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Saibal Chatterjee: Inimitable master of one-liners
January 03, 2019
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The irony of the life and career of Hindi movie actor-screenwriter Kader Khan, who passed away in Toronto on January 1 aged 81 after prolonged illness, was that he never really got to bring his love for literature to bear upon his work in cinema. He was a civil engineering grad, a professor of science and mathematics, and an Arabic and Urdu scholar with a pronounced literary bent of mind, but he made a career out of writing pulpy blockbusters peppered with dialogues that drew inspiration from the language of the street. He never let the disconnect come in the way.

Kader Khan churned out one hit after another both as a writer and an actor assuming the garb of either a baddie or a funnyman. Such was the Kabul-born entertainer’s crowd-pulling abilities that no matter what guise he donned on the screen from pauper to poseur or what he penned by way of dialogues for the characters he envisioned, he never failed to connect with the audience.

In fact, between the mid-1970s and the end of the 1990s, his association with a film was a guarantee of full-on entertainment. He wrote scripts and dialogues for nearly 250 films and acted in over 300 films in a movie career spanning three and a half decades from the early 1970s.

Khan started his acting career in Mumbai’s Urdu theatre and that is where the king of Hindi movie thespians Dilip Kumar spotted him. The latter offered Khan a small role in Tapan Sinha’s “Sagina” (1970) and promised him a more extended appearance in his next film, “Bairaag,” which was many years in the making and hit the screens in 1976. Khan played a police officer in the film. However, the first role that he was noticed in was in the Rajesh Khanna starrer “Daag” (1973), Yash Chopra’s debut film as an independent producer. Khan had to wait until 1980, the year of Feroz Khan’s “Qurbani,” to hit the big time.

His writing career had well and truly taken off by then. The first film he wrote for was the Randhir Kapoor-Jaya Bhaduri romantic drama “Jawani Diwani” (1972), followed by Manmohan Desai’s “Roti” (1974), starring Rajesh Khanna, and “Khel Khel Mein” and “Rafoo Chakkar,” both 1975 releases featuring Rishi Kapoor and Neetu Singh. In the latter, Khan came up with a character who rendered every Hindi line he spoke in purely literal English, generating a great deal of mirth and testifying to Khan’s comedic skills.

The wacky humour in Khan’s writing served as the backbone of a series of Bollywood potboilers made by Manmohan Desai, Prakash Mehra and David Dhawan. Among all Hindi movie dialogue writers, he came the closest to achieving the absurdity of nonsense rhymes. Remember Amitabh Bachchan’s rapid-fire monologue in “Namak Halaal” in response to a question about his English-speaking proficiency. “I can talk English. I can walk English. I can laugh English because English is a funny language. Bhairon becomes baron and Baron becomes Bhairon because their minds are very narrow…” The asinine had never been funnier.

Or sample this from “Himmatwala” (1983), in which Khan played a smarmy munimji (bookkeeper) to Amjad Khan’s evil feudal lord. In one sequence, after the ruthless village strongman has intimidated a doctor enough, Kader Khan steps up and intones: “Sarkar agar iss gaon ke sar hain toh main uska seeng hoon. Aur jo hamari baat nahi maanta main usse seeng maar kar Singapore bana deta hoon” (If the chief is the head of this village I am its horns. If anybody defies us, I gore him with the horns and turn him into Singapore). Made no sense? Yes, but it went with the inspired lunacy of the film.

Khan worked on a regular basis for Desai and Mehra, who were seen as two separate camps in Bollywood. For Desai, he wrote “Parvarish,” “Dharam Veer,” “Suhaag,” “Amar Akbar Anthony,” “Naseeb,” “Coolie” and “Desh Premee.”

For Mehra, his films were “Muqaddar Ka Sikandar,” “Laawaris,” “Namak Halaal” and “Sharaabi.” For these two bunches of films, all of them featuring Amitabh Bachchan as the male lead, he wrote dialogues that ranged from the intensely dramatic to the wildly funny.

In 1981’s Bachchan-starrer “Kaalia,” helmed by Tinnu Anand, Khan not only played a key onscreen role as the hero’s elder brother but he also wrote the dialogues, including the line that has become a part of Hindi cinema folklore: “Hum jahan khade ho jaate hain line wahin se shuru hoti hai” (The queue begins from where I choose to stand). Deadpan punchlines of this sort added a dash of humour to the angry young man persona that Bachchan mined to great effect in the 1970s and 1980s, riding on the early scripts that Salim-Javed wrote for him.

Khan wrote dialogues for 22 Amitabh Bachchan movies from “Benaam” (1974) to “Agneepath” (1990).

A fallout with the superstar led to Khan drifting away and working first with south Indian production houses that came up with a series of Jeetendra-led comedies and dramas and then with the David Dhawan-Govinda combo’s No. 1 series of films. Both phases yielded a string of super hits, confirming the independent, individual force that Khan was. He was a superstar in his own right in multiple domains and needed no external props to hold his ground in the movie industry.

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