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Man of Miracles

Man of Miracles

by Khalid Mohamed July 2 2021, 12:00 am Estimated Reading Time: 10 mins, 24 secs

Khalid Mohamed misses the wonder director Manmohan Desai, whose ultimate ode to secularism, Amar Akbar Anthony, is such a perfect antidote to the stress and anxiety of the pandemic today.

Oftentimes I wonder how the Miracle Man of the Movies, Manmohan Desai (1937-1994) would have responded to the pandemic. With his chronic backache, and self-imposed seclusion at his Khetwadi three-storey house - the Jeevan complex - would he have been stymied by the ongoing count of tragedies? For sure, yes, since he had lost his will to live and confect movies anymore.

Manji, as he was called, was given to vaulting moments of happiness. And during his empty hours - he lived alone with his attendants; he would brood, without ever articulating the despair within him. Once his films began to crash at the ticket counters, starting with the terribly awry Ganga Jamuna Saraswati (1988), he was irrevocably disillusioned, handing over the reins of direction to his son Ketan.

As I deal with solitude myself now, I remember his words, “When I’m gone, you guys (critics) will miss what you politely call ‘the method in my madness’.” That I seek to do today, by a throwback to his most iconic entertainer ever, Amar Akbar Anthony released in Mumbai at the Royal Opera House on January 7, 1977.

Posthumous valentines have been penned to this ultimate salute to secularism. In the course of his lifetime though, he was pooh-poohed as ‘hyper-commercial’, ‘absurd’ and ‘senseless”, and was never called on stage to receive an award for any of the 20 films, which he directed. Just a few reviewers - especially Connie Haham, an American scholar settled in Paris, and who could see beyond the obvious grandstanding, underscored his uncontainable joie de vivre - were his consistent defenders during his prime time. Her book The Enchantment of the Mind: The Films of Manmohan Desai, published in 2006, is an insightful read.

All’s-well-that-ends-well wrap-ups to his extravagant opuses were a must, even if his hero may have been felled by a thousand bullets - as in the climax of Coolie (1983), located at the Haji Ali dargah. After Amitabh Bachchan had recovered from a life-threatening punch in his stomach during an action scene filmed in Bangalore, the end had to resonate with it. And it did so forcefully even if it, as always in his oeuvre, was taxing on the viewer’s imagination. A sacred chuddar had magically wrapped itself around Bachchan, rendering the bullets no more lethal than rubber pellets.

An apocryphal story goes that Iraq’s President, Saddam Hussain, was a die-hard fan of Coolie. Reportedly, the dictator had screened the Haji Ali climax for his soldiers during the Iraq-Iran war to boost their confidence. However, Bachchan later stated on his blog that this could be a completely make-believe story.

Circa 2007, Shabana Azmi, one of the three leading ladies of Amar Akbar Anthony had tweeted, “And it all seems like yesterday.” This was in response to Amitabh Bachchan’s tweet, a reminder that the mega-entertainer had premiered 40 years ago. Added he, “What a film… what amazing memories… one day it (sic) shall be disclosed…” We’re waiting for the disclosure.

Unarguably, the multi-starrer fantasy adventure, which went on to be acknowledged as Bollywood’s most fervent plea for secularism, self-evident from the movie’s title, continues to retain its original sparkle and entertainment quotient on repeat viewings. Bollywood’s oft-narrated lost-and-found plot placed its three eponymous heroes into different forms of upbringing and individually into the faiths of Hinduism, Christianity and Islam. Only the whiz producer-director Manmohan Desai could have carried off such a story premise with elan, inveigling the spectator into believing that even the implausible can be depicted on the screen with conviction.

Uncannily, the year 1977 hadn’t witnessed the release of Amar Akbar Anthony alone. Within a space of months, three other films directed by him, Parvarish, Dharam Veer and Chacha Bhatija, had also rocked the cash counters.

Blockbuster or not, Amar Akbar Anthony did incite harsh criticism from the medical community, which stated that it wasn’t possible for the three brothers to donate blood simultaneously, from a single paraphernalia for their hospitalized mother. Also, when the mother, portrayed by Nirupa Roy, regains her eyesight thanks to divine intervention, Desai was accused of encouraging the irrational. However, the audience loved what they saw, ignoring the criticism with the belief that the movie was designed as a far-out fantasy. So why quibble?

Manmohan Desai, in the course of an interview had told me that he was so overwrought about his expectations of the audience’s response to Amar Akbar Anthony that he went to its opening day screening at the Royal Opera House cinema. “When two or three guys came out for a cigarette break during one of the songs,” he recounted. “I was livid. I grabbed each one of them by the collar and pushed them back into the auditorium. The poor guys were baffled, wondering why this guy was behaving like a mad man. After that incident, I never went to gauge the audience reaction at a cinema hall. It was much too harrowing on my nerves.”

The star-stacked crew of actors was quite a coup. Amitabh Bachchan as Antony was paired with Parveen Babi, Vinod Khanna as Amar with Shabana Azmi (one of her few movies in which she allowed herself to indulge in fun-and-frolic) and Rishi Kapoor as Akbar with Neetu Singh. The characterization and the colloquial lines of dialogue assigned to Bachchan, the director would point out gleefully, were inspired by a street side gadabout who hung around Khetwadi, an overcrowded middle-class neighborhood of Central Mumbai.

