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Article Hindi

60 years of Kabuliwala (1961): Balraj Sahni as the unforgettable Pathan in this moving film

The poignant story about a father's yearning for his daughter , based on Tagore's short story, was released on 14 December 1961.

Sukhpreet Kahlon

There are very few films that feature parental love for a child as its main narrative and Hemen Gupta’s Hindi language adaptation of Rabindranath Tagore’s classic short story The Cabuliwallah evokes pathos in its portrayal of a father’s love and longing for his daughter. The film had been earlier adapted by the Bengali master Tapan Sinha in 1957, with Chhabi Biswas in the title role.

Starring Balraj Sahni in his unforgettable role as a Pathan, the Hindi-language adaptation of the story begins by foregrounding Khan’s love for his daughter Amina. Due to dire financial circumstances, he travels from Kabul to India to sell his wares and earn enough money to pay off his debts.

In India, he misses his land, his daughter, but takes heart when he meets a young girl Mini, in whom he sees a reflection of his own daughter. Although Mini’s mother has misgivings about the Pathan, her father befriends him. Khan pampers the little girl, spending time with her, feeding her dry fruits, and telling her stories, as the spirited girl looks forward to spending time with the ‘Kabuliwala’.

After doing fairly good business and securing enough money for his family, he decides to collect the debts owed to him and return home. However, when a customer refuses to pay up, things take an ugly turn and Khan ends up unintentionally killing him. At his hearing, even though the lawyer makes up a story to get him out, Khan refuses to lie and accepts the punishment meted out to him. When he is released from jail after some years, he realizes to his dismay that his daughter may well have forgotten him.

Kabuliwala (Sahni) and Mini (Sonu) in a scene from the film

Aside from the main narrative plot, Gupta’s film weaves in several concerns that are pertinent today, even 60 years after the film’s release. The ways in which we tend to judge a book by its cover and stereotype people from other lands is perhaps foremost amongst them. Khan is a Pathan and his attire, language, dialect, mannerisms are different from those of the people around him. Due to his appearance, he is regarded with suspicion and mothers tell naughty children to behave themselves or else the Kabuliwala will scoop them up and kidnap them by stuffing them in his bag!

There are other moments in the film, too, where the mob acts on mere rumour and places blame on the innocent Kabuliwala, beating him up for an act he had not committed. Not very different from the situation in our country today.

But what we see in the film is a humanistic portrayal of a man from another land. Khan is an honest, hard-working migrant who only wishes to earn a living and rejoin his beloved family. Despite his circumstances, he finds it in his heart to be kind to people around him and has the rather guileless idea that if he is honorable in his dealings, people would reciprocate the honesty. Today, when we tend to see more stereotypical characterizations of foreign nationals in Hindi cinema, this sensitive portrayal of the Afghan offers a crucial lesson.

The film also portrays the everyday struggle for existence. Khan’s family is in financial distress, but when he comes to India, things are hard for people here as well. Mini’s father is also paying off debts and there isn’t much to go around. 

Although the film was not a success at the box office, it is, perhaps, best remembered for being one of the iconic roles of Sahni, who is exceptional in it. His distinctive ability to assimilate common life and reality within his characters enabled him to permeate his roles with pathos. To prepare for his role in Kabuliwala, Sahni contacted a few local Pathans so that he could imbibe their dialect and mannerisms. He even learnt to sing Pashto songs and brought alive his character of the Pathan with conviction. Not many are left with a dry eye on seeing his unconditional love for Mini.

Incidentally, Sahni had spent a few years at Tagore’s Santiniketan, so it seems fitting that he would play the titular role in Tagore's popular short story.

The child artiste Sonu, too, gives a fabulous performance as Mini. Her innocence lights up the film as the child who is curious as a kitten. She plays pranks and circumvents her mother’s keen eye for her mischief, getting away with her father’s indulgent attitude towards her.

The film’s music by Salil Chowdhury with lyrics by Prem Dhawan and Gulzar was, however,, much appreciated, especially the immortal song “Aye Mere Pyare Watan” sung by Manna Dey and “Ganga Aayi Kahan Se” by Hemant Kumar.

Curiously, Kabuliwala was perhaps the first Hindi film to feature a man from Afghanistan as the central character. It would take Hindi cinema a quarter century more to tell another story with an Afghan as the protagonist with the Jackie Shroff-starrer Palay Khan (1986).