“Jaante ho duniya mein sabse bada bhoj kya hota hai? Baap ke kandhe par bete ka janaza (Do you know what the heaviest burden in the world is? A son’s coffin on a father’s shoulders),” cries Rahim Chacha in Sholay, when he realizes that Gabbar Singh’s men have killed his innocent son Ahmed (Sachin Pilgaonkar).
Blind by destiny and now blinded by tears, Rahim Chacha didn’t leave a single eye dry in the audiences. A.K. Hangal in that few seconds, earned popularity and sympathy of a lifetime.
Another character, though in marked contrast, that made him immortal was that of the pleasure-seeking Indrasen (Anderson), in the Boys Night Out kind of comedy Shaukeen. He’s part of the trinity of old men, who want to play out their hormones before pack-up. That he was convincing only proved his malleability.
Said to be our homegrown Benjamin Button, Hangal, remained an old man in the public consciousness having begun his film career at 50. But he was much more than an actor before that.
A freedom fighter, a Leftist who took on the establishment, a labour activist, a tailor and a stage personality, Hangal was the man of the masses.
No wonder he took to roles that radiated compassion and righteousness with ease. Being unconcerned by avarice, was perhaps what brought him to penury in his last days, leaving him with no option but to seek help from his brethren.
In retrospect, it was not a favour that they doled out to him. Rather it was a humble ‘repaying back’ to a nationalist, who’d given his youth to the country.
Avtar Kishan Hangal was born on August 15, 1915 in Sialkot, Pakistan, to Pandit Hari Kishan Hangal and Ragia Hundoo.
He spent his growing years in Peshawar. His grandfather was the assistant commissioner there, while his father too had a government job. Following his father’s retirement, the family moved from Peshawar to Karachi.
A freedom fighter, Hangal didn’t want a government job.
“I never feared the British. I held my head high in front of them. People were scared to look at them, their expression was such. But not me!” said the actor, who years later appeared in the British series Lord Mountbatten: The Last Viceroy (1986).
“I 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 once told Open magazine.
Hangal joined Shree Sangeet Priya Mandal, a theatre group in Peshawar in 1936. To survive, he learnt tailoring and formed a trade union for tailors there.
He moved to Bombay in 1949 after he was jailed for three years in Pakistan. “I was tadipar (banished) from Pakistan. My progressive views didn’t suit them. I refused to bow down. I had secular and communist leanings,” said the actor, who was secretary of the Congress Party in Karachi (Filmfare).
The activist idolised Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. “I looked up to Nehru not because he was part of my community (Kashmiri Pandit). But for his nationalism… My biggest regret is that I wasn’t born earlier. I should have been there during the Jallianwala Baug massacre! I wish I had done more things for my country (Filmfare),” once lamented the Padma Bhushan recipient (2006).
He got involved with the theatre group IPTA along with Marxists Balraj Sahni and Kaifi Azmi in Mumbai. Being a prolific stage personality, he was referred to as the ‘uncrowned king of theatre’.
He began doing films in the mid- ’60s, featuring in 200-plus films spread over four decades. At 50, he first signed Basu Bhattacharya’s Teesri Kasam (1966), though his role was later cut out. Samir Ganguly’s Shagird (1967), which had him play Saira Banu’s quirky father, kick-started his screen career.
His association with middle-of-the road filmmakers Hrishikesh Mukherjee and Gulzar gave him a spate of memorable characters. He played Jaya Bhaduri’s congenial father in Guddi (1971).
In Bawarchi (1972), he played a clerk, who escapes the monotony of a humdrum job with unapologetic pegs of cheap liquor. In Abhimaan (1973), he’s a maestro, who not only imparts the nuances of classical music to his daughter but also old-world values.
His act as the passionate trade union leader in Namak Haraam (1973), was so authentic (borrowed from his real-life stint as a labour activist) that it compelled a Mumbai cop to inquire on how to set up such an organisation.
In a somewhat real-life take-off in Garm Hava (1973), Hangal played the Sindhi businessman, Ajmani, a refugee from Pakistan albeit without bitterness.
