I watched Amar Akbar Anthony on hearing of Rishi Kapoor’s death. It was pure nostalgia as there was a vague memory of a great qawwali enactment by Rishi Kapoor, paying Akbar, and a hysterical comedy sequence with a drunk and battered Amitabh Bachchan, playing Anthony.

I was right on both counts and the 1977 film is an absolute delight, with all the caricatured characterisations of blockbuster Hindi cinema, including the lost-and-found storylines of that age.

Watching it with my 21-year-old daughter, we found many occasions to laugh out loud. But the film also made me profoundly sad because the symbols and subliminal messaging through which it works, are now so utterly changed in India.

No, it’s not a reference to religious multiplicity and inter-faith trust stated so emphatically in the very title of the film. I am talking about the poverty in which the film is foregrounded that actually leads to the plot of three siblings being separated. The mother played by the eternal mother of that era, Nirupa Roy, has tuberculosis and the children are hungry and struggling for a meal in the beginning.

Here’s the opening storyline: Their father, a chauffeur, is in jail after taking the blame for a crime committed by his employer. Played by that doyen Pran, the father was promised the family would get extra money while he’s in jail. They do not and finding his family in dire straits when he comes out, the father confronts his boss.

There’s a memorable scene epitomising the helplessness of poor Indians working for the more prosperous ones, where he polishes the shoes of the wicked employer – the villain for the rest of the film – with the sleeves of his shirt in the hope of getting his due money.

Meanwhile, the wife has run off to commit suicide as she does not want any expense on her tuberculosis treatment and leaves a note saying whatever money there is, should be spent on the children. When the father, now being chased by employer’s henchmen, returns to the home in the ghetto, he finds the suicide note, picks up the three kids and takes them to a park where there is a statue of Gandhi, and leaves them there, intending to return. The separation of the children unfolds with Gandhi’s statue in the backdrop.

Alternative narratives

In 2020, when Indians are stranded hungry around the country, desperate to go home, get food, get work, it was a bit of a relief to see that there was a time when mainstream cinema actually showed heroes tackling poverty and dislocation. The fantastic tales of cinema were once built on mothers who had TB. The parts played by Amitabh Bachchan were in spirit those of a migrant, or an individual who fights all the terrible odds to either die a hero or come out on top after conquering the city or the ghetto. He was the angry young man because there were things to be angry about.

After the opening up of the economy, the bubble gum world of mainstream cinema that followed was often made for audiences who watched films in multiplexes. As we, the middle classes prospered, we forgot many things including the fact that 1,400 Indians still die every day from TB. These days, we remember the terrible health data of our country as the Covid-19 panic has actually brought health services for other illnesses to a halt.

Rishi Kapoor as Akbar Illahabadi.

Amar Akbar Anthony reminded me that once upon a time there were different narratives in popular cinema. Rishi Kapoor, in his delightful turn as Akbar Illahabadi, plays a qawwali singer who can also pull of the disguise of a bearded “masterji” tailor. He is fresh, young, and seems to just love arriving on stage to belt out one of the most popular qawwalis created by popular cinema. No actor has since pulled off the qawwali moves as Rishi Kapoor does in that memorable “purdah hai purdah” song sequence. Actress Neetu Singh, real life wife, is behind the purdah.

Towards the climax of the film, Akbar Illahabadi is singing again, this time before a statue of the Shirdi Sai Baba that song eternally linked to the tradition – “Tareef teri nikli hai dil se, aiye hai lab pe ban ke qawwali/ Shirdi wale Sai Baba Aya hai tere dar pe Sawali [Praise for you has come from the heart and is uttered from the lips in the form of a qawwali/ Oh Sai Baba of Shirdi/ the one who asks has come to your shrine].”

The Shirdi Sai Baba, as we all may know, was believed to have been a Muslim fakir who is now a national divinity. It’s one of the curious phenomena of this land filled with dualism in worship that a Muslim fakir should be so venerated by non-Muslims. One of the interesting aspects of the Shirdi tradition is that some of its most devout followers are also followers of the Hindutva project and apparently see no contradiction in the process. Sociological studies of both the Shirdi Sai Baba and Santoshi Ma traditions suggest that popular cinema has played a part in popularising them.

Shirdi Wale Saibaba, Amar Akbar Anthony (1977).

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In the film, the depiction of Akbar singing before an idol would belong to the realm of syncretistic popular Islam, the medium through which the religion spread in the sub-continent. Conservative interpretations, however, see the multiplicity of popular traditions followed by Indian Muslims as a challenge to their vision of a uniform way of life that banishes any form of idol worship or grave worship in Sufi shrines.

Popular cinema reflects popular impulses and from the lovable Akbar Illahabadi, we have moved on to sinister bearded Muslim villains. Rishi Kapoor himself would play one of the most well-etched Muslim characters coming out of Hindi cinema in recent times in the powerful 2018 film Mulk. From the light-on-his-feet, mischievous Akbar Illahabadi he moved on to portraying Murad Ali Mohammed, the heavy, dignified but grief-struck patriarch of a family confronting tragic circumstances.

Amar Akbar Anthony is a film born in the age of innocence when we had imagined a different India. It was an age when poor people were still in our frame and when all Muslims were not villains.

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