Amar Akbar Anthony narrates the story of three brothers separated at birth. Kishen Lal, who works as a driver for a smuggler, Robert, takes the blame for an accident committed by his master in return for monetary compensation for his wife and three small boys. On his release, Kishen Lal discovers that Robert has not helped his family. His wife Bharti is suffering from tuberculosis and the children are in a state of destitution. He confronts Robert and is humiliated, but escapes in a car that unknown to him contains a box of gold biscuits. Kishan Lal picks up his sons and leaves them under a statue of Gandhi with the intention of returning after he has dealt with the chasing mob. Meanwhile, his wife has left home because she does not want to be a burden on the family. Kishan Lal’s car goes over a mountain but he escapes and discovers the box of gold. When he returns to the statue to pick up his sons, they are gone. The children have been picked up by men belonging to three different religions and grow up as Amar, Akbar and Anthony. Kishan Lal becomes a major smuggler himself while Bharti, now blind, is told her family is dead. The rest of the film is a roller-coaster ride of gags, action, comedy, romance, revenge, coincidences and reunion. Amar grows up to follow the footsteps of the Hindu police officer who adopts him. Akbar is picked up by a Muslim tailor and brought up as a singer and a believing Muslim. Anthony is found outside a church by a priest and grows up to become a small-time Christian bootlegger. All three enter into romantic liaisons with women from their respective religious communities. Anthony’s girlfriend Jenny, unbeknown to her, is Robert’s daughter kidnapped and brought up by Kishan Lal. Akbar is in love with Salma, a doctor whose father is opposed to the match. Amar falls in love with a woman named Laxmi, whom he rescues from a crooked stepmother and brother. All these parallel narratives unfold and intersect via a series of coincidences. This was Manmohan Desai’s special talent, to flout all norms of plausibility and yet create a narrative that contained a core value system close to his heart. In the case of AAA through the popular idiom of the lost and found tale, three characters are placed in the midst of different religious faiths not in any overt pious way but through an irreverent play with stereotypes.
In 1976 the word ‘secular’ was included as an amendment to the Indian constitution with a vision to protect all religions equally. The Indian notion of secularism has always been different from the original use of the term by the French Revolution, which was envisioned as a clear separation of the Church from the State. Secularism and secular discourse in a multi-religious country like India has had a complicated and chequered history.1 It is therefore interesting that many have pointed to and commented on Desai’s audacious vision of secularism in Amar Akbar Anthony. 2 The simple story of a family separated at the beginning of the film and reunited at the end was not new when AAA was released. The film’s novelty lay in its obliquely posed vision of secularism via a comic structure where the story remained simple but the narrative was filled with chaotic and wild constructions. Films such as AAA remain testimonials to the limits of the framework of secular nationalism adopted by Indian society. In AAA there is a strong projection of minority identities that despite stereotyping is extremely conscious of posing the question of religious tolerance (Virdi 2003: 36). In line with the three different religious identities on display, Desai gave special attention to the minority communities of Christians and Muslims. One of the specific modes adopted here is that of music and its spatial imaginations conveyed through the characters of Akbar and Anthony.
Akbar is popularly known as Akbar Allahabadi in the film (named after a modern Urdu poet from Allahabad), a singer who in the film performs a wellknown Qawwali on stage. Qawwalis are Sufi devotional songs that position themselves against any kind of orthodoxy, sectarianism and ritual practices.3 These songs promote visions of transcendental and personal devotion to the Prophet and God, generally performed by groups of men where the singing tends to build to a crescendo. These performances have a long association with the everyday lives of Muslims in South Asia. As Morcom notes, the Qawwali is often found in ‘scenes of spectacle’ in Hindi films with visual stereotyping of Muslims that are now identified with these performances.4 Akbar’s ‘Purda hai’ song is performed as a romantic song for his lady love sitting with her father in the front row of a large auditorium filled to capacity. The erotic and yet comical charge of the song with bursts of colour, sheer curtains descending rhythmically into the frame, and stereotypical accoutrements associated with imagined notions of Muslim culture, are all deployed with confidence in the sequence. As Morcom says, no one seeing this song ‘would ever guess that this genre is originally a spiritual and devotional one’ (2007: 82–3). Desai could take great liberties like this in the service of harmony without hurting any religious sentiments.
