Karachi’s Avatar

Published April 21, 2015
Karachi has been home to a long, red history of communists. Avatar Hangal is one of them. —Rediff.com
Karachi has been home to a long, red history of communists. Avatar Hangal is one of them. —Rediff.com

Every time the generous people at Dawn publish one of my blogs, I start receiving phone calls from friends in the dozens. Write about this, one would say, as another would insist on a different topic.

Many complain: why haven’t you written about this or that so far? Why did you miss this or that great personality from Karachi?

It always pleases me to receive these messages and calls, while at the same time I am saddened by the limitation of resources. But as our dear Hasrat Mohani said:

Hai mashq-e-sukhan jaarii aur chakkii kii mushaqqat bhi
[As the pen’s labour continues, so does the labour to survive.]

A senior journalist and a serious human rights activist Zaman Khan phoned me from Lahore, asking me to write about A.K Hangal. He was also kind enough to forward me an interview with Mr Hangal.

The name might not be as well-known in Pakistan, but the face would certainly look familiar to many. Hangal was seen in more than 300 Bollywood films, playing supporting roles. Apart from being an actor, Hangal was also a staunch communist.

He wished to see India transform into a communist state after the Partition. Because of his views, he had to spend two years in jail in Karachi. He also spent some time in the Hyderabad Central Jail, Sindh.

Hangal’s full name was Avatar Kishan Hangal. It was after leaving Pakistan for India that Hangal earned fame in the Indian cinema. In the 1975 Ramesh Sippi blockbuster Sholay, Hangal plays the role of Rahim chacha (uncle), a character that would be remain associated with Hangal’s face for decades to come.

Karachi has been home to a long, red history of communists: Zebunnisa alias Shanta Devi, Sobho Gianchandani, Imam Ali Nazish, Sajjad Zaheer and Bakhshee Comrade of Lyari (who was such a diehard communist that when Russia once lost a match during a football world cup, he jumped from the third floor of a building in disappointment. He survived with broken limbs).

Read on: The rise and fall of the communist party of Pakistan

Avatar Kishan Hangal was serving time in a Karachi prison when they told him he was going to be transferred to the Hyderabad Central Jail. Hangal speaks about the experience in his interview:

“In the Hyderabad Jail, I was accompanied by Ghani Khan. He was Ghaffar Khan’s son and Wali Khan’s brother. He asked me why I was still living in Pakistan.

“‘You’re a Hindu,’ he said. ‘You do not have a future here.’ I told him, ‘You’re a Muslim and you’re imprisoned in Pakistan. What’s your future here?’ He told me he could not abandon the Pakhtun, although the [All India] Congress had deserted them.”

Hangal had moved his case to the Sindh High Court with the help of Comrade Sobho Gianchandani. He had a four-lawyer team that included a young lawyer, Sheikh Ayaz.

Hangal’s story of becoming a communist is also a fascinating tale of political transformation. He was in Karachi, working at a tailor’s shop as a helper. He soon became friends with the shop owner, and both of them would go to the red light district together to watch beautiful women sing and dance.

Meanwhile, Hangal began developing an inclination towards communism. It was not long before he was convinced that communism was the sole means to empower all economic classes equally.

He ended up founding the Tailoring Workers’ Union in Karachi. The friendly shop owner had now turned sour. One day, Hangal presented a charter of demands to him, including that a union be formed in the establishment and the Shop and Establishment Act be complied with. Hangal and his friends were fired within the hour.

In 1946, Hangal was elected Secretary of the Communist Party. During his imprisonment, the Pakistani and Indian governments signed a prisoner transfer agreement. When Hangal was told his prison transfer orders for India had been received, he refused to accept any such order. He was imprisoned for six more months after that. In the end, he was forced to leave Pakistan.

Avatar Hangal was a free soul, a man often seen preaching humanism, harmony and peace. He would often express his love for Pakistan, to which Bal Thackeray, the fundamentalist Hindu leader, did not take any liking at all. He went to the extent of calling him a traitor.

Films starring Hangal were boycotted. Protests were held against him and his effigies burnt. Film producers and directors were forced to remove scenes with Hangal from their films.

Hangal is said to have replied to the allegation, as:

After the December 6, 1992 Bombay bombings, Bal Thackeray alleged that I was anti-India. I told him that I’m a patriotic Indian since the days when he was not even a fetus. We fought the War of Independence and spent years in jails. We sacrificed. I do not have to be issued a certificate of patriotism by the likes of him.

Every night I’ve received death threats but I have not submitted to them. I say to him, ‘You claim to be a leader of Maharashtra, while I’ve actually sacrificed a lot for it. I had joined the Maharashtra Movement the day I arrived in Bombay. So did my wife. She served time in a jail which was meant for dangerous criminals.’

