Visual Arts

From Amar Akbar Anthony to Baahubali: Whither Indian Cinema’s Secularism?

Amitabh Bachchan in Amar Akbar Anthony

A retrospective of Manmohan Desai’s Bollywood classic Amar Akbar Anthony, and the films it has influenced, 40 years on.


Amar Akbar Anthony

Director: Manmohan Desai
Cast: Amitabh Bachchan, Vinod Khanna, Rishi Kapoor
Year: 1977

Baahubali 2: The Conclusion

Director: S.S. Rajamouli
Cast: Prabhas, Rana Daggubati, Anushka Shetty
Year: 2017
By looking at the legacy left behind by Amar Akbar Anthony for more than a decade in Indian cinema we can see how the technologies of vision aided by star personas performing minority identities create sites of resistance to the homogenization of culture by majoritarian politics.
In South Asia, film critics rarely approach commercial cinema with perspicacity. Scurrilous labels are pinned with an unreserved callousness the moment a film does not pander to the pieties of the intelligentsia. To avoid pejorative labeling, a film must be exceptionally special, merit instant repute, or achieve unequivocal acclaim. Ringing cash registers alone do not appease critics. Most of the time, popular films have to wait on the passage of time or a shift in the zeitgeist. History may either vindicate a popular film as deserving of aesthetic and cultural significance or allow it to amass a following as a cult film. Forty years have lapsed since director Manmohan Desai’s Indian Hindi feature film Amar Akbar Anthony was first released and it is finally getting the scrutiny it deserves. Read in our political present the film is an enduring prophylactic.

Sidharth Bhatia’s Amar Akbar Anthony: Masala, Madness and Manmohan Desai (2013) provides a biography of the film. The behind-the-scenes approach Bhatia adopts helps us to look beyond the mythology of the film to see it for what is: a media assemblage. The construction of the component parts of the episodic narrative loosely patched together relays a sense of the film as a creative mess that somehow coheres. Bhatia’s ontological study is the first book-length study of the film.

More recently, Amar Akbar Anthony: Bollywood, Brotherhood and the Nation (2016) -- with an equally indulgent subtitle to match the trilateral pluralism the film invokes -- is the combined work of three scholars of religion: a philologist, a historian, and an ethnographer. Consonant with film’s theme, all three disciplines methodologically dovetail to produce an cultural history of a Bollywood icon. The film, we are told, “offers a glimpse into the imaginary of a viewing public, a kind of bellwether for the public mood.” The film’s richly polysemic narrative, according to the book’s writers, aims to “salvage the dream of an idealized nation in post-Emergency India.”

When it was first released no one believed the film had any redemptive value. The introductory chapter of Amar Akbar Anthony: Bollywood, Brotherhood and the Nation reveals that India’s film critics panned the film when it opened in late May 1977. Disparaging evaluations from the media cumulatively conveyed the sense that “film critics mostly hated it, bemoaning its regurgitated plot lines and loose logic.” A host of big name publications at that time like Film World, Times of India, Deccan Herald, Indian Express, and Filmfare thrashed the film. Yet, defying all expectations the film went on to become the biggest blockbuster of 1977.

Nevertheless, it would take nearly two decades before the lacuna of intellectual interest in the film would be bridged in the Encyclopaedia of Indian Cinema (1994). Thereafter, no pedestaling list of classic Bollywood films or study of the industry was complete without emplacing Amar Akbar Anthony, as is the case of the Encyclopaedia of Hindi Cinema (2003), Rachel Dwyer’s 100 Bollywood films (2005), and Tejaswini Ganti’s Bollywood: A Guidebook to Popular Hindi Cinema (2013).

Plot-wise Amar Akbar Anthony is no different from melodramatic predecessors in Hindi cinema. Films like Waqt (1965), Ram Aur Shyam (1967), Johnny Mera Naam (1970), or Yaadon Ki Baarat (1973) also tell the story of a family or siblings separated by fate, growing up in vastly different circumstances, uniting for a common cause as strangers but not recognizing each other till they reunite as a family at the denouement to avenge the injustice done to them and/or defeat the villain. Usually, these lost siblings find themselves on opposing sides of the law, socially stratified, or geographically apart. In Amar Akbar Anthony three siblings finding refuge from the anxieties of loss and separation, in homes belonging to India’s three major religions.

