Friend’s riposte: A national treasure lost to the cult of money (Book Extract)

Dilip Kumar has many virtues and one of them is his frankness. After watching the premiere of ‘Gyara Hazar Ladkian’ (1962), he asked me a question in front of a crowd of people, “Abbas Sahib, why did you make this inane film?”

I answered, “I made a mistake. It won’t happen in the future!” I didn’t say this out of any complaint or humility. Though I had directed the film, I agreed with his opinion. In ‘Gyara Hazar Ladkian’, I was unable to say what I really wanted to and, as a result, could not make the film I really wanted to.

The art and objective of the film were sacrificed due to my immoderate pursuit of box-office success. In the end, I was neither here nor there.

I was determined not to repeat my mistake, and one year later, I made ‘Shehar Aur Sapna’ (1963). The film was regarded as one of the best made that year and won the President’s Gold Medal. But Dilip Kumar could not find the time to watch the film. He was perhaps busy shooting for inane films like ‘Leader’ (1964) or ‘Dil Diya Dard Liya’ (1966).

Among my many flaws, one is that of being frank, and now, I want to ask Dilip Kumar the same question that he asked me in front of so many people, “Dilip Sahib, why are you making these inane films — ‘Azaad’ (1955), ‘Kohinoor’ (1960), ‘Leader’, ‘Dil Diya Dard Liya’?”

I would not pose this question to any other actor, but I will ask him. This is because I adore and respect him and also admire his talent and artistic perfection.

But by working in one mindless film after another, Dilip Kumar is stifling that outstanding artist. If someone does not stop him from doing so, it is possible that an exceptional actor will be sacrificed at a gilded altar. It will be a big tragedy if that happens. In some cases, like in the case of ‘Shaheed’ (1948), a murder can be pardoned, and sometimes, like in the case of ‘Devdas’ (1955), a suicide is understandable, but when murder and suicide are brought together, it is inexcusable.

So, I repeat my question to him, “Why are you making these inane films — ‘Azaad’, ‘Kohinoor’, ‘Leader’, ‘Dil Diya Dard Liya’, ‘Ram Aur Shyam’ (1967)?”

By inane I do not mean to indicate that they have not fared well commercially. Out of these four films, two were hits while the other two flopped.

By inane I mean useless, dishonest, substandard films lacking in artistic credibility. It doesn’t matter whether they earned Rs 2 lakh at the box office or Rs 2 crore, whether they ran for two weeks or two years.

I am posing this question to Dilip Kumar because his talent is a national treasure. We take pride in him as Indians, as through his talent he can enhance the character and culture of our nation. Even he does not have the right to waste it.

Once again, I repeat my question: “Why are you making these inane films?”

I am asking you this question (and not your so-called producers) because you take on the responsibility of each aspect of your films — from the choice of story to the dialogues, setting, costumes and even editing. You work for months, sometimes years, on a script; supervise every aspect of the film; and without your approval a film cannot be released. You fulfil the responsibilities of a producer, director, actor and writer yourself.

Are you making such films because you need the money? Do you think only such films will yield profit?

Are you making these films because you think you will attain fame and popularity through them or do you genuinely think that these films are good just because the audience likes them and you wish to please your fans? Pleasing the audience is the dominion of a politician, not an artist. A true artist does not blindly pander to the demands of the people. What he offers them speaks to their soul and emotions. If a diseased person or madman asks you for poison, will you promptly hand it to him?

Your fame and popularity are no less today than it was before ‘Azaad’ (1955). The world witnessed your craft in films such as ‘Milan’ (1946), ‘Shaheed’, ‘Andaz’ (1949), ‘Musafir’, ‘Devdas’, ‘Mughal-e-Azam’ (1960), as it was being honed and sculpted in every film. It seemed that this beloved artist of ours would pluck the stars from the sky and reach the very heights of artistic excellence.

But then ‘Azaad’ came and instead of an emotionally stirring performance and intense characterization, we saw an inferior imitation done by an impersonator. Instead of a film script, we saw a ‘nautanki’, where you put on a beard and played a doctor; you dressed up as Radha and wielded tin swords Although an impersonator is also an artist and ‘nautanki’ an art form, it isn’t comparable to the calibre at which Dilip Kumar’s exceptional acting once was. Such films may have brought him cheap fame and admiration but at what price? The price of an artist being auctioned off in the marketplace?

I do not share any hostility towards entertaining films like ‘Azaad’ or ‘Ram aur Shyam’, but such characters can easily be played by an ordinary comedian. To give an artist like Dilip Kumar such roles is akin to using a gun to kill a fly or asking an eminent musician like Ravi Shankar to play in a wedding band just because he will be paid lakhs of rupees for it!

By acting in films like ‘Gunga Jumna’ (1961) and ‘Mughal-e-Azam’, you have yourself proved that instead of superficial roles of fun and frolic, you prefer emotional stories and serious characters. You are a man of good taste and are well-educated. People admire your balanced temperament, manners and etiquette.

