Films,  People

Kader Khan: A life that went unsung

I was in school when I saw this film. But the visuals are imprinted on my mind. A foggy graveyard. A little boy crying over his mother’s grave. A fakir arrives and asks the lad about his grief. And then advises him:

Agar sukh mein muskaraate ho to dukh mein kahkahey lagaao.  Kyonki zinda hain woh log jo maut se takaraate hain. Par murdon se badtar hain woh log jo maut se ghabraate hain. Sukh to bewafa hai. Chand dinon ke liye hai tawaif ki tarah aata hai. Duniya ko bahlaata hai, dil ko bahlata hai aur chale jaata hai. Magar dukh to hamesha saathi hai. Ek baar aata hai, to kabhi lautke nahin jaa raha hai. Isliye sukh ko thokar maar. Dukh ko gale lagaa. Taqdir tere qadmon mein hogi aur tu muqaddar ka baadshah hoga. 

Then the unforgettable incongruous scene of the boy laughing out loudly amidst the graves in the cemetery. And the scene changes swiftly to the iconic scene of Amitabh Bachchan riding a motorbike singing ‘Rote huye aate hain sab, hansta hua jo jayega‘. The boy was Master Mayur. The fakir and the dialogue writer —  Kader Khan. And the film, of course, Prakash Mehra’s unforgettable Muqaddar ka Sikandar.

Let’s cut to another landmark film. Manmohan Desai’s Amar Akbar Anthony.

Talvaar ka vaar jissey maar na sake, woh Amar hai. Aag ko jalaakar jo khaak kar daale, woh Akbar hai. Apun nahi, public bolta hai, anhoni ko jo honi bana daal le, woh Anthony hai.

Dialogues which were cheesy, but were guaranteed to bring in the seetis and the taalis from the stalls. The dialogue writer —  Kader Khan. If you recognize these words, you will remember that they also form part of the lyrics of Anhoni ko honi kar de, honi ko anhoni.

In a film industry fraught with rifts, how did the same dialogue writer straddle the rival camps of two bete noires, Prakash Mehra and Manmohan Desai? These are stories worth listening to.

When Kader Khan first met Manmohan Desai, the Gujarati director’s first reaction was: “Not another Muslim!”. He was fed up of Urdu writers who gave him highfalutin dialogue which were disconnected from the backgrounds of his characters. He wanted someone who could write in the language which the masses understood. “Dekho miyan,” he said, “Main bahut straight bolta aadmi hoon. Tumhara story pasand aayega, tumhaara dialogue achhaa lagega, to theek hai. Otherwise, dhakka maarke baahar nikaal denge. Agar achha lagaa to main tere ko leke Ganapati ki tarah nachoonga.”  (Look, I’m a straight speaking man. If I like your story and your dialogue, fine. Else, you will be sent packing. If I like it, I’ll lift you over my head and dance like Ganapati.)

What Desai didn’t know then was that Kader Khan grew up in abject penury in the slums of Kamathipura. The same slums of Mumbai which are infamous for pimps, druglords, prostitutes and brothels. His parents had migrated from Kabul in Afghanistan in search of a better life and ended up there. His father worked as a maulavi in a mosque with his knowledge of Arabic and Persian. And poverty led his parents to a broken marriage.

Despite his dire circumstances, the young Kader Khan never gave up. He realized that the only way out of that hell was education. It is remarkable to think that a boy with such a background taught himself until he acquired a diploma, graduation and postgraduation in Civil Engineering. And then he started teaching. How did a man who used to teach topics like theory of structure, hydraulics and strength of material end up writing film dialogue? Because he never stopped learning. He was also an MA in Arabic.

Khan says that as a boy of eight, his mother would send him to the mosque to pray. But he played hooky and would spend the namaaz time in a graveyard near the mosque. He would sit between the graves and speak aloud. Experimenting with his pitch and voice modulations. Noticing how his voice changed when it echoed in the wilderness. I wonder if this inspired the scene from Muqaddar ka Sikandar. Passersby thought he was weird to be spending his time in that place. But a director spotted his talent and he was called to join theatre. It was there that he learnt of Stanislavsky, Maxim Gorky, Chekhov and Dostoevsky. These were his other teachers. Much later, one his plays, Local Train, won a National level prize and he was invited to write dialogues for Jawani Diwani starring Randhir Kapoor and Jaya Bhaduri.

I hear people describe Kader Khan as someone who wrote mawaali dialogue and peformed cringe-worthy comedy, and feel sad. Kader Khan’s legacy should not be restricted to those films where he teamed up with Shakti Kapoor to deliver double entrende. He performed as a villain or a comedian in several movies. Remember him as the fake General in Hum or Judaai? He had the gruff voice which suited narrations too. He had far more talent which mostly went unsung. He won Filmfares for Best Dialogue for Meri Awaaz Suno and Angaar. But much of his best work went unacknowledged.

How many of us know that he was behind the comedy or tapori style of Amitabh Bachchan in Amar Akbar Anthony, Muqaddar ka Sikandar, Naseeb, Khuddar, Coolie, Sharaabi, Lawaaris, Mr Natwarlal or Desh Premee? Who can forget the drunken mirror scene from Amar Akbar Anthony or the dialogue: “Aisa to aadmi life mein doich time bhaagta hai… Olympic ka race ho ya phir police ka case ho”. Remember “Moochein ho to Natthulalji jaisi ho, varna na ho” or “Vaade aksar toot jaate hai … koshishien kamyab ho jaati hai” from Sharaabi.What worked was Kader Khan’s own theatre experience. He knew how for an actor to be effective, which kind of dialogue was needed to project him on screen. And it wasn’t Bachchan alone. He had the flair to alter scripts from South India and give them the North Indian flavour by adding the right cultural mileu. Else it was impossible for Jitendra to pull off blockbusters inspired from hits from the South like Himmatwala, Tohfa and Maqsad. And the range of dialogues goes right down to Govinda’s super fast dialogues in Aunty no. 1 or Coolie no.1. He had terrific timing in comedy with Govinda too.

Quite often, screen writers are disconnected from their audiences because they speak from a pedestal, in a language that is pompous and pretentious. Kader Khan wasn’t interested in the audiences in the balcony or dress circle. He wanted to reach the viewers in the lower stalls. In one of his interviews, Kader Khan says that he was inspired by Saadat Hasan Manto. “When you use a big vocabulary to convey a big idea, it often eludes your audience. It is important that while the ideas are big, the sentences should be simple”. It needed a good teacher like Khan to tell us this. He was a learned scholar of Urdu, Persian and Arabic, but he knew how to convey his messages in the simplest and most attractively packaged words.

As 2018 came to a close, curtains fell over the life of 81 year old Kader Khan too. I opened Wikipedia to look at his page and cringed. It described Khan as “an Afghan-born Indian-Canadian film actor, screenwriter, comedian, and director”. Who could be more Indian than Kader Khan? He understood the pulse of the man on the street. And isn’t it sad that in the last years of his life he needed a Canadian citizenship?

In a poignant moment, Kader Khan once said, “I ran my race alone and came second”. He rued the winds of change where technique in cinema gave a backseat to cultural nuances and writing. He says he got left behind and could not catch up with this bandwagon.

Success and stardom are fleeting. We did not give Kader Khan his due when he was alive. Perhaps history will remember his talent more deservingly.

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