Saturday, March 12, 2016

Impossible is nothing: three wise men write a book about Amar Akbar Anthony

[Did this piece for the Hindu Literary Review]

Manmohan Desai’s 1977 film Amar Akbar Anthony, one of Hindi cinema’s most beloved entertainments, can be viewed through different lenses. Many see it as pure escapism, or “great trash”, to use Pauline Kael’s phrase – a mix of all the ingredients and sauces that go into the best mainstream movies, with Desai’s zaniness adding a special flavour. Another way is to acknowledge the film’s subtexts while keeping the level of analysis very basic: one might, for instance, say that the story – about three brothers separated as children, brought up as a Hindu, Muslim and Christian, and reunited at the end – is about national integration, as much of the director’s other work was. Saying only this much though can make the “message” seem so obvious and naïve that most viewers wouldn’t even care to think about it – they would take it as a given and get on to the real business of enjoying the film as eye-popping spectacle.

But it’s also possible to go much further than a surface reading, and Amar Akbar Anthony: Bollywood, Brotherhood, and the Nation – co-written by the academics William Elison, Christian Lee Novetzke and Andy Rotman – is among the most in-depth books you’ll read about a single Hindi film. The authors’ fields of specialization include religion, anthropology and international studies, and their knowledge of Indian culture and history is evident throughout this book: arguments and analyses are supported by heaps of contextual information and references. Most notably, here is a scholarly work about a popular film that also tries to mimic something of the film’s controlled lunacy, winking at itself every now and again. The playfulness begins with the fact that it is jointly written by three men who go their own ways and (sort of) unite in the end.

Their chief structural decision is to divide the main text into four long chapters: each of the first three makes a case for a particular brother as the story’s hero, and uses the argument to suggest a worldview contained in the film, while the fourth hands the stage to their mother;
Bharati (Nirupa Roy) is often seen as a pathetic figure with almost no agency or personality, but is given an intriguing new dimension here (and even a voice). In the framing that thus emerges, Amar (Vinod Khanna) the eldest, “Hindu brother” who grows up to be an upright policeman – the cop who never uses his gun; who, in fact, buries it in the ground in an early scene when he is still a child, to hide it from his younger brother – can be seen as a benevolent patriarch of sorts, the centre of Desai’s moral universe. (The director was apparently no fan of Lord Krishna, and may have needed a primmer, Rama-like figure to perform this role.)

Akbar (Rishi Kapoor), on the other hand, is presented as a lifter of veils, and not just in the specific terms offered in the “Parda hai Parda” sequence; as the authors point out, he repeatedly speaks (or sings) truth to power, and plays a part in all but one of the film’s musical numbers, being the sole singer for three of the most epiphanic ones. He also, and this can come as a surprise, appears in nearly twice as many scenes as Amar does. An aside here: for many boys of my generation, the dreamy-eyed Kapoor was the third wheel in Amar Akbar Anthony, with the more “manly” actors, Khanna and Amitabh Bachchan, being closer to our image of the
masala-movie hero (besides being serious rivals in the 1970s superstardom race). But I think Akbar becomes more interesting when you’re a grown-up viewer, and one of the things this book did for me personally was to convince me that he is more central to the film than my memories suggested.

Oddly enough, the case for Anthony being the real hero was the one that seemed vaguest to me – or perhaps all the talk about the character being the intermediary or “fixer” who contains multitudes (while also revealing things about the Christian community in India) seemed superfluous; surely, all you need to do is to point out that he was played by Bachchan, and end the argument there!

Apart from analyzing the heroes and their Maa, the authors examine the use of geographical spaces in a film where the word “Bombay” is never spoken, but where landmarks like the Borivali Park and Bandra’s Koliwada are central to this narrative about loss, diversity and reunion; they look at how cinema interacts with its audience, changing meaning as it moves from one demographic to another (there are references to a mass-communications professor sending students out to interview lower-class people and finding that they didn’t think Amar Akbar Anthony was “unrealistic”); and they take on critics of the time who dismissed the film without engaging with its internal logic, the “honee” within the “anhonee”. 

