‘Hindi cinema has greatly contributed to a secular idea of India’

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Journalist and writer Sidharth Bhatia (Photo:His Facebook collection)

The IANS wire ran a slightly shorter version of the following interview I did with Sidharth Bhatia, a veteran journalist and author of an upcoming book ‘Amar Akbar Anthony—Masala, Madness and Manmohan Desai’. That story has been carried worldwide.

By Mayank Chhaya, Indo-Asian News Service

Throughout the past 100 years of Indian cinema there have been Hindi movies that embody and define the quintessence of Hindi cinema. Filmmaker Manmohan Desai’s 1977 blockbuster ‘Amar Akbar Anthony’ is easily one of the ten most compelling examples of such movies.

Apart from its enormous commercial success, the movie stands out for capturing Desai’s effortless pluralism and charming syncretism that is at the heart of the Indian nationhood. He uses the film’s assertive obviousness in crafting three brothers separated at birth and raised in three different religious faiths (Hinduism, Islam and Christianity) as a powerful device to serve the kind of no-fuss, street-level cultural inclusiveness of India.

At a time when hyperbolic TV talking heads are engaged in what it means to be a “Hindu nationalist” it might be useful to revisit ‘Amar Akbar Anthony’ for its effervescent liberalism. It is in this context that veteran journalist and writer Sidharth Bhatia’s upcoming book ‘Amar Akbar Anthony—Masala, Madness and Manmohan Desai’ acquires particular traction. The avowedly secular tone of the film and a book about it has particular resonance at a time when political debate has become so fractious. The book is being published by HarperCollins India in September, priced at Rs. 250.

“Manmohan Desai (MD) was not pushing a message, but the film itself was the message. Today the phrase Amar Akbar Anthony means harmony among all religions,” Bhatia spoke to IANS in an interview.

Q: What is your fundamental thesis about AAA?

A: I looked at the film in a couple of ways. We know of course that it is a formula film, the formula being lost and found, which is hardly new. But it is also a film about the secular idea of India. This too has been done before, but not in such an entertaining way. Manmohan Desai was not pushing a message, but the film itself was the message. Today the phrase Amar Akbar Anthony means harmony among all religions. My second approach was to think of it as a Bombay film, as in a film that reflects the Bombay ethos of cosmopolitanism and also is about characters you wouldn’t find anywhere else. Can you think of a Catholic bootlegger or a glamorous woman pickpocket who roams the streets in any other city? Or even Akbar, the timber merchant. We in Bombay know these characters.

Q: Where would you put AAA in the context of Hindi movies as a film that both embodies and redefines Hindi cinema?

A: When we think of the 1970s, we think of angry films, both in the mainstream and the art circuit. The country was in an angry mood and our films reflected that. This is more so when we refer to Amitabh Bachchan’s films. But AAA is a fun film, full of entertainment and joie de vivre. In that sense, it broke away from the trend. And it gave new life to the lost and found formula. It is a trendsetter of sorts.

Q: Is it your sense that AAA also went well beyond Manmohan Desai’s penchant for non-conformism or was he fully conscious of its potential?

A: One of Desai’s favorite phrases, from what several people associated with AAA told me, was “this is not a Satyajit Ray film”, in that it was not serious and with a message. But I think that is misleading. He knew exactly what he was setting out to do and carefully chose everyone, from the actors to the dialogue writer to the cameraman. Detailed instructions were given to all of them. He had a plan, and he worked towards it, even if his working style was chaotic, since he was making four films at the same time.

Q: Do you agree that a movie like AAA does a far more powerful job of serving India’s easy secularism than any seriously propounded political treatise might?

A: Well, we need all kinds of films and I wouldn’t knock a serious film, but whenever a message is delivered in a heavy handed manner, it loses impact since the audience tunes off. Here the message, as much as it is a message, is just there, for an audience to pick up. No sermons are given. The scenes speak for themselves, like three of them giving blood to their mother simultaneously—what could be a stronger message of harmony? Or the fact that in the end none of the men or their girlfriends change their religion. That for me is very important.

Q: Although all three central characters in the film are designed to represent MD’s peculiarly cosmopolitan outlook, do you think it is Anthony Gonsalves who was probably the closest to him?

A: I was told Anthony Gonsalves (whose name was to be Fernandes) was based on a bootlegger MD had seen for years near his own house. But these were characters picked up by him from his close observation of common people. He was a man of the street, who sat in his local maidan every evening and talked to the aam janata not as a big film personality but as one of them. And it shows.

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‘Amar Akbar Anthony—Masala, Madness and Manmohan Desai’ by HarperCollins India in September, priced at Rs. 250 in India.

Q: What are the challenges of an entire book about a movie, even one as celebrated as AAA?

A: A good question. I soon realized that everybody had seen this film and knew it in detail-songs, situations, dialogue. What could I tell them that was new and that too in a whole book. It was a challenge. But as I dug and researched, I realized that the story of how it was made was unknown, or forgotten and no one had ever done a serious study of the film and what it stood for. I have tried to do that.

Q: What is your personal attraction to the film?

A: That it is about Bombay, which I personally connect with, and about cosmopolitanism, which should always be celebrated. And of course I had originally seen it at a younger age, so there are always associations.

Q: Do you think AAA was a product of and unique to its time or its relevance stretches beyond that?

A: Interestingly, it has travelled well over time and generations, though now people tend to laugh at some of its absurdities, such as the miracles. On the other hand, if we are ready to believe in Indian superheroes or pelvic dances in Europe or indeed cars blowing up on Indian streets, then why not this? After all, it is just a cinematic device.

Q: Why is it that serious scholars tend to underestimate the transforming effects of a movie like this? Is it the often absurd theatricality of it or just general apathy toward popular cinema?

A. Interestingly, film scholars, abroad more than in India, are turning to popular Indian cinema. Often the tone, especially among many Indian writers, is patronizing. I think popular Hindi cinema has a very important place in the national discourse in that they reinforce many important messages. Often they are regressive and silly and over the top but Hindi cinema on the whole has greatly contributed to a secular idea of India. AAA is a very good example.

Q: Do you have a favorite character in the film? If so why?

A: I don’t particularly have a favorite character as such, though both Amar and Akbar are excellently drawn characters which keep one amused. But I must point out that one of MD’s strokes of genius was to get a superb supporting cast which added immensely to the film. Jeevan, Pran, Nirupa Roy and even Yusuf Khan, who played Zebesco give depth to the film.

Q: What according to you are the three biggest strengths of AAA?

A: That not once do we feel bored and there is no slackening of pace. That implausible situations seem perfectly logical while you are watching the film. And that nearly 4 decades after it was made, it still looks fresh and has the capacity to make you laugh. Will today’s films be able to do it 40 years from now?

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About chutiumsulfate

South Asians can infer from my name what I am. View all posts by chutiumsulfate

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