Three is company

Manmohan Desai’s Amar Akbar Anthony (1977) is a stellar example of the Hindi masala movie. Flavoured with marquee names, noteworthy character actors, songs and dances, fight sequences and comic moments (not to mention multiple coincidences and a divine miracle), it’s a wonder that the film hangs together. Sidharth Bhatia tells you how in his contribution to the HarperCollins India Film Series. Previous monographs that have examined iconic Indian movies are Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro,Deewaar and Disco Dancer. Excerpts from the chapter titled Making the Film:

As word spread in the industry that Manmohan Desai was now making a fourth film in the year, his peers and others, as is the norm in the business, scoffed at everything—the name, the idea and the fact that he had taken three superstars in it. Even the female leads were big names: Neetu Singh, Parveen Babi and Shabana Azmi.

While Prayag Raaj had written the screenplay, Desai signed up Kader Khan to write the dialogues. Though many film buffs will remember him as the man who played some colourful, even crude characters, first in the Hindi films from south India in the 1980s and later in films starring Govinda, he comes with a fine intellectual pedigree. He began life as a college lecturer who in his spare time acted on the stage. He grew up in the middle of Mumbai’s notorious red-light area of Kamathipura, and kept his sanity, he says, by reading works by the great writers like Chekhov and Gorky.

Amar Akbar Anthony: HarperCollins India, 160 pages, Rs 250
Amar Akbar Anthony: HarperCollins India, 160 pages, Rs 250

Khan continues, ‘I showed him what I had written. He became mad with joy. Then he became very emotional. I had just been given 25,000 for Khel Khel Mein, which was already too much for me. He scoffed at it. “From today you get 1.25 lakh," he said. He got me a portable Toshiba TV set and a gold bracelet from inside his house.’

Desai’s faith in Khan was not misplaced. The strength of Amar Akbar Anthony lies in the fact that each character speaks differently in keeping with his or her background. Thus, while Akbar, being a romantic qawwali singer, is flowery in his speech, Amar the inspector is matter-of-fact, and Anthony uses Mumbai street patois, in which grammar is often mangled. Consider the scene where Anthony, while tripping a fugitive Robert who is carrying a box of gold bars, says: ‘Aisa to life mein aadmi do bar heech bhagta hai—ya to race mein ya police ke case mein.’ (‘An individual runs this fast only twice—either in a race or if he is escaping from the police.’) The tone is flip, the lingo is strictly Mumbai-street and the lines are appropriate.

Desai had a team of technicians who worked with him on several projects, but none was closer to him than Peter Pereira, a veteran cameraman whom he had known for decades. Pereira recalls that Desai and he agreed that all indoor scenes would be shot with very bright lights. Sadness and melancholy were alien to the Desai brand of film-making and dimly lit scenes were therefore a strict no-no. Thus not only the stars but also the backdrops were fully lit. There was another, practical reason for this brightness policy. ‘Manji told me that his films were meant not only for the big cities but also for the chavanni cinemas in the small towns. Their projection equipment is old and run-down; a darkly shot film will not look good on the screen.’

Like everyone else, Pereira too remembers Manmohan Desai as an easy and generous person to work with, as long as you did not question his instructions and his weird logic. His style was frenetic and fast, and he expected his actors and technicians to just follow his direction and keep their doubts to themselves. ‘I would go on the set, be given the scene in the make-up room, mug up the lines and face the camera,’ says Shabana Azmi.

The fight scene offers the final cathartic resolution to a story, the climax of a three-hour ride during which the lead actors have been put through many travails by the dastardly villain. It is clear, however, that the real star of the film is Bachchan. Though the others had fairly good and meaty roles, Bachchan was much bigger than any of them at the time. Kapoor acknowledges it by saying, ‘We all ran 100 metres, while he had to sprint only seventy-five.’

Amar Akbar Anthony will be out on 10 September.

Sidharth Bhatia is a freelance journalist and the author ofCinema Modern: The Navketan Story.

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