In 1946, Khwaja Ahmad Abbas made his directorial debut with Dharti Ke Lal, a film that went on to garner critical acclaim for its heart-rending portrayal of the Bengal famine. Written by Abbas and the late thespian Bijon Bhattacharya, and produced by the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA), it was the first ‘crowd-funded’ film in the country. Soon after, the country’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru wrote to Abbas, asking him to make a children’s film. Abbas made Munna
Nuggets like these, which give rare insight into the rich trajectory of the late writer and filmmaker’s life as well as Indian cinema, were presented last week at an event which unveiled Bread, Beauty, Revolution — Khwaja Ahmad Abbas 1914-1987. Held at Nehru Centre, Amitabh Bachchan and Shabana Azmi, along with members of the Khwaja Ahmad Abbas Memorial Trust, reminisced on their interactions with Abbas.
Edited by documentary filmmaker Iffat Fatima and Syeda Hameed, a former member of the Planning Commission, Bread, Beauty, Revolution is a compilation of selected writings by KA Abbas, encapsulating his work spanning 74 books, 40 films, 89 short stories and 3,000 articles in publications Bombay Chronicle and Blitz. “Through his autobiography, one gets a sense of the social milieu. What struck me the most was his engagement with every issue. Politics was so important to him and he had this almost Sufi idea of social transformation,” said Fatima, citing instances of his films such as Rahi (1953), Shehar Aur Sapna (1964) and Do Boond Pani (1971).
Azmi, whose late father Kaifi Azmi wrote the lyrics for Abbas’s Saat Hindustani (1969), recounted the memories of “Abbas chachu”, whom she would badger to cast her in a film. She also read out a excerpt from the book, on the time the filmmaker first met Bachchan.
Saat Hindustani marked Bachchan’s debut in Bollywood and the veteran actor recounted his experience of working with the director. “He cast me as a Muslim poet. In fact, he chose all seven characters from different places in the country, to play roles distinct to who they were. While shooting in Goa, the entire cast and crew would sleep in one hall. Some nights, there was no electricity, and I would wake up to see Abbasji writing dialogues in the light of a lantern,” he said.
After reading a moving piece on the will Abbas had penned in ‘Last Page’, a column he wrote in Blitz magazine, Bachchan said, “He was an incredible human being, who did exactly what he thought.”