Realism and logic had little place in Manmohan Desai’s films. Amitabh Bachchan, who has worked with the filmmaker on eight films, once spoke about how Desai or ‘Man ji’ as he was fondly called, would ask his actors to not prepare for roles. “We were not allowed to ask him questions. His stock reply used to be, “This is not a Satyajit Ray film. You do because I tell you.”
One of their most iconic collaborations was Amar Akbar Anthony which released on May 27th, 1977, forty years ago. The films boasted of an illustrious star cast that included, Rishi Kapoor, Vinod Khanna, Shabana Azmi, Neetu Kapoor and Parveen Babi. True to form, this film too stayed miles away from logic. Sample this famous line from the song ‘My Name is Anthony Gonsalves’ that has Bachchan emerging from an Easter egg: “You see, the whole country of the system is juxtaposed by the haemoglobin in the atmosphere because you are a sophisticated rhetorician intoxicated by the exuberance of your own verbosity.”
For the uninitiated, Amar Akbar Anthony follows the story of three brothers who are separated as children and end up being raised by parents of different faiths. Of course, they miraculously reunite at the end through the most bizarre circumstances. But it’s all so entertaining that you never stop to reason why.
Here are our favourite anecdotes about the film’s making:
WHY RISHI KAPOOR NEARLY TURNED IT DOWN
In an excerpt from his autobiography, Khullam Khulla: Rishi Kapoor Uncensored, the actor describes Manmohan Desai as “a master of the ludicrous”. So when the filmmaker called him to offer the part of Akbar over the phone, he very nearly turned it down. “All I heard, standing at the reception and hollering over a really bad telephone connection, was that he wanted me to play Akbar. So I bellowed back, ‘Thank you very much, Mr Desai, but how can I play Akbar? My grandfather played Akbar [in Mughal-e-Azam]!’ On the other end of the line, Man-ji, as he was popularly called, was baffled by my response. I heard him say in Gujarati, ‘What’s wrong with this stupid man?’.”
Kapoor pictured a bizarre plot featuring Amar, the eternal lover, with a flute, Antony (Marc Antony) of Caesar and Cleopatra fame, and Akbar from Mughal-e-Azam. “I did not put anything past Manmohan Desai,“ he writes. “At the time, Man-ji was making Dharam Veer (1977) in which he had Dharmendra and Jeetendra wearing skirts, so none of this was far-fetched.”
BACHCHAN'S ICONIC MIRROR SCENE WAS FILMED IN ONE SHOT
The stand-out scene of the film – an inebriated and beaten up Anthony (Amitabh Bachchan) talking to a mirror – was captured in one shot and that too without the director. Bachchan recounts that day in the book Amar Akbar Anthony: Masala, Madness and Manmohan Desai, by Siddharth Bhatia. He was shooting at RK Studios for two movies – Parvarish and Amar Akbar Anthony – at the same time. Both films were directed by Manmohan Desai. “I used to shoot one scene on one set, rush to the other one, change clothes, and shoot for the second movie. Manji was doing the same. There was a mirror scene planned but nothing had been discussed. He gave me some dialogues and went off. Suddenly, his assistants said, let us just shoot it while he is away. That was it. We set it up and I did it. I knew the dialogues but added a few lines of my own. It was all done in one take.”
After a month, Desai watched the scene at a small preview theatre. He walked out and told Bachchan, “From now on, you will be in every film of mine.”
Watch the scene here:
WHY MANMOHAN DESAI ALMOST PICKED A BRAWL AT A SCREENING
Desai would often watch his films in theatres to gauge reactions but he feared people walking out mid-way. “If anyone gets up to go to the loo, I feel he’s doing it intentionally. And then I might pick a brawl,” explains the filmmaker in Connie Haham’s book From Enchantment of the Mind: Manmohan Desai’s Films. He almost did at a screening of Amar Akbar Anthony during its 70th week in the theatres. “I called one man and said, ‘Why are you getting up?’ He said, ‘I’m going to the bathroom.’ I said, ‘Don’t go to the bathroom in my song!! You want to make loo, you do it here. Don’t go to the bathroom!’ So the manager said, ‘Look, Mr. Desai, you can’t do that. You see, they’ve paid money.’ And I cooled down, and I realized I better not go to the theatres.”
THE METHOD TO MANMOHAN DESAI'S MADNESS
Manmohan Desai had four releases in 1977 – Parvarish, Dharam Veer, Chacha Bhatija, and Amar Akbar Anthony – and all four of them went on to become major hits, running for several weeks across theatres. Desai had a unique style of shooting multiple films at the same time in bits and pieces. There was always a fear of the shots of one film landing up in another. But even in that chaos, he was too meticulous about his shots to let that happen. However, Desai could never tell when he had completed shooting an entire film. It was his son Ketan who accidentally discovered during an audit that he had completed the filming of Amar Akbar Anthony.
The film went on to become the biggest hit of the year and ran for several weeks across India, with the film’s merchandise and memorabilia becoming a rage. In Mumbai itself, the film completed a silver jubilee run in nine theatres.The film was also Manmohan Desai’s biggest hit, after which he went on to direct other iconic films like Naseeb (1981), Coolie (1983) and Mard (1985).