Not being primarily concerned with the director’s intentions (even as they do try to make sense of how the film fits into the larger canvas of Desai’s career, extending back to the 1960 Chhalia), they frequently step outside the film’s diegesis too: for example, while examining the relationship between Amar and the woman whom he “rehabilitates” and marries, Lakshmi, the characters are looked at as stand-ins for the actors – Khanna and Shabana Azmi – who play them: “It brings a Muslim woman into a Hindu family, an icon of leftist parallel cinema into mainstream Bollywood entertainment, a social activist into a proto-Hindutva world…

Many readers would term this sort of thing “over-analysis” (and be warned, the next subhead in the “Amar” chapter is “The Buried Gun: Disciplined Celibacy and Muscular Hinduism”!) but it mostly worked for me, not just because the arguments – whether or not you agree with them – are well made, but also because the authors aren’t trying to provide confident “solutions” to the “riddle” of Amar Akbar Anthony; they are raising questions and possibilities, opening windows to new ways of looking, not just at the film but the society it emerged from. Each of them has approached the subject with “selective blinders”, as in the fable of the blind men and the elephant: “This is not a book with a single cohesive argument; it is, we hope, a book with many cohesive arguments that also happen to be contradictory”.

Needless to say, it isn’t for casual movie fans, and even serious readers are likely to encounter little spots where their eyes glaze over. (For me, it happened around the point where Bharati’s repeated ailments – from tuberculosis to blindness – are linked with goddess-possession.) Still, I would rather a book erred in that direction – reading layers of meaning into every scene, but doing it with affection and seriousness of purpose – than in the one where movies are divided into easy binaries like “meaningful” and “entertaining”, as too often happens in our criticism.

P.S. Even if you have seen the film recently, or remember it well, I recommend you start by reading the lengthy “synopsis” in the Appendix – and not just for utilitarian reasons but for the pleasure of it: this is a sharply written 45-page delight that will also prepare you for the more detailed observations in the main text of the book. Here are some samples, starting with part of the description of the “My Name is Anthony Gonsalves” sequence:

“Singing of his uniqueness and consequent aloneness, the egg-hatched foundling boy woos his lady on the dance floor […] he wields his umbrella like a magician’s prop, struts around in a state of levitation, and somehow conjures up a condition in which he and Jenny end up racing toward each other in dreamy slow motion while Zabisko stands by frozen and all the others dance on at normal speed.”


“On a deserted shore a line of smugglers are hard at work offloading contraband. One struggling coolie, clad in a white servant’s uniform, is tripped up by a smartly booted foot. Surprise! In the menial position is Robert, and the new chief racketeer, resplendent in the ensemble of dark suit, red waistcoat, and red Teddy Boy suit last seen on Robert, is none other than the beneficiary of his ill-gotten gains, Kishenlal himself.”


“Allah be praised, Brother Anthony! The folksy and unmistakably Muslim figure who approaches, marked by his skullcap and lungi wrap, is the boyish Akbar. In a pleasantry that draws on the civic rhetoric of the Indira era, he compliments the kingpin on the success of his neighborhood cleanup drive.”


[Some other recent posts about film books: Smita Patil; V Shantaram; Gaata Rahe Mera Dil; Funky Bollywood; Bollywood and the Anglophone Nation]


  1. I'm fairly sure that the name was Zbyszko, after the famous wrestler. Perhaps the 3 men weren't steeped enough in European culture :)

  2. Radhika: oh no, they have mentioned the wrestler, and even included a note about why "Zabisko" tends to get spelt differently in writings about AAA (the character being an Anglo-Indian rather than an East European).

  3. Surprised. This is an examples of the many instances where childhood memories fail you. I dont remember Amar Akbar Anthony as anything more than a overly dramatic family reunion saga. Did not know there was so much going on.

    I guess I need to watch this movie and read this book.

    1. Sid: well, you don't have to feel the same way as these authors, or see the same things they see. This is subtextual analysis of a popular film, and it's academic analysis too - most casual viewers won't even be interested in it.