The newspapers recently carried stories and pictures of veteran character actor ninety five year old AK Hangal. I must admit I was shocked to see the condition he is in. It feels really sad to learn that he has to literally now choose between food and medication. In his days, he has played everything from an uncle to a grandfather in the staple Hindi films of the 1970s and 1980s. For a man who entertained us as the unforgettable Rahim Chacha in the blockbuster "Sholay", it is unfortunate that he now leads a life of penury.
It is always been disturbing to read and learn of such occurences. There have been enough number of instances in popular culture of individuals who were idolized and revered in their prime and now remain stuck in the catacombs of anonymity. Life's stories have been overloaded with vivid descriptions of unfortunate circumstances. Well, life as they say, has the ability to equate the powerful to the level of a common man. There have been cases where circumstances have brought the most powerful to their knees.
To begin with, we have never had any forum where actors speak as one voice in such circumstances. The famed "My Name is Khan" debate is an example in itself. It is in such situations where the industry gets split into camps. We also don't have an organization which looks after the needs of such actors. His frail condition reminded me of Nalini Jaywant, one of the top leading ladies of the 1950s, who passed away recently as a loner. A very tragic end for a lady who was voted one of the prettiest actresses of the 1950s. It is unfortunate to note that many yesteryear actors today live life like a recluse.
It is sad that in a diverse country as ours, we leave actors to fend for themselves in their twilight years. Part of the problem arises from the fact that actors never plan their careers in a way that will look after their needs once the cameras desert them. As a society in general, we do not give them due respect they truly require. It is absolutely unfortunate that we tend to recognize the contribution of an artist posthumously. The 1957 Hindi film "Pyassa" is one example where the poet Vijay's greatness was recognized after his death. Real life imitated reel life in Guru Dutt's example. Dhrupad exponent Asgari Bai, who lived on a government stipend of Rs. 1500, to be repaid in installments, took the extreme step of returning back the awards conferred to her by the Madhya Pradesh Government. Barring a few artists, other artists have to bear with the peanuts they receive.
Bollywood has been replete with one-film wonders and actors disappearing into the catacombs of anonymity. To be really honest, I grew up watching Sadhana walking aimlessly on a snow-clad hillock in a saree singing "Naina Barse Rimjhim Rimjhim" but I even didn't even know she was alive till the time the news came out that a top builder threatened her and it appeared as a front-page news.
The present state of actor A.K. Hangal reminds me of an incident which was chronicled by film journalist Rauf Ahmed which is one of the most heartbreaking stories I have read. In 1938, Rauf Ahmed said, grand celebrations were underway to commemorate the silver anniversary of "Raja Harishchandra", India's first full-length feature film. A hall was booked and important dignitaries were invited to deliver talks of significance from the dais. The only glitch: no one thought of inviting Dadasaheb Phalke, the man who made the film. Nobody thought of inviting him to sit up on the stage where positive words were being showered. Suddenly, filmmaker V. Shantaram spotted a decrepit old man sitting on the last rows of the hall where the function was being held. It was indeed Dadasaheb Phalke. A deeply embarrassed V. Shantaram led Dadasaheb Phalke to the stage.
Four years later when Dadasaheb Phalke died, he was alone, poor and forgotten. Today, I wonder how many of us even acknowledge his contribution apart from having an award named after him and a Marathi film showing us how he struggled to make Raja Harishchandra. It's heartbreaking that he died a tragic death.