Many movies about blindness, especially sudden blindness, include a sequence of sight restoration. This is the moment when bandages are removed from the actor’s eyes, leading to temporary confusion followed by unbridled joy, expressed in the simple statement, “I can see again!”
Such moments usually occur in the secular space of the operation theatre and involve doctors, nurses and kindly donors. Manmohan Desai dispenses with science and surgery and goes with the power of faith in the song Shirdi Wale Saibaba from Amar Akbar Anthony (1977). Unlike Hrithik Roshan, the lead actor of the January 25 release Kaabil, Desai doesn’t allow the Nirupa Roy character to remain visually impaired. In a scene that evokes wonderment or mirth, depending on your outlook, Roy’s Bharati stumbles in the direction of a temple where Akbar (Rishi Kapoor) is enthusiastically singing the praises of the saint Sai Baba. Bharati is being pursued by crooks, and guided by Mohammed Rafi’s voice, she seeks refuge in the temple. As she looks in the general direction of the Sai Baba statue, two orbs of light land on her eyelids and voila! No laser treatment or corneal transplant needed here.
Akbar, of course, is one of Bharati’s missing three sons, and in time, the entire family unit is restored.
Although a film track, Shirdi Wale Saibaba is equally popular as a religious song, and regularly blares from loudspeakers at temples dedicated to the nineteenth-century saint.
Desai was known to include elements from all Indian religions in his films. Amar Akbar Anthony, in which Bharati’s missing sons are raised in different faiths, was the apogee of Desai-style secularism. The song Shirdi Wale Saibaba had another purpose: it was a tribute to Sai Baba, whom Desai and his wife Jeevanprabha worshipped.
The filmmaker told Connie Haham, the author of Enchantment of the Mind Manmohan Desai’s Films, that he would visit Sai Baba’s shrine in Shirdi every year on April 13, Jeevanprabha’s death anniversary. “She was a great believer in Sai Baba; hence that rubbed off on me,” Desai told Haham. “She said, ‘Why don’t we bring Sai Baba in our film?’ And so when we had to show a deity who performed a miracle in Amar Akbar Anthony, I thought why don’t we show Sai Baba. Quite a few Muslims, Parsees and Hindus go to Shirdi.”
Desai’s films are replete with miracles, but he had a special cure for visual impairment, which he described as “the real curse of God”. The filmmaker, who died in 1994, told Haham, “There is no greater handicap than blindness. My heart always goes out to somebody who is blind… And if you show a blind person regaining his sight…! I wish there was some way that all the blind people in the world could see, as there is no greater handicap or torture.”
Desai explored blindness in several of his films – Budtameez, Suhaag, Roti, Parvarish and Amar Akbar Anthony. His films frequently involved “lapses in logic and leaps of faith required of the audiences”, Amitabh Bachchan told Sidharth Bhatia for the book Amar Akbar Anthony. “We were not allowed to ask him questions,” Bachchan said. “His stock reply used to be, ‘This is not a Satyajit Ray film. You do because I tell you.’”
The Amar Akbar Anthony miracle has gone down in history as one of popular Indian cinema’s most miraculous moments. It’s there at the top of the list with the sudden cure of previously paralysed patients and the overnight disappearance of amnesia. Faith is said to move mountains in the real world. In the movies, basic visual effects and immense filmmaking conviction are all it takes to turn darkness into light.