When Rahim Chacha says ‘Laal Salaam’

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MUMBAI ~ A copy of New Age Weekly lies on the window sill, its headline, ‘Our Destination is Socialism’, clearly visible. Next to it rests a large chariot, a gift from the IPTA (Indian People’s Theatre Association), while a wooden cupboard holds an array of mementos from his days as an actor. On the wall is a sepia-toned photograph and a framed Padma Bhushan certificate signed by APJ Abdul Kalam. Pages of Engels’ and Eisenstein’s books on a shelf have turned yellow. Another shelf is filled with bottles of medicinal syrups.

The man who made “Itna sannaataa kyun hai bhai”, a dialogue from Sholay, famous, is now 97, his back bent, suffering from geriatric ailments. Yet, his eyes sparkle when he speaks of the CPI. Recently, Avtar Kishan Hangal renewed his membership of the party he has been associated with since 1942. Back then, he was stitching clothes (“I had very rich clients as I was a very good tailor”), and actively involved in the fight to free India.

“I clearly remember the day Bhagat Singh was arrested, and the day he was hanged. Pathans cried and everyone walked the streets chanting ‘Bhagat Singh, Bhagat Singh’,” he says in his now faint voice.

Hangal was even jailed for three years. “I was happy when I was released. But then they said I could not live [in Peshawar] anymore. We had to leave overnight and somehow arrived in Mumbai. I joined the party, and much later, joined the IPTA. That was one chapter of my life. There are so many,” Hangal says.

Hangal holds his time with IPTA close to his heart. “I hardly had any political discussions with people I was doing films. Films was just work.” Before any further questions can be asked of his cinematic career, he excitedly moves on to the CPI. “The party has evolved over the years and has learnt from its mistakes. It is beginning to look bright again.” His bent back straightens a bit as he says this.

When we take photographs, he wants to see each of them. “Life is not just politics. This is also life,” Comrade Hangal laughs. Then he coughs vigorously.