If Akbar’s cultural association with Islamic culture is presented through the Qawwali then, for Anthony, Easter celebrations become the stage for a highly performative song. ‘My name is Anthony Gonzalves’, a hugely popular song of the film, showcases Anthony dressed in a black tailcoat popping out of a giant-sized Easter egg to sing for his lady love, Jenny. While the song is sung by playback singer, Kishore Kumar, Bachchan alternates the song with nonsensical verse in his own voice. Some of the words of the verse are, ‘Wait, wait, wait! You see the whole country of the system is juxtapositioned by the haemoglobin in the atmosphere because you are a sophisticated rhetorician intoxicated by the exuberance of your own verbosity!!’ Bachchan, arguably Hindi cinema’s biggest actor to date, was at that time known for his ‘angry man’ persona which he had played in a number of films.5 Though he had performed a comic character in Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Chupke Chupke (1975), it was Amar Akbar Anthony that showcased Bachhan’s talent for comedy. As a boy adopted by a Christian priest, Anthony always wears a cross and has the swagger of a typical Bombay Tapori with a hybrid street speech popularly known as Bambayya.6 His collection of tight leather jackets and hats and his one-liners made him hugely popular after AAA. The Easter song sequence ends with Anthony drunk and beaten by Jenny’s bodyguard. Anthony’s display of masculinity here is not that of the ‘angry man’ persona. Rather he appears as a loveable victim who then proceeds to have a memorable drunken monologue with himself in front of a mirror at home. Desai’s style of filmmaking depended on an aggressive and wild mobilisation of stereotypes. Thus, Anthony’s Christian identity is presented through his playful use of English, his costume, and his freedom to drink and dance at a night club. These scenes and moments are etched in popular memory and remain central to the star biography built up by Bachchan.
As in many lost and found tales, objects of memory play an important role in the film. The Santoshi Ma locket becomes a connecting thread between the past and present, identifying and connecting people.7 There is also a letter written by Bharti which Anthony carries in his pocket all the time. Amar buries a toy pistol outside his house as a child, the memory of which returns to him as an adult when he visits the neighbourhood during his investigations. It is here that Kishan Lal spots Amar digging to recover the gun and realises that this police officer must be his long-lost eldest son. Akbar’s childhood photo on the wall of his house is what Bharti recognises as that of her youngest son. But there is another thread typical of Bombay films of the 1970s and significant for the Bombay crime world of the time that circulates throughout the narrative, constantly changing hands. This is the movement of gold biscuits signifying Bombay’s peculiar status as a city of gold. First, Kishan Lal becomes a smuggler with the gold he discovers in the car and uses to escape from Robert’s men at the beginning of the film. Many years later, Robert steals a similar box of gold from Kishan Lal’s men and runs with it to trip over Anthony with whom he must share the fortunes. The second encounter between Robert and Anthony was used as a situation for an extremely popular dialogue that has been used several times in other films – ‘aisa ich life me admi do hi time bhagta hai – police ka case ho ya Olympic ka race ho’ (‘Only two kinds of situations in life can make a man run like this – an Olympic race or a police case!’). Thus both the figure of the smuggler and the larger context of gold are parodied by Desai throughout the narrative of Amar Akbar Anthony.
The film’s script and screenplay revel in chance occurrences and every problem posed is solved by a coincidence. A wild example of this is the way Bharti becomes blind early in the film when a tree falls on her. Many years later, after a second accident, Bharati crawls into a temple and miraculously regains her eyesight. With such miracles and coincidences strewn through the narrative, AAA builds up to a final climax in Robert’s den with the entire cast now under one roof. This was the one sequence for which the entire cast had to be present together. Amar, Akbar and Anthony arrive at Robert’s den in disguise but in keeping with their religious identity. Amar is dressed as a band master, Anthony as a priest and Akbar as a Muslim tailor. Jenny is being forced to marry her bodyguard but the arrival of the three brothers throws a spanner in the works. This fun-filled climax had the most unique slapstick action following the well-known song ‘unhonee ko honee kar de honee kar de, honee ko unhonee, ek jagah jab jama ho teeno, Amar, Akbar, Anthony’ (‘The impossible is possible and the possible made impossible when Amar, Akbar and Anthony come together’). This song has multiplied well beyond the film into the domain of sports, politics and advertising. Popular versions of the song have played in political rallies to promote anti-corruption campaigns and for jingles to promote cricket players. The climax leads up to the arrival of the cops and a reuniting of the entire family.
