Contribution of Khwaja Ahmad Abbas to Indian Cinema

 Cinema with a Purpose

             “The history of cinema is, like that of Revolution in our time, a chronicle of hopes and  expectations, aroused and suspended , tested and deceived.”- Taylor Mead

Taylor Mead, a movie star said, “The Movies are a revolution.” The statement can be no less attributed to Khwaja Ahmad Abbas who made movies which in truth brought in a revolution in Indian cinema. It was a time when there was a great excitement in the entire world and the forces of change were at work in the social and political arena. This excitement was reflected in the cinema of this era as well. Annette Michelson comments:

The excitement, the exhilaration of artists and intellectuals not directly involved in the  medium was enormous. Indeed, a certain euphoria enveloped the early film making and theory. For, there was, ultimately, a very real sense in which the revolutionary aspirations of the modernist movement in literature and the arts, on the one hand, and of a Marxist or Utopian tradition, on the other, could converge in the hopes and promises, as yet undefined, of the new medium.(Film Theory and Criticism 620)

The contribution of Abbas to Indian cinema  can be understood in terms of the films written, produced and directed by him, the films directed by him for other producers, films directed by him for Children’s Film Society, Short Films written, produced and directed by him for his own Naya Sansaar Trust , short Films written and directed by him for Films Division, short films written and directed by him for National Education and Information Films, Television films produced and directed by him for T.V. Centre, Bombay, films produced by other producers for whom Abbas wrote the stories and screen plays etc. Abbas not only produced and directed films but himself wrote incessantly on Indian Cinema and his experiments with the silver screen. He began writing as a film critic while working with the Bombay Chronicle. He took up writing scripts, direction and production of films as a challenge which was thrown at him when some of the producers and directors felt uncomfortable with his forthright criticism of their films.

To him, like journalism, cinema was also a passion. He made films to prove something. He wrote scripts and screenplays to convey a message. He directed films to raise some issue. The films of Abbas were never box office hits but they brought him laurels at national and international film festivals in the form of several prizes and awards. After completing his education at Aligarh Muslim University, Abbas joined the Bombay Chronicle in 1935. He occasionally served as a film critic, but after the film critic of the paper died, he was made the editor of the film section. Interestingly in 1939, K. A. Abbas wrote a letter to Gandhi urging him to reconsider his opinion on the idea of the ‘evil’ of cinema. He writes:

“Today I bring for your scrutiny – and approval -a new toy my generation has learned to   play with, the CINEMA! – You include cinema among evils like gambling, sutta, horse racing etc… Now if these statements had come from any other person, it was not necessary to be worried about them… But your case is different. In view of the great position you hold in this country, and I may say in the world, even the slightest expression of your opinion carries much weight with millions of people. And one of the world’s most useful inventions would be allowed to be discarded or what is worse, left alone to be abused by unscrupulous people. You are a great soul, Bapu. In your heart there is no room for prejudice. Give this little toy of ours, the cinema, which is not so useless as it looks, a little of your attention and bless it with a smile of toleration”. (

Abbas entered films as a part-time publicist for Bombay Talkies in 1936, a production house owned by Himanshu Rai and Devika Rani, to whom he sold his first screenplay Naya Sansar (1941). Meanwhile he had started writing scripts for other directors, Neecha Nagar for ChetanAnand and Dr. Kotnis Ki Amar Kahani for V. Shantaram. In 1945, he made his directorial debut with a film based on the Bengal famine of 1943, Dharti Ke Lal (Children of the Earth) for the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA). In 1951, he founded his own production company called NayaSansar, which consistently produced films that were socially relevant including, Anhonee, Munna, Rahi (1953), based on a Mulk Raj Anand story, was on the plight of workers on tea plantations, the National Film Award winner, SheharAurSapna (1964) and Saat Hindustani (1969), which won the NargisDutt Award for Best Feature Film on National Integration and is also remembered as Bollywood icon, Amitabh Bachchan‘s debut film.

