Once upon a cinema: Amitabh Bachchan’s first director

Amitabh Bachchan, who had only his experience in theatre to fall back on, gave an assured performance as Anwar Ali in Khwaja Ahmad Abbas' Saat Hindustani.

Amborish Roychoudhury September 18, 2022 07:16:35 IST
Once upon a cinema: Amitabh Bachchan’s first director

Khwaja Ahmad Abbas set out to make a film on the liberation of Goa from Portuguese rule. He also wanted to incorporate a statement about communal harmony and equality. Abbas’ fertile imagination cooked up a fascinating way of doing it: mix up the casting. His plot was about seven Indians on a mission to liberate Goa. This motley group comprised a Catholic woman, a Maharashtrian Hindu, a Sikh, a Tamil Brahmin, a north Indian from Uttar Pradesh, a Bengali, and a Muslim poet from Aligarh. All of these characters reinforced community cliches – the Sardar was a full-blooded Punjabi farmer, the south Indian sported a veshti and vibhuti, and the Catholic woman was to speak in the stunted Hindi that Goans in Bollywood have been made to speak for decades. The idea was to underscore their differences while showing how they came together for a cause they felt was greater than them all.

Utpal Dutt, a Bengali, was cast as the Sardar character. Malayalam cinema star Madhu aka Madhavan Nair played the Bengali intellectual Shubodh Sanyal. Jalal Agha, veteran comedian Agha’s son, portrayed a Marathi revolutionary named Sakharam Shinde. Another veteran comedian Mehmood’s brother Anwar Ali was given the role of the North Indian Brahmin Ram Bhagat Sharma, while Madhukar from Meerut played the Tamilian. Madhukar was an assistant on the sets, but he was also the real-life inspiration for the story of Saat Hindustani. During the movement in Goa, Madhukar had spent time with some revolutionaries there, and his accounts became the basis for Abbas’ screenplay. Casting the sixth and the seventh Hindustani wasn’t much of a trouble. Abbas and Inder Raj Anand were close friends and compatriots at the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA). Inder’s son Tinnu was supposed to play Anwar Ali, a Bihari Muslim poet, and the Goan Christian girl Maria was to be played by Shahnaz Vahanvaty, who was Jalal Agha’s sister and soon-to-be Tinu Anand’s wife. But Tinnu was headed for Kolkata to assist Satyajit Ray, so they had to look for a replacement.

K.A. Abbas had a particular look in his mind for Anwar Ali. A passionate, well-read young man, Anwar would spout mellifluous Urdu poetry at the drop of a hat. Anwar was modeled after Abbas’ friend Majaz Lacknavi, and much like Majaz, Anwar Ali was supposed to not just recite his couplets but actually sing them. While Utpal and the rest of the cast had been finalized, Abbas was still looking for Anwar. One day, Jalal brought a handsome young man to Abbas’ door. His name was Ajitabh Bachchan, Jalal said. During the late 60s and early 70s, Ajitabh Bachchan had a brush with cinema almost as intense as his brother. He had dabbled in movie distribution and it was also suggested that he get into acting, considering his good looks. Nevertheless, Jalal explained to “Mamujan” (that’s what Abbas was referred to by those who knew him) that Ajitabh wasn’t looking for a role, but he had a photograph which he might like to see. The picture was of Ajitabh’s brother Amitabh. He was wearing churidar-pyjamas, kurta and a jacket, precisely the kind of look Abbas had in mind for Anwar Ali. Besides, there was a glimmer in the boy’s eyes that told him there was something special going on here. Abbas agreed to meet him in two days. Ajitabh promised his brother will be there and left.

On the designated date, the brother, Amitabh Bachchan, stood before him. One look at him, and Abbas was convinced that he had found his Anwar. When could he start, Abbas asked him. Bachchan was shocked. Everyone asked for pictures, made him appear for screen tests, and then turned him down saying that he was too tall, or just didn’t have the looks of a hero. No heroine would like to work with you, they said. But here was this renowned producer-director who had worked with Raj Kapoor, and he was willing to cast him without even testing him. The remuneration can’t be more than Rs.5000, Abbas explained, and there were six others who would play the lead alongside him. And he had to learn Urdu. If all this seemed ok to him, he could join them immediately. Bachchan was still trying to grasp all this. Would he like to look at some of his earlier tests? I don’t take tests, said K.A. Abbas, but hire artists on face value. They just needed to sign a contract. Could Amitabh read, Abbas wondered aloud, rhetorically? He was a Delhi University graduate, and even had a job in Calcutta which paid Rs.1400 per month, said Amitabh. He had quit. Why? What if Abbas hadn’t cast him?

On knowing his full name, Abbas realized he could only be the son of one man. “Are you related to Dr. Harivansh Rai Bachchan?” He is my father, replied Amitabh. Then he needed to get written permission from his father, Abbas insisted. Dr. Bachchan was a close friend of his and no way was he going to sign his son without his express consent. Abbas wrote a letter to Dr. Bachchan, requesting him to convey his decision via telegram. The reply came in three days. Dr. Harivansh Rai Bachchan said, “If he is working with you, I am happy. Amitabh Bachchan was signed for 5000 rupees as Anwar Ali. Because of the curious casting, everyone had to learn different languages. Utpal Dutt was proficient in Hindi and spoke a little Urdu as well, so picking up a smattering of Punjabi wasn’t too difficult. Jalal Agha had been in Bombay all his life, so Marathi culture and language wasn’t alien to him. Madhu, the Malayali actor, had the Herculean task of picking up a Bengali accent. Amitabh was to learn Urdu. In just a few days, he was fluent in the language. On the sets, he used to recite shayari in his booming baritone and the rest of the cast burst into applause.

According to Abbas, this mixing up of cultures and languages was important. He later wrote, “because we wanted to show that all Indians were one at heart; just change the name and accent and Bengali becomes Punjabi, and UPite becomes Tamil, and Hindu becomes Muslim.” The team was to leave for Goa via train. Everyone congregated at Dadar station, when Amitabh arrived with his coolie, panting with a heavy suitcase perched on his head. On enquiring about the contents, he said along with the essentials, it contained a letter pad, a packet of stamped envelopes, and an alarm clock. Every night, he wrote a letter to his mother, detailing the happenings of the day. Saat Hindustani was a far cry from modern film productions in Goa. They didn’t even have the money to book a half-decent hotel in Goa. They rented a dak bungalow, and everyone slept on the floor, side by side. Only exception to this was Utpal Dutt, his wife, and Shahnaz. Amitabh Bachchan, who had only his experience in theatre to fall back on, gave an assured performance as Anwar Ali. Towards the end, despite enduring unspeakable torture from his captors, he doesn’t budge. There was a scene where he had to hang on to a rope from a mountain peak. There was no proper harnessing and modern safety measures weren’t available. Abbas had arranged for a stunt guy but secretly hoped that Bachchan would take it up himself, as it would look more authentic. Amitabh Bachchan refused to let the stunt double do what he perceived as his own job. He did his own stunt that day, and K.A. Abbas grinned ear to ear. This protégé of his would go a long way. Little did he know!

Amborish is a National Film Award winning writer, biographer and film historian.

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