Manmohan Desai Was a Bollywood Institution Who Belonged to The Masses


Manmohan Desai Was a Bollywood Institution Who Belonged to The Masses

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

There is a scene in Manmohan Desai’s Ganga Jamuna Saraswati (1988) where Saraswati (Jaya Prada) puts up a concert performance for an audience of one – Ganga (Amitabh Bachchan) – inside an opulently draped and decorated moving truck. It’s a logistically impossible feat to pull off and the sheer ridiculousness of even considering that stunt is hard to ignore. But in a Desai universe, common sense was never an obstacle in the face of an entertaining set-piece. And while Ganga Jamuna Saraswati was in a way, Desai’s last hurrah, that single scene managed to be a microcosm of his entire brand of filmmaking: insane, absurd, escapist, unapologetic, larger than life and homegrown to the core.

Manmohan Desai was a man in love with the madness of Bollywood. His three-decade-long career is an extended love-letter to the very essence of Hindi cinema, a celebration of everything that makes it retain its cultural influence despite intellectual derision that shadows it. The filmmaker embraced and enhanced every aspect of Hindi filmmaking that was intrinsic to the cult of mainstream Bollywood – song, dance, action, melodrama and of course, high-octane dialogue baazi – becoming the pioneer of masala cinema. There was something adorably unpretentious about the way Desai approached his movies. They felt unburdened by rigid expectations of greatness. Movies, for him, were an illusion; a kind of a dream. And he specialised in sucking his audience into these very dreams, making them believe in the magic of the movies as fiercely as he did.

There is a famous Desai anecdote about how everyone on the sets of Amar Akbar Anthony, one of the many masterpieces from his very own “lost and found” formula factory, was aghast when he proposed the infamous blood transfusion scene where the three heroes simultaneously donated blood to their mother. But the filmmaker remained stubborn in the face of all opposition. Four decades later, when I sat down to rewatch the film, aware of how ludicrous the scenario he proposed was, I still found myself unable to deny the charm of that illusion, mostly because the image that Desai puts together gave me goosebumps.

Desai manages to punch us in the gut and make us root for the heroes while he quietly celebrates the secular fabric of the country.

Three of the biggest heroes of their times, representing three different faiths, unaware of their connection with each other and the woman they are trying to save while we as an audience are in on the secret. It is an epic setup that manages to be intensely personal while being vocally political. In a single scene and barely any dialogues, Desai manages to punch us in the gut and make us root for the heroes while he quietly celebrates the secular fabric of the country. The sheer brilliance and emotional impact of that image still makes you forget all reason and sucks you in the beautiful dream that Desai has manufactured.

The filmmaker’s love for the absurd however, did not stop him from driving home pertinent points, whether it is the nature vs nurture debate that he casually stirs in Parvarish or the homage to secularism that is Amar Akbar Anthony. He was unafraid to experiment and norms were immaterial. So there was Biswajeet’s drag act in “Kajra Mohabbat Wala” and Rajesh Khanna was cast as both the hero and the villain of Sacha Jhutha.

It wouldn’t be inaccurate to say that Desai had a finger on the pulse of the India of his time. Desai’s heroes were aspirational middle class people with strong moral values, and their sense of humour much like the rest of the country was often a symbol of their resilience. Slapstick wasn’t Desai’s forte. Instead, humour for him was an essential emotion that completed the symphony of his stories. Unlike most of the films of the time that chose to have separate comic actors and arcs, comedy for Desai was simply a function of ordinary people trying to get by in life.

Even beyond comedy, Desai’s entire approach reflected a deep, intuitive understanding of his audience.  My mother often recalls how the scene in Coolie where everyone prays for the recovery of Bachchan’s character was a stand-in for the way the country reacted to Bachchan’s actual injury during the film’s shooting. In that sense, he got our mind-boggling fixation with our heroes as much as he understood the inherent awkwardness of a country that was still trying to find its feet, its own sense of identity while grappling with the socio-economic realities that were still limiting and harsh. It is no wonder that most of Desai stories embody our collective ethos that casually weaves in the brutal truths of our daily existence with an over-the-top, almost magical faith in our Gods and destiny.

A couple of years back when I had taken up a filmmaking course, we were made to study the approaches of a host filmmakers from the West. There was a prevailing sense of disdain for the likes of Desai whose stories lacked the intellectual sophistication that looks good in textbooks. I remember wondering then, why we don’t take into account a filmmaker’s skill at being accessible. Desai’s stories catered to the lowest common denominator without prejudice or judgment. Desai was an institution who chose to belong to the masses. That is no mean feat.