Carol J. Slingo, while paying a tribute to Abbas at the time of his death had rightly said, “Khwaja Ahmad Abbas died on June 1, 1987 after forty one years as the most important voice of the left in Indian Commercial films. While other political film makers addressed their work to educated viewers, he spent his life time to reach the mass, more or less uneducated audience of millions”. (‎ 12-11-2013).

In the introduction to his book Mad, Mad, Mad World of Indian Films Abbas defines his assessment of the world of Indian Cinema:

           Madness is part of this art-industry –its fantabulous star prices, its larger-than-life figures

of success and its grimmer-than-death failures. Money makes the film, but money                alone cannot write the screenplay, money alone cannot act, money alone cannot adjust the lens that lends beauty and glamour to the famous and glamorous star faces. Money is everything. But money is nothing! (5)

Like an adapt film personality Abbas chooses the terms drawn from the cinematography techniques to label various parts of the book. The book begins with the first part titled Three Fade-outs followed by the second labeled as Eight Close-ups, the third as One Planning Shot, the fourth called Six Long Shots, the fifth as Four Film- Land Fables and the sixth as Three Dream- Sequences. It is a book that depicts sketches of the stars of Indian Cinema, especially the Bollywood actors, the issues of Indian film industry of his time and the complexities involved in film production which he himself encountered. In this book Abbas very categorically describes his objective of film – making. He states:

Human destiny in its social setting has been my special preoccupation- some may call              it my obsession. Whether doing my weekly column, writing short stories and novels, scripting screen plays for other producers, or writing, directing and producing my own films, I have been involved with the themes of social transformation and social justice. (63)

Abbas was consciously pursuing his progressive thought in all his creative endeavors. He never felt shy in admitting his socialist leanings. In fact, he very proudly maintained his position as a socially committed writer. As a writer and film maker he was aware of the criticism he was attracting by choosing the kind of themes for his films and stories he did but he believed in the course of life he had chosen and was more than happy to pay whatever price he had to pay for that. An eminent Film-maker M.S.Sathyu writes about Abbas Sahab’s progressive leanings in a piece written for the new edition of I AM Not An Island edited by Suresh Kohli:

Abbas Saheb was a man dedicated to some meaningful cinema even though he     wrote for the great entertainer, Raj Kapoor. He was also part of the PWA

( Progressive Writers Association) ….Abbas Saheb was one of the founder members of IPTA( Indian Peoples’ Theatre Association).He had written and directed a film ,Dharti Ke Lal under the IPTA banner. Many of the IPTA artists participated in this film. Dharti Ke Lal was a highly stylized film.In fact this film inspired Chetan Anand to make Neecha Nagar which won first ever Cannes award. Later this trend was noticed in Zia Sarhadi’s Hum Log, Balraj Sahni’s debut film. The acting was highly stylized. Many years later Bimal Roy made Do Bigha Zameen which also belongs to the same genre. Therefore, the credit for such meaningful films coming out of certain political and ideological leaning goes to Abbas Saheb who could be dubbed somewhat of a pioneer. (Kohli, XI)

Abbas was criticized by the critics as a propagandist and pamphleteer. He was ignored and did not find a place in the mainstream men of letters in literary circles. Similar was his state in Cinema where his films could not emerge as successful films at the box office. Not deterred by the criticism, he draws the lineage of similar authors and film makers to make his stand strong and justified:

Critics and connoisseurs may sneer at me as a propagandist and pamphleteer, but the tradition of social comment and “commitment” in literature (or the Arts) is at least as old as Cervantes, Tolstoy, Emile Zola, Hemingway, Steinbeck, our own Tagore, Sarat Chandra Chatterjee, Subramaniam Bharti and Prem Chand, and in the field of films it goes back to Griffith and Einstein, Capra, John Ford and Chaplin, the earlier Shantaram and much of the work of Satyajit Ray. If I am guilty, I have the consolation of being in distinguished company. (63)

Abbas was fully aware of the strengths of fiction as a medium and film as another. He was also conscious of the limitations of a director who endeavored to transform a piece of fiction into a film. Many of his novels and short stories were used to make important films. While writing about those stories he never said that they were stories of such and such film. He would rather call them as stories or novels on which a particular film was based. In the present   era of serious research on the phenomenon  of scripts being transformed into films, it would be pertinent to look at some of the remarks made by Abbas himself on the issue of the relation between a work of fiction and the film based on it. In the introduction to his novel Bobby, which was made into a film with the same title, Abbas writes:

