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The World of Khwaja Ahmad Abbas: A Writer, Filmmaker, and Journalist

A writer, film critic, journalist, and a socialist a most importantly a versatile personality. Khwaja Ahmad Abbas Sahab has much more to him than writing the best movies of Raj Kapoor Sahab or giving Amitabh Bachchan his big break. Before he wrote Mera Naam Joker, Awaara, and Bobby, he was a novelist, short story writer, and columnist who wrote in English, Urdu, and Hindi. His column ‘last page’ also holds the title of being one of the longest-running columns in the history of Indian Journalism. But, my introduction to Abbas Sahab did not come through the movies he wrote, or his journalistic articles. I got introduced to him, only at the beginning of this year (2020) before the lockdown was imposed on all of us. As someone from the Generation Z, I was never intrigued by the cinema of the mid-20th century, which was when Abbas Sahab hit his prime. My kind of cinema, was the one that came out Anurag Kashyap (especially Gangs of Wasseypur, which has now gained a cult following), Imtiaz Ali, Zoya Akhtar, Shoojit Sircar and the 2.0 phase of Anubhav Sinha. All these directors, have something very unique in them unlike what Yash Raj and Dharma give us; although Dharma does have some good films under its banner. But now I have derailed from our original conversation about Abbas Sahab and I have shifted the conversation about how Imtiaz Ali portrays love in his cinema. Now coming back to the initial conversation, about how I got introduced to Abbas Sahab! As a true blue Dilliwala and someone who ardently loves to read political theory, I visited Mayday Bookstore in Shaadi Khampur. The bookstore and I surprisingly share the same vibe (not because of similar political inclination). I was there to get some copies of the EPW Magazine, but as I was going across the shelves, I spotted a book called “Naxalites” which had Abbas Sahab’s name over it along with Suresh Kohli’s name, who is a pretty famous translator, writer, and film historian. When I turned the book, I read the description about how it was a book about the Naxalite movement. The back cover had “Written in the form of a novel, the narrative with its cinematic descriptions indeed evokes a moving picture” written on it, and I instantly google Abbas Sahab’s name and I realized that he was a quite a personality. I picked up the book, but got caught up in work and didn’t open it up until the lockdown hit and I had nothing to do in the night time with my irregular sleep schedule.

Abbas Sahab’s work spans 74 books, 90 short stories, 40 films, 3000 journalistic articles, and some odd plays. He started off his journey as a journalist with Bombay Chronicle, and then became a columnist for the Blitz, and then he ventured off to feature films, where he became one of the few initial members of the Indian People’s Theatric Association (IPTA) along with Prithviraj Kapoor, and Balraj Sahni. As a writer-director in the Hindi Cinema, he directed cult films like ‘Dharti Ke Laal’ (Film on 1943 Bengal Famine), and ‘Saat Hindustani’ which was the debut of Amitabh Bachchan on the silver screen. He also won the prestigious award Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival for the screenplay he wrote for ‘Neecha Nagar’.

Abbas Sahab was born on 7 June 1914 in Panipat, Haryana and his paternal grandfather was Khwaja Gulam Abbas, who was a part of the Revolt of 1857, and also was the first martyr of Panipat, who was blown from the mouth of a cannon (As noted by researcher Showkat Hussain). On the other hand, his maternal grandfather was the “chief protege of distinguished Urdu poet Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib”. His family explains his socialist credentials and work a literature connoisseur. In 1947, when the partition took place, he decided to stay in India unlike many in his family, who decided to migrate to Pakistan. A plausible reason behind this could be his deep belief in Gandhian socialism and secularism. Even though he was a Gandhian, he once criticized Gandhi in 1939, when Gandhi called cinema as an “Evil Art”. Reportedly, Abbas Sahab was very respectful in the letter he wrote to Gandhi, and he referred to him as “a great soul”.

There are even more instances that show, Abbas Sahab’s socialist credentials and Gandhian values. He used to frequently visit Moscow, and his filmmaking was greatly inspired by Soviet Filmmakers like Sergei Eisenstein and Vsevolod Pudovkin. Abbas Sahab even made a film, in a joint venture between his production house and a soviet production house. Equality was another thing he held dear, as explained by Amitabh Bachchan in a foreword to Abbas Sahab’s memoir, I am Not an Island, An Experiment in Autobiography. The actor wrote how the entire cast and crew of Saat Hindustani traveled in a third-class train compartment to Goa (as it was all that was affordable) and everyone slept on the floor of a government guest house as equals.

A Film Critic, Writer, Director, Journalist, Socialist, Novelist, and a lot more. Abbas Sahab left us in 1987 with an array of work, that continues to inspire us. It gives light to thousand of creatives and activists, who work towards creating an egalitarian society. A part of Abbas Sahab lives in each work that he has ever produced!


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