A prolific journalist, screenwriter, playwright and director, Khwaja Ahmad Abbas set the bar for those who came after him
As centenary celebrations of Krishan Chander and Majeed Amjad are being planned in Pakistan, it is befitting to recall that the centenary celebrations of Khwaja Ahmad Abbas are being held in India. He was born in the year 1914 and then went on to become a novelist, short story writer, journalist, playwright, screenplay writer and film maker. In all he wrote 73 books in English, Urdu and Hindi, made 13 films which in many ways were groundbreaking, a departure from the usual song and dance format of subcontinental cinema.
But in those days the movements like the Progressive Writers Association were in full bloom and generally the arts were all infected by the sweeping ideology of Marxism. With India so close to independence, the same ideological imperatives were also consciously visible in the other art forms mainly drama and film. When Abbas made Naya Sansar in the early 1940s it was a new experiment that was lauded greatly at least by the few who wanted the arts and cinema to play a more overtly purposeful role in character and nation building.
K. A. Abbas was the first secretary general of the Indian Peoples Theatre Association, and later after partition he was also secretary of the Progressive Writers Association in India.
But as it usually happens with such ideological movements they tend to become dogmatic and, in later stages, to meet with the changing realities on ground the battlefield is laid between the competing interpretations that are thrown up in the process.
The first to be affected are creative writers and artistes. Abbas had great trouble in dealing with the dogmatic reading of Marxism and was sort of expelled from the organisation and debarred from editing their magazine. But he continued undeterred writing novels, short stories besides hectic journalistic assignments.
He found journalism and literature to be conjoined twins for he was often accused of being journalistic in his fiction and films. His inspiration came from writers like Upton Sinclair and many others who were also journalists.
K A Abbas won many laurels such as Padma Shri, Haryana State Robe of Honour for literary achievements, Ghalib Award for his contribution to Urdu prose/ literature, Vronsky Literary Award of the Soviet Union, Urdu Academy Delhi Special Award, Maharashtra State Urdu Academy Award and the Soviet Award for his contribution to the cause of Indo-Soviet Friendship.
Nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes in France for the script of Neecha Nagar, National Film Award For Best Feature Film Shehar Aur Sapna, All India Certificate of Merit for the Second Best Children Film Idd Mubarak, Bengal Film Journalist Association Awards(BFJA) for Naya Sansar.
He was also nominated as director at Palme d’Or at Cannes for Pardesi, International Film Festival Award Santa Barbara for Hamara Ghar, Maharashran State Award for Fakira, Nargis Dutt Awards for Saat Hindustani, Nargis Dutt Awards for Do Boond Pani, Golden Awards for The Naxalites.
Cinema was seen by many as the medium that had the greatest outreach. Since it was primarily visual and oral, the people who were uneducated in the formal sense could also be influenced by it. It could be used for propaganda as well as for purposes of education. The great directors showed the world the potential of cinema in raising the consciousness of the people at large.
Khwaja Ahmed Abbas and V. Shantaram were the first who opted to treat cinema in line with their ideological commitments. The first truly realistic films were made in India in the 1940s. After Naya Sansar he made Dharti Ke Lal, and wrote the script for Dr Kotnis Ki Amar Kahani and Neecha Nagar which was nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes in France.
India fortunately had a very vibrant film industry, the most vibrant and the biggest in the colonies and the people’s appetite for viewing cinema too was insatiable. Some of the films had coded messages or encryptions which the people read and understood differently from the ones that were overtly screened.
Censorship too made the producers use a subtext and an underlying meaning different from the one presented on surface but these films by Abbas were not encoded and wrapped in song and dance format but were clear, open and uncompromising. This stark realism was not liked by the people but adulated by the discerning many across the subcontinent.
But Abbas was not to be deterred. He continued to make films -- Munna, Anhonee, Do Boond Pani, Saat Hindustani, Bambai Raat Ki Bahoon Main, Aasman Mahal, The Naxalites, Shehar Aur Sapna, picking up many awards, national and international without even joining the ranks of popular money making producers of almost the biggest film industry in the world. Though as part of the film world he was successful in writing scripts and dialogues for blockbusters like Awara, Shri 420, Mera Naam Joker, Bobby and Henna.
Unlike Pakistan, the distance between show business and serious ideological work or working for a cause was not that great in India. Many from the very beginning were involved in making films, writing scripts, dialogues and songs for films even in popular cinema which in many ways uplifted the general quality of films. Manto, Rajinder Singh Bedi, Majrooh Sultanpuri, Akhtar ul Iman, Kaifi Azmi, and Sahir Ludhianvi, along with Ismat Chugtai and Raja Mehdi Ali Khan worked for the films without any accusations. Abbas too was busy in the film world as much as he was in literature and journalism.
He also worked in a Soviet-Indian joint production Pardesi which was filmed both in Soviet Union and India. Released in both languages Hindi and Russian it was based on the travels of a trader Afanay Nitkin who visited India in the 15th century.
Among his journalist commitments was a weekly column on the last page that he wrote consistently for more than 50 years, first for the Bombay Chronicle and then Blitz. He kept writing short stories and novels.
His novel Inqilab was written in English in the early 1950s but could not find a publisher. It was published in the Soviet Union and then translated into many languages like German. It was finally published in India and Hindi and Urdu versions followed later. He also wrote his autobiography -- I Am Not An Island.
Many who came later and are recognised as greater film makers like Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen, Shiyam Benegal, Ritwik Ghatak, Basu Bhattacharya, and Gulzar owed a great deal to the pioneer film makers of alternative cinema like Abbas. His films may not have been as suave, subtle or understated as that of the later film makers. Films that came later had a pedestal to stand on and that pedestal was made or put in place by the likes of Abbas. His contribution like that of all pioneers was great and no wonder he is being remembered even 27 years after his death.