Since the cinema is a director’s medium, it is his creative vision and his decision that must be supreme and final. I venture to hope that in the original literary form it may interest some readers, not as the story of the film but as the story on which the film was based. The intelligent readers may also get an insight into the creative process by which a competent film-maker transforms a story into a film, translates the author’s word pictures into cinematic images, how and where and why deviations are made, for instance, to accommodate songs and dances.(6)

Abbas began his career in cinema as a story writer. In the film reviews “the inconsequential and shoddy film stories” were the main targets of his attack. One of the producers challenged him by saying that it was easy to criticize but not so to write a good story for a film. He took up the challenge and wrote a story called Naya Sansaar which he sold to the producer S. Mukerjee of Bombay Talkies in 1940.It won the Bengal Film Journalist’s award for the best story and screenplay, celebrated several silver jubilees and started a cycle of films with the word “ Naya”or “Nayi” in their titles. The film Naya Sansaar was based on the struggle of a young idealist journalist Puran and his beloved Asha. They struggle against the fundamentalist forces through the power of pen. Puran works as a journalist in a Newspaper called “Sansaar”. When the owner of the newspaper gets involved with wrong doers, the hero abandons it and launches his own newspaper with the title “Naya Sansaar” and compels the reactionary powers to bow down. To some extent the idealism of the protagonist matches with that of the author and reflects the progressive stance of Abbas. “ Mei Harijan Ki chhori”, “Akhbaar ka Daftar He Ye”, “Ek Naya Sansaar Basa Lein” were the popular songs of the film. The progressive message of building up of a society free from the stigma of  untouchability was conveyed by the film Besides the main cast of Ashok Kumar and Renuka Devi, the dancer Ajuri also performed many dances carrying the message of the film.

Dharati Ke Lal (1946) was a film made by Abbas for Indian Peoples’ Theatre Association (IPTA). It was based on Bijan Bhattacharya’s play “Nabanna” and Krishna Chander’s story “Annadata”.Based on the famine of Bengal, this film portrays the pain and the grief of the exodus of peasants amidst famine and war. At the end they return to their land and devise the method of collective farming. It was similar to the idea of communes in the erstwhile Soviet Union. AliSardar Zafri, the noted Progressive poet, Nemi Chand Jain,Vamik and Prem Dhavan wrote the lyrics for this film. The main cast of the film included Shambhu Mitra, Balraj Sahni, Tripti Bhaduri, Johra Sehgal, K.N. Singh and Damyanti Sahni. The film was not a commercial success but was considered a landmark film as it gave a new direction to Hindi Cinema for making more socially meaningful films later adopted by Bimal Roy and Raj Kapoor.

 When this film was acquired by a Russian distributor to be shown there, Members of parliament made hue and cry that the film would malign the image of India abroad:

When Dharti Ke Lal was acquired by Sovexportfilm for exhibition in USSR there were  MPs who raised a rampus in Parliament that India was being maligned on the Russian screens, but there was little that they could do at that late stage.(Mad Mad Mad World of Indian Films 87)

Doctor Kotnis ki Amar Kahani(1945) was based on the story of Khwaja Ahmad Abbas titled      “ And One Did Not Come Back” He, with V.P. Sathe wrote the script of the film. This film is based on the true story of the life of Dr. Dwarka Nath Kotnis who was inspired by a speech of Pdt. Jawahar Lal Nehru and after completing his medical education decided to go to China to serve humanity. His father encouraged him and when he was boarding a ship to China, gifted him with a ring on which was depicted the map of India. He served the wounded Chinese soldiers but unfortunately catches some infection and succumbs to that. The Chinese people remember his sacrifice. His Chinese wife and son return to India. The major cast of the film included V. Shantaram, Jai Shri, Keshav Rao Date, Babu Rao Pendharkar, Diwan Sharer, Master Vinayak, and Ulhas. The songs of Diwan Sharar were composed into musical melodies by the music director Vasant Desai. He used Russian folk to bring realistic effect. The song “ Chal Aa Gulami Nahi” was based on Chinese war music. V. Shantaram added a few parts of documentaries also including a speech by Nehru to make the film look real. John Dayal described this film as representing the long cherished unity of Asian powers. He wrote:

