KA Abbas passed away on 1 June 1987. A great script writer with a bevy of such successful films as Awara, Bobby and Heena behind him, Abbas suffered from directorial incompetence. To his credit, he managed to release 14 films that were directed by him.
Some of them won awards (may be due to his proximity to two Prime Ministers). However, none of his films were box office successes. Abbas always liked to call himself as a journalist.
People had forgotten about him after his death but in 2014, some of his relatives and acquaintances managed to organize a festival of his films on the occasion of his birth centenary. Khwaja Ahmad Abbas, born in Panipat in 1914, belonged to a Muslim family that chose to stay back in India after the partition. He was the grandson of Altaf Hussain, who was a close associate of celebrated poet Mirza Ghalib.
There is no denying that Abbas was a creative genius who could conceive great plots from simple, real life incidents. But as a director he failed to translate his vision on celluloid. Almost all his movies were crowd funded with money borrowed from friends and relatives. He ensured that his artistes got paid equally, thanks to his socialistic leanings.
Some of his movies were funded by the state machinery like the Film Finance Corporation (FFC) of India. But the FFC refused to fund “Shehar aur Sapna”. He is also famously known as the man who introduced Amitabh Bachchan to Bollywood.
It remains a mystery why Abbas was always starved of funds despite writing blockbusters for the legendary showman Raj Kapoor.
“Shehar aur Sapna” won the National award and the prize money of Rs25,000 was equally distributed among 15 members of the unit including lead actors debutants Surekha Parker and Dileep Raj. It was 1964 and Nehru was seriously unwell; so the entire unit travelled to Delhi to receive the purse from Nehru. Abbas was a Nehru acolyte and he later wrote two autobiographies on Nehru’s daughter Indira Gandhi.
“Shehar aur Sapna” was loosely based on a serial story “One thousand nights on a bed of stones” that Abbas wrote in “The Blitz”. Abbas wrote a column for the Blitz for 46 years without a break. This is a tremendous achievement in itself though his writings lack the finesse and literary merit that one would associate with a paper like “Blitz” that was edited by Russy Karanjia. His stories like “Sparrow” and “Sardarjee” are read-worthy but by no stretch of the imagination can you call them “classics”.
In “One thousand nights…”
Abbas highlights the trials and tribulations of pavement dwellers in Mumbai, then Bombay. A Haryanvi jat lands up in Mumbai and soon has to seek refuge on a footpath. He keeps on swapping places in different parts of Mumbai (including the Taj) even as he continues with his day job in an import-export firm. He falls in love with Champa, a beggar girl who has a dog to protect her against all the male predators on the footpath.
But the dog is poisoned. The government announces free housing for all pavement dwellers and our hero shares this news with Champa. Tragedy strikes as Champa is killed by a car that is driven by a drunk man at the wheel (the story was written in the late 50’s). The story ends with the protagonist dreaming of Champa and his three children and how life would have been had they been gifted accommodation by the government. The story was narrated in first person account.
In the film, the protagonist is named Bhola (debutant Dileep Raj) from Hissar who lands up in Mumbai in search of employment. He seeks refuge in a chawl but the tenant (whom he had been referred to) has already passed away and Bhola lands on the pavement. The village bumpkin soon learns the tricks of the trade and becomes friendly with Anwar Husain (a stage actor), David Abraham (a wrestler) and Nana Palshikar (a violinist).
The narrative’s pace gets slackened by unnecessary chatter of the supporting cast and introduction of characters who are in no way connected with the plot. Relief comes in the form of Radha (Surekha Parkar, the Marathi actress who is known for acting in films like Mumbaicha Javai) who lives in a drainage pipe. Bhola is forced to take refuge in the pipe during a heavy downpour. Radha has run away from home when she is unable to accept the fact that her father has to mortgage the house for paying her dowry. Soon enough, Bhola and Radha get married.
Bhola and Radha have a blissful existence in the water pipe until one fine day they have to vacate the pipe due to impending construction work. They soon land in a slum and to their pleasant surprise, the wrestler, the stage actor and the violinist all become their hosts. The only good thing about the movie is that the scenes between Bhola, Radha and the three character actors are endearing. Palshikar playing the violin at the most inappropriate moments sounds too jarring. David doesn’t sound convincing as a wrestler considering the avuncular roles that he has played on the screen. Surprisngly, Palshikar won the Filmfare award in the best supporting actor category.
Radha is pregnant and on the day when she is in labour, the slum owner decides to demolish all the hutments. The bull dozer arrives along with the owner’s crony Rashid Khan. Bhola and his accomplices inform him that a child is about to be born and that he should give them at least 4 days’ time to vacate the hut. Khan has a change of heart and tells the slum owner (Asit Sen in a two minute role) that the bulldozer is under repair and that it will take 4 days for it to get repaired.
After 4 days, Bhola and Radha walk on the tracks with their new born. Their old home (the pipe) is now being laid underground and as if in a trance they walk into another drainage pipe that has a “palna” (cradle) for the child and a beautiful cot for the couple. Radha asks Bhola, “Which city is this?” and Bhola replies, “This is not a city. It is a dream”.
Both Dileep Raj and Surekha have done justice to their characters. If the otherwise lurid film is watchable it is only due to the lead pair. We don’t see Dileep and Surekha – we endear ourselves to Bhola and Radha. However, I am not sure how many Indians watched this movie in 1963 and how many would watch it now. I have doubts whether the film had a theatrical release at all.
Music by JP Kaushik has only one song (Hazar Ghar, Hazar Dhar) by Manmohan Krishna, a mad poet, who roams around the streets of Bombay. The poem was written by Sardar Jaffrey.
Here are some trivia about the movie
1. Dileep Raj was the son of old timer P Jairaj who acted in Hatim Tai and other stunt movies in the 50’s. He didn’t have much of a career (“Asman Mahal”, “Kanyadaan” were the few films that he starred in). Abbas was great friends with Jairaj and so Dileep landed this role. Dileep had a nasty property dispute with his father a few years before the latter’s death.
2. Dileep was chosen because of his rustic looks and his physique.
3. Surekha did many Marathi movies but she didn’t have any career in Bollywood. She was relegated to playing sister roles in B grade movies like “Thokar”. Then she vanished without a trace.
4. Dharmendra approached Abbas for the role of “Bhola”. But Abbas politely declined saying that he had already promised the role to Dileep Raj and that he could not renege on his promise.
5. The outdoor shots were filmed in Andheri-Juhu-Vile Parle belt. The shots in the slum were in a real slum in Andheri near the railway station.
6. One of the film’s technicians was Surekha’s neighbor in Byculla. That is how she landed the role.
7. Abbas was about to catch a tram while he was walking in the Crawford Market area. It started raining all of a sudden. Then he witnessed a couple taking shelter in a drainage pipe. He was also forced to take refuge in a pipe and it is here that the idea of “Shehar aur Sapna” germinated.
8. The Film Finance Corporation refused to fund the film.
9. Dileep Raj and Surekha travelled by bus to the shooting spot to get a feel of how it is to be a commoner in a harsh city like Bombay.
(After working in the corporate world for close to two decades, Bhagyalakshmi Seshachalam started her second career innings as a head-hunter. She is passionate about Hindi movies and loves retro music. When her family shifted to Chennai in the 80s, Bhagya had a taste of Tamil cinema too. In the long term, she plans a book on two of her favourite directors – Guru Dutt and K Balachander. She travels across the country on work and is based in Mysore.)