Veteran Bollywood actor AK Hangal died at the age of 95 on Sunday. With prayers on their lips, friends and family members bid a tearful adieu to distinguished character actor at his funeral.
Last year, his son Vijay said that he had no money to pay his medical bills, which raises a very important question: Do theatre actors get their due in popular cinema?
CNN-IBN Deputy Editor Sagarika Ghose posed the question to a panel of experts on her show, Face The Nation.
Sagarika Ghose: Good evening, yes Avtar Krishan Hangal or AK Hangal is no more. He passed away yesterday in Mumbai at the age of 95. AK Hangal represented a generation of film actors who entered cinema through the stage. He is remembered for his roles in 'Sholay' and 'Namak Haram', 'Bawarchi' and 'Guddi'. He was a member of the Indian Peoples Theatre Association, member of the Communist party. With his death, has cinema lost yet another of those dedicated performers for whom acting was part of a larger social cause? Joining us tonight, Shabana Azmi, actor, Vivek Vaswani, actor, Rauf Ahmed, senior film journalist. We are asking is the character artiste in Bollywood today's is declining?
Shabana Azmi, do share some of your memories of AK Hangal, we was beloved, he is remembered for his roles as Abdul chacha, Imam Saheb, Master ji yet suffered terribly. Last year his son Vijay said that he had no money to pay his medical bills. Did the industry forget AK Hangal too quickly?
Shabana Azmi The industry did not forget AK Hangal at all. In fact just yesterday, Vijay Hangal in an interview said that the minute it became known that Mr Hangal was doing badly, the industry came out in large number without wanting their names to be known and looked after Mr Hangal. I don’t believe that is the issue here, I believe that Hangal sahib was an artist who believed that art should be used for social change and through that dedicated his life to theatre in a way today very few have the same commitment. I was fortunate because he worked with my mother in several plays and if you allow me quote one incident, you see I was only nine-years-old and there was a play called 'Africa Jawan Pareshan' in which my mother and Hangal sahib had very important roles, they turned up in Hyderabad and due to some mismanagement only eight tickets were sold out in the 800 strong stadium so they decided that the tickets should be reimbursed and the show should be cancelled. But my mother and Hangal saheb said that this cannot happen and the show must go on and we will perform for those eight people. And believe me you they did not cheat, they did not go down on the intensity and for me it was a lesson that th show must go on.
Sagarika Ghose: That's a wonderful memory and shows you the kind of commitment that generation brought on. But I also want to put to Rauf Ahmed, AK Hangal join cinema at the age of 15 before that he was associated with the IPTA, from the point of view of films, what do you think was his contribution to cinema?
Rauf Ahmed I got to know him around the 70s when he was doing 'Sholay' and he was always concerned about the kind of work he was doing. He also wanted other to perform it as an art and not get carried away with the commercial possibilities of a role. So to that extent he was a very different kind of person. And also theatre, like the Hindi cinema is not considered that valuable because of the kind of acting you see, is not the kind of acting which theatre promotes.
Sagarika Ghose: Let me put to Vivek, as Rauf was saying that the quality perhaps of humility and as a newspaper wrote today that he was an embodiment of sanest charm, do you think that kind of actor today cannot happen in the cinema today where cinema is obsessed youth where elderly are seen as comic figure, do you think that kind of role that he essayed is not possible in cinema today?
Vivek Vaswani The first thing I recollect about Mr Hangal today was that he was very warm. I met him once, his son Vijay was doing still for the TV serial in which I was acting in and one evening I went back home with him and met him. I basically remember him for 'Shoukin', for 'Sholay' and 'Anamika' where he played Sanjeev Kumar's father. So the key thing that I remember about Hangal sahib was warmth. He was a benign man, today that benign face somewhere lack. I think it will very difficult to find someone to do a role that AK Hangal would have done.
Sagarika Ghose: Shabana Azmi again to you, a newspaper article wrote today that it was as if was born old because he acquired some kind of righteousness, some kind of dignity that only a generation of his time could have. Is that kind of a personality today misfit in the cinema?