His China visit had inspired him to write about an Indian who was with Mao in the Long March. Dr. Kotnis Ki Amar Kahaniwas directed by V. Shantaram, who also played Dr. Kotnis in the film. Shantaram’s distinctive brand of acting and the theatrical roots of his direction may make Dr. Kotnis a stilted film in retrospect, but Khwaja’s script for the first time reflected the Indian political aspirations with rare strength and integrity an Asian solidarity in the struggle for freedom and emancipation, and secularism. (

This was the time when Abbas wrote stories and screenplays for a number of films for other producers. They include Nai Duniya (1942), Nai Kahani (1943), Naya Tarana (1944), Panna (1945),Actress(1946), Aadhi Raat(1949), Naaz (1951) etc. He wrote these scripts and stories because some of the films that he commented on in his columns were attacked due to lose stories and screenplays. He was criticized by the producers saying that it was easy to criticize but not so easy to write a story or a screenplay. Abbas responded by writing the stories himself. The year 1951 saw two major films by Abbas .One of them titled Anhonee was written, directed and produced by him for his own Naya Sansaar Trust while the other called Awara was written by him for R.K. Films. Awara became a classic which gave Rajkapoor an identity of a common man.

With Awara (1951)  K.A.Abbas and Raj Kapoor’s relationship in cinema was established. Earlier Mehboob Khan wanted to make the film on Abbas’s story but due to some differences in the selection of cast, finally Raj Kapoor made this film. Abbas wrote the script with V.P. Sathe while Shailendra and Hasrat Jaipuri wrote the lyrics. RajKapoor gave a new dimension to the cinematic style of Mehboob khan. The dream scene in the film Awara is considered as a memorable scene of Indian Cinema. This melodrama of opposing the feudal system by a common man  was embraced not only by Indian audience but was accepted warmly in USSR, Africa and Arab nations. This film introduces the audience to the reality of human life and charges them emotionally so well

The emotional centre of the film is the heroine. She represents the people’s dream of a wholesome life. She is the ray of hope that saves the hero from drowning in the marsh of dejection and disappointment. Prithvi Raj Kapur, Raj Kapur and Nargis played major roles in this film. Shashi Kapur played the childhood part of Raj Kapur. The film appears new even amidst the latest films of the 21st century. Journalist and occasional documentary maker John Dayal described the style of Abbas’s film making as one featuring Nehruvian aesthetics. In his article published in Deccan Herald, April 3, 1987, a few months before the death of Abbas he wrote:

This Nehruvian aesthetics has been apparent in the several major interventions that Abbas has made in the history of Indian cinema, and has evolved consistently even when Abbas has become party to mainstream cinema as script-writer for men such as Raj Kapoor. Each intervention has become a landmark; a seminal contribution. And almost every intervention has given Indian cinema a major actor or image. Awara created the now legendary Raj Kapoor hobo image. Dharti Ke Lal sloganeered unity despite famine, Saat Hindustani gave Amitabh Bachchan and then Mithun Chakraborthy, Do Boond Pani a new development verite. Munna a new concept in cinema with the child, even Bobby some sort of a new romanticism, and above all, Shahar Aur Sapna (The City and the Dream) which, despite the technical limitations of its time and the honest naivete of its maker, remains one of the most worthwhile pieces of realism and social comment in Indian cinema Long before the Indian new wave, and long before NFDC.(

Khwaja Ahmed Abbas considers Shahar Aur Sapna (1963) as his  best film. Though it won a National Award, Abbas had a tough time in getting the Censor Board to clear it. The film depicts the struggle of a young man from a village who comes to Bombay in search of employment. The biggest problem before him is to find a place to live in. In Bombay one may get a job, even a beloved, but to find a place of residence is a very difficult thing. The hero and his wife take refuge in a pipe of a gutter. In that shabby and clumsy place his wife gives birth to a boy. But even there, they are not allowed to live in peace. The land mafias keep on torturing them and they keep on shifting from one slum to the other. Towards the end of the film they enter a gutter which leads them to a place where all the necessities of a small household are available. The wife asks, “What is this city?” And the hero replies, “It is not a city, but a dream.”

