Why did you choose to write on Amar Akbar Anthony — why not, say, other blockbusters of that time, such as Sholay, or the ones before it?
My publishers approached me and said that, in four months, they wanted me to write about a Hindi film that was iconic — that’s the only brief I had. I did consider choosing a film from the ’50s or ’60s, but that, at best, would have had a curiosity value. I am least interested in the films of the ’80s and ’90s — which left me with the ’70s. I actually considered Zanjeer and Don, because Sholay had been written about extensively. But these films had one star, one theme, whereas Amar Akbar Anthony (AAA) was a magnum opus with the three biggest stars of those times. My choice was quite clear then.
Tell us about the Manmohan Desai you discovered in the course of the research of your book.
In the ’70s, Manmohan Desai was one of the most respected filmmakers, but, mind you, he was equally rubbished for the employment of clichés — lost and found brothers, miracles where eye sights return one fine evening and so on.
I tracked down the people who worked with him to understand the mind behind the man. Apart from Amitabh Bachchan, Rishi Kapoor and other stars, it was Kader Khan’s involvement with AAA which piqued me. He was in hibernation then, but he agreed to meet me and told me about how, though his influences were Dostoyevsky and Manto, he was specifically asked (by Desai) to write ‘bambiya’ dialogues for the film, which he did with great flair. The three protagonists — Hindu, Muslim and Catholic –— spoke exactly the way the man on the street did.
Manmohan Desai did not believe in making serious films. But AAA carried a startlingly serious message which was reflected in that particular milieu. AAA was secular and cosmopolitan and could not have been based anywhere but in Mumbai (then Bombay). Not even in Goa. The street language, the characters — you don’t get them anywhere else, and Desai had this hold on the city’s pulse.
Can AAA be remade today?
No, I don’t think so. Bombay has changed, and people aren’t all that tolerant. Can Akbar still be as light-hearted yet reflect the ethos of his community? Would he continue as a Muslim after the end? I think the busybodies would protest today if he sang a qawwali to Sai Baba, for starters.
Desai could pull such a film off because he didn’t pander to the stars then. You had to do what you were told. We don’t have a director like that today. Or actors, for that matter. The inner journeys, I feel, have been lost between endorsements and stage shows.
What made Desai’s formulae work in spite of the cliches and theatrics?
Desai was attuned to what the man on the street wanted. He did not sit in an ivory tower and neither did he let his actors do that. He sat at maidans and had people telling him what they felt about life in general. He played cricket with children. In fact, soon after he shifted from his Khetwadi home to Swapnalok, the poshest building in Nepean Sea Road back then, he left it and returned to where he had come from. He was symbiotically connected to his audience.
He had that elusive ‘X factor’. He used cliches, but never parodied in front of his audiences. Take any hit film from the ’90s — you’d cringe to watch it again. But never this Desai film.
Amar Akbar Anthony
Published by Harper Collins