Deconstructing a potboiler

Print edition : September 16, 2016

A still from "Amar Akbar Anthony". Photo: The Hindu Archives

An eminently readable book that will delight any cineaste for its sheer passion for cinema and for the delightful theoretical dexterity with which it weaves a complex and rich web of information and analysis.

A BOOK running into more than 300 pages about a single film, a commercial hit at that, and one that came out four decades ago, is enough to make anyone wonder. One may have encountered such books on films considered “classics” where the author digs for layers of meanings, political shades and cultural nuances, or compilations on blockbusters such as Sholay or Lagaan that belong more to the “making-of” genre, where you find the process of film creation along with all the juicy tidbits about the actors and interesting anecdotes about the film’s evolution from an idea to script and, eventually, into sounds and images on screen.

Amar Akbar Anthony: Bollywood, Brotherhood, and the Nation by William Ellison, Christian Lee Novetzke and Andy Rotman is an exception. It brilliantly manages to pull off a magical feat in film writing of this kind. It digs deep into and elaborates upon the film text from various sociopolitical angles, critical perspectives and film theoretical, anthropological and ethnographical discourses. Most importantly, it is an eminently readable book that will delight any cineaste for its sheer passion for cinema and for the delightful theoretical dexterity with which it weaves a complex and rich web of information and analysis. The analysis primarily dwells on the film text and its various narrative elements such as plot, characterisation, structure and visual and aural aspects. This exercise is peppered with insights into the oeuvre of the director, the cast, the singers and other artists and contains fascinating background details about the career and core persona of the stars who feature in it; the urban geography of Bombay city; the history of the times, especially the Emergency; popular religious beliefs; critical reviews that appeared at the time; and the audience response following its release. The observations and responses of people on the film, its characters, and situations provide an ethnographic layer to the analysis. All these are strung together into an amazingly complex and, at the same time, hugely entertaining appreciation of the film.

It is interesting to look into why a film like Amar Akbar Anthony turned into a super hit and went on to acquire an iconic status. Like many other films of this kind, it is many things rolled into one: a family saga; a love story; a song, dance and stunt entertainer; a revenge story and a melodrama. The book, too, takes off along several theoretical trajectories: the film is reviewed and recounted here as a national and religious allegory whose epic narrative and film historical dimensions in terms of characterisation, story structure, mise en scene, dialogue and songs, stunts and dances are all woven into it.

In the words of the authors, the film “has risen to a stature well above its movie peers, and indeed now transcends its history, in large part because it serves as a multivalent metaphor. It is metonymic of religious pluralism, the nuclear family, the slum neighbourhood, the state’s ambiguous commitment to the principle of secularism, and so on, all the while inviting critique of these aspects of Indian society.” It is also a comedy built of tragic elements like “the venality and irresponsibility of the political class, the perceived backwardness of the masses, the compromised character of civil society, the limited compass of the state, and the vexed implications of secularism” (page 4). With an elaborate appendix providing a meticulously detailed scene-by-scene synopsis of the film, the book is fascinatingly structured around the key characters in the film. The central chapters focus on the three eponymous characters, Amar (played by Vinod Khanna), the centre of the moral universe of the film; the playboy and singer Akbar (Rishi Kapoor); and the most charismatic of all, Anthony (Amitabh Bachchan), the jovial local hoodlum. It is followed by a chapter on their mother, Bharati (played by Nirupa Roy), the twists and turns in whose life tie the narrative together.

The most refreshing aspect of the book is that it does not engage in any kind of closures—theoretical, ideological or aesthetic; instead the effort is to prise open unpredictable possibilities that the narrative layers, the characters, the locale and presentation that the film text itself offer. The authors admit: “This is not a book with a single cohesive argument; it is, we hope, a book with many cohesive arguments that also happen to be contradictory.” This daring to pose contradictory arguments, in a way, coincides or vibes with the way we actually enjoy a “masala” blockbuster such as Amar Akbar Anthony. Even while watching the film, laughing, crying and biting our nails through its umpteen narrative twists and turns, we are also aware of its banality. But our analytical mind is often at a loss to explain away the pleasure we find and also compulsively seek in such films.

In a way, this book accounts for and captures that spirit of ambivalence and amorality of such encounters, at the same time bringing to bear upon it insights from several disciplines to understand and unravel them. The reader will be constantly surprised by the way in which the authors build and substantiate their arguments by focussing on umpteen little but significant facts and hitherto unnoticed layers and narrative tropes from the film text. For instance, here is how they delineate the character of Maa: “…on the surface we find India’s national Cine-Ma, Nirupa Roy; beneath that we find the character of a Hindu woman, Bharati; and inside that mortal’s skin we find another female personality: a goddess” (page 177). About the character Anthony: “Yet the crucial aspect… of Anthony that situates him within the film’s nationalist allegory—his Christian religion—is defined more by what it’s not than by what it is. It’s not Hinduism; it’s not Islam; it’s that other thing. If the dynamic Anthony is a cyclone of signification, this is what we find when we look into the eye of the storm: an empty signifier” (page 134). Amar, who appears in a song sequence with several musical instruments, is described as the one-man band who incorporates India’s multitudes. Likewise, the analysis extends and draws unto itself a variety of minute and sometimes obvious and hence taken-for-granted elements like purdah, priestly vestments, a toy gun, a Gandhi statue and other divine icons, real locations such as Borivali park, Koliwada, the church, the mandir, and the egg from which Anthony emerges.

Recurring and recounted again and again in the book are the storyline and various incidents that string the film narrative, but each shift in perspective, of points of view, the locus of each character, ideological angles, theoretical positions and disciplinary perspectives opens up a distinct set of interconnections and narrative patterns. In the process, the complex narrative universe and ethos of Hindi cinema, the shifting contours of religious beliefs and power equations in the region, above all, the turbulent history of the nation called India are illuminated.

Among the things that prompted the authors to write this book, they have mentioned that it was the “challenge each of us sensed in the movie, a challenge encountered emotionally as well as professionally. To put it plainly, it was so over the top! The picture seemed anarchic, almost recklessly out of control, and yet there was no denying its appeal.” They also wondered could “this manic mess of a movie ever come to make sense? Could we learn to laugh and cry in sync with its intended audience?” They conclude that after all the labour of love they were convinced that “for all its absurd touches, its plots within plots, its freewheeling flouting of realism— Amar Akbar Anthony does indeed make sense. The second conclusion is that to understand it properly, a viewer of the film has to work through layers of symbolism, and this requires a certain depth of knowledge about Indian traditions—religious, literary, and cinematic.”

This conviction of theirs both as cineastes and academics show and shine through the book, for they bring qualities of both into the tone and tenor, style and content of their analysis, which is why they are able to take the reader along with them in this exciting journey.

C.S. Venkiteswaran is a National Award-winning film critic and documentary film-maker based in Thiruvananthapuram. He has published books and articles on visual media and cinema in Malayalam and English.