The main cast of the film included Dilipraj, Surekha, David, Nana Palikar, Anwar Hussain, Rashid Khan and Manmohan Krishna. Ali Sardar Jafri wrote the lyrics and J.P. Kaushik was the music director. He provided the music which made the hustle and bustle of the cosmopolitan life alive.

Abbas was not happy the way mainstream Indian Cinema, especially, the Hindi Cinema grew after independence. He felt that the Cinema after independence lost the commitment and patriotic fervor it had before independence. In an interview recorded on 1-2-1970 (Available with centre of South Asian Studies, University of Cambridge) Abbas has voiced his analysis of the transformation of the Indian Hindi Cinema after independence:

I am afraid; there has not been a very marked or a very healthy development of aesthetic or sociological standards in film production in India since independence. There are many reasons for this, some of which are implicit in the medium of the cinema and the other, and more important reasons, are implicit in the mood and the sentiment of the people of the country. (19 transcript)


Abbas tries to trace the cause of this decline in standards and finds that the partition of the country and its aftermath together with the inability of the state to respond as per the expectations of the people made people disillusioned and they tried to seek some sort of an escape in cinema. The industry went a step ahead to satisfy this urge of the people and landed itself into a world of fantasy and romance:

And suddenly, from the heights of their idealism, they came down to the bedrock of reality, which was not very pleasant. And therefore there was a tendency to be disillusioned …and therefore there was another tendency to escape from this unpleasant reality into some kind of escapist entertainment which would make one forget the harsh realities which surrounded us on all sides. And therefore there was an upsurge of escapist entertainment, especially in the field of cinema. ( 19 transcript)

Abbas, however, did not fall in this trap as he was passionately engaged in building up of a progressive society through his works, literature, journalism and cinema. His films were tools of social transformation aiming at creation of a democratic, socialistic and secular society.

                            Aasmaan Mahal (1965) is a film which represents this approach. Based on the story written by Inder Raj Anand, the film juxtaposes the value systems represented by NawabSb and his son. The feudal rule over but the mind-set of Nawab continues to cherish the age old feudal values. The ancestral palace of Nawab is worn out and he doesn’t have even the resources to get it repaired and painted. Yet he is not willing to sell it. This palace is symbolic of his past glory and is also the cause of conflict between father and son. A girl called Salma comes into the life of the son and mellows him down. Abbas seems to suggest that there is no need to attack the already shaking walls of feudalism. It will die its own death and therefore it should be allowed to collapse under its own weight. The scene in which the Nawab is sitting on his throne, smoking. The driver of his coach comes and salutes. He gives away a gold coin. The son watches the generosity of his father with disgust and tries to take back the gold coin from the driver. The driver resists and doesn’t let him unfold the first. But the non-exerts a lot, finally to reveal that it was not a gold coin but just a two paise coin. This exposure is humiliating for the Nawab but more so for the driver who feels that it is not the Nawaj who has been insulted but, he himself. The cast included Prirhviraj Kapoor, Dilip Raj, Sarepha, Nana Patekar, David, Irshaad, Anwar Hussain etc. The music director J.P. Kaushik composed very melodious play back music suitable to the script.

Goa was under the Portuguese rule much after the independence of India. People from all over the country went to free Goa to make it a part of independent India. Saat Hindustani (1969) is a film in which K.A. Abbas told the story of seven Indians of different religious, regions and languages who came together for this nationalist cause. An interesting fact is that Amitabh Bachchan, the super star of the century, was given a break by Abbas in this film leading to his entry in the film industry of India. To assert a feeling of national Unity the roles were reversed. For example the role of a Bengali was given to an actor Madhu from Kerala, that of a Hindu was played by the actor Anwar and Amitabh Bachchan played the role of Muslim. The central role of Maria was played by Shahnaz. Other cast included UtpalDutt, Jalal Agha, A.K. Hangal and Dina Pathak. Noted progressive poet Kaifi Ajmi wrote the lyrics while J.P. Kaushik composed the music.The film carried the message of national integration and breaking of all the walls of region, religion, gender and language.

