To catch a falling star

Ms SHASHI BALIGA | Updated on February 03, 2011

A.K. Hangal , the much-loved veteran actor. - V. Sudershan   -  Business Line

A file picture of Hangal on the sets of the Hindi film Lagaan .


Ms Shashi baliga

Tinsel town, which worships success, is also quick to rally around one of its own who has fallen on hard times.

Amitabh Bachchan has offered Rs 5 lakh. Aamir Khan has promised to “do the needful” (sum unspecified). Karan Johar wrote out a cheque for Rs 1 lakh and so did Priyanka Chopra (just before the IT men visited her). The Association of Motion Pictures and TV Producers Welfare Trust sent Rs 1 lakh too, while the Cine & TV Artistes' Association has pledged their help as well. And a producer whom I won't name, still paying off his debts from a flop that knocked him out 10 years ago, sent 95-year-old ailing veteran actor A K Hangal Rs 5,000 for old times' sake. “I have worked with his son, who was a very good still photographer,” he said, by way of explanation.

The donations continue to pour in for Avtar Kishan Hangal, him of the kindly onscreen voice and avuncular manner, after he went public with his precarious health and inability to pay for his medical treatment.

Thousands of businessmen go bust. Lawyers fade into penury and doctors shut shop. Artists starve; great musicians are reduced to a difficult existence. Every profession has its share of riches-to-rags stories. Who comes to their help? Family, friends and kind neighbours do. Rarely does support flow from their fraternity or people who have never even met them.

It happens only in tinsel town. Yes, that cinematic construct that chases money with few pretensions, where nothing fades faster than a failure or a talent past its sell-by date. Superstars who were once feted, pampered and grovelled before, will find filmwallahs and (let it be said) journalists whiz straight past them as they pursue the latest sensation. I have been at a party, hosted by the magazine I once worked for, where we had to take turns to entertain an ex-superstar, once monarch of all he surveyed (and sometimes harassed), lest he felt ignored. The rest of the crowd was too busy chasing younger stars, some with barely a film or two to their name.

Yet, the same fraternity that pushes aside its legends in a hurry can be quick to lend a helping hand to one of their own when they fall on hard times. Especially, when, as with Hangal, the person is a much-loved figure. Hangal is an old-school actor, an IPTA (Indian People's Theatre Association) veteran, whose decades-long dedication has won him great respect. Just one incident should suffice: On the sets of Lagaan, Hangal, then 84, was in agony with acute back pain but insisted on shooting his scenes. Brought to the sets in an ambulance, he delivered his lines and did his bit — all because he did not want to hold up shooting. No doubt, he will have a line of appreciative donors waiting with chequebooks.

It is difficult for those who have not been part of the film industry to fully understand the sense of family and belonging its members feel. It's a bit like the bond that brings families of the armed forces together — in happiness and in sorrow. Like faujis, most film folk inhabit an incredibly insular world in which the rewards are aplenty but failure comes with a very heavy price tag.

Before anyone screams treason, let me hasten to clarify: not for a moment am I suggesting that the personal tragedies of the film industry even begin to compare to the sacrifices made by our armed forces. But the unique bonds that hold these two fraternities together are very similar in that they go far beyond the professional. When life can be harsh, emotions can run high.

The film industry's history is peppered with tales of producers who went bust, leading actors dying in penury, once-beautiful and once-loved actresses dying a lonely, unnoticed death. Remember Meena Kumari, who died at age 39, with not enough money to pay her hospital bills? Parveen Babi, found alone in her flat, two days after her death? Bharat Bhushan, who lived in a chawl in his last days and died penniless?

Many have seen the tragedy unfold before their eyes. Director Farah Khan has often talked about how, as a child, she and her brother, film-maker Sajid Khan, saw their father, Kamran Khan, a stunt-film-maker, destroy himself after he went bust. I remember a very young Aamir Khan once talking about the losses his father, director Tahir Hussain, suffered thanks to a leading lady's errant ways.

And Amitabh Bachchan has talked often of how the failure of his production house ABCL drove him to near-bankruptcy, leaving him at the end of the first phase of his career with no money and worse, no work on hand. Unlike many who buckled under, Bachchan was determined to pay off his debts. So he picked up the courage to ask Yash Chopra for work. Chopra was friend — and director — enough to give him a crucial role in Mohabattein (2000). That role, along with Kaun Banega Crorepati, marked the beginning of the phenomenally successful second phase of the actor's career.

Bachchan's case is a well-documented one, not least because the megastar decided to do something about his situation and then talk honestly about it. However, many others are reluctant or ashamed to let the world know they're down and out. As Hangal himself confessed to the media, “I made a mistake by not revealing my status to the world.”

Not everyone can cope with the darkness when the flashbulbs switch off, when the bouquets stop coming in and the creditors line up. It takes very little to trigger a descent in B-town; perhaps it's that sudden brutality that sparks off generosity when the nightmare becomes reality.

Published on February 03, 2011

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