Literary Review

The awesome threesome

A still from the song 'Parda hai parda'.

A still from the song 'Parda hai parda'.  

Here’s 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

Manmohan Desai’s 1977 film Amar Akbar Anthony, one of Hindi cinema’s most loved entertainers, can be viewed through different lenses. Most see it as pure escapism, a mix of all the ingredients 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 analysis fairly basic: one might, for instance, say that the story — about three brothers separated as children, brought up as Hindu, Muslim and Christian, and reunited at the end — is about national integration. But saying only this much and no more 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 with enjoying the film as an eye-popping spectacle.

But it’s possible also to go further than a surface reading, and Amar Akbar Anthony: Bollywood, Brotherhood, and the Nation — co-written by 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 specialisation include religion, anthropology and international studies, and their knowledge of Indian culture and history is evident throughout this book. 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 major structural decision is to divide the book 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), who 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 doesn’t use his gun; who buries it in the ground in an early scene when he is still a child — can be seen as a benevolent patriarch of sorts, the centre of Desai’s moral universe.

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, 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 analysing the heroes and their maa, the authors examine the use of geographical spaces in a film where the word “Bombay” is never uttered, 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 low-income groups and finding that they didn’t think Amar Akbar Anthony was “unrealistic”). They take on critics of the time who dismissed the film without engaging with its internal logic, the honee within the anhonee. And they frequently step outside the film’s diegesis too: for example, while examining the relationship between Amar and Lakshmi, the woman he “rehabilitates” and marries, 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. Each of them has approached the film 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 facile binaries like “meaningful” and “entertaining”, as all too often happens in our criticism. Besides, if things get too heavy, I recommend you take a breather by reading the lengthy synopsis in the appendix— a witty, 45-page delight that will also prepare you for the more detailed observations in the main text.

Jai Arjun Singh is the author of the book The World of Hrishikesh Mukherjee: The Filmmaker Everyone Loves.

Amar Akbar Anthony: Bollywood, Brotherhood, and the Nation; William Elison, Christian Lee Novetzke & Andy Rotman, Harvard University Press, price not mentioned

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Printable version | Apr 4, 2020 9:14:09 AM |

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