MeraNaam Joker (1970) was a very ambitious film but failed terribly on the box office. Abbas took up a very novel issue of infatuation among adolescents and developed it in the form of the longest ever film of Indian cinema. Though it was a flop in the beginning but it gained popularity later not just in India but abroad also, especially in the then Soviet Union. When the film was first released, its running time was four hours forty three minutes. Just two weeks later it was reduced to four hours and now it is available in an abridged edition of the running time of one hundred and seventy minutes. This was viewed as a kind of semi-autobiographical film. It took Raj Kapoor six years to complete the film. This film proved to be the last film in which Raj Kapoor was hero. There was a whole team of stars in this film including Dharmendra, Rajendra Kumar, Manoj Kumar, Dara Singh, Padmini, Simi Grewal, Russian actress Ravinkina, AchalaSachdev, Rishi Kapoor, Om Prakash, comedians RajendraNath Aga, Birbal, mukery etc. The film was puts the philosophy of life through the joker played by Raj Kapoor. Abbas published a novel in English in which the entire script of the film can be seen in details. This film was the last musical feat of Shanker Jaikishan. Raadhu Karmakar did a tremendous job in his photography of the film. The film also reflects the existential philosophy of the protagonist and the script writer.

Khwaja Ahmed Abbas  had firm faith in the ability of cinema to contribute immensely to the creative development of society. He believed that cinema should play a pro-active role in propagating the progressive steps of the state. Blind criticism of every step of government is also not desirable. The film Do Boond Paani presents the story of the sacrifice of Ganga Singh who lays down his life to save a bridge. Meanwhile his old father also dies, sister is raped and the wife is made to wait for him endlessly. Ganga Singh sacrifices his entire family to bring hope and joy in the lives of thousands of people of Rajasthan. The cast of the film included Jalal Aga, Simi Grewal, MadhuChanda, PrakashThapa, Kiran Kumar, Rashid Khan, Pinchu Kapoor etc. The lyrics were written by Kaifi Ajmi and Balkavi Bairagi and the music was composed by Jaidev. The song “ Peetalki Mori Gagari” based on a hill folk song became very popular.

Bobby (1973) was written by K.A. Abbas to show that one must accept the changing times. The film appealed to the youth of the country and the response on box office was overwhelming. The story was written initially with a tragic end but when the film was made it was changed to a happy-ending story. The hero Rishi Kapoor and heroine Dimple became youth icons. In bobby Abbas presented a love story. The father of the girl is a fisherman, but a rich one. He was able to understand the growing craze for wealth and had come much ahead of the ‘Mera Joota hai Japani’ days of idealism. Raj Kapoor introduced some of life events in the film. His first meeting with Nargis is recreated in the form of the meeting of Rishi Kapoor and Dimple in this film. The cast in the film other than the hero and heroine was also very impressive and did play their roles very effectively in the direction of Raj Kapoor. ArunaIrani had a marvellous presence as a middle-aged socialite while Pran and Premnath performed well as fathers of the boy and the girl. The songs of the film “Mein Shayar to Nahin”, “Beshak Mandir Mazjid Todo”, “Jhoot Bole Kawwaa Kaate”, “Hum Tum Ek Kamare Mein Band Hon” and “Aksar Koi Ladki Is Haal Mein” become very popular. Narendra Singh Chanchal got the best play back singer awarded for the song “Beshak, Mandir Mazjid Todo”.

