KA. Abbas lives on every page of this weighty collection of pictures and writings. He permeates them with the warmth of his personality and the clarity of his prose, and engages the reader in much the manner of an uncle who loves telling stories. The editors have selected excerpts from his autobiography I Am Not An Island, and juxtaposed them with conversations, and memories by others whose lives Abbas touched and changed irrevocably. Divided into 12 sections, the book includes short stories, extracts from his long-running column in Blitz, letters from and to Abbas, as well as his musings on some of the actors he worked with.
Indicative of his style are passages like this: So I wrote a letter to Mujji (the girl he has selected from the many proposals for marriage which have been forwarded to him), in which I wrote everything to discourage her. I had been in love with another girl. My income was negligible—I was still getting no more than Rs 150 a month. While I had not volunteered as a satyagrahi, I might still be arrested any moment for being involved with the underground freedom movement. Still I advise you to share the adventure of my life, its joys and sorrows, its trials and tribulations.
Can there be any doubt what the response of the unseen recipient of this letter was to such frank eloquence?
Or take another excerpt on Meena Kumari. The story begins on a rainy day, when Abbas has had to roll up his trousers, remove his shoes and wade through the water from the studio gate to find his make-up man, the legendary Pandhari Jukar. This is how Abbas describes the incident:
Pandhari said, ‘Abbas Sahib, you will have to cancel the shoot today. No heroine will leave her house on a day like this.’
I said, ‘This is the first day of the shoot. It will be the test of a heroine!’
‘What time did you give?’ Pandhari asked.
‘7.30 am, because the shooting time is 9.30 am and it takes two hours to put on black makeup.’ He looked at his watch. It is 7.30 already. Exactly at that moment the sound of a horn tore through the noise of the rain and a car sailed near the stairs of the make-up room, immersed in water. First there appeared a pair of small dainy bare feet. Then came a pair of hands dangling sandals; then a form in a white sari, head covered in white towel: she walked freely through the standing water into the make-up room. ‘Adaab, Abaas Sahib. hope I am not too late.’ She sat before the make-up mirror. ‘I have learnt my dialogues. You have written them so well, I had no difficulty. But how does a Haryanvi Dalit girl speak? That you have to teach me.’
So, in simple, moving images and through reported conversations, Abbas is able to bring alive his memories. The short piece on how Amitabh Bachchan was signed on for Saat Hindustani is a unique blend of narration and humour. Amitabh and Shabana Azmi are two popular stars about whom Abbas reminisces in the book.
The short stories are examples of Abbas’s powerful, simple style, and they hold the reader right from the first sentence—evidence of the skill he developed when writing the stories and screenplays for films as diverse as Pardesi, Shri 420, Jagte Raho, Mr X in Bombay and Bobby. It may come as a surprise, but his prolific output included 74 books, 37 screenplays and the longest running column in the history of journalism.
The opening pages of the book carry the moving Last Will and Testament of Khwaja Ahmed Abbas, written on the last page of Blitz when he turned 73, which would indeed be the last year of his life. The illustrations include posters, portraits, photographs and book covers, which further offer glimpses of a multifaceted renaissance man passionate about freedom and equality, one who found myriad ways to express his ideas in three languages, Hindi, English and Urdu. He also translated his own work.
In her introduction, Syeda S. Hameed says the purpose of this Abbas compendium is to provide the reader a taste of his literary, journalistic and film corpus. Indeed, it is a heady mix, driving one to ask for more. And one turns the last page with regret that, at a time in India’s history when Abbas could have stirred minds with his eloquence, there is no one of his stature or his intellect left in the Bombay film industry.
Abbas was with the IPTA, and its influence was evident in his first film—Dharti Ke Lal, about the Bengal famine. Peasant unions were roped in for protest marches in the film.