Isn’t that funny! I was just emailing with a friend about this film, and now Amitabh tweets that today is the 45th anniversary! With apologies to my friend, I am going to go ahead and raid our email exchange for all the random things I thought about it, so I don’t have to re-think them all.
The first thing you need to know about Anand is that it is a Hrishikish Mukherjee film. Mukherjee had a very distinctive film style, he liked small family stories with light touches and little mistaken identities and so on. No big dramas, no big action scenes, no big tragedies either. His movies are what Indian society calls “middle-class”. In America, we think of “middle-class” as meaning sort of good hardworking humble people, not in the highest economic class, but they own their own house and have a car. In India, it’s basically the same, but with the addition that “middle-class” usually also means educated and a little more interested in high culture: classical music and dance styles, novels, poetry, and anything but the standard Hindi film fare.
Mukherjee’s fims were going after this audience. The other films coming out at that time wouldn’t interest the educated types, they had big sexy scenes and song numbers and overly dramatic speeches. The “middle-class” audience wanted something a little lighter, a little smarter. I really like Mukherjee’s films, but most of them are definitely only something you can enjoy if you pay attention and watch closely. Not for an audience wandering out to buy popcorn in the middle or coming in late or whistling and stomping in the movie theater. His films usually did well, often very well, but none of them were really huge blockbuster record breaking hits.
Even though they weren’t huge hits, because Mukherjee’s films were acknowledged as “Better”, he was able to get some amazing casts together. Besides that, actors really liked working on them as sort of a break from the other sorts of stuff. Especially the more educated and “middle-class” actors. In Chupke Chupke, for instance, you had Sharmila Tagore, Jaya Bhadhuri, and Amitabh. All of them came from extremely artistic, educated, respectable families, they could really dig in and enjoy this kind of complex dialogue and clever script. And then you had Dharmendra, who got to take a break from playing the super manly action hero and do something a little different, and Om Prakash got to have a full character and plot in a Mukherjee film, instead of just being the comic relief in a bigger picture. But most of all, it sounds like Mukherjee was just a really nice guy to work with, people liked working with him, and would do it over and over again.
Even Rajesh Khanna was willing to work with him, and Rajesh Khanna didn’t really like working with anyone. Stories abound of him showing up hours, or even days, late to set. He didn’t like to rehearse or memorize dialogue. But the cameras would turn on, and it would be magic. He was smart enough to realize that his sort of nuclear powered charm worked really well in the context of Mukherjee’s perfectly constructed light dramas/comedies. He worked with him three more times after Anand (Bawarchi, Namak Haraam, Naukri).
Rajesh Khanna was supposed to be what made this film a little bit bigger than the standard Mukherjee film. Although, there were still no big dance numbers or fight scenes or anything like that, or even a real villain. So it is still recognizably “Mukherjee”. But it had that star quality built in. Casting Amitabh was actually an after thought, and kind of a favor. He’d met Mukherjee socially, and seemed like a nice decent young man, who could certainly handle complex dialogue in good Hindi, considering his father was one of the greatest living Hindi-Urdu poets.
Everyone else around Amitabh and Rajesh are sort of Mukherjee stock players. Nice low level actors who worked with him a lot. Oh, and Dara Singh! This was early on, he was still “Dara Singh-Wrestler!” making cameos in films instead of “Dara Singh-actor” playing a character. It was supposed to be a Rajesh Khanna film all the way, with Amitabh just there for him to play off of. But then somewhere in the middle of filming, Amitabh just took over. Rajesh Khanna does a fantastic job, but in many ways he was just playing his standard persona, only dying. But Amitabh went completely out of his established comfort zone and came up with this whole concept of his character being not just sad about losing his patient, but angry. Like, burning hidden anger that drives him. And then of course there is the death scene that would stand out in any picture, but in a Mukherjee picture, where everything is so restrained and quiet and non-dramatic, it really really stands out!
Amitabh was supposed to be the one who sort of fit naturally into the Mukherjee environment, with his fancy background and friendship with the director and professional attitude on set, but what this movie actually did was prove that Amitabh didn’t belong in those kinds of drawing room films, because he was way too raw for it. The death scene in this is what got the attention of the industry and lead to Zanjeer which lead to Sholay, Deewar, and so on.
Amitabh’s star-making turn still didn’t take anything away from Rajesh Khanna’s performance. Mukherjee made him look good, it was a great role written just right for him, and mostly, I suspect, Amitabh kind of sparked off of him and forced him to up his game. They are just so different in every way! Even down to their preparation, Amitabh is all about studying the script and preparing the character and so on, and Rajesh would just show up and do a shot. And then, of course, Rajesh was the ultimate in sort of gentle charming lover persona, and Amitabh was all about powerful performances and deep wells of angst with no time for love.
And then the film actually came out, and it became the basic template for the dying figure in an Indian movie. It’s the clear model for Shahrukh’s character in Kal Ho Na Ho, of course. But even if the dying figure isn’t a central character, like Jimmy Shergill in Munna Bhai or the little girl in Cheeni Kum, they are shown enjoying life and being happier than anyone else, not wisely noble and above it all, but grasping at life as long as they can. Even down to his disease, Anand is the model. “Lymphosarcoma of the intestines” shows up way more in Indian film characters than it really should!
This is why I was so interested in how they used Anand and Rajesh Khanna in Neerja. Because at a certain point, when it becomes clear that she will die young with her life unfinished, Anand is all anyone is going to be thinking of. I think it was really smart of them to get the big reference out of the way right at the beginning, and then have it sort of hanging over everything for the rest of the film. It kind of forced the audience to make the connections for themselves as she hit the beats of the Anand story (inspiring others, accepting death and the loss of love, forcing herself to remain positive and hide her own fears, etc.). And then at the end, they could have so easily used an Anand quote for her final message. But that would have, oddly, been against the spirit of Anand. Better to have her talk about a short life in the beginning, when she was young and happy and thought her life would be long. And then when she was actually facing death, to have her use a quote that is sillier and less serious (well, in this context. In the original film, the “Pushpa, I hate tears!” line was a heartbreaker), because she wants people to remember her happy and joking.