Although Amar Akbar Anthony is far more convoluted than any synopsis may suggest, the lost-and-found theme provides a convenient frame. The chauffeur Kishanlal -- who had taken the blame for a crime committed by his boss the mobster Robert -- returns from jail only to find his family neglected to starvation. He takes revenge on his ungrateful boss by kidnapping Robert’s daughter and stealing his loot of smuggled gold. While on the run from Robert’s goons, Kishanlal loses his tuberculosis-stricken wife Bharati who runs away so as to not burden the family with paying for her medical treatment. As Kishanlal tries to flee with his three young sons and the loot, the little boys go astray. The three children, who were supposed to wait under a statue of Mohandas Gandhi for their father to return, get separated from each other and end up lost.

Three young boys get separated from each other at the foot of a statue of Gandhi in Amar Akbar Anthony

Different communities adopt the orphaned boys. The eldest boy grows up to become the strapping police officer, Amar, (played by late Bollywood actor-politician, Vinod Khanna) raised by a Hindu cop. The youngest child, brought up by a Muslim tailor, matures into an emollient singer by the name of Akbar (played by another Bollywood yesteryear star, Rishi Kapoor). The middle child sheltered by the Catholic Church ends up as the pugilistic bootlegger, Anthony (played by Indian screen legend, Amitabh Bachchan). Kishanlal turns into mobster himself, while Bharati has misery piled higher when a falling tree strikes her and she is made blind and destitute on top of her ailment.

How Amar, Akbar, and Anthony cross each other’s paths, find the loves of their life Laxmi, Salma, and Jenny respectively, reunite with Kishanlal and Bharati while defeating the machinations of Robert and convince Kishanlal to abandon his life of crime forms the crux of this relentless melodrama. In between, there are seven song-and-dance scenes, ample fight and car chase action sequences, and even instances of miracles involving divine intervention. God is uncredited but integral to the story as a deux ex machina. With its emotionally charged appeals to the senses, unabashed pursuit of a visual extravaganza, and bang-for-buck vaudevillian entertainment, Amar Akbar Anthony is as much epicurean as it is epic.

Borrowing the metaphor of sight, crudely epitomized by mother Bharati’s loss and miraculous regaining of vision in Amar Akbar Anthony, seeing and screening religious minorities authentically in Indian cinema has tremendous ocular significance to religious harmony as a cultural ballast for secular nationalism. By looking at the legacy left behind by Amar Akbar Anthony for more than a decade in Indian cinema we can see how the technologies of vision aided by star personas performing minority identities create sites of resistance to the homogenization of culture by majoritarian politics. Any atrophying of this commitment to cultural and performative heterogeneity sets Indian cinema on the slippery slope towards pseudo-secularism.

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Performing Secularism

When a film carries multiple emblems that bear the burden of history that by now have become points of cultural reference, it has a surplus of meaning beyond the limits of text. Fundamentally, Amar Akbar Anthony has become an antonomasia for Bollywood multiculturalism coterminous with India’s secularism. India’s first Prime Minister and one of the republic’s founding fathers, Jawaharlal Nehru, together with B.R. Ambedkar the principal architect of the Constitution of India, took great pains to ensure that the state would be impartial to any one religious community. Recognizing the immutability of history, both men sought to ensure that all religions would find a home in India with a custodian state that is neutral and unprejudiced in creating an inclusive political environment. The legal safeguards of a secular state were important for a socially pluralistic society and a nascent republic recovering from a bloody decolonization to find stability.

A year before the release of Amar Akbar Anthony, during the two-year authoritarian interregnum that is India’s Emergency, when democracy and civil liberties were suspended, the ruling Indian National Congress amended the Constitution of India. Among many controversial adjustments, the Preamble of the republic of India was also altered. The description of India was changed from “sovereign democratic republic” to a “sovereign, socialist secular democratic republic”, and also changed the words “unity of the nation” to “unity and integrity of the nation”. The egalitarian self-image brought to bear by the preambular rectification would on the cultural plane diegetically unfold in Amar Akbar Anthony through a family disintegrated by social depredations with inter-religious bonhomie the only proffered amelioration.