See: Cult classic Sholay to be released in Pakistani cinemas

Pakistan’s renowned literato Rahat Saeed had a number of sittings with Hangal. According to Saeed, Hangal loved Pakistan, especially Sindh, and always wanted to visit Pakistan and Sindh at least once a year.

I asked Saeed sahib if he could recall anything special about Hangal’s personality. He told me:

“He was often requested to perform the dialogues from the Sholay scene when Rahim chacha’s son is murdered by the dacoits and the corpse is brought to Ram Garh. The first line is known to people of almost all ages today: ‘Basanti! O Basanti! Itna sannata kyun hai bhaee?’

“He would never say no to the requests, even though sometimes there would be a dozen requests of the same dialogue in one day.”

I cannot resist repeating the dialogue for you here:

Basanti! O Basanti! Itna sannata kyun hai bhaii?
[Basanti! O Basanti! Why such silence?]

Kon? Veeru? Baitay, yeh khaamoshi kyun hai?
[Who is that? Veeru? My son, why such silence?]

Kia hua? Yeh kia hua tha baita? Yeh kahaan lay jaarahay ho?
[What happened? What has happened? Where are you taking him?]

Ahmed! Ahmed! Ahmed…! Inna lillahi wa inna ilaihi raaji’uun!
[Cries and reads Quranic verse read on the news of death.]

Koii yeh bojh nahi utha sakta hai bhaii. Jaantay ho dunia ka sab say barra bojh kia hota hai?
[No one can bear this burden, brothers. Do you know what the heaviest burden in the world is?]

Baap kay kandhon per baitay ka janaza! Iss say bhaari koi bojh nahin hai!
[The burden of a son’s coffin on a father’s shoulders. No burden is heavier than that!]

Main boorrha yeh bojh utha sakta hun aur tum aik museebat [Gabbar Singh] ka bojh nahi utha saktay?
[Still, I bear this burden despite my old age and the lot of you cannot take care of a single troublemaker (i.e. Gabbar Singh)?]

Bhai main to aik hi baat janta hun. Izzat kii maut zillat kii zindagii say kaheen achhi hai.
[If there is one thing I know, it is that a death with dignity is far better than a life full of indignity.]

Baita mainay khoyaa hai. Main phir bhii yehi chahungaa ke yeh dono (Jay and Veeru) yaheen rahein.
[I am the one who has lost a son, but I still would want these two to stay here.]

Also read: Inmemoriam: Lasting silence

Hangal could have stayed in Pakistan if his wishes were respected. But that did not happen. Perhaps he would have done wonders for the Pakistani cinema, or perhaps, considering how appreciation of cinema in Pakistan is a rarity, Hangal might not have become the Rahim chacha he became for the world.

It is sad that such a man spent his last days in misery because of conspiracies by the fundamentalists. For the silence over his miseries and those of everyone else on both sides of the border today, I want to shout out:

Itna sannata kyun hai bhai?

Translated by Ayaz Laghari from the original in Urdu here.


Intolerance grows
Updated 18 Oct 2021

Intolerance grows

Failure to pass the bill undermines the writ of the state, highlights its inability to guarantee citizens’ protection and freedom.
Moral panic
Updated 18 Oct 2021

Moral panic

If conflation of culture with religion is taken as true, there is mounting evidence that society has gone closer to such roots.
Challenges amid discord
Updated 18 Oct 2021

Challenges amid discord

Institutional disharmony and polarised politics are impeding efforts to address the country’s challenges.
Climate & youth
Updated 17 Oct 2021

Climate & youth

Disillusionment and anxiety are on the rise among youth as they confront the diminishing prospects of a better tomorrow.


Financial troubles
Updated 18 Oct 2021

Financial troubles

Growing trade gap is fuelling the current account deficit and bringing the already meagre foreign exchange reserves under stress.
18 Oct 2021

Complaint portal

IN a ruling on Thursday, the Mingora bench of the Peshawar High Court held that the Prime Minister’s Performance...
18 Oct 2021

Capital’s master plan

IT is encouraging that on Thursday, the restructured commission formed by the federal cabinet to revise ...
Carnage in Kandahar
Updated 17 Oct 2021

Carnage in Kandahar

Pakistan’s anti-extremism policy is in many ways half-baked and inconsistent.
17 Oct 2021

Sanctity of contracts

PAKISTAN is facing yet another international dispute before the International Centre for Settlement of Investment...
17 Oct 2021

New sports policy

THIS week, the Pakistan Football Federation Normalisation Committee chief Haroon Malik was in Zurich to hold ...