This was my ode to Amar Akbar Anthony, one of the greatest masala films ever made. Particularly poignant due to the recent death of Actor and Screenwriter Kader Khan who was one of the creative forces behind this film
To talk about the greatness of Amar Akbar Anthony is to talk about the genius of Manmohan Desai. In what could be called the most audacious, most insane and perhaps idiotic moment in cinematic history – I am talking about the title sequence of the film – 3 characters: Amar, Akbar and Anthony (played respectively by Vinod Khanna, Rishi Kapoor and Amitabh Bachchan) who are brothers by birth but are oblivious of that fact, are giving blood to a wounded blind woman (Played by Nirupa Roy) who is in actuality their mother. But they are oblivious of that fact too. The blood from each of them trickles down into a common tube and is fed into the veins of the mother. A scene that Amitabh Bachchan himself calls the biggest catastrophe in medical history contains so many subtexts, so many layers that would make even the chess scene from Bergman’s The seventh seal look like a pretty straightforward one.
In that one scene, Desai defines the essence of the Indian nation. India as this mother who nourishes and in turn is nourished by her sons of different religions. Pakistan was a country that was created exclusively for a particular religion, but the founding fathers like Gandhi and Nehru envisaged India as a melting pot of various ethnic and religious entities who all contribute, and will have equal rights in the building of this great nation. The fact that mother is blind emphasizes that she does not discriminate her children on any basis and they are all equal to her. On top of all that, all three sons are by birth Hindus, because both the father and mother characters played by Pran and Nirupa are Hindus in the film- this underlines the fact that Hinduism is less a religion and more a culture or a way of life, where the individual can choose to follow any religion or custom and is not bound by any rigid monolith. It’s also noticeable that the elder brother grows up to be a strict and serious cop bound to protect the world, while the younger ones grow up to be an artist, a qawwali singer and a drunken street fighter given to mayhem and violence respectively. this point towards the holy trinity of Hinduism Vishnu the protector, Brahma the creator and Siva the destroyer. It’s such a rich film that one could go on digging up subtexts.
AAA could be considered one of the biggest game changers in the Indian mainstream commercial cinema. Even though Sholay that came 2 years before would become the biggest trendsetter and set the template of masala cinema, it still adhered a lot to the classical rules of characterization and storytelling in Indian filmmaking. Despite its commercial leanings and escapist nature, Sholay was still a very rooted, a very organic piece of cinema that conforms to the laws and logic of the real world. What sets AAA apart is that AAA took cinema into a fully fantasy realm where all logic, all reason, pertaining to narrative structure or the time-space continuum is off. It is replaced by a purely emotional logic that appeals to the innermost religious and spiritual core of the audience. If one has to make a comparison, then the Salim Javed scripted masala movies were the hard cover versions of tales from Ramayana and Mahabharata , while Desai’s films were the Amar chitra Katha versions of the same. Populated by colorful characters and colorful images with its not so subtle optimistic messages as opposed to a more darker, grayer, cynical world shown in the Salim Javed movies.
To talk about AAA is also to talk about Amitabh Bachchan . this is the film that set Bachchan up to be the pan religious, pan national, pan ethnic megastar of the country, the likes of which has never seen before or never seen since. Bachchan, who till then was identified as Vijay ,the seething angry young man of the 70’s would make a dramatic change in his screen image through this film by becoming an all round entertainer, an actor who is adept at almost every discipline that an audiovisual art form like cinema can encompass.
Manmohan Desai would repeat the AAA formula the rest of his career. In a way the film was both a high point and a stagnation point for him. Before this, he was making formula films, but they were differences in the basic subject matter, but after AAA, he would completely jettison the story aspect of the film in the sense that he will have the same story in film after film, he would just keep changing the situations or the items as he would call it. And what situations: on the surface they are rather silly, and ridiculous but when they come together, they have the kind of an epic overview that very few films can claim to have. But by his last 2 films this formula would become stale. It is really hard to sit through movies like Mard and Ganga jamuna saraswati where the climax has Bachchan carrying a live crocodile on his back. It was pretty obvious that his formula and sensibility had gone haywire. But in 1977 he was the king of the world when he released not one or two but 4 films, in which 3 became super hits and AAA became an all time blockbuster. In one of his final interviews, Desai, who was never a critical darling, hit back at his critics saying that when he is dead and gone, people will seek the kind of entertainment that he provided. He was dead right. there never has been a true successor to Manmohan Desai.