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He did not believe in borders: Syeda Hameed remembers uncle KA Abbas

On the 50th anniversary of the release of Amitabh Bachchan's debut film Saat Hindustani (1969), social and women’s rights activist and writer Syeda Hameed elucidates its relevance in contemporary times.

Sukhpreet Kahlon

Written and directed by Khwaja Ahmad Abbas, Saat Hindustani (1969) is widely remembered for marking the acting debut of the veteran actor Amitabh Bachchan. The person who decided to cast him was the writer-journalist-filmmaker Abbas, who, through this heroic story of seven Indians who endeavour to liberate Goa from Portuguese colonial rule, wanted to make a statement about national integration that surpassed the borders drawn by language and geography.

The saat (seven) Hindustani (Indians) in the film are comrades whose mission is to hoist the Tricolour on Portuguese buildings in Goa, subverting colonial rule. The six men in the group, all from different backgrounds, were cast against their real-life identities. So Bengali theatre and film stalwart Utpal Dutt played a Punjabi, Malayali actor Madhu played a Bengali, comedian Mehmood’s brother Anwar Ali was cast as a radical Hindu activist, and newcomer Amitabh Bachchan was given the role of a Muslim poet. Along with Maria played by Shehnaz, they unite in their task of liberating Goa.

The casting was, of course, a deliberate attempt on the part of Abbas to dispel ideas of a certain ‘type’ of religious and regional identity.

Looking back at the film, social and women’s rights activist, educationist and writer Syeda Saiyidain Hameed, founder of the Khwaja Ahmad Abbas Memorial Trust (KAAMT), reminisces about her uncle and speaks about his ideology and the relevance of the film in today’s times.

Set up in 2013, KAAMT is an arts and culture organization inspired by the life and works of KA Abbas that seek to contemporize them and so take his legacy forward.

Talking about the film, Syeda Hameed says, “I think there are two ways in which the film is very relevant — the first is, of course, in shattering the idea that a Muslim has to play a Muslim, a Marathi has to play a Marathi, etc, that was a very deliberate attempt by Abbas. To make Amitabh Bachchan a Muslim poet from somewhere in UP, the only commonality was that Bachchan was from Allahabad. Other than that, it was completely shattering the stereotype.

"The second thing was about gender — when Bachchan told him that he was not getting any roles because he was too tall for the heroines, Abbas said that we have a girl [in the film] who is very short but she is as much a hero as the six of you. She is the seventh Hindustani and that was Shehnaz Agha who later married [actor-filmmaker] Tinnu Anand, Abbas saheb’s assistant at the time.”

The KAAMT chairperson recalled that Shehnaz was one of the "boys" in the film. "At that time nobody had really explored cross-dressing in that way, but Abbas did it in Saat Hindustani," she said. "Shehnaz always wore the same clothes as the rest of the boys. And Abbas explored this in another story that he wrote about the stuntmen of Indian cinema, Achchan Ka Aashiq, which was about a girl who was a stuntman and cross-dressed all the time. So this was really Abbas saheb’s thinking, going beyond stereotypes in films.”

Saat Hindustani celebrates nationhood and captures the patriotic fervour in celebrating the victory of the Indians as they cast away the yoke of colonialism. Speaking about this, the filmmaker's niece said, “Abbas saheb did not believe in borders and boundaries, and neither did his family. I know because I am part of that family and they never thought about either religion or boundaries dividing human beings.

"Also, Abbas saheb never went to Pakistan. He was against the idea of Pakistan as such, though he loved the people there and his own mother was [from] there, but the whole idea of creating a country on the basis of religion was repugnant to him. There was no parochialism whatsoever in this family. Not only in Abbas but in that circle of people like Rajinder Singh Bedi, Krishen Chander, Inder Raj Anand, they had no parochialism.”

Speaking of the film's significance in today's troubled times, she explained, “The other significant thing was that communal aspect. In the film, when Amitabh Bachchan’s character is hanging from a cliff, the man who could have let him go is Anwar Ali’s character, but he decides against it, and it is in that scene that humanity wins. Those epiphanies were typical Abbas. All this jingoism of country and nation, religion is in a sense subverted in this film.”