September 4, 2012

An Era Ends: A.K. Hangal -- 1917-2012 - Communist, tailor, actor, purveyor of senescent charm

A self-confessed “late bloomer in the Hindi film industry,” AK Hangal went for his heavenly abode on Sunday. It is another loss for Bollywood as with him an era ends. A.K Hangal originally named Avtar vineet Kishan Hangal was known for his a lifelong struggling. He spent three years in jail in Karachi. Hangal had taken part in a rally to protest the hanging of Bhagat Singh. “I clearly remember the day Bhagat Singh was arrested, and the day he was hanged. Pathans cried and everyone walked the streets chanting ‘Bhagat Singh, Bhagat Singh’,” He was proud of his earliest associations with the Left. The authorities released him on one condition — that he would leave Pakistan and settle in India. Which he gladly accepted – “mera dil hamesha Hindustan mein hi tha, aur main har dam ek sachcha Hindustani tha, dil se”, he often said.
A couple of write ups about him, say his first role was in Basu Chatterjee's Teesri Kasam, playing Raj Kapoor's brother. And some other say “Shagrid” which confused me, since I do not remember if Kapoor had a brother in that film! But what I learn that Hangal's scenes were deleted in final cut of the film. However that couldn’t take away Hangal saab’s ability on screen.
Left-leaning, a member of the Communist Party, he spent many years working for the Indian People’s Theatre Association. Life’s ups and down made the situation such that at one point of time he had to take up a tailoring job to make ends meet. Like everything else, he excelled at it. Born in Peshawar in 1917, his life started to struggle from then: "My earliest memory is that of my mother. It was late at night and I was fast asleep. They came and woke me up and dragged me downstairs. I must have been about four or five years-old then. I saw them crying and I looked at my mother lying there. She lay calm and still. As they were all crying, I too cried. That was the last time I saw my mother. "When the crying stopped, my sister took me upstairs and put me to bed. Mother had not been well for some time, and her brother, following the advice of some old women in the family, had taken her to a daee (midwife), who could not treat her effectively, and mother died." – Excerpt from Hangal's autobiography.
Once he was dubbed anti-national by right-wing forces in Mumbai for attending Independence Day celebrations at the Pakistan Consul-General's office. He was boycotted by filmmakers and remained out of work for two years. Although things returned to normal, the incident left him deeply hurt. He complained: “I had come to India leaving behind everything in Karachi yet was dubbed a Pakistani!”
 Though films brought him stability and a degree of respect but it did not gave a smooth life. He was in dire need of money. The film industry did step up to the man's needs and helped him but it is unfortunate that, the glamour world to whom Hangal saab had given his best, couldn’t gave his proper place that he made for. A couple of years ago 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 finally an odd gesture although in good intention designer Riyaz Ganji had Hangal walk the ramp in a wheelchair. This was quite disturbing. How a man who was in over 200 great movies could be in so bad situation that he couldn’t afford money for his treatment? , Unless as what I suspect he was paid very little money for his work. This leaves in mind that Hindi film industry is driven by the star system, (note. Bollywood's yesteryears superstar Rajesh Khanna, who has left behind a huge property worth crores) while supporting actors do not have the power to run the system to their advantage.
Remembering him, 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.
Though it is customary to mourn the passing of a beloved actor, we salute you for your immense contribution to Bollywood. You left a “sannata” , a place that can’t be filled by anyone.  R.I.P Hangal Saab.
From his vast repertoire of work, we list some of his most memorable performances.

1.       Sholay
2.       Bawarchi
3.       Abhimaan
4.       Garam Haoa
5.       Namak Haraam
6.      Kora Kagaz
7.      Badaltey Rishtey
8.      Lagaan
9.      Teesri Kasam
10.   Aandhi.

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