How a film in the 1970s spoke of the idea of the nation as a robust, democratic, plural space.
Once upon a time, chilluns, there lived in La La Land, three brothers, who went by the names of Amar, Akbar, Anthony. That’s right, Hindu, Muslim, Christian. Different religions? Phir bhi bhai-bhai? How was that even possible? Because it was Bollywood, silly.
The year, 1977. The film, Amar Akbar Anthony (AAA), directed by Manmohan Desai, the king of masala movies. Bouncing around a madcap plot, dreamt up by the peerless Kader Khan, Amar Khanna, Akbar Illahabadi and Anthony Gonsalves showed us that it was entirely possible to live happily together. That espousing different religions and belief systems had nothing to do with maintaining bhaichara, goodwill, and amity, amongst each other and in society at large.
Logic was the weakest component in mainstream Hindi masala movies, especially those that came out in the ’70s and ’80s. Naagins taking on vengeful human avatars, the dead coming miraculously alive, bullets tracing a curve in the air: we took these things in our stride.
But AAA took the cake, and everything else in the confectionary shop. In an iconic scene, which felt perfectly logical in the movie’s scheme of things, three men are seen donating blood to an old woman lying injured on a hospital bed. No prizes for guessing who they are. The three bhais, of course. They don’t know that the woman is their mother. We do. Who else would it be in a Manmohan Desai movie?
The director was careful to get the brothers to fall in love with the ‘right girls’. Upright cop Amar (Vinod Khanna) gets Lakshmi (Shabana Azmi), qawaali-singer Akbar has eyes only for Salma (Neetu Singh), and the good-for-nothing tapori Anthony (Amitabh Bachchan) gifts his heart to Jenny (Parveen Babi). I used to wonder what would have happened if the guys and girls had got mixed up, too. But then I made peace with it, because the amount of subversion injected in the film through its male leads was good enough.
We laughed our heads off, especially when Bachchan was doing his thing: oh that drunk scene in front of the mirror, and that unforgettable song in which he rises out of a mammoth Easter egg. We all wanted to live in Kholi number 420. There was non-stop laughter, and more than a few furious eye-roll moments. But we also recognised the importance of what the film said, in its campy, nutty, vastly entertaining manner: there could be diversity, but oh yes, there could be unity too. It was only a movie, but it spoke to the ideal idea of the nation, a robust, democratic, plural space.
In a climactic song, a line goes, Anhoni ko honi kar de, honi ko anhoni, ek jagah jo jamaa ho teenon, Amar, Akbar, Anthoneeee”.
Can we ever go back to that India again?
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