The original champions of secularism

The original champions of secularism

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Sudhirendar Sharma
It is a sheer enigma that the feel-good ideology of pluralism has outlived four decades of populist viewing.

Amar Akbar Anthony

Amar Akbar Anthony

Nearly 40 years after it had hit the screens, three authors have reconstructed the ‘illogic’ of Manmohan Desai’s blockbuster film Amar Akbar Anthony frame by frame. For William Elison, Christian Lee Novetzke, and Andy Rotman, the production is more than a fantasy film in the masala genre as it affirms a moral universe in which good triumphs over evil, villainy is vanquished, patriotism is enshrined, and the laws of family duty are established. What comes out is a layered interpretation of the film’s deeper symbolism, relevant to these times when secularism is not only a bad word but also under threat of misinterpretation.
It may have been a crazy lost-and-found entertainer, but its leading characters — Amar, Akbar, and Anthony are Hindu, Muslim, and Christian, as well as policeman, qawwal, and dada respectively — reflect the cultural anxieties of the state, the nation, and civil society. It has been viewed differently by different people, though. While it carries a subtle political message for filmmaker Shyam Benegal, it has been a kind of ‘illogic’ with a strong emotional content for actress Shabana Azmi. It was dumped by critics who found it loaded with implausible situations and unrealistic characters, and yet it continues to be seen as a film about national integration. Its enduring appeal has cemented its place among Bollywood classics.
Desai had a method in his illogic and justified his oblique method of delivering positive messages, arguing that nothing less than a palatable, sugar-coated pill would have delivered the message about cultural and communal harmony. The film’s three eponymous brothers assert their respective identities at numerous points, but find unity in their diversity in the end, as one brother quips, ‘we are three in one’. Could it be possible in reality? Even though the film presents the possibility of a ‘reality’, it offers differing and competing perspectives. It emphasises the presence of multiple realities. Given the complex matrix of sub-plots feeding into the story’s melodrama, this subsumes the central theme of the film. While many viewers find the lack of a single cohesive message disappointing, the film remains a celebration of competing and contradicting perspectives. After all, one story is never the full story.
In drawing multiple perspectives from religion, history, literature and popular culture, the authors search for the real hero amongst the dominant characters of the film. Could it be Amar, scion of an implicitly Hindu-dominated state, or Akbar, the romantic Muslim as model minority, or Anthony, the good-hearted Christian hooch peddler? Could it not be the quintessential long-suffering mother, played by Nirupa Roy, who as ‘Bharati’ remains blind through the better part of the film? It is the restoration of her sight through divine intervention that gives the three leading characters a sense of purpose with respect to their individual identities, within the copious bosom of a Mother India (the name of the mother directly invokes the name of the country). Only by reuniting with their mother do the boys embrace brotherhood. With such an imaginative leap, the narrative creates a mesmerizing impact on its viewers.
It is a sheer enigma that the feel-good ideology of pluralism has outlived four decades of populist viewing.
Described as the ultimate formula film, it can be easily read as a multivalent allegory encompassing many tragic elements of human existence. Packed within its comic overtones are tragic interludes, ranging from the perceived backwardness of the masses to the irresponsiveness of a political class. However, it must be to the credit of the film-maker that despite the story’s dealing in slum neighborhoods, lost youth, and deprived people, the audience lapped it up as an escape from the drudgery of reality. It is through such an unwritten agreement with the viewers that Desai could salvage the dream of creating a cinematic illusion of secularism.
Without doubt, the book Amar Akbar Anthony is an interdisciplinary gift by three fans to the innumerable fans of an all-time classic. In analyzing the enduring appeal of a sheer entertainer, Elison, Novetzke and Rotman have pooled their individual scholarships in the fields of religion, anthropology and international studies, and come up with a brilliant, multi-layered reading of the film. Like the oft-told fable of the blind men and the elephant, they have applied selective blinkers to construct the elephant. The authors caution the reader to finish the book with the feeling that the elephant is also a tree. If you think that’s impossible, well, that is what the film is all about.
The final sequence, with the musical number conveys the crux of the story. The ‘Anhoni Ko Honi Kar De’ — to make the impossible possible — is a celebration of co-operation and unity in diversity. It reminds the viewer to consider making the impossible possible. It is detailing such as this that makes the book immensely entertaining.
Amar Akbar Anthony: Bollywood, Brotherhood, and the Nation
by William Elison, Christian Lee Novetzke & Andy Rotman
Harvard University Press, UK
Extent: 334, Price: Rs 995
(A renowned environmentalist, Dr. Sudhirendar Sharma is the founder of the Ecological Foundation, New Delhi,India)

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