Naxalite (1979) is a film which portrays honestly the causes which prompt the youth to take to violence. Abbas did not care much for the money a film would earn, rather, he chose themes which were socially and politically important. Naxalite (1979) was the last feature film of K.A. Abbas. He was conscious of the social responsibilities and chose this topic because Naxalism was a very powerful political movement of the severities which had attracted youth and motivated them to take up arms to over throw the system. The fidelity with which these issues were addressed in the film, Exploitation of the masses by the system is very honestly portrayed in this film. SmitaPatil’s acting was the special feature of this film though other members of the cast Mithun Chakraverty, Imtiaz Khan, Nana Patekar, Dilip Raj, Teenu Anand, Pinchu Kapoor and Jalal Aga also did very well. The lyrics were written by Ali Sardar Jafri and Prem Dhavan composed the music for the film. It was difficult to get this highly political film through the censor board.   The film also shows the leftward journey of Khwaja Ahmad Abbas. He started writing when Gandhi was a formidable impression on him. Later Nehru’s romanticism charmed him and he wrote like an ardent Nehruite. But as the time passed, he, like other people of India, realized that the dreams and aspirations of the multitudes could not be realized in the democratic state built up after independence. The disillusionment of the people finds expression in his later writings and films like Naxalites.

In an interview with Indian Literary Review republished in An Evening In Lucknow edited by Suresh Kohli, Abbas expresses his concern that he felt while making the film The Naxalites:

I’m making The Naxalites– a very dangerous film. I feel scared of being shot at from both sides, though I think it is neither a glorification nor a denigration of the naxalites.I only hope that the film is not misunderstood as my story “Sardarji” was.(Kohli.Appendix)

       Abbas had firm faith in the ideals of democracy and would not hesitate in contesting the state if it tried to curb the democratic rights of people. When the Censor Board did not give U certificate to his film “A Tale of Four Cities”, he moved the Supreme Court of India to demand justice.

Abbas had made a documentary film called “A Tale of Four Cities” which attempted to portray the contrast between the life of the rich and the poor in the four principal cities of the- country. The film included certain shots of the red light area in Bombay. Although Abbas had applied to the Board of Film Censors for a `U’ Certificate for unrestricted exhibition of the film, he was granted a certificate only for exhibition restricted to adults. On an appeal made to it by him, the Central Government issued a direction on July 3, 1969 that a `U’ Certificate may be granted provided certain specified cuts were made in the film. Abbas thereafter filed a petition seeking a declaration that the provisions of Part 11 of the Cinematograph Act, 1952, together with the rules prescribed by the Central Government on February 6, 1960 in the exercise of its powers under s. 5-B of the Act were un- constitutional and void; he further prayed that the direction dated July 3, 1969 should be quashed. Abbas claimed that his fundamental right of free speech and expression was denied by the order of the Central Government and that he was entitled to a ‘U’ Certificate for the film as of right.

At the hearing of the petition the Central Government indicated it had, decided to grant a ‘U’ Certificate to the film without the cuts previously ordered. Abbas then applied for amendment of the petition so as to enable him to challenge pre-censorship as offensive to freedom of speech and expression and alternatively the provisions of the Act and the Rules, orders and directions under the Act as vague, arbitrary and indefinite. The Court allowed the amendment holding the petitioner was right in contending that a person who invests capital in promoting or producing a film must have clear guidance in advance in the matter of censorship of films even if the law of pre-censorship be not violative of the fundamental right. It was contended inter alia on behalf of Abbas that pre-censorship itself violated the right to freedom of speech and expression; and that even if it were a legitimate restraint on the freedom, it must be exercised on very definite principles which leave no room for arbitrary action.

Thus, the role of Abbas in Indian Cinema is not just confined to writing, directing and producing films but also expands to the very fundamental questions of the film makers’ right to depict the reality in the interest of the people and how this right is to be protected. He had to face the Censor not just in the case of “A Tale of Four Cities” but also in the film Shehar Aur Sapna, “Bombay Raat Ki Bahon Mein” and “Anhonee”. Abbas challenged the very system of Censorship and the court admitted that though Censorship was required, the method of its implementation was not proper. Abbas writes in Mad Mad Mad World of Indian Films:

At last the verdict was given. The court declared that the censorship was valid and required by law, but its implementation was faulty and so it needed proper and clean guidelines. The court extensively and favourably quoted from an article by one Khwaja Ahmad Abbas in support of censorship! (92)

It is interesting to see that the court in its judgement quotes from the article of a man who was contending the very system of Censorship. It is an evidence of the rationality of the mind of Abbas who did not reject the system altogether but insisted on making it more logical and meaningful.

