At one level, the history of Indian cinema is the story of a graveyard of dreams. Countless films perish in the acid test on judgement day. In such a high-stakes business, where chances of failure claw at the prospects of success, iconic films are a rarity.
Decades after their release, two books from HarperCollins Pakeezah: An Ode To A Bygone World by Meghnad Desai and Mughal-E-Azam: Legend As Epic by Anil Zankar recreate that magic with behind-the-scenes stories.
In a different league altogether, and a stupendous hit during its time, Manmohan Desai’s Amar Akbar Anthony is the subject of veteran journalist Sidharth Bhatia’s book from the same publisher.
First, let’s deal with the classics. Several years in the making, with huge budget overruns, there were times when it seemed they would never see the light of the day. When Mughal-E-Azam finally released in 1960, its director K Asif had already spent 16 years and an eye-popping Rs1.5 crore for an epic fantasy.
Pakeezah, Kamal Amrohi’s dream with his estranged wife Meena Kumari in the lead, took 15 years to reach the theatres. Two factors contributed to the delay: the cracks in their relationship, and the writer-director’s obsession with perfection.
A quintessentially 1950s film, it was screened in 1972. Meanwhile, viewers had moved on and Pakeezah was deemed anachronistic. What rescued it from oblivion was the death of its heroine soon after the film’s release.
The same people, who were earlier indifferent, queued up at the theatres to watch the ethereal beauty's last performance.
Pakeezah is Meena Kumari's film. The grand tragedienne plays the mother and daughter, both of whom are courtesans. For Desai, an economist and a lover of Hindustani cinema, the high points are the three dance sequences where Meena Kumari is at her finest alluring, vulnerable, sad, angry and rebellious.
Mughal-E-Azam also has a courtesan at the heart of the story, played by Madhubala. The story of father-son (Akbar-Saleem) conflict, triggered by the latter’s falling in love with the dancer Anarkali, is too well known to bear repetition here. Zankar, a filmmaker himself, whets the reader's appetite with an in-depth study of the film's technical accomplishments and sweeping grandeur.
The biggest challenge for cinematographer RD Mathur was the lighting up of the Sheesh Mahal set that cost Rs15 lakh a mind-boggling amount in those days.
Undeterred by the warnings from master filmmakers like David Lean and Roberto Rosselini, who felt it was impossible to shoot since the coloured mirrors inlaid on the walls and pillars would reflect light, Mathur used bounce light to overcome the crisis. It was a little-known technique then, pioneered by Satyajit Ray's cameraman Subrato Mitra.
Asif left no stone unturned in his quest for perfection.
Zankar’s research reveals that tailors from Delhi stitched the costumes; Hyderabadi goldsmiths crafted the jewellery and Kolhapuri craftsmen fashioned the crowns.
It ran for over six years at Maratha Mandir, a theatre that was launched with the release of Mughal-E-Azam. Nationwide, 150 halls were showing the film. Much like Pakeezah and Sholay, it was a tad slow to pick up at the box office. But by the end of first week, it began doing roaring business. The rest, as they, is history.
In 1977, history was again being created, this time by a distinct brand of madcap entertainment. Bhatia begins Amar Akbar Anthony: Masala, Madness And Manmohan Desai with Amitabh Bachchan’s endearing gibberish in that iconic scene when he emerges from an Easter egg. “You see the whole country of the system is juxtapositioned by the haemoglobin….”
AAA was Manmohan’s first film as a producer, and fourteenth as a director. Bhatia writes that most of the stars believed they were being selected for a historical film.
In the book, Rishi Kapoor recounts a classic case of misunderstanding when Manmohan asked him on a long-distance call to do the role of Akbar, a qawwal, and the actor initially refused, thinking he would have to play the Mughal emperor, a role immortalised by his grandfather Prithviraj Kapoor.
When Manmohan began work on this lost-and-found story, which would later become his favourite theme, he was already directing three other films. All of them released in 1977, and were super-hits. But AAA turned out to be his crowning glory.
Manmohan knew the pulse of the people. Throughout his life, he never lost touch with the audiences. Several characters in the film were created out of his personal observations, says Ketan, Manmohan’s son. “Anthony, Bachchan’s role, was inspired by a bootlegger who ran a stall in the four-feet gap between our building and the next.”
Though Bachchan is the star of the movie, Bhatia maintains his focus on the madcap genius of a director. And why not? Stars shine only in the hands of capable filmmakers.
Manmohan was one such man. The master of masala and madness, the god of all things illogical.
'It has an ageless appeal'
Rishi Kapoor on the epic Amar Akbar Anthony
I consider Amar Akbar Anthony a modern-day classic. Even today the young and the old enjoy watching it. It's got an ageless appeal. Shooting for the film was a joyride! Principal photography was completed in eight months — a remarkable feat since the entire cast at that point was extremely busy with other commitments. All the actors of the film, including the villains and character artistes, were at their career peak, and much sought after. But Manji (Manmohan Desai) made the impossible a cakewalk. It was my first film with him, though he had earlier worked with my father and uncle. I had five songs in AAA, out of which three were solo. It is no mean achievement since the film had a stellar cast.
Manji was a confident man; he had faith in his abilities. If you had worked with him, you could not have questioned him. Just blindly follow what he asked you to do. The film had several bloopers. Remember that scene when our screen mother Nirupa Roy was hospitalised, and all three of us — Amar Akbar Anthony — gave blood to her simultaneously? Most people were aware that such a thing could never happen. It defied logic! But they simply loved it. Much later — by that time the film had become a runway hit — when I pointed it out to Manji, he feigned surprise. 'I did that in the film? Oh God! I didn't realise.' Of course, he knew what he was doing. What a simple down-to-earth man he was.
As told to Pratik Ghosh