Amitabh Bachchan in Amar Akbar Anthony

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

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

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.

The Multiculturalism of Legends

The cumulative consequence of textually excluding Muslims or typecasting them in the moral universe of Bollywood narratives is to render their visual presence insecure and conditional upon majoritarianism.

Critically, their performances in Amar Akbar Anthony and Shanker Salim Simon would provide the foundations for Bachchan and Rajinikanth to become multicultural stars, in Bollywood and Kollywood respectively, in the ’70s and ’80s, in ways no other leading stars in the action-masala genre have since been able to match. To have a marquee movie star adorning the cultural symbols, style of dressing, and mimicking the practices of religious minorities takes these cultures out of the fringe and turns them into features of both popular consciousness and mainstream visual culture. They become culturally integrated into public imagination through a mass medium like popular cinema. Especially when minority heroes portray positive archetypes of heroism, they become ego ideals that appeal to a mass audience.


Rajinikanth as Michael D’Souza in Naan Vazhavaippen

Shortly after his role as Simon, then a rising star of Tamil cinema, Rajinikanth followed up by playing the chain-smoking lumpenproletariat with a heart of gold, Michael D’Souza in Naan Vazhavaippen (1979). Even though this stylized anti-hero was only supposed to part of a cameo, as actor Pran’s character was in the Hindi original, Majboor (1974), Michael ascends as the ‘second hero’ in the narrative. Michael helps the main hero, Ravi (played by Indian cinema thespian Sivaji Ganesan) – the head of a middle-class Hindu family implicated in a crime he did not commit. Throughout his extended cameo appearance in Naan Vazhavaippen, Michael reminds us that, despite being a thief who only steals from the ostentatiously wealthy, he is a “true Christian” who also gives to the poor and vulnerable. In an ending loaded with Christological references, Michael’s gives up his life to clear Ravi’s name and saves him from the death penalty.

Rajinikanth would play the vigilante Solomon who ultimately forgives his enemy in En Kelvikku Enna Bathil (1978), the eponymous con-man with a conscience in Johnny (1980), and the iconic supercop Alex Pandian in Moondru Mugam (1982) to name prominent Christian heroes performed by Rajinikanth. While at the same time Rajinikanth also displayed no hesitation to play Muslim characters as the second lead or high profile guest performances in other language films like Kamruddin in the Malayalam adaptation of Aladdin, Allauddinum Arputha Vilakkum (1979), the hitman Rashid in the Telugu action film Tiger (1979), and often in Bollywood but most famously as the daredevil cop Inspector Hussein in Geraftaar (1985). Having a major star representing these minorities facilitates lends authenticity and realism in reflecting India’s diverse social makeup on screen. Moreover, it facilitates the strategy of identification with India’s religious minorities rather than relegating them to the status of ‘outsiders’ by visually ghettoizing them.

Even more so, Bollywood megastar Bachchan wore his multicultural credentials proudly in emblematizing religious minorities through a variety of characters who have become a feature of popular cultural memory. Together with Anthony, the waiter-singer Johnny in Naseeb (1981) who sings the hit ‘John Jani Janardhanan’, and the party worker turned vigilante David D’Costa in the blockbuster Aakhree Raasta (1986), among others, allowed Bachchan to make minority communities visible thereby entrenching their presence culturally at the national level.

As the majority minority, seeing and screening Muslims in Indian cinema prevents the ‘Otherization’ of the community from being entrenched. Driving an Islamicate film or Muslim social through a star vehicle serves to forestall cultural exclusion and social isolation. Who could forget Bachchan’s influential Muslim character roles from Ahmed Reza in Imaan Dharam (1977) to arguably his most iconic role in Coolie (1982) as the porter and working class hero, Iqbal Khan? Bachchan was also the lead in two Islamicate Bollywood films as the eponymous superhero in the fantasy Ajooba (1991) and the Afghan tribesman Badshah Khan in the epic Khuda Gawah (1992), with the latter set in Afghanistan foregrounding the experiences of ordinary Afghans.

This is Maheshmati!

