An excerpt from Sidharth Bhatia’s book, 'Amar Akbar Anthony — Masala, Madness and Manmohan Desai', gives an insight into the events that led to the making of this cult film
Making the Film
As word spread in the industry that Manmohan Desai was 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, who was to be Vinod Khanna’s love interest. The first reaction in the industry is usually to pick holes in a project; often it is borne out of envy, especially when a producer has managed to sign up top stars. The choice of Azmi was a bit surprising, even if she was working in Desai’s other film, Parvarish. An alumnus of the Film and Television Institute of India, she had become one of the key actors in the Indian ‘new wave’ cinema, making her debut in Ankur, a film about rural exploitation. Her portfolio consisted mainly of small-budget, art-house films, which made her popular among critics and discerning audiences but did not translate into mass recognition. The two worlds of art films and mainstream commercial films did intersect and both viewed each other with wariness, if not hostility. The directors of ‘art’ films scoffed at the masala films, calling them lowbrow and exploitative; the latter returned the compliment, declaring the new-wave directors as self-indulgent pseudo-intellectuals, a dig at the fact that many of these films did not do well at the box office. Actors and even technicians belonged squarely in one camp or the other. The lines would eventually get blurred, as more and more new-wave directors, conscious of the need for box-office success, began to use big stars in their films, but in the mid-1970s, the two streams were mutually exclusive. Shabana Azmi had made tentative crossings to Amar Akbar Anthony on the other side, but was seen as firmly entrenched in the art world. Yet she was excited to get this offer.
‘I had already done more than half of Parvarish with Manji and loved his no-nonsense, unabashed love for all things illogical but with a strong emotional content. His favourite film was Kunwara Baap and he would weep copiously whilst describing the climax. I remember Manji came to meet me at Ranjit Studios where I was shooting and said that he had decided to produce his first film and wanted me in it. He went on to add that it was about three brothers and while Vinod Khanna’s character was a police officer who didn’t need a leading lady opposite him, Vinod would have insisted on one because the other two stars did! So he had created a part for me. It was no great shakes, he admitted, but he wanted me to do it because it was his first film as producer. I loved his honesty and said yes without even listening to the story.’ This faith in Desai’s abilities was evident in most people who worked with him. Ketan Desai recalls Bachchan telling him that working with Manmohan Desai meant surrendering to him.
A still from 'Amar Akbar Anthony' (1977)
‘Either say yes to everything he says, or don’t work with him.’ There were lapses in logic and leaps of faith required of the audiences, but Desai would somehow manage them — that was the confidence that most of his actors had. ‘We were not allowed to ask him questions. His stock reply used to be, “This is not a Satyajit Ray film. You do because I tell you.” There was no question of preparing for the part,’ remembers Bachchan. (For Desai, Satyajit Ray was a metaphor for seriousness and authenticity, which had no place in Desai’s world view.) The ‘don’t ask me any questions, just follow my instructions’ bit is something that everyone who was interviewed for this book confirmed; they talked about it with affection and awe, even if some of them might have had their reservations. Desai was also particular about the character actors he chose. The supporting cast in a film can often mar it and in a movie studded with the biggest names of the day, it would have been tempting to compromise on the rest to save costs, if nothing else. But Desai made a special effort to bring in veterans who he thought would add that extra something to their parts — Nirupa Roy, Pran, Mukri and Jeevan — people he had a rapport with. As anyone who has seen Amar Akbar Anthony will testify, these actors were excellent and added tremendous value to the film.
While Pran was already a legend and Roy had by then become the most well-known screen mother — her role in Deewaar had catapulted her to the top of the maternal league — honourable mention must also be made of Yusuf Khan, the muscle-bound, well-coiffed, platform-shoes- wearing Zebesco. Yusuf, who hailed from Bangalore, had acted in quite a few Hindi films before this, usually uncredited and in bit roles. He made a small impact in Bombay to Goa, playing a boxer who challenges Mehmood to a duel, but Amar Akbar Anthony firmly put him in the spotlight as a reliable villain’s henchman. Desai gave him generous screen time, a chance to act with big stars (and to beat up one of them, Amitabh Bachchan) and a memorable name, Zebesco, which stuck to him from then on. Tragically, he died at an early age.
The book cover
While Prayag Raaj had written the screenplay, Desai signed up Kader Khan to write the dialogues. Khan is one of the more fascinating characters of Hindi cinema to emerge in the 1970s. 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. His reputation as a playwright and actor had begun to spread in the early 1970s and the producers of Jawani Diwani had ommissioned aim to write the dialogues at the princely sum of R500. In 1973, Desai took him on as an additional dialogue writer. Khan recalls, ‘He was a frank person. He told me, “I have had some problems with some Muslim writers. If your stuff is bad, I will throw it in the gutter.” “And if my work is good?” I asked him. “Then I will carry you on my back,” he replied. Within days, I had written some lines and took them to his home in Khetwadi. He was playing cricket with the kids. He muttered something and I told him that he had given me a gaali. “I am good at lip-reading,” I told him.’ (This lip-reading bit was used by Desai later in his film Naseeb.) Khan continues, ‘I showed him what I had written. He became mad with joy; junoon sa ho gaya unko. Then he became emotional. I had just been given R25,000 for Khel Khel Mein, which was already too much for me. “From today you get R1.25 lakh,” he said. He got me a portable Toshiba TV set and a gold bracelet from inside his house. I became his regular writer from then on.’
Khan wrote a few dialogues about each character that were then used for the muhurat shot. (The muhurat, or auspicious occasion, is an important event for a film; it not only launches the movie, but is also an occasion to call financiers, journalists and well-wishers to show the clout of the film-maker.) 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. Akbar, being a romantic qawwali singer, is flowery in his speech, Amar the inspector is matter-of-fact, and Anthony uses Mumbai street patois. Consider the scene where Anthony, while tripping a fugitive Robert who is carrying a box full 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. They also establish Anthony’s insouciance and his control over the situation.
Not surprisingly, the audience loved it. For the lyrics and music, Desai chose the popular combination of the day, Anand Bakshi and Laxmikant-Pyarelal. Bakshi had the ability to write songs in everyday language and had collaborated with the duo in several films. Laxmikant-Pyarelal were the most in-demand team in the 1970s. They had worked with Desai in only one film, Roti, but knew him since his Chhalia days, when both musicians were working for Kalyanji-Anandji.
‘Manmohan Desai had an interesting way of telling a story,’ Pyarelal remembers, sitting in his sea-facing house in Bandra’s Mount Mary area. ‘He acted out the roles and described the characters of the heroes. We worked closely with Anand Bakshi and for each of the heroes used different phrases in the song “Humko tumse ho gaya hai pyar kya karein”. For Amar it was “Ram kasam”, for Akbar “Khuda gawah” and for Anthony, “God promise”.’ The song had three male singers — Mohammed Rafi, Mukesh and Kishore Kumar — but Lata Mangeshkar sang for all the three female actors. ‘Lataji is so versatile that she changed her style for each of the three actresses. She could have even done the male voices,’ says Pyarelal. The musician contributed to the film in another way too. ‘The original name of Amitabh Bachchan’s character was Anthony Fernandes. I requested Manji to change it to Anthony Gonsalves, after my guruji.’ Anthony Gonsalves was one of India’s leading violinists and music arranger who moved to Goa after retirement. Few will disagree that it was an inspired change — Anthony Gonsalves is a far more musical name.
Sidharth Bhatia is a Mumbai-based journalist and the author of Amar Akbar Anthony Masala, Madness and Manmohan Desai