Once upon a time there were only two news weeklies, Blitz and Current, owned and edited by two feuding Parsis. The Cold War was in full swing and one of them, Blitz, was staunchly pro-Soviet. The other was firmly in the American camp. Paradoxically, Blitz was also a fervent supporter of that despot, the Shah of Iran. Why that was so remains a mystery to this day. The two tabloids were highly opinionated and very loose with facts. Television and a more discerning readership killed them both.
I met Khwaja Ahmad Abbas in 1967 in the corridors of the Blitz’s decrepit office in downtown Bombay. He wrote ‘Last Page’, the paper’s popular column that he had brought along with him from Bombay Chronicle after that daily folded. The column began in 1935 and continued till Abbas’s death in 1987. It holds the distinction of being the longest-running column in the history of Indian journalism.
My column in Blitz was somewhere in the middle pages, under the grand and self-given title of ‘literary editor’. Though he was much older and quite famous, we became friends. I soon found myself being wined and dined by such Sea Lounge socialists as Rusi Karanjia, editor of Blitz, Balraj Sahni, and Rajni Patel, the lawyer who ran Bombay for Indira Gandhi. Once, to my astonishment, I was seated at a dinner table next to Madame Binh, the foreign minister of Ho Chi Minh’s government-in-exile.
Abbas was very versatile. Besides being a journalist, he wrote novels, short stories and film scripts. He was fluent in three languages, Urdu, Hindi and English. He was not so successful as a producer and director of films. With the possible exception of Anhonee, starring Nargis and Raj Kapoor, none of his twenty or so films made any money. There was a reason for that. The films were not very good.
Abbas is credited with giving Amitabh Bachchan his first role in Saat Hindustani. In a generous foreword to I am Not an Island, An Experiment in Autobiography, the actor fondly recalls that the entire unit of that film travelled third class by train to Goa. That was all Abbas, the producer, could afford. Everyone slept on the floor at night in a government guest house that had no electricity.
While Abbas was dreadful at making films, he had a talent for writing wonderful screenplays that made heaps of money for others. He scripted some of the best Hindi films ever made, including Raj Kapoor’s Awara, Shri 420, Jagte Raho and Bobby. But Raj Kapoor was a notoriously bad paymaster and Abbas survived mainly on Rs 1,500 he received every month for his columns.
Abbas consciously made commercial films and used stars whenever he could afford them and they were willing to work for him. But they were progressive, socially relevant films. He was the most prominent voice of the Left in Indian cinema at that time. In one of his last columns for Blitz, written while he was seriously ill and dying, Abbas said, “See any of the pictures I produced and you will meet me.”
I am Not an Island is a curious autobiography. This is its second incarnation. It was first published over thirty years ago. This abridged version has been put together by Suresh Kohli, who knew the man well. The book is still too long. It begins in ancient Medina where, apparently, one of Abbas’s ancestors was a friend of Prophet Mohammed.
As for the author, Abbas was born in Panipat, educated in Aligarh, and chose to stay back when many in his family migrated to Pakistan after Partition.
The volume deserves a better publisher. You cannot publish a biography of an eminent personality without an index. It is just not done. A list of all the films in which this wonderful man was involved would have been useful.
The editors of both Current and Blitz were relatives and it was with their consent that the newspapers went to war, making fools of readers. K.A. Abbas, whose autobiography you reviewed (A Piece of the Continent, May 17), was a follower of the communist party. His writing is third rate, his cinema melodramatic.
This refers to Bhaichand Patel’s review of Khwaja Ahmed Abbas’s autobiography (Books, May 17). While I take his point that the book should have had an index (we planned one, but it was a casualty of unforeseen production problems), his glib comment that it “deserves a better publisher” is highly offensive and uncalled for. It’s like saying it deserved a better reviewer, who’d have talked a bit more about the book than himself. A good publisher is one who can spot a good book and is prepared to take the risk to print it. For the record, imprintOne has published some highly respected national and international writers, including Mushirul Hasan, Irshad Manji, Ziauddin Sardar (a distinguished scholar on Islam) and Namita Gokhale, to name a few.
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