43 Years of Amar Akbar Anthony: Why We Need Manmohan Desai’s Diverse India Now More than Ever

Bollywood

43 Years of Amar Akbar Anthony: Why We Need Manmohan Desai’s Diverse India Now More than Ever

Illustration: Hitesh Sonar

When I was five years old, I firmly believed that Amitabh Bachchan was a tapori-speaking, goofy guy who happened to be a church-going Christian. I also believed that Rishi Kapoor was a pretty great qawwalli singer who was incidentally a Muslim. As a child who had watched Manmohan Desai’s Amar Akbar Anthony an unhealthy amount of times, these were fairly reasonable presumptions. Especially when they were backed by visual evidence of a Manmohan Desai portrait of Bombay – and India – that flaunted churches, skull caps, and qawwals with the same impunity that it reserved for magical Sai Baba idols and Santoshi Ma lockets.

Long before I learnt the distinction between the life that unfolded in reel and real, Amar Akbar Anthony had already taught me that different people worshipped different Gods – that it was the natural order of the world. It made me believe that inclusivity and diversity weren’t grand moral gestures that were waved around for effect. Instead, these were ideals that were a part of the normal fabric of the India that I was born into.

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Amar Akbar Anthony’s outrageous universe almost seems like a utopia.

Manmohan Desai Films

Garish, outlandish, and stubbornly defiant of any semblance of logic, Desai built Amar Akbar Anthony on his signature masala universe that is as unapologetic as it is entertaining. At its core, it is a story about a family separated by a cruel blow of fate (and a scheming villain). Three brothers are adopted and brought up by Samaritans belonging to three different faiths who eventually find their way back to each other and their parents through a series of twists and turns that make Abbas Mastan seem like bumbling amateurs.

Yet dig deeper and you realise that Amar Akbar Anthony, a film Desai made during the Emergency era, is so much more: In its own way, it is Desai’s ode to the much cherished secular fabric of this country. The director achieves this in his signature way. He goes fast and loose with all the stereotypes that were prevalent at the time and turns them into crazier, louder, and funnier versions. So there is a drunk, loudmouth Christian with a heart of gold (Amitabh Bachchan), a righteous Hindu (Vinod Khanna), and the mild-mannered, God-fearing Muslim (Rishi Kapoor).

At a time when declaring and living with a Muslim identity has become a point of contention in the country, it is delightful to rewatch Amar Akbar Anthony and its reckless celebration of diversity. Take for instance the fact that nothing about Akbar including his sartorial choices, mannerism or fiancé (a doctor who happens to occasionally don a burkha) conveys any apologies or hesitance about his identity. In a sense, the mild-mannered Muslim was a standard staple of the ’70s, long before Bollywood consented to depicting Muslims as the “feared other,” saddling them with the responsibility of constantly proving their patriotism. Granted that Amar Akbar Anthony plays by this rulebook but what sets apart Desai’s take is his willingness to cast this stereotype as a larger-than-life hero instead of dismissing him as a supporting character in someone else’s story. Even the stereotypical Christian becomes the hero donning a leather jacket, mouthing fiery dialogues as well being the comic relief, without having to sacrifice his quintessential swagger.

At a time when declaring and living with a Muslim identity has become a point of contention in the country, it is delightful to rewatch Amar Akbar Anthony and its reckless celebration of diversity.

I didn’t grow up in Bombay. But watching Amar Akbar Anthony at a time when our country didn’t insist on suppressing Muslim or Christian identities, exposed me to a world that made me dream of visiting beautiful churches and dargahs. It reinforced the idea of India for me: that secularism didn’t reside in clamping down on voices that didn’t resemble ours, but in championing them.

In the world that we live in today, which is marred by a brazen display of state-sanctioned force against the minority and a breathless demand for proof of citizenship, Amar Akbar Anthony’s outrageous universe almost seems like a utopia. It’s funny because Desai’s portrait of India that was chaotic, dramatic, and funny, but never too conscious of the sheer scale of diversity it was addressing, is actually the India that our ancestors fought for, the India that we plead allegiance to. And, yet, as I rewatch the movie in 2020, I can’t help but wonder, if Desai were to make this film today would Akbar Allahabadi be the same? I ask this, not just because Allahabad itself doesn’t exist anymore, but simply because we seem to be heading towards an India that no longer believes in him.

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