The Miracle Maker

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A new book revisits the film Amar Akbar Anthony and shines light on director Manmohan Desai’s enduring legacy

Amar Akbar Anthony began in utter confusion, on a scale comparable to the climax of a signature Manmohan Desai film. When Desai conceived of the film, which was to become an enduring monument of the genre, word got round that the whimsical filmmaker was attempting an historical epic. Vinod Khanna, one of the leading men, got the impression that he was to play the Rajput warrior Amar Singh Rathore. Amitabh Bachchan, the loveable rogue Anthony, thought he was Mark Antony, while Rishi Kapoor thought he was being asked to essay the role of Emperor Akbar, a character that his grandfather Prithviraj Kapoor had immortalised in Mughal-e-Azam.

A call was made to Rishi Kapoor, who was then on a shoot in Bikaner, playing billiards with co-stars after pack-up. It is clear that Kapoor didn’t quite share Desai’s eagerness. After he put the phone down, he tossed an abuse directed at Desai. It was only when he returned to Bombay that he learnt what Amar Akbar Anthony was all about and promptly apologised.

This little trivia is narrated by Kapoor in Sidharth Bhatia’s book Amar Akbar Anthony: Masala, Madness and Manmohan Desai (Harper Collins), which includes many such anecdotes connected to the making of the film. It also seeks to evaluate Desai’s legacy and his brand of filmmaking, which favoured heart over mind. In the 1970s, Desai was both denigrated and deified for a string of commercial blockbusters that challenged logic and reason.

In 1977 alone, he stormed the box-office with Parvarish, Dharam Veer, Chacha Bhatija and, of course, Amar Akbar Anthony. Though Yash Chopra, Prakash Mehra and Ramesh Sippy were equally big names, people of the Super Seventies swear that Desai ruled the era. Much of that repute and allure emanates from Amar Akbar Anthony, his fourteenth film, also his best and the most representative of the Manmohan Desai school—typically, films aspiring to mass entertainment. ‘Lost and found’ was a major driving force of the plot though it was not the film’s original creation. To be sure, Gyan Mukherjee’s Kismet (1943) and Yash Chopra’s Waqt (1965) were there first. But it was Amar Akbar Anthony that raised separated-at-birth to the level of kitsch art.

Bhatia, whose recollection of Amar Akbar Anthony includes a memory of “singing along, laughing at all the jokes and the amazing miracles” upon watching it on its release in 1977, believes it was his generation’s favourite movie. When his publishers asked him to pick one film to write about, Bhatia was sure it would be one made in the 1970s— ‘something that’s recent enough for people to remember and old enough to provide perspective.’

Like Bhatia, most Indians remember and can quote from Amar Akbar Anthony at will. For the benefit of those denied this pleasure, here is a quick recap.

The film opens with the convict Kishen Lal (Pran, styled like Abraham Lincoln, complete with chin curtain beard and frock coats) stepping out of jail. Gifts for his three boys in tow, he reaches home to find his family living in appalling condition. Lal, a driver, was asked to take the blame for an accident case involving his boss Robert (Jeevan). In return, Robert promised to take care of his family’s needs. Infuriated, Lal confronts Robert and reminds him of his promise. An altercation occurs, and Lal grabs a gun and fires at him. But Robert is a step ahead. He exposes his jacket to reveal a bulletproof vest. Lal escapes, but is followed by Robert’s sidekicks. Rushing home, he finds his wife (Nirupa Roy) missing. He picks up his three kids and drops them at a park. When he returns, the kids are gone. The eldest brother is found abandoned by a Hindu police officer and is named Amar, the middle one is raised by a Catholic priest and grows up as Anthony, while the youngest, Akbar, is brought up by a Muslim tailor. Throughout the film, the brothers keep running into one another without knowing their true identities.

Note that the mother, who loses her vision only to recover it later in the film by way of a divine miracle, crosses her sons’ paths a number of times. Yet, nobody recognises her, notably Amar who was old enough when the family disintegrated.

