AK Hangal Was B-Town’s Very Own ‘Grand Old Man’
The only equal of JM Barrie’s Peter Pan, the boy who was stuck in perennial childhood, is our very own AK Hangal. Only in reverse. Like Peter, Hangal has been the eternal old man, a man who was born to be old and remained so, in India’s collective consciousness. Believe it or not, he too was young once!
On his death anniversary, we look back at his journey from being an accomplished tailor to the eternal old man of Bollywood.
In most of his roles he was the good old man, the man who could do no harm, and everybody could rely on him for a sympathetic meal of niceness. The public virtually remained oblivious to Avtar Kishan Hangal, the man who had a substantial political spine.
Born on 1 February, 1914 in Sialkot of British India, he spent his growing up years in Peshawar. While his family was in government jobs, he refused to work with the establishment. Instead, he learnt tailoring. In a short span of time, not only did he master the art, his political activism made him form a trade union for all the tailors in Peshawar.
Meanwhile, the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) also caught his fancy. When India became independent and the Partition led to exodus, he decided to stay in Pakistan. He was arrested and jailed for his communist ideologies.
He got a job as a tailor, and his skill with fabric soon earned him a reputation so good that he would deal with premium customers like the Nawab of Pataudi and foreigners. With a salary as high as Rs 500, he was doing very well for himself, but he wanted something more out of life. He hunted down the IPTA members, and started rebuilding the association.
After shunning the idea for long, Hangal finally agreed to play Raj Kapoor’s brother in Basu Bhattacharya’s Teesri Kasam, but the role was edited out in the final cut. But post that unlucky beginning however, there was no looking back. His film career that began in his ’40s made him one of the most sought after character artistes and Hindi cinema found the grand old man it was missing.
Eventually, things returned to normal, but his frail health kept him away from work, and he took up very few films. His last major films were Lagaan in 2002 and Paheli in 2005.
In the post globalised India, his Rahim Chacha and several other characters became the staple diet of the mass consuming old classics on TV. And everyone forgot about the real Hangal.
Hangal, despite being an actor of calibre, never got roles off the beaten track. And that’s a real tragedy. Because a film like Shaukeen, in which he played the tricky role of a lecherous old man, proved what an able actor he was, and it’s the short-sightedness of our cinema that it wasn’t able to view him beyond the image of a good old man.
(The writer is a journalist, a screenwriter, and a content developer who believes in the insanity of words, in print or otherwise. He tweets @RanjibMazumder).
(This story is from The Quint’s archives and was first published on 1 February 2016. It is now being republished to mark AK Hangal’s birth anniversary.)
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