In the constantly evolving ecosystem of the Hindi film, the dialogue writer has perhaps never got full credit. They have had a lasting influence as their words, or “dailocks”, as we called them as children, stay with us long after the film has gone, even making inroads in our own lives.

“Itna sannata kyon hai bhai?” Most of us of a particular vintage can, even today, recite the whole of Sholay verbatim. Some can do that for Amar Akbar Anthony too. Salim-Javed as writers come to mind instantly, but lesser known, but equally influential for writing for some the greatest Hindi film characters is Kader Khan.

As a dialogue writer, his reach has been long, but relatively unsung, more than Salim Khan, Javed Akhtar or Rahi Masoom Raza. From the mid-1970s until the turn of the century, Kader Khan toiled to bring an authenticity to the spoken word in films.

Local colour has always preoccupied post-independence Hindi films, but both its literary and theatrical underpinnings have set traditions that ensured certain correctness to the dialogue, especially when mouthed by leading characters, like the written word being recited aloud. These tended to the purist rather than the patois. When a different manner of speaking was needed, it was inevitably for comic relief.

Sholay (1975) is a good example of this: notice the different ways in which Jagdeep, as Soorma Bhopali, and Asrani, as the “Angrez ke zamaane ke jailor” speak. Leading actors always spoke a relatively unaccented Hindustani.

From street to screen

Earlier, in Raj Kapoor’s films, there was a Mrs D’Sa as the Anglo-Indian landlady in Anari (1959) or Gangamai as the Marathi-accented banana vendor in Shree 420 (1955) that brought location specificity to cosmopolitan Bombay. Kader Khan, with his paradigm-shifting dialogue for Amitabh Bachchan in Amar Akbar Anthony (1977) brought the colloquial into the mainstream.

Anthony, as a Bombay lowlife, spoke the Bambaiya gutter lingo that had, up until this point, been used only to bring out an otherness from the main hero (who inevitably represented everyman/the nation). Bachchan, with his iconic one-liners and excellent comic timing (“Jindagi mein aadmi doich time inta jaldi bhagta hai – Olumpic ka race ho ya polis ka case ho”) elevated streetspeak, so that it was no longer infra dig.

Kader Khan excelled at writing speech as the language experienced and spoken in everyday life, fully recognising the context of his characters, their location, social setting and upbringing. His dialogue, particularly in his early films are nuanced, rather than grandiose. This can also be attributed to Kader Khan as an actor. Unlike other writers, he was a prolific actor himself and knew how words sounded on the screen.

The Dilip Kumar connection

Khan himself was the discovery of Dilip Kumar, who could deliver lines acutely without having to rely on bombast. Kumar’s dialogue in Ganga Jumna (1961), which are now iconic, lean towards the Awadhi. They were written by Wajahat Mirzra, and form an exception to the rule for a leading character.

Kader Khan played one of his earliest roles in the Dilip Kumar starrer Sagina (1974). Here, despite the authenticity director Tapan Sinha brings to his story of the exploitation of tea workers in the North East, Dilip Kumar speaks Urdu-inflected Hindustani. Kader Khan’s own intonations of his characters bring to mind our own ways of speaking, in the home or on the street, sometime too fast, sometimes rhythmic, sometimes a bit mixed-up, but rarely declamatory.

As a dialogue writer, Khan was discovered by Manmohan Desai, who commissioned him to write the screenplay of Roti (1974), one amongst several dialogue writers, for which he was paid a very generous sum, but with a rider, as Khan mentions in an interview with Patcy N in 2012: “I met Manmohan Desai. He was fed up with Muslims. He said, ‘You people are so good in Urdu but you don’t know how to use it well, other than doing sher-o-shayari.’ He told me we should be writing more dialogues. He asked me to write dialogues for his film but warned me that if the dialogues were not good he would tear it up and throw it into the gutter. What if I wrote good dialogues, I asked him. He said, ‘I will pick you up and put you on my head like a Ganpati and dance.’”

Roti went on to become a super-hit, and Kader Khan became an important part of the Manmohan Desai stable.

Destiny’s child

Khan’s star rose quickly in the mid-1970s, and he became one of the few who straddled the rival camps of Manmohan Desai and Prakash Mehra. Perhaps his best written film is Mehra’s Muqaddar Ka Sikandar (1978), set in late-1970s Bombay, in which an illiterate child of the street, Sikandar, aspires to rise above his station to become the equal of the girl he loves. Typically, Sikandar (Amitabh Bachchan) encounters a variety of characters, down and out like himself, and has runs-in with the film’s antagonist Dilawar (Amjad Khan).

Kader Khan writes Dilawar as a Bambaiya-speaking roughneck, a denizen of the red-light area of Foras Road or Kamathipura. Amjad Khan is the perfect vehicle for Khan’s dialogue, which contrasts with Bachchan, whose Hindustani seems strangely steeped in a Lucknowi tehzeeb. Khan plays a Sufi mendicant in the film, who inspires the young Sikander to embrace a fatalism that guides his life (“Zindagi hai woh jo maut se takraate hain, murdon se battar hai woh jo maut se ghabraate hain”).

Kader Khan’s career trajectory can be charted in his association with three actors – Amitabh Bachchan, Jeetendra and Govinda. Khan’s dialogue writing skills and Bachchan’s easy delivery synthesised to make him a superstar, a fact rarely appreciated. Khan wrote 22 films for Bachchan, from Benaam (1974) to Agneepath (1990)).

The second wind of Khan’s career came with his association with producers from the South who remade their films in Hindi. This was a prolific involvement that rivalled only Mehmood before him. Khan doubled up as an actor and dialogue writer for some hit films in the 1980s, mostly starring Jeetendra, such as Himmatwala (1983) and Justice Choudhury (1983).

In these, Khan was inevitably the villain or the villain’s henchman. Khan as an actor now became the comic relief with bombastic utterances, a bad guy who ultimately gets comeuppance.

Govinda Govinda

Khan’s third significant association was with Govinda. Here too, Govinda’s rise can be attributed to Khan’s screen writing. Hero No 1, Coolie No 1, Anari No 1 and Aunty No 1 all did well at the box office. A consummate writer/actor, Khan adapted his words for the Marathi-accented “Virar ka chokra” Govinda, giving him lines to be delivered at machine-gun speed in a Dada Kondke-esque manner.

Khan, now an older actor himself, played the foil, as father or father-in-law for the rising star.

Khan was called in by producers to specifically write banter between himself and Govinda, making the best of the comic turn and repartee that both actors were so good at. Other writers were called in for the rest.

Khan also became famous in his later years for his comic scenes with Shakti Kapoor and Johnny Lever. But by this time, subtlety had given way to over-the-top, risque and often misogynistic one-liners. This phase gave Khan work and publicity, but the writing was a fall from his earlier grace, when Bachchan and Amjad Khan and even Dilip Kumar would recite his lines mellifluously.

The necessity to make language easy to listen to and easy to appreciate was a mission for Kader Khan. In the early 2000s, he sought to set up a language academy and designed a curriculum for learning in Urdu, Hindi and Arabic. His career in films was the settling ground for this endeavour.

Kader Khan’s ability to write a balanced Hindustani (not tipping in the direction of either Hindi or Urdu) made his characters easily approachable and memorable. One could declaim, as actors are often meant to, but not in a highfalutin manner.

“I hate this language,” he said in an interview in 2011. “These writers, they write all proverbs and muhaavraas and similes. I want my colloquial language.”

An interview with Kader Khan from 2015.