With Avtaar Kishan Hangal’s demise, we have lost a rare artiste whose leftist conviction knew no bounds. Whether public arena, theatre dais or the silver screen, he remained an eternal activist till the very end. For someone who made his film debut at age 50, cinemascope success had different connotations – more a measure of selfless contentment than a medium of celebrity status.
But the late arrival in no way proved a constraint for his inherent creativity that came in full measure; whatever the role he portrayed on the big screen. And fortunately, he was blessed with the patronage of some of the best filmmakers of his time who made such memorable films like Teesri Kasam, Garm Hawa, Saat Hindustani, Mere Apne, Anubhav, Namak Haram, Balika Badhu, Alaap, Kora Kagaz, Aandhi and Tapasya.
If some of his performances in mainstream movies smacked of monotony, it was only the Bollywood obsession with stereotypes to blame, invariably roping him in as a doting father or caring guardian in film after film.
But whenever the opportunity presented, trivial or otherwise, he made the most of it, leaving behind some of the most enchanting screen moments for posterity – whether the sprightly, British bred oldie of Shoukeen, hen-pecked husband of Chitchor, upright school teacher of Dewaar, feuding elder brother of Bawarchi, small-time crook in Manzil or even the ageing clerk of Arjun, he poured his heart out in every portrayal. And despite his deep theatre roots, his performance was never theatrical. No wonder, doyen Ritwik Ghatak called him India’s best character actor.
But such is the media fixation (more ridicule, less veneration in the obsession) with his Imam Saab in the epic film Sholay that the rest does not even count. Not to mention his momentous theatre career inspired by leftist ideology.
But Hangal Saab had little time for any regret or resentment in life. Whether the late film debut, delayed Padmabhushan, string of personal tragedies or the ensuing financial ruin – he took it all in his stride and yet remained an eternal optimist dreaming of a secular nation that will someday reinstate the dwindling public faith in Marxist principles.
In one of his last interviews, his innermost feelings came neatly wrapped in a philosophical retort “Zingadi se koi shikayat nahi, Shayad zindagi ko mujhse ho” (I hold no grudges against life, maybe life bears a few against me)
For someone who came to India from across the border as a humble tailor in search of a livelihood, he was tailor-made for social activism – subtle in force, significant in impact. His loss is undoubtedly irreparable, both for India and Pakistan.