A blogger teasingly writes that ‘Nirupa Roy was at the height of carelessness in this film; she misplaced not one, not two, but three children.’ Admittedly, at places like these, modern viewers exposed to the understated sensibilities of European cinema may flinch. Yet, if you are willing to overlook those moments, you will find in the film much to like.

But then, on second thoughts, everything is possible—if not plausible—in the Manmohan Desai world. Actors, including Bachchan, weren’t encouraged to question his motives. He expected them to submit to his vision. “This is not a Satyajit Ray film. You do because I tell you to,” he would admonish them. Once, on another film set, when he found one of his technicians fussing over a minor detail, he lost his cool, “Do you think I am Satyajit Ray? Finish this and move on.” Ray and Desai inhabited very different cinematic universes. Ray’s poetic realism and close attention to detail had no place in Desai’s la-la land. “As far as Amar Akbar Anthony was concerned,” Bhatia admits, “there was certainly much suspension of disbelief, but the viewers felt engaged and entertained.” Implicit in this slim book is a suggestion that while Desai was exploiting old clichés for commercial gains, he wasn’t so much endorsing them as presenting an ‘ironic vision of them’. It is possible that the audience was complicit and in on the joke, ‘an understanding that what is being shown is one big joke for entertainment value, not to be taken seriously’.

Among Bhatia’s chief purposes in writing the book is to rescue Amar Akbar Anthony from its ‘great but not classic material’ reputation and thereby place it among the touchstones of Indian cinema. The film is fanatically over-watched but ruefully under-appreciated.

Looking back, it does strike one that if only it were made by a filmmaker with a more serious oeuvre—it’s worth remembering that it requires some intelligence to make a film that cuts across region, class and age—Amar Akbar Anthony would have been received differently.

Perhaps, a tsunami called Sholay, which dominated the 1970s cinematic landscape, is partly to be blamed. It ravaged everything that came in its way. Decades on, academics continue to drool over it. Google Sholay and you will be guided to book links, critical essays and blogs galore.

Amar Akbar Anthony has not been that lucky. Until now, there wasn’t a single book devoted to it, almost as if it were not a subject worth studying. ‘Film scholars tend to latch on to films and filmmakers. Look at how much work has been done on Guru Dutt, but almost nothing on Dev or Vijay Anand’—Cinema Modern, Bhatia’s previous hardback, fervently argued in favour of the Anand brothers’ contribution to Hindi cinema—‘Even Bimal Roy. There are many more films, such as Amar Akbar Anthony, worthy of deeper examination,’ says Bhatia. Screenwriter Anjum Rajabali, quoted in Bhatia’s book, finds an ‘episodic’ quality to Amar Akbar Anthony. “Almost as if,” Rajabali observes, “Desai asked his writers to come up with some highlight sequences and then built the story around them.”

One such ‘highlight sequence’ or ‘item/set piece’, as Desai liked to call them, was the Duck Soup-inspired mirror scene where Anthony, woozy from a blow, applies antiseptic to his reflection.

The scene was shot in a single take in the director’s absence, with Bachchan chipping in with a few lines of his own. When Desai saw the rushes later, he reportedly told Bachchan, “From now on, you will be in every film of mine.”

The character of Anthony was a decisive break from Big B’s vigilante screen persona. It was a risk to cast the angry young man as a farceur, but it paid off. ‘It was a brave decision,’ Bhatia lauds.

Bachchan’s comic skills proved so useful that Desai never felt the need to hire a full-time comedian. Bhatia acknowledges Bachchan’s contribution in liberating the 1970s Hindi film hero (who was angry and serious and had no time for silly jokes) from the familiar tropes and giving him the freedom to play the fool once in a while. Which is to say, Bachchan liberated himself.

