This is just the happiest movie! Crazy goofy happy. I watched it while feeling kind of down (no reason, didn’t get enough sleep the night before, that kind of thing), and it perked me right up! Highly recommend it next time you need a shot of happiness.
The funny thing is, this incredibly happy movie was made by Manmohan Desai, who killed himself. Well, maybe. It depends on who you ask. Some people say he fell over the railing of a balcony. Other people say he was suffering from severe back pain (implying that it was physical pain, not mental, which drove him to end his life). And then there are the vast majority who say “yeah, the whole industry knew he was depressed, and then he jumped off a balcony.”
He died 17 years after AAA came out, so maybe he was happy when making AAA, and became unhappy later. But I don’t think so, I mean, I don’t think he could have been perfectly happy even while he was making these incredibly happy movies. His wife died in 1979, for instance, right when he was in the middle of making Suhaag and Naseeb, two other incredibly silly and happy films. I think maybe his talent was giving the audience these wonderful worlds to escape to where it all turned out for the best in the end, the lost was always found, justice always prevailed, and true love won out. And nothing was so bad that it couldn’t be put right. It’s just too bad that he couldn’t escape to this world from his own mind.
(Manmohan Desai with Rishi Kapoor on the sets of this movie.)
Blech, that is a downer of an opening! And it’s such a not-downer movie. But so long as I am being a downer, might as well get all the downer stuff out of the way right at the beginning!
This film, and a lot of 70s films, had a very superficial way of dealing with religious conflict. 3 heroes, each with a different religion, but the religions are typically represented by something as simple as wearing a cross or singing a Qawali, not any deep discussion of their historical place in society or the burden of being a minority of anything like that. However, within that superficiality, there was a cheerfulness and acceptance that has been lost a little in recent years.
To put it in the simplest possible comparison, Rishi Kapoor plays an out and proud Muslim in this film. This was the second time he had played a Muslim character on film, after playing Majnu a few years earlier. Both characters were primarily romantic lovers, not anything violent. In contrast, his son Ranbir has never played a Muslim onscreen in his 9 year career. His first role even coming close to it will be in the Sanjay Dutt biopic, in which the religion will be no doubt related to crime and terrorism. And Amitabh Bachchan in this film plays a Christian, one who wears a cross and has an Anglicized name and goes to church and confession. His son Abhishek has never played a character that Christian (it’s possible Jai Dixit from the Dhoom films is Christian, but it is never explicit).
(See his subtle cross pendant? In case we didn’t get it from the name “Anthony Gonsalves”)
This film represents a simple view of religious identity, but also a more open view, from a time when an actor could casually decide to take a non-Hindu role without concern over protests, or turning off the fan community, or anything else. It may have been superficial representation, but at least it was there! You could see some version of yourself onscreen, and you weren’t the bad guy.
Within this cheerful guise, this film also was remarkably feminist. Neetu was a Muslim woman whose father restricted her, but she was also a working woman, a doctor. Parveen Baby, our Christian heroine, had her own sexual agency, deciding who she wanted to marry, even if he was a lowclass bar owner, and her father-figure Pran supported her in that without a second thought. And Shabana, our fallen woman type, wasn’t blamed for what her circumstances had forced her to do and was even rewarded for it with marriage to an honorable man. Again, all of this happened in the midst of a truly ridiculous over the top plot, but it did give a nice message to young girls.
(The last shot of the movie has both our 3 major religions united, and our 3 progressive Indian women together)
Maybe that cheerfulness is part of the reason it was so progressive? This is a very optimistic view of the world! Women can work and fall in love, brothers can be from different religions without conflict, and criminals can reform. Well, some criminals. Criminals played by Pran. Criminals played by Jeevan are bad to the core.
I feel like I’m not properly selling this movie if you haven’t seen it yet. It’s really not about big religious statements and stuff like that. It is mostly about hopefulness and coming together after divisions. And wacky songs and crazy fight scenes and happy people. This is what people mean when they say “A good old Masala Film” or “A real Entertainer”. This is that sort of 3-hours-of-happiness-for-5-rupees film that drove the massive majority of the Indian population, and lower class recovering colonial populations around the world, to Indian films in the first place. Also, Pran has a beard!