Then why do you work in these inane films?

There is only one other reason. It seems you are making artistically worthless films that are just mindless entertainment in order to make money. But this allure cannot be just for money. Whether you earn 1 lakh or 10 lakh, after a point, wealth too becomes meaningless. Today, money is considered a status symbol and an artist is considered big or small depending on the fee that he commands. Do you agree?

Was the Dilip Kumar of ‘Devdas’ and ‘Gunga Jumna’ a lesser artist, and has the Dilip Kumar of ‘Ram Aur Shyam’ become a bigger artist because his fee has gone up? Will art now be valued in terms of money? There are so many other parameters to assess you!

For the past few years, why has no film of yours won a National Award? Have you ever given this a thought? There was a time when you were working with the most exceptional directors of India, but not anymore. You worked with Bimal Roy in films like Devdas and Madhumati (1958), made a meaningful and pragmatic film like Musafir (1957) with Hrishikesh Mukherjee and worked with B.R. Chopra in Naya Daur (1957). Why are you no longer working with directors of that stature or even those better than them? Is it not a fact that ever since your fee has increased, you have extracted yourself from the circle of rational, artistic, progressive filmmakers simply because they cannot afford to pay so much? Nor will they allow you to interfere with their creativity and vision.

We want to see a distinguished artist like you in films made by distinguished directors so that their art and your artistry come together to forge an exceptional film. Everybody requires money, especially film artists and producers, but not to such an extent that they are willing to compromise on their artistic standards.

Paul Muni was an accomplished theatre and film artist in Hollywood (you too must have admired him). He once asked his wife how much money she would need to live comfortably. She replied that for their family $1,000 per month was enough. At that, Paul Muni said, “Then why am I working in silly films and plays and compromising my artistic standards?”

Thereon, he only worked in films and theatre productions that would complement his craft. Whether he was paid more money or less (and it was mostly less), he did not make compromises with shoddy art ever again.

You earned more money than the president and prime minister of India by working on ‘Shaheed’, ‘Azaad’ and ‘Devdas’. How did a serious man and great artist like you get entwined in this blind race for money that has taken over the world, especially the film world?

Irrespective of whose name appears as the producer, it is a commonly known fact that you have been producing your films. For the past few years, you have also been directing your films and contributing significantly towards the scenes, the story and dialogues. So, you know that for a film to come together, there needs to be a meeting of the minds where several talented people collaborate.

Dilip Kumar alone cannot make an exceptional film. Raj Kapoor alone cannot create an exceptional film. One exceptional artist (be it Paul Muni or Chandramohan) can’t make an exceptional film by himself.

A serious, meaningful, moving and dramatic story is needed to bring out the remarkable skill of an artist. You need someone who is well-versed with the finer nuances of writing to write a competent screenplay.

Similarly, for dialogues, you need a litterateur who is knowledgeable about idioms, phrases, wordplay, and can write dialogues accordingly. You need someone with a skilled and creative mind to direct the film and a notable cameraman who, through his interplay of light and shadows, colours and patterns, infuses the film with life.

Apart from acting, you might be interested in different film departments and might even be as accomplished a director as an actor. Raj Kapoor, Sunil Dutt and Manoj Kumar are a few examples, yet to work in other departments you need to be suitably proficient in those fields, so that you can be as adept at them as you are in your acting.

Did you learn nothing from the experience of making ‘Leader’ or ‘Dil Diya Dard Liya’?

I remember a conversation where you had asked me, “Abbas Sahib, how long does it take you to write a script?”

I had replied, “If I am not working on anything else, then I can have the first draft of a script ready in one month.”

And you had replied that you (and your producer) had been working on one scene for the past month but were still not satisfied with it.

On hearing this, I had said, “If you make me stand in front of the camera with make-up on my face, it will take me one month just to figure out that we’ve been doing multiple takes of the first scene alone!”

With a degree of astonishment, you had asked, “What do you mean?”

I had replied, “I mean that a person should do what he knows best.”

In the end, I wish to reiterate that you are among the two great actors of India (the other being Raj Kapoor). You portray characters with emotional flair and can play sophisticated comic roles as well. There is no one who can rival you in dialogue delivery. With these qualities you can work in and create significant films provided you realise your artistic responsibility with fervour. And for God’s sake, do not waste your expertise (which you have honed with your hard work and intelligence) on meaningless stories and inane films.

Rakhiyo Ghalib mujhe iss talkh-nawai main maaf

Aaj kuchh dard mere dil mein siwa hota hai

(Forgive me Ghalib if I speak with bitterness / Today my heart aches more than ever before)

(Excerpted from K.A. Abbas’ ‘Sone Chandi Ke Buth – Writings on Cinema’, edited and translated from Urdu by Syeda Hameed and Sukhpreet Kahlon, with the permission of the publisher, Penguin Random House India.)

20221211-101003

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