Abbas was conscious of what was going on in the world cinema and discussed its impact on the Indian counterpart. In many of his writings and some of the interviews that were either published or broadcast, he spoke of the desirable as well as undesirable influences of the West on the Indian Cinema. He was not very happy with the plagiarism practised in Indian Cinema. He talked about this tendency as one which would demean the status of Indian Cinema in the eyes of the world cinema. In an interview recorded on 1-2-1970, Abbas complained against the servile copying of the west in Indian Cinema:

It is not the plagiarism of the plot, but unfortunately the …shameless aping of western modes of dress, of behaviour, the way of their songs and their dances, which are so servilely and slavishly copied in our films, with the result that the foreigners, who are seeing some of the Indian films, they say. ‘Are we seeing the reality of India or are we seeing a carbon copy of what goes on in the west?’(Transcript21)

However, Abbas was happy at the way the Western technique had been adopted by Indian film industry. He described it as a very healthy impact on Indian Cinema. It was the time when Neo-Realistic Cinema was gaining ground in Europe. The Indian counterparts also followed suit and gave memorable films like “Do Bigha Zameen”, “Boot Polish” and Abbas sahab’s “Munna”. In his interview referred to earlier, he mentioned Italian Neo- Realistic films which were shown all over the country and which influenced Indian Cinema. Most of the films made by Abbas were also experimental in true sense of the term.He discussed the much debated issue of nudity as well and expressed his satisfaction that the Indian Cinema has not gone to the extent to which the western cinema has gone in the exposure of human bodies. However, he felt unhappy that the use of skin coloured dresses and skin tight attire practised in Indian Cinema was more clumsy a way to do the same:

There is one side of western film- making which has not had directly a very big impact on the Indian Cinema, thanks to our very rigid censorship. That is in the field of making sex o be the dominant theme of the films or to depict it with the naked truth of sex in the films. You know, that in Sweden, even in America, even in conservative Britain, plays and films are being produced which not only show the nude female form, but even the male form and sometimes they go to the extent of depicting the sex-act. Well, this kind of tendency, I am glad to say, has not been followed, and has not had an impact. And yet, indirectly, there has been a certain impact, a tendency, not to show nude figures because the nude figures would be banned by Indian censors, but to show nudity by innuendo, by dressing our heroines and our dancers in such tight –fitting clothes, even of skin coloured clothes, and of not showing nudity but something, I would say, which is worse than nudity. (Transcript 23)

No doubt the views expressed by Abbas sahab in 1970 no more hold good as the things have gone much different and the show of flesh in Indian Cinema has not been curbed by the Censor Board the way it was perhaps done at the time when Abbas gave this interview. However his concern for following a healthy code of conduct in film production is an evidence of his commitment to the creation of a progressive society through art and literature. He proved this not only through the films that he made but also through his writings about cinema. In his novel Boy Meets Girl he depicted the problems the strugglers in the film industry face. Realising this he chose new and unfamiliar faces for his films and gave them opportunity to show their talent. The list of such actors includes the megastar of the Hindi Cinema Amitabh Bachchan and great actress Shabana Azmi.(Shabana Azmi’s letter to Syeda Hameed, dated September,20,2013).

Works Cited

Abbas, K.A. Mad, Mad, Mad World of Indian Films. Delhi: Hind Pocket Books.1977.Print

— Abbas, K.A. I Am Not An Island. Delhi: Vikas Pub.House.1977.Print

—An Evening in Lucknow. ed. Suresh Kohli. New Delhi :Harpercollins. 2011. Print

Bombay My Bombay: The Love Story of the City.Delhi: Ajanta Publications.1987.Print

I Am Not An Island. Ed. Suresh Kohli .Gurgaon:ImprintOne.2010.Print

Michelson,Annette. “Film and the Radical Aspiration”. in Film Theory and Criticism.Ed.Gerald Mast and Marshall Cohen. New York:OUP.1979.Print

Sathyu,M.S. “Recall” in I AM Not An Island ed.Suresh Kohli.New Delhi: Imprint One.2010. Print

(‎ 12-11-2013).



















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