It is not entirely surprising that Amar Akbar Anthony is seen as a quintessentially Bachchan film. Bhatia, though, maintains that everybody had their moment. While Rishi Kapoor matched the towering Bachchan with his trademark buoyancy, it is Vinod Khanna who many feel was served a raw deal. Even though Khanna’s subdued character was not as crowd-pleasing as those of Akbar and Anthony, Bhatia argues that he was ‘a perfect foil to the boisterous Anthony and the musical Akbar. He is the elder brother and must behave with dignity. Plus, he is an officer of the state’. It is not surprising to hear of Khanna, a top star at the time, insisting on a heroine and being consequently paired with Shabana Azmi. Unfortunately, the dames of Amar Akbar Anthony—Azmi, Parveen Babi and Neetu Singh—were mere props.

‘Also remember, Amar got to beat up the biggest star in India and shared some emotional moments with his father,’ Bhatia says, referring to the two popular scenes involving Khanna, a fight sequence with Bachchan and one where Kishen Lal watches him dig out a toy gun that he had hidden as a child. “You remember the gun,” Lal accosts Amar. “But you don’t remember your father who gave you the gun.”

Another cult quip from the film goes: “Aisa toh life mein aadmi do baar heech bhagta hai—ya toh race mein ya toh police ke case mein.” (An individual runs this fast only twice—either in a race or if he is escaping from the police.) The memorable bon mots were courtesy Kader Khan, a professor turned playwright-actor. While writing dialogue, Khan, who spent his early days in Kamathipura, Bombay’s red light district, took care to bring in colloquial street lingo that showed little respect for grammar and politesse. ‘When Anthony says to Akbar in an early scene of the film, ‘Tum aaj kal diktaich nahin hai’ (‘You are not to be found anywhere these days’), it is wrong Hindi, but accurate Mumbai street language,’ the book notes.

Secularism is the central fact of Amar Akbar Anthony’s narrative and where better to situate it than in cosmopolitan Bombay. Bhatia recognises it as a ‘resolutely Mumbai film’.

‘Imagine,’ he urges, ‘for a moment, that the backdrop of the story shifted to Delhi. There would be many Amars in the city and Akbar could conceivably be found in Chandni Chowk, which is a traditional Muslim neighbourhood. But Anthony, the church-going Catholic bootlegger? Never will Delhi produce such a character.

He belongs to the many Christian enclaves of Mumbai, such as Vasai, Byculla or Bandra.’

Both Desai and Khan loved Bombay just as Bhatia does. Both were products of the city’s ghettos. ‘Desai had grown up in a chawl in Khetwadi, one of the busiest neighbourhoods of south Bombay,’ Bhatia says. ‘He used to sit every evening in the maidan, chatting with locals about this and that, even asking them about his movies.’ Born to a family of filmmakers, Desai lived with his siblings, including elder brother Subhash who worked with Homi Wadia, a prominent director of the 1930-40s. He was in his early twenties when he made his debut with the Raj Kapoor-starrer Chhalia in 1960 and wasn’t heard of until the 1970s, the decade in which he directed Coolie and Mard, both starring Bachchan. Not long after, Desai, who prided himself in knowing the pulse of his audience, lost touch with the man on the street. Later films like Ganga Jamuna Saraswati and Toofan proved he was no longer relevant.

In a twist that recalls his own films, he has now been canonised as the high priest of potboilers. His key films are seen as models that practically every mainstream Hindi filmmaker uses even today. When we say ‘Leave your brains at home’ to describe Bollywood fluff, it’s an unflattering nod to Desai—except that unlike many other films, his had staying power.

‘Take the street lingo that Anthony uses,’ Bhatia says, illustrating Desai’s influence on Hindi film dialogue.

‘Till then, movie lines were a little more formal, if not literary. The Anthony character demanded a different patois, which Kader Khan captured so well. That set off tapori-speak that actors like Sanjay Dutt specialise in. Now, that has become normal for any Bombay character.’

“I think Manmohan Desai is totally uninterested in social messages, everything happens by miracle on screen,” Shyam Benegal, one of the leading art-house luminaries, once remarked. “People leave the cinema without taking any messages,” he added, “but they have been entertained.” That could well be Desai’s true legacy, and that of Amar Akbar Anthony.