Straight As for secularism

Poster of Amar Akbar Anthony  

Three American scholars come together to deconstruct Bollywood classic Amar Akbar Anthony. William Elison is Senior Lecturer in Religion, Anthropology, and Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at Dartmouth College. Christian Lee Novetzke is Associate Professor of International Studies at the University of Washington. Andy Rotman is Professor of Religion at Smith College. Their book Amar Akbar Anthony: Bollywood, Brotherhood, and the Nation (Harvard University Press) sees the film as a lens into India’s lived experience of secular democracy. Excerpts from an email interview:

Amar Akbar Anthony is a universally loved Bollywood classic, but it is also a formulaic Bollywood potboiler, a recipe created by Manmohan Desai. Why did you choose this movie for your book?

Andy Rotman: The three of us first met years ago in India as PhD students, and we had very different research agendas. One of us is a philologist by training, one a historian, and one an ethnographer. But we bonded over a shared love for Indian cinema. Amar Akbar Anthony, in particular, led to many conversations that revealed the complementarity of our approaches. We came to agree that the film captures a certain zeitgeist of India in the 1970s. And we think that to make sense of the film, with its surfeit of symbols, characters, and ideas, is to understand something important and essential about Indian modernity.

Yes, Amar Akbar Anthony is ‘formulaic’, in that it reuses well-known themes and tropes from cinema and literature. But we think of this less as recycling than upcycling, creatively repurposing to make something new. Bombay filmmakers in the 1970s were experimenting with mixing different ‘flavours’ to create something comforting yet diverting, spiced to perfection, to appeal to the widest possible audience. This, of course, became known as the masala film, and we see Amar Akbar Anthony as the formula’s triumph. Some scholars argue that the very concept of the masala film is a negation of genre by mixture, but our position is that Amar Akbar Anthony catalyses masala as formula; indeed, in this sense, it may be the perfection of the recipe.

What does the movie tell you about India’s secular democracy?

Christian Lee Novetzke: Amar Akbar Anthony envisions a resilient, pluralistic society that is the result not of constitutional secularism imposed top down, but rather of bottom-up affiliations formed between small, faith-based communities. The film is about dosti, about the friendship that binds the three brothers. Our knowledge of their brotherhood generates the film’s dramatic tensions and ironies, but what brings the three characters together is not the call of blood but cultural norms of love, duty, and mutual care. The film’s message is that the nation is a neighbourhood, and that neighbourhood is a family. It follows that India survives as a vibrant secular society not because of conscious belief in a political ideology but because the people of India will it to be so. Now, how much room this vision makes for democracy is a tricky question.

‘Hurting religious sentiments’ is a minefield Bollywood movies have to negotiate. How do you find religion depicted in Bollywood?

Andy Rotman: It is hard to generalise about the representation of religion in Bollywood films, especially across genres and decades. But one lesson we learned from our work on the book was that even a single film can be open to multiple readings. Amar Akbar Anthony’s picture of secular society can be interpreted to support a Hindutva agenda as well as to reject it. This isn’t to say that one can read anything one likes into a Bollywood film. But when certain constituencies take offence at certain depictions on screen, we as scholars need to take note of the interpretive reasoning behind these moments of offence if we’re going to make sense of them.

To complicate this, there is an established tradition in Hindi cinema of making fun of characters like pandits or maulvis who make an elaborate show of their piety; sometimes these figures are even made into villains. And yet films rarely advocate atheism. An orthodox hypocrite is usually juxtaposed with a character whose pure heart shows the way to true spirituality. Think, most recently, of OMG or Bajrangi Bhaijaan.

Social fiction is one area of your interest. Can you elaborate on how you relate that to the movie?

William Elison: ‘Social fiction’ is an academic concept, a way of thinking about ideas, stories, and symbols that have become so deeply embedded in a culture that they seem natural, like common sense. A good example is the American Dream. Our principal interest is not how myths like these relate to empirical reality, but what they can tell us about how people relate to their society and how categories of self and other — such as gender, religion, and nationality — are organised within it. Some readers might complain, ‘Aren’t you overthinking a film that has no pretence to being a work of art? Manmohan Desai didn’t think about all the symbolism you discuss in your book. He just wanted to make a hit.’ We agree. Desai wasn’t conscious of his film’s symbolism, and neither was its audience. And this is precisely because Amar Akbar Anthony’s story is largely constructed out of social fictions — about the family, the nation, religion, and modernity — which were taken for granted in the India of the 1970s. This is a big reason why the movie was a hit. For all its manic mayhem, the film feels natural. Somehow it manages, to quote the final song, to make the impossible possible.

There is huge controversy today over ‘religious intolerance’, and many secular groups feel the idea of a pluralist India is under threat. Do you think the message of Amar Akbar Anthony is even more relevant in this scenario?

Christian Lee Novetzke: When the film came out, India had just faced down another threat — the one posed by Emergency Rule. Although a different political party was in power, similar fears about the demise of civil society simmered nationwide. Amar Akbar Anthony actually has a great deal to say about the way the state and India’s diverse communities come together to form the nation. For one, there are no politicians in the movie; the state’s role is equated with that of the police, and the police are intimately involved in domestic life, helping sort out who belongs with whom in the national family. The degree to which the “idea of India” celebrated in Amar Akbar Anthony is actually set apart from democratic politics is striking. It is an India that has survived, and will survive, all political movements and crises because it stands outside them. The film is a populist statement in that it puts a lot of stock in the good sense of common people. The movie suggests that truehearted Indians, whatever their creed, share a set of cultural values. And if you recognise the code, then you recognise those who uphold it as your brothers. Ultimately, it’s a question not of politics or citizenship, but of moral integrity.

You visited Mumbai for your research. How was the experience?

William Elison: People in the film industry like to express their commitment to the ideal of a cosmopolitan Mumbai, and this commitment isn’t only verbal; it’s evident in the diversity of film crews, especially among the so-called light boys — working-class men who hail from across India — drawn to the city by the glamour of Bollywood. The oddity is that this vision of a diverse society is in large part a vision projected by cinema itself. At the level of baseline assumptions—of social fictions, if you will—Bollywood movies tend to project an image of an Indian society that has room for everyone. And to the extent that there are divisions, they are produced by powerful characters who are eventually shown to be bad (or at least mistaken). This isn’t necessarily a penetrating social critique, but it is a pervasive belief—a distant cousin, perhaps, of the American dream. Bollywood is thus an influential counterweight to bigotry and xenophobia. However imperfect the movies may be, they’re also immensely important.

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Printable version | May 7, 2021 6:16:07 PM |

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