Akbar sings a devotional song in Amar Akbar Anthony

Treating Kishanlal’s fragmented family as a microcosm for India is to mediatize the multicultural nature of social reality in India, constituting an apologia for secularism as a central tenet of the state. Authentically representing the cultures of each of these communities ensures that the putative secularism is reified and even memorialized. There is even a prelapsarian quality surrounding the communal amity imagined in Amar Akbar Anthony where religious divisions do not cause hostility -- a throwback to times before the horrors of Partition. The devotional song to the Sufi saint Shirdi Sai Baba revered by both Hindus and Muslims in North India is ‘performed’ in the film by Akbar in a temple where members of both religions worship. During the course of the eclectic worship song, Bharati -- whose name is a metonymy for the personification of the Indian nation as a mother goddess, ‘Bharat Mata’ -- miraculously regains her lost sight while supplicating Shirdi Sai Baba.

The inclusion of elements from Indian cinema’s mythological and devotional genre of religious films such as the supernatural is intended to showcase the spiritual power of religion to unite society rather than divide it. If anything, the primary trigger for conflict in Amar Akbar Anthony is not communalism but class differences. The different religions provide a lodestar for the decisions of the characters that ultimately eases the narrative tensions in the text. Having the three major religions conspicuously ‘represented’ by a Bollywood superstar each is a visual surrogate for a long treatise about multiculturalism with an exportability and reproducibility in varied extra-diegetic contexts.

Bharati regains her sight in Amar Akbar Anthony

From an industrial perspective, Amar Akbar Anthony was a landmark film for the manner in which it redefined the action-masala genre by amplifying the spectacle with multiple star heroes. According to an India Today report from 31 October 1977, Amar Akbar Anthony made "an awe inspiring Rs 2.5 crores at the box office". Recognizing the winning formula that the film had assembled in the months after the film’s success, “26 multi-star-cast blockbusters” were announced in the Bombay (present-day Mumbai) film industry effectively inaugurating the trend of having three or more heroes in a single film. Circa 40 years ago, following the mammoth success of films like Amar Akbar Anthony, Bollywood as a global brand we know it to be also started to take root. According to the same article, that demand for Hindi films was “booming in overseas markets” in culturally diverse markets in South-East Asia, West Asia, South America and pockets in South Africa, Britain, the USA, and Israel.

Recognizing the money making potential of a universalist narrative like Amar Akbar Anthony, which could appeal to a range of audiences and communities, South Indian cinema responded with remakes and derivatives. Both Telugu cinema and Malayalam cinema produced remakes in Ram Robert Rahim (1980) and later, John Jaffer Janardhanan (1982), respectively. The change in the order of names was to give greater precedence to the character Robert (based on Bachchan’s Anthony) played by Telugu superstar Krishna with a huge fanbase in the state of Andhra Pradesh. The latter switched the religious order of the names around to be consonant with social realities in the state of Kerala, home of Malayalam films. Besides the box office success, the adaptations turned the theme of inter-religious harmony into a pan-Indian phenomenon augmenting the secular self-image of the Indian nation through cultural performance.

Tamil cinema was immediately alacritous in adopting the theme of religious tolerance but did not do a faithful remake of the brothers lost-and-found theme. As the name indicates there are three heroes in Shanker Salim Simon (1978) to represent each of India’s major religions but deviates from the ur-text in focalizing the narrative around exogamous romances that cut across class and religious lines -- an even bolder theme than in Amar Akbar Anthony. While far less convoluted, Shanker Salim Simon is no less melodramatic in pitting the three heroes against an antagonistic haute bourgeois patriarch intolerant of any challenges to the elite domination of status quo.

Adopting elements from the critically acclaimed and commercially successful Tamil film Paava Mannippu (1961) about lost-and-found family members, inter-religious romance, and communal harmony, Shanker Salim Simon presents its secularism with ample doses of pop-Marxist anti-bourgeois rhetoric complete with visuals glorifying working class resistance to elite dominance. The other similarity to Amar Akbar Anthony is to be found in the subaltern character of the Catholic Simon (played by another Indian screen legend, Rajinikanth), a rowdy who protects the slum dwellers and members of a neighbouring fishing village from exploitation; a brooding version of Amitabh Bachchan’s boisterous Anthony but just as well meaning and rough-edged. In Simon, we see an early attempt by Rajinikanth to stake his claim as Tamil cinema’s ‘angry young man’ -- a title held by Bachchan in Bollywood.

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