Thursday, August 30, 2012

A Grand Old Man

A.K. Hangal, one of Bollywood’s enduring character actors, who died recently, had an interesting life and career 

By Shevlin Sebastian  

In May 2006, while working in Mumbai I had the opportunity to meet the veteran actor A.K. Hangal. He lived in a small apartment in the suburb of Santa Cruz. The most striking aspect was that he looked and spoke exactly like the characters in his films. At that time he was 89 but Hangal was mentally sharp and smiled all the time. A legendary character actor in Bollywood, Hangal, who acted in over 200 films, died on Sunday in Mumbai.

Hangal was in the news then because he had just been awarded the Padma Bhushan. But he found it difficult to believe that he had won it. “Unlike most people, I had not lobbied for the award,” he said. “In fact, I never expected to get it. What made me really happy was when I heard that it was a unanimous decision of the jury.”

Hangal was born in Peshawar, spent time in Karachi, where he was a freedom fighter, and moved to Mumbai after the 1947 Partition riots with only Rs 20 in his pocket. Years of struggle ensued. A Leftist, he was a member of the Indian People’s Theatre Association, and did stage plays for several years. But in 1966, Hangal became an actor in Bollywood and embarked on a 46-year career in the industry.

Asked the secret of good acting, Hangal said, “If you want to be an excellent actor, you have to be a person with good qualities. I also worked hard to look natural on screen. I did an in-depth analysis of the character I was portraying. I studied the person's background, economic position, and the community to which he belonged. Another way to have a deeper understanding of human beings is to move around in society.”

Not surprisingly, he was disappointed about the direction Bollywood was taking. “Society changes, and that is reflected in the films,” he said. “Now, there is a different kind of acting.”
And he elaborated on this. “When I acted, I talked from the soul of the character,” said Hangal. “Today, many actors speak with their muscles (he breaks out into laughter). It is more about physique than heart. Society has become superficial. People only want money. It is the world of consumerism. Very few people read or discuss philosophy or ponder about the deeper aspects of life.”

During the period of the interview, the media was focusing on Amitabh Bachchan who had been hospitalised due to an intestinal surgery at Lilavati Hospital. A stream of prominent Bollywood personalities came to meet the acting icon. However, at the same time, the legendary music director O.P. Nayyar was being treated in the same hospital, but nobody went to see him.

Asked why this happened, Hangal said, “Nayyar has become irrelevant. So nobody is interested. It happens in every profession, so why single out the film industry? This is human nature.”

Unfortunately, Hangal suffered the same fate as Nayyar, because no well-known Bollywood personality attended his funeral.

Hangal led an eventful life, but encountered painful obstacles. He fell foul of the Shiv Sena when he attended the Independence day celebrations of Pakistan in Mumbai in 1993. “Bal Thackeray [Shiv Sena supremo] gave the order to boycott my films,” said Hangal. “He said that I should not be given any assignments and the theatres where my films were shown came under attack by the Sena goons. At midnight, I would get threatening calls on the phone. I remained jobless for two years. My wife died, my son’s wife died. I was in hospital. I was having financial problems and went through a difficult time. Thackeray forgot that I once worked alongside his father in Samyuktha Maharashtra Samiti [an organisation that demanded a separate Marathi-speaking state in the 1950s]. I was a freedom fighter before he was born. I am not against anybody. So, why should he be against me?”

And, typically, Bollywood refused to come out in Hangal’s defence.  But the veteran did not get upset about it. “People were afraid of Thackeray,” said Hangal. “That's life.”

The thespian broke out into a broad grin when asked about the meaning of the word, 'Hangal'. “Hangal means stag (a deer),” he said. “I belong to a Kashmiri Pandit family.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)  


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