Fast-forward 40 years after Amar Akbar Anthony and 25 years after Khuda Gawah, the distinction of epic in South Asia is solely the prerogative of one mega blockbuster, Baahubali 2: The Conclusion (2017). The anticipated sequel to the blockbuster, Baahubali: The Beginning (2015) has captivated pan-Indian audiences to become India’s highest grossing film of all time. The historical war fantasy comparable in extravagant visual spectacle to The Lord of the Rings film trilogy, Troy (2004), and the 300 franchise is as controversial as it is coruscating. Some critics, have called the Baahubali films “a victory symbol for the Hindu Right and specifically for Modi” and the “cultural Trojan horse of Hindi and Hindu nationalism” with at least one writer calling it out for asserting the “religious dominance” of one particular community. A charge that is misdirected.

The Baahubali franchise is a two-part Hamletesque story of the film’s eponymous hero fighting to reclaim his father’s throne from his evil uncle, redeem his queen mother held captive by the wicked monarch, and return the kingdom of Maheshmati to its former glory. Needless to say, the narrative uncannily doubles Disney’s The Lion King (1994) right down to the cicatrix over the villain’s right eye mirroring Scar and the infant Baahubali being hoisted before the kingdom by queen mother Sivagami like Rafiki does with Simba at the end of the “Circle of Life” song to the gathering animals to name a few similarities.

Set somewhere in India’s antediluvian past believed to be at the end of the latter half of the first millennium, long before Mughal hegemony over most of South Asia and longer before India was installed as the jewel in the crown of Pax Britannica, the milieu in the Baahubali franchise is a definitively Hindu one. The first film has a Muslim weapons dealer from Kabul and contains references to Persia and Greece, but as a feudal power struggle in a Hindu kingdom it is to be expected that the two films are resplendent with ancient Hindu architecture, culture, and ethos. There is nothing intrinsically Hindutva about the Baahubali films because the setting predates even an inchoate idea of a united multicultural India, let alone the belief in Hindu predominance over India.


Prabhas in Bahubali 2: The Conclusion (2017)

Any discourse surrounding the two Baahubali films must consider the inspiration from Amar Chitra Katha — India’s largest comic publishing house turning narratives from India’s epics, mythology, history, and folklore into comics. The Amar Chitra Katha packaged ancient tales about gods and heroes from India’s cultural heritage into superheroes, inspired by American comic books, all bare-chested with bulging muscles, near physical perfection, and superhuman powers. Thus, the hypermasculine Hindu warriors in Baahubali must be seen as India’s version of the Marvel and DC superhero movies rather than a proselytizing vehicle for Hindu neo-fundamentalism.

Yet, it is the insidious support from bigots who hijacked the film as a mascot for Hindu majoritarian supremacism that has caused concern. Some fanatics have prevaricated that the success of the film stems solely from its exaltation of Hinduism. With social media as their platform, these extremists have used the film as a mace to bash Muslims and liberals in Bollywood who have not openly glorified Hinduism in Indian cinema. Most importantly, treating the legendary fantasy as ancient reality shows how chauvinists for their homogenizing political project have appropriated the film. In the social and political moment it was released the Baahubali franchise has become an unwitting propaganda film for militant Hindu nationalism.

Perhaps what has changed most from Amar Akbar Anthony to Baahubali is the increasingly precarious nature of secularism in India. In the intervening 40 years between the two films, Hindu nationalism and Islamist radicalism have assaulted secularism in India. Following the crisis of the state and the social democratic political system after the Indian Emergency, the growth of Islamic fundamentalism in India was influenced by political changes in neighboring states in South Asia. These political developments in turn catalyzed the Hindu neo-fundamentalists to mobilize under the banner of Hindu nationalism and develop its own violent wing with saffron terrorism culminating in the destruction and demolition of the Babri Masjid temple in 1992, which caused riots across major cities in North India 1992-1993. In reaction to this, certain Islamic fundamentalist movements in India transmutated into radical Islamism and jihadism. The result is the looming threat of the outbreak of religious conflict and the cycle of communal violence that threatens to tear asunder India’s secular structures. Cultural production was not spared these pernicious influences.

In the period from Khudah Gawah to Baahubali, Bollywood’s A-List stars emerged as three Khans: Aamir, Salman, and Shah Rukh. Despite their conspicuous Muslim identity, journalist Sohini Chattophadyay is right in saying that “their filmography is almost entirely made up of Hindu heroes.” She goes on to remind us of the majoritarian legacies left behind by the three Khans: “Salman Khan’s most enduring screen name is Prem, and Shah Rukh is identified with Rahul. Aamir has played a variety of characters in his career yet rarely a Muslim.”