The big reason to watch Amar Akbar Anthony is just to glory at the insanity of the plot. Which somehow, while you are watching it, makes perfect sense. SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILER SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
We open with Pran being released from jail. I forgot that, that the incident which starts this whole thing off isn’t even shown. Anyway, Pran is released from jail, in a white chauffeurs outfit. He goes to buy toys and candy, and then walks down a tiny back alley into his humble home to find Nirupa Roy coughing and three little boys sobbing in hunger. And only then do we learn through snappy dialogue that his boss “Robert” (Jeevan) promised to take care of Pran’s family if Pran would take the rap for a driving offense and go to jail for 18 months. Pran goes rushing off to confront disdainful Jeevan, who sneers at his story of dying starving children and dying wife, then drips his drink on his shoes and makes poor Pran literally wipe his shoes clean, because Jeevan is eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeevil. And after all that, he still refuses to help Pran’s family. Which makes Pran leave, in a fury, and steal his car. Not aware that the car has gold hidden in a suitcase in the back. Pran rushes home, with the car, to find that Nirupa Roy has left behind the children and a suicide note, saying that they shouldn’t waste money on her care. Pran grabs the kids and throws them in the car and takes off to search for Nirupa. But notices that he is being chased by Jeevan’s men, and so stops the car and leaves the kids for safe-keeping under a statue of Gandhi. The oldest kid runs after the car and is hit. The baby starts to dry, so the middle kid goes off to get him food. While he is gone, a passing Muslim man sees the crying baby, and picks it up, calling out for who left the child, finally deciding that God has put the child in his path and it is his responsibility to care for it, and he puts the baby in his car. The middle child comes back to find the baby gone, and takes off looking for it. He ends up falling down outside the door of a church. Meanwhile, the oldest child was hit by a car and taken in by the cops. As for the parents, Pran had a long car chase that ended with his car blowing up, but him crawling out at the last minute, and Nirupa Roy was hit on the head by a branch and picked up by THE VERY SAME MUSLIM MAN WHO RESCUED HER BABY FROM THE PARK! In fact, the baby is in the backseat crying, but since Nirupa is blind, she doesn’t realize it is her own son.
Okay, I’m exhausted. That was just the first 5 minutes, and there are still so many twists to come. I can’t possibly do them all! I’m going to have to cheat a little on this SPOILER section and just do Big Picture Concepts instead of even trying to remember and repeat all the stuff that happens.
First Big Picture Concept that I find fascinating is how our central family of 5 keep unconsciously recreating standard family patterns, without even knowing they are related. It’s not just the really obvious ones, like calling the blind flower seller “Ma”. No, it’s the little stuff, like Amitabh and Rishi ganging up together on Vinod, the way little brothers do on the big brother. Or Amitabh helping Rishi with his romance, the way a big brother would help his little brother. Or the very Oedipal way both of the older sons have confrontations with their father.
The biggest example is the fight between Vinod and Amitabh. This is kind of a famous fight, because of how it showed the level to which Amitabh had come. All the “rules” say that the older brother must win a fight with the younger brother, and that the cop must win a fight with the criminal. But on the other hand, their would have been a riot in the theater if Amitabh Bachchan had been seen to lose a fight. So instead we see them fight-fight-fight, evenly matched all the way. And then they fall into a shed, and we don’t see what happens, but when it is over, Vinod is carrying Amitabh out.
Another clever thing, this is a classic “Amitabh is bad, but not SO bad” kind of role. He runs a bar, but a legal bar. He may dress dangerously and get into fights, but he also goes to church every Sunday. He’s just kind of “naughty”, not bad-bad. Enough to maintain his social outsider status, but not to cross the line into a dark and serious kind of character. It’s explicit late in the film, Amitabh is helping to hide Jeevan from the cops, but when he learns Jeevan isn’t just a smuggler, but also a murderer, he immediately switches sides because he can look the other way at smuggling, but murder is a different matter, it’s like bad-bad.
Pran’s beard, that’s also kind of clever. Back in the opening, we saw evil Jeevan when he was powerful. And he wore 3-piece suits and bright colors and had a beard. When we are introduced to Pran years later, he has adopted the appearance of his enemy. And in some ways the behavior of his enemy, you could write a whole paper on how personalities change in response to positions, Pran is now powerful so he delights in proving his power over others. However, we also see that Pran is still “better” than Jeevan. They may both be bearded vest wearing smugglers, but Pran takes care of his people, personally going to the small house of a man who is killed (or arrested? I don’t remember) to give money to the widow and children and promise to care for them.
I already mentioned the women as representing progressive feminism. But here’s a cool thing, notice how each of them confounds expectations. We are introduced to Neetu as a capable, in control doctor, ordering Rishi to give blood. And then in the next scene, we see her in a burqa. In the same way, Shabana is a criminal, but also a devoted granddaughter. And Parveen is modern and wears dresses and pants, but just wants to marry the man she loves with the blessing of her father. They are all simple characters, this isn’t the deepest film in that way, but even within that simplicity, they have layers. That woman in a burqa might be a doctor, the woman in pants might just want to get married, and the woman on a date in Goa might be planning to tell her father all about it when she gets home.
Oh, and notice the songs! That’s a big way the film is inter-religious. Amitabh gets his big Easter song with the western clothes and all. Rishi gets his Qawalli. And then there are two songs that blend all 3, the title song, but also the love song. Love, and family, have no religion. And finally there is the “miracle” song, when Nirupa regains her sight, which is sung to Sai Baba, a holy figure who rejected any religious divisions.
Again, I keep coming back to how this is a sill happy movie, but a movie that was way more progressive in its own way than a lot of the stuff we are seeing today. Which is another reason someone should use my remake ideas!