitive enough to realise the ephemerality of it all. Abbas skilfully turns his critical eye on himself in “Actress”, berating himself for falling into the same trap that he criticises others succumbing to.
It is, of course possible, that many fans of Hindi cinema will recognise the real people behind the characters in the stories—such as the thinly disguised Meena Kumari as the protagonist in the short story “Parineeta Kumari’s Paans” and Amitabh Bachchan as Achchan in “Achchan’s Lover”—but these are marginal to the stories themselves; for in these stories, the entire entertainment industry is brought under the scanner and found wanting in depth and sensitivity.
This criticism is all but reinforced in the collection of articles on the film industry that forms the third part of the book. These are articles that analyse various aspects of Hindi cinema in the same critical voice we have heard so far. Abbas’ love for the medium is obvious here—after all, this is the man who watched at least a film a day for more than 50 years of his life.
Critical & analytical
His articles are critical—he likens the structure and functioning of the film industry to the caste system and bemoans the commercialism that decides much of what emerges as the finished product—and analytical. He describes the different kinds of technical and ideological experiments happening in Indian cinema, and finds Hindi cinema wanting in this regard.
This is the same tone in which Abbas wrote many of the articles for his column “Last Page” in The Bombay Chronicle that the editors of this book have included here. This is the longest running column in India; it began in 1935 and when in 1959 The Bombay Chronicle closed, it moved to the Blitz. Abbas continued writing the column until his death in 1987 and in his will bequeathed it to the journalist P. Sainath.
Clearly, Abbas was writing when film journalism was almost unheard of, and in the light of this, the critical eye with which he views the Bombay film industry and film journalism itself is even more striking.
The articles curated for this book were all written in 1939 and 1941 and range from reviews of films like Durga and Kangan; recapitulations of the history of the then 25-year-old Indian film industry to topics debated even today such as the function of cinema as a medium in Indian society; the safety and insurance of actors, especially stuntmen (Abbas calls for rules regarding compensation and the need to minimise risks); and the role of the film journalist. That cinema was not taken seriously appears to have caused Abbas considerable concern, one no doubt shared by many academics even today.
Fortified by photographs from Abbas’ personal and professional life and posters of his films, the translation makes available to a larger audience the views and ideas of one of the earliest multitaskers in the Bombay film industry. Although a few editorial comments on individual articles and stories as well as a closer look at Abbas’ ideological leanings would have been welcome, the book brings out the far-sighted, critical mind of a thinker like K.A. Abbas besides allowing us a glimpse into the Hindi film industry in all its glory and sordidness.
Padma V. Mckertich teaches literature at Stella Maris College, Chennai, and has an abiding interest in old Hindi films.
- Khwaja Ahmed Abbas, the director of films such as Dharti ke Lal (1946, famed as India’s first social-realist film) and Saat Hindustani (1969, which introduced Amitabh Bachchan to Bollywood), was also a member of the Progressive Writers’ Association, a film journalist and a writer of a number of short stories in the celluloid world of Bombay.
- Sone Chandi ke Buth (literally, “Idols of Gold and Silver”) is the English translation of his Urdu book by Syeda Hameed and Sukhpreet Kahlon.
- The book is divided into three sections: short observations on famous film personalities (“Funn aur Funkaar”), short stories (“Kahaaniyaan”), and a series of articles on various aspects of Indian cinema.
- Abbas, who was active in the Hindi film industry from 1935 until his death in 1987, was witness to many of the sweeping technological and ideological changes in Hindi cinema.
- His is a distinct critical voice that flows easily between personal reminiscences and sharp critiques
- His stories are peopled with characters from different rungs in the celluloid ladder—what he called the caste system of the entertainment world.
- They carry a strong indictment of an industry too concerned with superficialities and given over to capitalist enterprises.
- Abbas was writing when film journalism was almost unheard of, and in the light of this, the critical eye with which he views the Bombay film industry and film journalism itself is even more striking.