A Bollywood remake of Amar Akbar Anthony can show lynch mobs what India was
More often than not, the Muslim character in Hindi films today is associated with terrorism sometimes directly (Sarfarosh), sometimes slyly (A Wednesday)Updated: Jul 16, 2017 07:22 IST
Amar Akbar Anthony, that great entertainer from the 1970s, has completed 40 years. The movie is a staple on television and despite its period feel, has travelled well over the decades — a few minutes spent watching it are sure to produce a laugh or two.
There is nostalgia for the songs and the fashion but we also remember a different India. In a very unique way, Amar Akbar Anthony, more than many other films of the time, is a cultural marker of that India — an India without terrorism and when no gangs roamed about looking for people to lynch.
India had just come out of an Emergency, but even at the height of state power and coercion, no one dictated what one could eat. Indeed, the central message of AAA is the very Indian quality of tolerance, for our fellow citizens whichever religion or faith they may belong to. In his own style of inspired silliness, and without preaching to anybody, Manmohan Desai wrote an ode to secularism. The phrase Amar Akbar Anthony is now shorthand for unity in diversity, even in these fraught times.
The story of AAA is fairly well known. Three brothers are left behind in a park by their father and when he doesn’t return, are adopted by three families of different faiths. One grows up to be a cop, another a singer and the third the owner of a country liquor bar. Their mother has gone blind and their father, originally a driver, is now a successful smuggler. Throughout the film, they come face to face with the others without knowing their relationship. The audience is in on the secret and enjoys the dialogues, which are full of innuendo and references to bhais and baaps, but it is not till the end that the characters realise they are one big family.
Early on in the story, the three brothers donate blood which flows directly into their mother’s bloodstream. Much later, she recovers her eyesight when two sparks of light travel from lamps (diyas) near an idol of Saibaba of Shirdi. Not to be missed is the remarkable coincidence of a qawwali being sung to Saibaba by her son Akbar.
There were murmurs of protests at the time about a Muslim singing to an idol, but nothing came of it. Similarly, some Catholics had objected to the portrayal of Anthony, played by Amitabh Bachchan, as a bootlegger and drinker but after the intervention of some priests, that controversy too died down.
The drunk Christian was a familiar stereotype of films of the time. Muslims were usually shown as kind-hearted Rahim chachas or dissolute and romantic nawabs and their beloveds who exclaimed ‘hai Allah’ after every other line. But they were all uniformly gentle.
The genre of ‘Muslim socials’ – or Islamicate themes, as academics would have it – were hugely popular in the 1950s and ’60s. In the 1970s, we had the loyal Sher Khan in Zanjeer and the blind Imaam Saheb in Sholay. The benign Muslim remained with us till much later, after which he gradually faded into the sunset.
In the post-1990s phase, filmmakers discovered newer audiences, in India and among the large Indian diaspora all over the world. These audiences had a different view of India, which was driven by nostalgia not for Indian diversity but for Indian tradition in the garb of modernity.
The 90s saw monumental economic and social changes — the rath yatra, the fall of the Babri Masjid and the horrific riots in Bombay and elsewhere created new narratives; the Muslim was now no longer seen in the same light as earlier.
More often than not, the Muslim character in Hindi films today is associated with terrorism sometimes directly (Sarfarosh), sometimes slyly (A Wednesday). Equally, there are Muslim victims of terrorism and brave officials who fight it. The modern Muslim or indeed a normal Muslim is missing in action.
There is much to criticise in the hokey stereotyping of the past — and Amar Akbar Anthony is as hokey as they come — but one can’t fault the messaging.
Every now and then one reads of a possible remake of Amar Akbar Anthony. Given the record of remakes, one shudders at what the outcome will be, but perhaps, just to evoke a different India and its core values, a reprise of Amar Akbar Anthony may not be such a bad idea. It will at the very least tell the young Indians that India was not always like it is today.
Sidharth Bhatia is a journalist and commentator and founder editor of the www.thewire.in
The views expressed are personal