Shabana Azmi: No, I think we will be making sweeping generalisation if we said, in the odd film today we still find a role like that. But you actually this is a stereotype because he got into this mould in cinema but in theatre he was different. So there were a lot of versatility in his theatre career which we unfortunately were not able to see in his movie career. But what Hangal sahib will be remember for is the amount of work and the amount of detail he brought to his work. I remember I was working with Sanjeev sahib and I was asking a lot of question and Sanjeev said how much time have you spent with Hangal sahib, you have become Hangla? And that became the word for Mr Hangal.
Sagarika Ghose: But Shaban Azmi let me also extend your view about the theatre you were saying that theatre and cinema relationship, do you lament that today not many star come from theatre but perhaps from modelling, families associated with the cinema?
Shabana Azmi: Not the character actors. If you look at the character actors and if you look at them in Anurag Kashyap's films for instance, all of them have got theatre backroom and come with a robustness and authenticity come only from inhabiting the world of theatre because that's how you learn authenticity and in movies it somehow becomes less and less. So I think the relationship with theatre and cinema that actors from theatre will absorb in cinema will always remain. And in cinema actors the lure of playing in a theatre will remain.
Sagarika Ghose: Rauf Ahmed let me put to you as so many Hollywood and Bollywood actors act on the stage, why do other actors such as Shah Rukh Khan, Aamir Khan dignify the stage? If Bollywood part becomes more associated with theatre then the theatre will exponentially reach and reach to people. Should Bollywood do much more for theatre?
Rauf Ahmed: I don't know if Bollywood can directly do anything for theatre but the fact remains the stardom you know. Which is once they get into the Bollywood syndrome it is very difficult for them to go back to the stage. Cinema has this stereotype that if you are not the hero type it is difficult for you to find a slot. I think he deserved more than what he got. Even Seema Biswas, she gives great performance but how many roles of those types did she get?
Sagarika Ghose: And the star system is very different and that is quite sad. But as Shabana Azmi was saying there are actors from theatre like Shabhnudin Siddiqui, there are character artist like Vijay Ras, Irfan Khan but they don't stand a chance. It is the face as Rauf was saying, ultimately matters in Bollywood.
Vivek Vaswani I think we must define and examine what is an actor and a star. An actor is an person who gets paid for the certain role he plays and a star gets paid on a contract. I think Shaban ji is one person who has handled that extremely well. She balanced her stardom to do the kind of films that other actresses could not have.
Sagarika Ghose: Shaban Azmi let me get your perspective that what don’t more people do what you do?
Shabana Azmi: I don't know if that is something that they want to do. You cannot force something on people, it's choices that they make. If you look at actors today and say that they have not make it as big as the Bollywood stars, I wonder whether that's what they are aspiring for. My take is that if you need longevity in your career is when you have done a substantial part.
Sagarika Ghose: And that's the choice which you have to make. The actor or the star. Shabana Azmi let me put to you what he wrote in his autobiography, The Life and Times of AK Hangal, he wrote, "Bollywood ignore the social complex fabric of the society increasingly, I often feel that I am a stranger in the world because of my ideological and political background. I increasingly find that that I am like a stranger in this world." Is that the kind of predicament he found himself in?
Shabana Azmi: I think the concerns are very much alive that you see with the younger film maker. When Mr Hangal came Hindi films were made in a broad stroke. And for AK Hangal who believed that art should be used for social change at that particular time. And as the younger filmmaker are coming they are making social films more violent. So I think there is a very robust resurgence of the cinema, it is here where you find the character actors getting there due.
Sagarika Ghose: Is the cinema catering to the crowd as you said, so is it becoming an instrument of change?
Shabana Azmi: You know I really don't know if I can really answer that question because I cannot force that ideology down the throat of the filmmakers. It is totally perfect if they feel that art should be used as a mean of entertainment. The important thing is that we should give the audience a basket of choice.
Sagarika Ghose: Exactly, why limit the ambit of art. Rauf Ahmed, do you feel if AK Hangal was young today would there be any meaningful role for him to do today?
Rauf Ahmed: I don't know if an individual can make such a difference. But as Shabana was saying, I admire the kind of work that Anurag Kashyap does. See the entire Bollywood concept is about entertainment. We say that we don't want any messages through cinema. I think the young breed is doing a great job at the moment. And if these films starts to do well I think we will see a change.
Sagarika Ghose: Right, you made a very valuable point that the vocation has always been a part of the Bollywood.