Anil Ganguly’s Kora Kagaz (1974), had him play the idealistic Principal Gupta, who respects his daughter’s choice of marrying a middle-class professor. As domestic help,Brinda Kaka, in Gulzar’s Aandhi (1975), he was an embodiment of sentiments and loyalty.
K Balachander’s remake of his own Arangetram, Aaina (1977), casts him as an unpleasant father of a girl, who resorted to prostitution to support her family.
Having worked with Rajesh Khanna in around 16 films (including Aap Ki Kasam, Amar Deep and Thodisi Bewafaii), his was a sensitive portrayal of an elderly at the mercy of his uncaring son in Khanna’s Avtaar (1983).
While his array of roles was impressive, nothing can compare to the popularity of his Rahim Chacha in the blockbuster Sholay (1975).
“Itna sannata kyon hai, bhai,” his plaintive voice, cutting through the ominous silence around his son’s dead body, remains a cinematic moment. “I used the psycho-technique to get the feeling of blindness,” Hangal was quoted saying about his role in Sholay. He even learned the Islamic chant to lend authenticity to his role of an Imam (the prayer leader).
In a complete volte-face, he played lusty widower, Inder Mohan, seeking a testosterone adventure, alongside Ashok Kumar and Utpal Dutt in Basu Chatterjee’s Shaukeen (1982).
Towards the end of his innings, he played Shambhu Kaka, the oldest inhabitant of a drought-struck village in Ashutosh Gowarikar’s Lagaan (2001). Sadly, during that time, he had a fall in the bathroom and was hospitalized.
“My role was cut short in Lagaan, though they paid me the promised amount. They took care of my hospital bills too. Aamir Khan and Reena would visit me at the hospital... But I felt bad that my role was cut,” he said (rediff.com).
His last films were Dil Maange More (2004) and Paheli (2005). He lamented the banality of Hindi films in his autobiography, Life And Times Of A.K. Hangal writing, “I am a stranger in this world because of my ideological and political background, sensitiveness and social commitments.”
In the early ’90s, he was reportedly dubbed anti-national by right-wing forces in Mumbai for attending Independence Day celebrations at the Pakistan Consul-General’s office. He was boycotted and remained out of work for two years. The incident left him deeply hurt.
In 2002, Hangal had featured in Gurudev Bhalla’s Shararat, a film about old-age home inmates. Little did the veteran imagine that he’d be experiencing a similar vulnerability few years down the line.
While films brought him respect, financial security never featured in Hangal’s priorities. The veteran was living with his 70-plus son Vijay Hangal in a one-room-kitchen studio in Santa Cruz.
Vijay, once a photographer, had also retired. To take care of the rising expenses and his frequent hospitalizations, Vijay reportedly sold his studio and his car. A distraught Hangal appealed to the industry for help in 2010.
Reportedly, the Maharashtra Navnirman Chitrapat Kamgar Sena first came forward to help. Soon help poured in from several quarters. Apart from CINTAA (Cine and TV Artists Association), the Asha Parekh Hospital Trust, ministers, politicians and actors (including Jaya Bachchan and Salman Khan) also contributed towards the upkeep of the veteran.
“I’ve got lots of letters from actors, politicians... I thought I was mamooli (an ordinary person). But from these letters, I realise I am not,” an overwhelmed Hangal said.
“Mutthi hamari bandh thi. Magar ab khul gayee hai. Izzat beh gayee hai. But keeping aside sentiments, at least people became aware of our condition,” said a relieved Vijay Hangal (Filmfare).
In February 2011, Hangal was wheeled down the ramp at Riyaz-Reshma Gangji’s spring-summer collection in Mumbai. Being once a tailor, Hangal attended the fashion show as a mark of support to designers. Several donations came his way as well.
A spirited Hangal’s last appearance, at 97, was in the TV serial Madhubala: Ek Ishq Ek Junoon (2012).
Soon after, Hangal was admitted to the Asha Parekh Hospital on August 16, 2012, following a fall at home. He suffered a hip fracture. Gradually, he developed lung failure and passed away on 26 August, 2012.
“My father was highly spirited and fought till the end. He survived even after life support was taken off,” said Vijay.