“I was born in Peshawar and grew up in Karachi. Then it wasn’t Pakistan and India. Every youth in those days fought for freedom. So, when Bhagat Singh was hanged, all of us revolted and I was jailed for nearly three years,” A.K. Hangal had recalled his freedom fighting years from 1929 to 1947. “We never bowed down and you also shouldn’t. What is wrong has to be opposed.”

It may be difficult to accept but in a hero-centric film industry how many of us even remember or recognise actors who essay the role of a father, uncle, bawarchi, servant or other non-hero-oriented roles, especially from films of the last century? Labeled as ‘character’ actors though they form an important ingredient of the film canvass, they somehow are never much identified. But not when it came to A.K. Hangal. Even a novice to the industry knew him.

“Don’t label me as a character actor,” was his gentle admonishment when I had met him some two decades ago at his ground-floor flat in one of the serene suburbs of Mumbai. “Every part in a play or a film has a character of its own and so does every actor, irrespective of his or her length of appearance in the complete canvass. If a role didn’t have its own individual identity or character, how would anyone essay that part?”

That was Hangal — frank, progressive, secular, strong and unbending against any odds. He remained like this till his last day. In fact, his strength of conviction of what was right and what shouldn’t be accepted merely because some fanatics scream loudly, came as a shock as the image I had of Hangal was that of a frail, delicate, soft-spoken man. Remember the blind Rahim Chacha (Sholay), Guddi’s father (Guddi), Sadanand Chacha (the music teacher and Jaya Bachchan’s father in Abhiman), Jeetendra’s uncle (Parichay)? There are more than 225 films that he acted in, and of them 16 were with Rajesh Khanna while several others were with the Bachchans.

In real life, too, he was soft-spoken, courteous and didn’t take offence at my ignorance about his background. In those Internet-sans days, journalists were dependent only on the archives at our office to gather information and there wasn’t much about Hangal.

“I was born in Peshawar and grew up in Karachi. Then it wasn’t Pakistan and India. Every youth in those days fought for freedom. So, when Bhagat Singh was hanged, all of us revolted and I was jailed for nearly three years,” he had recalled his freedom fighting years from 1929 to 1947. “We never bowed down and you also shouldn’t. What is wrong has to be opposed.”

This was the principle he lived throughout his life. He even faced a two-year ban from the film industry which feared the backlash of one of the right wing political groups when Hangal attended Independence Day celebrations at the Pakistan Consul-General’s office.

Though an actor, he was tailor by profession. “Theatre acting se pait thora hi bharta tha?” (theatre acting did not fill one’s stomach in those days) he had mischievously said looking at my perplexed expression of him being a tailor and an actor also. He stopped tailoring from 1966, once he joined films. “I still make my own clothes,” declared the man.

After Partition, when he moved to Mumbai with his family, he not only continued stitching clothes for the likes of Prithvi Raj Kapoor and Balraj Sahani, but he also joined Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) as a continuation of his theatre work with Shree Sangeet Priya Mandal in Peshawar.

At IPTA, a leftist theatre group, he got a chance to work with the likes of Balraj Sahani, Kaifi Azmi, K.A. Abbas, Ritiwik Ghatak and many others. He liked using theatre as a tool for social message. In fact, recognising his work not only as an actor but also as a social activist, the India government had bestowed the third highest civilian award — the Padma Bhushan — on him.

A true Marxist till the end, he lamented that the film industry doesn’t look after their old. He had urged the government of India to start a home for the aged, lonely and poor film people, which the government plans to take up as soon as possible.