Luminary, Profile

Abrar Alvi

Abrar Alvi could be called the first modern writer in Hindi cinema. It was he who to a large extent brought realism into dialogue in Hindi cinema, which was otherwise stagey and theatrical. And he along with Nabendu Ghosh could be considered the earliest writers who were responsible for writers getting due respect for their work in the Hindi film industry. It is a well-known fact that eminent screenplay writers Salim-Javed always spoke of Abrar Alvi being their major source of inspiration.

Alvi was born July 1st, 1927 and after a Post-Graduate Degree in English Literature from Nagpur, came to Bombay like many before him to become an actor much to his father’s chargin, who wanted him to be a lawyer. A distant cousin of the actor Jaswant, he stayed on and off with Jaswant and would often drive him around as Jaswant didn’t know how to drive! At the time, Jaswant was working in Guru Dutt’s Baaz (1953) and Alvi would drive him to the sets. One day, assistant Raj Khosla sought his help for some dialogue for a scene. This was noticed by Guru Dutt and he enquired after Jaswant about Abrar. Abrar, meanwhile, was working as an assistant director on another film, Bahu Beti (1952) when Jaswant told him Guru Dutt wanted to meet him. When they met, Guru Dutt showed him some rushes of Baaz and asked Alvi about his opinion. Alvi found them trashy but didn’t have the courage to say so. “You’re very photogenic”, he told Guru Dutt. “Yes, but was he also actogenic?” Guru Dutt replied! Guru Dutt then offered Alvi the dialogues for his next film, Aar Paar (1954). It was the beginning of a partnership that would last ten long years till it ended with Guru Dutt’s death and would produce films like Pyaasa (1957), Kaagaz Ke Phool (1959) and Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam (1962).

With Aar Paar (1954), Alvi set a trend for future Hindi cinema dialogue. For once characters spoke with a language that reflected their background. The hero is from Madhya Pradesh in central India so he speaks in a particular style. The garage owner, a Punjabi, spoke with a Punjabi slang and so on. The dialogues proved to be extremely popular. Abrar Alvi had arrived.

Guru Dutt and Alvi’s next collaboration was the classic comedy Mr. & Mrs. 55 (1955). The film, based loosely on a play written by Abrar Alvi called Modern Marriage, makes great use of intelligence repartee rather than the usual slapstick and buffoonery that was prevalent in other Hindi comedies. And unlike most Hindi films where dialogues repetitively stress the same emotions again and again, each dialogue exchange in the film skillfully develops the plot, while the dialogue as a whole invokes a range of feelings. Also, Abrar Alvi’s dialogues diffuse highly charged situations with a down-to-earth and matter-of-fact repartee. A splendid example of this was the scene where Preetam draws a cartoon of Sita Devi wearing a Roman toga, standing in a Roman chariot with a whip in hand. Anita and Preetam are the horses that pull the chariot. On seeing the cartoon Sita Devi is furious and confronts Preetam. He answers every question with ‘Ji Haan’ (Yes) but the scene is brilliantly constructed in a manner such that each reply gives it a different shade, a different meaning. And of course, not forgetting the unforgettable exchange between Sita Devi and Preetam when they first meet and after listening to his views, she asks him if he is a communist. No, a cartoonist he replies! With Mr. and Mrs. 55 and the next Guru Dutt production, CID (1956), Alvi also fulfilled his acting ambitions playing small roles in both films.

By now Alvi and Guru Dutt had become close friends and Alvi began getting more and more involved in the shooting of the films of Guru Dutt. He was deeply involved with both Pyaasa and Kaagaz Ke Phool and in fact, based the Gulabo track in the former on a prostitute he knew and had interacted with. It was Alvi who used to deal with the way actors should speak their dialogue and he would often be the man to call the shots when Guru Dutt was facing the camera.

The flopping of Kaagaz Ke Phool saw a shattered Guru Dutt decide never to lend his name as a director to a film again and financial constraints saw Guru Dutt take Abrar Alvi off the company payroll. Meanwhile, Guru Dutt began Chaudhvin ka Chand (1960) with old timer M Sadiq at the helm in a bid to recoup the losses from Kaagaz ke Phool. Chaudhvin ka Chand, one of the best love triangles ever in Indian cinema and set against the backdrop of the Muslim culture of Lucknow, was a huge commercial success and it is said that unofficially Alvi did help Guru Dutt with some script doctoring. Officially, during this period, Alvi was involved with writing the Shammi Kapoor starrer, Professor (1962) for good friend and director, Lekh Tandon.

Alvi was recalled by Guru Dutt to adapt Bimal Mitra’s novel Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam. As work proceeded, Guru Dutt felt he was not in the right frame of mind and offered the film to Alvi to direct. Controversy still goes on as to who really directed the film and it has always been Alvi’s one big grouse that he never got due credit for his directorial efforts on Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam (1962). Since the film is characteristic of Guru Dutt’s feel and style, it is difficult to think that he did not direct the film. However, Guru Dutt never denied Abrar Alvi’s role in the film nor did he make any counter claims when Alvi won the Filmfare Award for Best Director for the film. Abrar Alvi has stated that Guru Dutt did direct the songs in the film, but not the film in its entirety. The editor of the Film YG Chawan says that for the film it was Abrar who sat with him. To quote him,“Abrar worked so hard on that film but he never got any credit. People say it was produced by Guru Dutt so it had to be Guru Dutt’s film.”

Others associated with the film insist that Guru Dutt did do everything behind the scenes. Whatever be the truth, there is no doubt that, the film, a romantic and somewhat nostalgic tale of a bygone era of Bengal’s decaying feudalism at the turn of the 20th century, is a magnificent and sombre work with heightened atmosphere, rich dialogues, haunting cinematography, extraordinary song picturizations and brilliant performances. It went on to win the President’s Silver Award at the National Awards, swept the Filmfare Awards and the Hindi section of The Bengal film Journalists’ Association Awards, and was screened at the Berlin Film Festival as well. Following Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam, Alvi wanted to work on an adaptation of Munshi Premchand’s short story, Kafan, but was unable to get the project off the ground.

Abrar Alvi and Guru Dutt were working on Baharen Phir Bi Aayengi (1966) when Guru Dutt died unexpectedly in 1964, thus bringing their deep association to an end. It is said that Alvi was the closest confidante that Guru Dutt had and it was he who really knew the true picture of events surrounding Guru Dutt. Even on that last fateful night, Alvi was working late with Dutt on the climax scene of Baharen Phir Bhi Aayengi. He left late at night to be told next morning that Guru Dutt had passed away that night, actually early morning.

Post Guru Dutt’s death, Alvi unofficially completed Baharen Phir Bhi Aayengi with Dharmendra replacing Dutt, only for it to flop badly. Thereafter he never directed again but continued to write sporadically for Hindi films. Some of his major films post his association with Guru Dutt include Suraj (1966), Sunghursh (1968), Shikar (1968), Manoranjan (1974) and Bindiya Chamkegi (1984). It is said he was too much of a maverick who would work only on his own terms and time schedules and this did not go down well with his Producers. Sadly, a large number of these films were nowhere as distinguished as the ones he had done for Guru Dutt.

Abrar Alvi passed away in Mumbai on November 18, 2009. He had been ailing for sometime.

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