That’s where Desai had grown up and lived all his life. His first film, Janam Janam Ke Phere (1957), a mythological film with Nirupa Roy and Mahipal, had flopped majorly. “I was in a horrible state of depression,” he would recall. “But my wife (Jeevanprabha) would take me for a walk to the Hanging Gardens. We would sit under a tree, and she would tell me never to be disheartened. She gave me the strength to carry on. It’s tragic that she passed away, she was the only cheer-leader I ever needed.”

Subsequently, slowly but steadily he picked elements from real-life, quite magically converting them into the thoroughly phantasmagoric. “Remember my words,” he had emphasized in an on-camera interview with me. “I may be called absurd and all sorts of names, which I don’t understand. Still after I’m gone, you critics will call me the Steven Spielberg of India. Like his E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, my cinema depends on the power of imagination.”

A tongue-in-cheek contrarian, though, he was alarmed when I raved in The Times of India about his Naseeb (1981), which was as joyous as a ride on a Ferris wheel. The phone rang early in the morning, he sounded disturbed, “What have you done? When critics give me a good review, I’m worried that it’ll flop. Now I’ll have to go to a temple, mosque and a church, to pray hard for its success.” It’s another matter that the next day Naseeb was declared a certified hit, and he sent over a basket of mangoes with a note saying, “Thank you.”

He would confide that he had originally conceived Coolie as a character of Jewish faith but backtracked on feeling that Muslims were his loyal vote-back and saw his films repeatedly. He had also disclosed that one of his plans was to make a ‘realistic’ film revolving around the helplessness of a sex worker, forced into the flesh trade. Dimple Kapadia, he remarked, would be ideal for the role, but he was skeptical that she would accept such a part, which would have gone against her image of a pure, ‘untouched’ romantic heroine. “Such an outspoken film would make waves in Hollywood, but not here. To be honest, I have this hidden wish to make a film for the worldwide audience some day.”

If a film from the parallel cinema movement impressed him, he would call me up right away to fix a meeting with its director. Case in point: Ketan Mehta who had lately released his Mirch Masala (1987). Would he direct a film for his MKD Production banner? Excited, Ketan met him, was somewhat nervous and asked if he could smoke a cigarette. A teetotaller and a non-smoker, his host advanced an empty crystal ashtray from his desk: “Sure, I don’t mind at all, just don’t drop dead before you complete my picture!” They chatted about stories and concepts of potential for hours. The project could have fructified perhaps if Manji had lived longer.

Long after he passed away at the age of 57 on March 1, 1994 - reportedly he committed suicide by leaping off the terrace of his Khetwadi home - he has been cherished, missed and recognized as Bollywood’s unbeatable entertainer. The reasons for his suicide remain mysterious. One theory is that he couldn’t bear the pain of the excruciating backache, which had stayed with him for years. Two special wooden chairs had been designed for him but he couldn’t sit on either for more than a few minutes.

When his son Ketan Mehta moved to a swisher address on the Napean Sea Road oceanfront, the father had shifted there too. After a while, he returned to Khetwadi where he would assert, “I belong here. I couldn’t sleep a wink in a swanky place - without the noise, traffic and crowds.” By now, a widower, he was scheduled to marry the yesteryear heroine, Nanda, but then he chose to end his life.

Ketan Desai had to bear the loss stoically. As he said in an interview, “I didn’t break down on dad’s death, I didn’t cry like a child. That’s because I don’t want to believe he’s gone. My wife and two daughters are dependent on me. If I weaken, if I cry, they’ll be shattered. See, two years after my mother passed away, I wanted him to remarry; he needed a companion to share his life with. I’d keep encouraging him to marry Nandaji. He didn’t party, he didn’t play cards, he was a strict vegetarian and he needed someone to be with him. But it was not meant to be I guess.”

Did Manji have a special regard for Amar Akbar Anthony, like the aficionados of his brand of cinema do? To that his categorical answer was, “Believe it or not, I’m more partial to Suhaag (1979), it was a much bigger hit. And if I have a special regard for any of my films, it’s for Chhalia (1960) and Aa Gale Lag Jaa (1973). For Chhalia because it was my first film which I directed at the age of 23 starring Raj Kapoor and Nutan no less. As for, Aa Gale Lag Jaa, the relationship between Shashi Kapoor and the little boy, Master Tito, who played his son, still brings tears to my eyes. To make the viewers shed tears too, I had gone with an emotional approach, no-holds-barred.”

The collaboration between Desai and Amitabh Bachchan was one of a kind - as extraordinary as the director-actor chemistry between let’s say Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro. Of the eight films Desai directed Bachchan in, Gungaa Jamunaa Saraswathi was a dud. With time and Bachchan’s swelling superstardom, Toofan (1989) turned out to be Desai’s last film, albeit as a producer, with his dependable mascot.

Steadily, the usually irrepressible Manmohan Desai became reclusive. Sure he would meet up, on being requested for an interview. His hospitality remained legendary, he would organize a limitless spread of street food but clearly his lust for life and cinema were at low ebb. A majority of super-hits from the 1970s and ‘80s have dated, both technically and in terms of content. Not Amar Akbar Anthony.

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