The unique quality of AAA was its explicit desire for comedy and a distance from overt sentimentality. All sentiments in the film are channelled and played out through comic gestures, one-liners, stereotypes and gags. At one level a tragic story with a revenge theme, but a film that turned Indian melodrama’s powerful universe of emotions on its head, maintaining a lightness that only Desai could pull off so well.
1. Rajeev Bhargava (ed.), Secularism and its Critics: Themes in Indian Politics, Oxford India Paperbacks, 2000 and Bhargava, The Promise of India’s Secular Democracy, Oxford University Press, USA, 2010.
2. Mayank Chaya, ‘Hindi Cinema has greatly contributed to a secular idea of India’, Indian Express, August 18, 2013.
3. Peter Manuel, ‘North Indian Sufi Popular Music in the Age of Hindu and Muslim Fundamentalism’, Ethnomusicology, Vol. 52, No. 3, Fall 2008, pp. 378–400.
4. Anna Morcom, Hindi Film Songs and the Cinema, Farnham, Ashgate, 2007.
5. Amitabh Bachchan’s ‘superstar’ status has been documented by both journalists and academics. Imagined as the ‘angry man’ in the 1970s by the writer duo, Salim Khan and Javed Akhtar, Bachchan found himself catapulted into a strikingly new cinematic imagination of political turbulence. His image as the ‘angry man’ circulated widely and gained the currency of a modern myth. Never before had an actor had this kind of presence, embodying the social and political turbulence of his time. (See, Madhava Pasad, The Ideology of the Hindi Film: A Historical Reconstruction, New Delhi, Oxford University Press, 1998, pp. 117–59; Vijay Mishra, Bollywood Cinema: Temples of Desire, New York and London, Routledge, 2002; Ranjani Mazumdar, Bombay Cinema: An Archive of the City, Minneapolis, MN and London, University of Minnesota Press, 2007, pp. 1–40; Sushmita Dasgupta, Amitabh: The Making of a Superstar, New York, Penguin Global, 2007; Valentina Vitali, Hindi Action Cinema: Industries, Narratives, Bodies, New Delhi, Oxford University Press, 2008, pp. 184–229.)
6. The term Tapori is used for a typical vagabond figure belonging to the street cultures of Bombay. (See, Mazumdar, 2007: 41–78.)
7. Santoshi Ma is a recently invented goddess of the Hindu pantheon that emerged in the 1960s. She was a little known figure until a popular film titled, Jai Santoshi Ma, was released in 1975. (For an anthropological take on this cult goddess see, Veena Das, ‘The Mythological Film and its Framework of Meaning: An Analysis of Jai Santoshi Ma’, India International Centre Quarterly, Vol. 8, No. 1, March 1981.)
Cast and Crew:
[Country: India. Production Company: Hirawat Jain and Company, MKD Films and Manmohan Films. Director: Manmohan Desai. Producer: Manmohan Desai. Screenwriter: Prayag Raj. Dialogue: Kader Khan. Cinematographer: Peter Pereira. Music: Laxmikant Pyarelal. Editor: Kamlakar Karkhaine. Art Director: A Rangaraj. Cast: Vinod Khanna (Amar), Amitabh Bachchan (Anthony), Rishi Kapoor (Akbar), Parveen Babi (Jenny), Neetu Singh (Salma), Shabana Aazmi (Laxmi), Pran (Kishen Lal), Nirupa Roy (Bharti), Jeevan (Robert), Mukri (Salma’s father).]
Siddharth Bhatia, Amar Akbar Anthony: Masala, Madness and Manmohan Desai, Noida, UP, Harper Collins India, 2013.
Connie Haham, Enchantment of the Mind: Manmohan Desai’s Films, University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, MI, Roli Books Pvt., 2006.
Jyotika Virdi, The Cinematic Imagination: Indian Popular Films as Social History, New Brunswick, NJ, Rutgers University Press, 2003.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.