Despite monopolizing the industry for the past 25 years, with the seven of the ten biggest blockbusters in Bollywood being stars of the three Khans, at certain junctures even turning the industry into a triopoly, they seldom perform roles as Muslims. Chattophadyay adds that a statistical study of Hindi films found 82 percent of films released in 2013 and 88 percent released in 2014 featuring Hindu heroes. While it is hard to confirm the veracity of these statistics, even a cursory glance at the filmography of the three Khans reveals a predilection towards Hindu heroes whether or not religion is central to the characterization, identity, or mission of the hero.

Worse still, says award-winning critic Meenakshi Shedde, besides the neglect from its A-List stars of that community, in the aftermath of communal riots of 1992-1993 and the 9/11 attacks in the United States, Muslims were subjected to negative stereotyping in prominent films in Bollywood. She claims that,

A large number of films had the Muslim character — often conflated with the Pakistani — as the villain/terrorist… Think Roja (1992), Gadar: Ek Prem Katha (2001), Border (1997), Pinjar (2003), Mission Kashmir (2000), Fiza (2000), Fanaa (2006), Agneepath (2012) and Sarfarosh (1999), which featured a treacherous Pakistani ghazal singer… After September 11, both Kurbaan (2009) and New York (2009) explored the causes of Islamic terrorism in the US.

If in the post-1992 and post-9/11 period Bollywood does on occasion include positive and progressive Muslim characters that defy typecasting, they were those characters “whose religion scarcely matters in the plot”, implying that the Islamic identities of these major characters are simply subsumed and glossed over. The cumulative consequence of textually excluding Muslims or typecasting them in the moral universe of Bollywood narratives is to render their visual presence insecure and conditional upon majoritarianism.

Likewise, Kollywood’s two A-List stars — who since 2007 have continued a duopolistic tendency in the industry that dates back at least 60 years — also rarely perform minority identities. Tamil superstar Joseph Vijay, who till today is known by his professional mononym, Vijay, has only played a Christian protagonist twice despite the actor’s personal affiliations to the religion. Once early in his career in Nilavae Vaa (1998) and for an ephemeral part in the recent Theri (2016). While the biggest blockbuster of his career Kaththi (2014) opens itself up to Christological interpretations, there is no Christian hero. Likewise, his competition to status of Tamil superstar, Ajith Kumar, who is married to a Christian former actress, has also hardly played a minority hero, apart from a bit part in Citizen (2001) and in Billa 2 (2012). Similar absences are to be found in Telugu cinema and Kannada cinema. Only Malayalam cinema’s two A-List stars, Dulquer Salmaan and Nivin Pauly, a Muslim and a Christian respectively, often portray heroes from minority communities. Otherwise, Muslim and Christian characters have been reduced to outsiders in Telugu, Kannda, and Tamil cinema.

Marginalization both in reality and on-screen are different axes on the same chart of democratization. The absence of religious minorities in India’s commercial cinema may be indicative of their growing unimportance as a market to be tapped into. Worse still, the lack of interest in screening their lives points to Indian cinema’s desire to appeal solely to the numerically superior religious community, reinforcing majoritarian sway over cultural discourse. Exclusion from normative value construction and visual eliding sets in motion irreversible cultural homogenizing. It would be a pity if the Akbars and Anthonys of Indian cinema narratives were to be permanently consigned to the realm of memory and nostalgia only.

The privileging of a Hindu identity through protagonists and heroes who are only always Hindu, regardless of whether religion is central to the character’s lodestar or not, essentially reinforces the slide towards pseudo-secularism and makes the vaunted Bollywood/Indian cinematic multiculturalism purely perfunctory. This is not to say that all narratives must now be contrived to ensure minority heroes for the sake of it nor is there anything wrong with having Hindu title roles per se. However, more creative energy can be expanded into providing visibility, authenticity, and complexity to the lived experiences of religious minorities in India. Artistic expression has tremendous power to resist and provide grievance redressal but it also takes temerity.

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Poster photo from Wikipedia By Source, Fair use, Link