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Manmohan Desai’s madcap 1970s comedy Amar Akbar Anthony, about three brothers separated by circumstance, has inspired the title of a British drama about three friends driven apart by circumstance. Atul Malhotra’s Amar Akbar & Tony, which will be showing in the Film India Worldwide section at the forthcoming Mumbai Film Festival (14-21 October), combines comedy and seriousness to explore the predicaments that face its lead trio. Amar (Rez Kempton) is a Sikh whose promising career gets derailed, Tony (Martin Delaney) is in love with the wrong woman, while Akbar (Sam Vincenti) is an ambitious nightclub owner with his own share of issues. Had it been made a decade ago, the movie would have been put into the “Brit-Asian cinema basket", along with the film and television work of Gurinder Chadha, Meera Syal and Sanjeev Bhaskar (Syal has a hilarious cameo in Amar Akbar & Tony). Despite its Indian-origin characters, the 93-minute movie works well as a serio-comic exploration of ambition being thwarted by external factors. The characters might be Asian, but they identifiably belong to the multicultural Britain of the present, and their problems could be those of any set of young people anywhere in the world. Edited excerpts from an email interview with Malhotra, who lives and works in London.

The title suggests a movie that is a comedy, with spoofy Bollywood sketches thrown in, but the story treatment is anything but that. Is the story based on any real characters? And were any other titles under consideration?

I’d been to a retrospective of John Cassavetes’s work at the British Film Institute and it was when I was watching his film Husbands that the core inspiration for Amar Akbar & Tony came about. I loved the fact that even through tragic circumstance and personal challenges the spirit of the characters’ friendship and their often ridiculous moments of banter and behaviour gave the film its authenticity.

I was also conscious that British cinema’s representation of Asian people is very two-dimensional and abundant with caricature and stereotype. In this regard I wanted to put Asian characters on screen in a way that they rarely get depicted—put simply, as real people with real dilemmas.

The third thing of influence was a love of Hindi cinema and the title came about when I realized I was writing a positive film reflecting integration in multicultural London, where different religions and races coexist in relative harmony. Hence, a somewhat spiritual connection with the Hindi film title Amar Akbar Anthony, which embraced multi-faith solidarity.

Did you also consider making a relationship drama with characters who were not of Indian extraction?

I knew that I wanted to deal with a mix of characters—for example, Tony is of Irish-Catholic extraction—and that once these characters were established within the film, that it would be more about relating to them and their situations rather than their heritage. In this regard I feel that once a viewer gets past the veneer of ethnicity, it’s the human dynamics and the universal themes within the film which take over.

Where is British-Asian culture, which for some of us in India is synonymous with Gurinder Chadha, Meera Syal, ‘Goodness Gracious Me’ and ‘East Is East’? How has multiculturalism affected the British-Asian film?

Personally, I don’t think there is such a thing as British-Asian cinema. There is a handful of films over an expanse of 25 years that have British-Asian characters in them. It’s even rarer that they are directed by a British-Asian. So I think the notion that such a cinema exists is a delusion.

Multiculturalism is very much a part of the Brit-Asian experience, and that is a huge positive for storytelling as it gives scope for wider reaching narratives. Till date, my favourite representation of British-Asians onscreen is the adaptation of Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha Of Suburbia.

Indian-origin film-makers gets singled out for making films about their own community, but this does not usually happen with film-makers from other races and cultures—in the UK itself, directors like Shane Meadows tell stories set in their own backyards. What will help Indian film-makers go mainstream?

Italian-American film-makers are not solely expected to make films about the Italian-American experience. I would like to be in a position to make both Hindi and English speaking films with the latter not exclusively bound to Asian subject matter.

I think film-makers like Mira Nair and Asif Kapadia have traversed this particular pigeonholing very well, but for a lot of other film-makers of Indian origin even getting to a second or third film can prove monumentally challenging. But to some degree the responsibility for overcoming this and becoming more mainstream sits with the film-makers and the stories we choose to tell.

What were the challenges of getting the production off the ground?

The challenges of independent film-making are the same worldwide—lack of money, lack or resource and lack of support—but the independent film-making roadmap has been created by the likes of Cassavettes and Spike Lee “by any means necessary".

A potential investor I met gave me an interesting piece of advice. He said, “If you can’t spend money, spend imagination". It was an interesting perspective and a brilliant piece of advice. He didn’t end up investing but gave me a thought process that I found valuable.

At the end of the day you come across hundreds of people telling you thousands of reasons why you can’t and why you shouldn’t make the film but you’ve got to hang on to the one reason why you can and why you should...because you believe in it.

What is the release plan for your film?

We completed the film in August and are aiming to release in March. We are having our first ever screening at the Mumbai Film Festival. I am delighted to be starting our festival campaign there.

With regards to the exhibition circuit, it’s a journey I’m just beginning—I expect it will be a bumpy ride but hopefully we’ll be able to build a good word of mouth for the film in time for its release in the new year.

Amar Akbar & Tony will be screened at the Mumbai Film Festival in the Film India Worldwide section. For details, visit www.mumbaifilmfest.com

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