Amar Akbar Anthony; Masala, Madness and Manmohan Desai
Harper Collins India
Rs. 250, Pages: 148
Secularism in India is quite different, in meaning and substance, from the secular idea elsewhere. It does not suggest… the state’s indifference to religion and religious practice. In India, the word implies respect for all religions… The Hindi film industry… is a microcosm of India itself, with people from diverse social and economic backgrounds working together as one...
The wounds of India’s Partition were still very fresh around the time Manmohan Desai joined the film business… In his very first film, Chhalia, Desai… touched upon the prejudices that were still very deeply embedded in people. The film was about a Hindu woman (played by Nutan) who had stayed back in Pakistan while her husband had moved to India. When she comes to him, he refuses to accept her and his small son, unsure of whose child it is. A smalltime crook (Raj Kapoor) makes him see the error of his ways. Chhalia (trickster), as Raj Kapoor is called, is a happy-go-lucky man and sings, ‘Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Isai sabko mera salaam’.
Sidharth Bhatia's book Amar Akbar Anthony; Masala, Madness and Manmohan Desai is an enjoyable book that looks at the idea of secularism in Amar Akbar Anthony. (HT Photo)
Amar Akbar Anthony… echoed a similar sentiment. There are several references to the unity of man and respect for all religions… The audience gets the message loud and clear, right from the moment the three brothers give blood to their mother, and three places of worship — a temple, a mosque and a church — can be seen from the windows behind them. The film’s title itself tells us a lot. The three names represent three religions, Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity. Professor Novetzke feels the film is about ‘stereotypes of identity—each of the three brothers enters a stereotypical religious world. And so it is also about religious identity. But it can’t be about actual identity — it totally eschews such complexity in a “social drama” sense. It strikes me that on one very basic level this is a film about the permissible possibilities for religious identity in secular India, or more specifically, in Hindu majoritarian (rather than Hindu chauvinistic) India. Each character’s religious affiliation is carefully modulated to a Hindu secularist ideal.’
The plot of Amar Akbar Anthony reflected Desai’s interest in the idea of communal harmony, even in a kitschy, filmi way… Interestingly, there is no overt ‘Hinduness’ in Amar’s character… but the other two are obviously Muslim and Christian, and their clothes, accessories, accents, behaviour and lifestyle reflect that all the time. Akbar… wears clothes that lower middle-class boys from Muslim ghettos can (or could) be seen wearing — transparent shirts, netted vests and a skullcap… How different things were in the 1970s is also apparent from the fact that Akbar is a nonthreatening character. The stereotyping of Muslims as somehow sinister came in much later… As for Anthony, his Catholic identity is apparent to us right away. He goes to church regularly, prays and just in case anyone misses the point, wears a huge cross round his neck… Though the three brothers are brought up in three different religions... two of them... do not give it up once they know their true identity. Would their devout mother insist they change back to Hinduism? The film does not go into it... but it is worth conjecturing. The fact that all three have sweethearts from different religions suggests that religion would not be an issue in their ‘real’ family… In an interview to Connie Haham, he (Desai) is quoted as saying: ‘Had I stood on a platform preaching “Hindu–Muslim bhai-bhai (brothers)”, they would have said, “We don’t want to hear that bullshit from you.” So… We gave a sugar-coated pill, they took it. They liked it’...
Amar Akbar Anthony came at an interesting turning point. The Emergency was over and India had come out of a fiery test intact... It is tempting to ask whether Amar Akbar Anthony was a reiteration of India’s commitment to its nationhood, forcefully emphasizing secularism as a basic, unshakeable tenet.