AK Hangal passed away in August, 2012. One of my favourite Hangal performances is that of a smiling, chess obsessed patriarch in Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Guddi. He has a little room to himself at the entrance of the home that he shares with his son, his daughter-in-law and a teenaged daughter played by Jaya Bhaduri. All the old man lives for is a game of chess and he is allowed to just be in his little nook, undisturbed while guests come and go, Guddi suddenly grows up and life keeps flowing around the routine of chai, nashta, letters from relatives and golden normalcy that you sense in happy homes. How preoccupied the old man is demonstrated when Guddi one day appears in a red saree and touches his feet and he blesses her and then turns around to ask who she is.
Then ofcourse, you saw Mr Hangal doing the unthinkable in Bawarchi, another Hrishikesh Mukherjee classic..you actually saw him nursing a guilty drink after a hard day at the office. Till ofcourse Rajesh Khanna’s Mr Fix It shows him that lime with Cola tastes much better and Mr Hangal emboldened by the sugar rush and new-found wisdom goes on to ward off an impending retirement at office and also repairs his turbulent relationship with his younger brother!
So many Hangal memories. The upright Union leader in Namak Haram. The helpless, lower middle class patriarch in Arjun. The tormented father-in-law in Avtaar. The wise house-help in Aandhi. The conniving middle-man in Manzil. The idealistic editor in Saath Saath. And a complex role as Bheeshm in Kaliyug, Shyam Benegal’s modern take on Mahabharat. The house-help in Anubhav who refuses to be fired and then watches with an amused smile as a fragmented marriage comes together one piece at a time. Him in Lagaan, a broken leg notwithstanding, chipping in with a line during Ghanan Ghanan.
I also loved him as the classical singer in Abhiman, living in anonymity with a gifted daughter, teaching her his legacy and then watching with wordless pain when her marriage falls apart. And the definitive Hangal moment in Sholay where as the blind Imam Saheb he walks into dead silence with a memorable, “Itna sannata kyon hai bhai?” And then touches a corpse to realise it is his son’s and then breaks down with, “Ahmed!” And the dialogues, “Kaun iss museebat ka bojh nahin utha sakta hai bhai? Jaante ho duniya mein sabse bada bojh kya hota hai? Baap ke kandhe par bete ka janaza..”
As a child, I wanted a grandfather like AK Hangal. I wanted someone as seamlessly in harmony with circumstances, with life, always in the flow of the little moments, always centered in forgiveness, empathy and unconditional love. There was something reassuringly normal and regular about AK Hangal in a business that thrives on overwrought emotions. He never overdid the emotional pitch of any character. He never called attention to himself. He even reduced the Avtar Kishan in his name to AK.
He was just the character, part of the threads that weave a moment and make it memorable. And yet he always stood out. The genial shake of the head, the downward smiling gaze, the contained body language that came perhaps from his years in prison during the Indian freedom movement, the natural discipline of a performer who combined instinct with training that perhaps came to him from his years in IPTA (Indian People’s Theatre Association), he was the memorable mascot of films of Basu Bhattacharya, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Gulzaar and others who saw in him a world that was fast vanishing.
A world where smiles seeped into silence, love was taken for granted like air and water, affection was a nod, a crinkle around the eye, a pat on the head, and homes that even in films looked like homes where real people lived through pain and small joys and it was enough.Off the sets, he lived through harsh oblivion in the last few years of his life and outlived the world he once inhabited. The world where if your basic needs were met, and you lived with your head held high and with dignity, it was enough. Maybe AK Hangal wanted nothing more but that his son was forced to go to the press a few years ago to talk about his inability to pay his ailing father’s medical expenses, is even sadder than the inevitable end. That in a country where non actors earn in crores, a patriot, a freedom fighter and a veteran actor had no work when the Shiv Sena boycotted his films, that he had no money to fall back on during his retirement years speaks of how little we care for those who give all they have to us.
I last saw him in a promo of a TV serial. Even though, old and frail and in pain, he still had the glint in the eye that all true actors have when the camera beams at them. I hope, he is playing a role of a lifetime somewhere up there with the spotlight firmly on him