Manmohan was the man
Surely you’ve seen (or not seen) a whole lot of mindless Bollywood movies (No Problem, Golmaal 3 etc) lately. Here’s looking at the best that should replace drugs on streets
Director: Manmohan Desai
Actors: Amitabh Bachchan, Amrita Singh
The first shot is the killer. Few things infuriate the poor Indian than the myth that his ancestors rolled in gold. The poor Indian man rides a rickshaw now, comforted by the thought that it was the British invaders who took away all his wealth once.
They literally do, as Mard starts off: one by one, busts of gold are getting stolen from a palace as bullets put half-naked Indians to sleep.
Three British gentlemen administer this loot. They bear names that defy history’s timeline: General Dyer (from Amritsar’s Jalliawallah Bagh), Simon (of the infamous Simon Commission), and Curzon (as in the popular Lord who split Bengal). Mard, mind you, is a period film. Period.
It belongs to an unknown moment from the past when the burdened white man was brown himself! All goras are Indian actors. Except, of course Bob Christo, the Australian import that Bollywood colonised in the ‘80s to flog his butt off for being British film after film – Kyaa kaarta haai. Seriously. Unfair.
Prem, make that Praem the Chopra, is also Brit — half by blood, the other half by treachery. He helps his imperial masters kill off the local prince. Such work should be suitably rewarded; he’s made the mayor.
Here was a deadly prince (Dara Singh) from a time not long ago who could hold Lord Curzon’s flying plane with a rope, and tie it around a pole! The plane would fly. He’d hold it tight. Only a son of such a gun could be the real man, and that’s what the prince named his newborn.
He drew a sword, pierced its sharp tip across the infant’s torso. The bloodied, bleeding child smiled. As he grew in size, so did the name inscribed on his now hairy chest. “Kya naam hai tumhara? (What’s your name?)” “Jo har aurat ke zuba pe hota hai (The same as on every woman’s lips”): Mard, mard, mard! “Jiske seene mein doosron ka dard hota hai, asal mein wahi mard hota hai… Kyunki mard ko dard nahin hota (One who feels others’ pains is the real man…. Because man feels no pain).”
Amitabh Bachchan of course is that superhero — separated from his parents, on his super-horse Badal, the master of Moti the dog, the leader of slum dwellers, the tormentor of Indian traitors, the ultimate evilness to the British Empire.
For most parts, while shooting for such films, Bachchan says he had no frikin’ clue what he was up to. He just went ahead and did what he was told to. ‘Manji’ (director Manmohan Desai) was his man.
Enough has been made of Bachchan’s angry young Vijay (Zanjeer etc) that supposedly became some cathartic expression for the urban Indian youth — disillusioned by politics and the ‘system’, in the early ‘70s. Desai, as socially significant, brought post-Emergency entertainment to an India that was waiting to lose its mind in collective, surreal, psychedelic dreams.
They’d had it with moaning.
He helped them go mental, with five films in two years, competing almost back-to-back in theatres across the country in the late ‘70s: Dharam Veer, Chacha Bhatija, Parvarish, Suhaag, and the biggest blockbuster of ‘em all, Amar Akbar Anthony. Bachchan was the winner from this lot yet again, revealing a slapstick touch hitherto unknown to the serious Vijay. Coolie (1983) and its sequel in spirit Mard (1985) were merely the final, feverish post-mortem reports for a generation in a state of constant delirium.
What Desai also saw in Bachchan (though it’s unclear what Bachchan saw in Desai) was a handsome, pseudo-erotic, alpha ‘mard’: instantly sexy to the woman, recklessly manly to the male. At one point, the ‘angrez’ girl (Amrita Singh!) in Mard desperately urges the man she hates the most, and who’s just abducted her, “Mujhe kali se phool bana do (deflower me).” Please. Bachchan looks to the screen, asks his audience, “Kamsin nikli toh 6-7 saal ke liye andar? (If she’s minor, I’ll go to jail).”
She bites him to suggest hers aren’t milk teeth. They make violent love under a haystack after the hero’s punished his heroine enough for whipping him before, wearing a tight leather suit, applying salt to his gashes. He’s rolled her in saltpans by the sea. She’s grunted, groaned, give me more, “Jism pe saikdon chingariyan phut rahin hai. Dil mein hazaaron phool khil uthe hain! (My body’s giving out sparks, the heart’s blooming with flowers!).”
Bondage, domination, sado-masochism: this is an unreal labour of lust. The mard is satisfied. As you’d imagine from the aurat (the woman), she sings then, “Will you marry me?” He goes, “No no sorry jee!”
Those saline sequences incidentally are an enactment of the popular phrase, ‘rubbing salt into wounds’. Subtlety is a western fad. The only way to reach out to vast illiterate populations, Desai realised, was to be literal. Metaphors aren’t meant for those inclined toward beautifully brainless movies. The constraint was evident. He turned metaphors around instead, to literally make his points.
The board outside a British club in Mard reads, “Indians and dogs not allowed.” In walk the Indian (the great Satyendra Kapoor), and his dog (Moti). Mard needs to ‘band bajao’ (screw over) the Brits for insulting his surrogate dad at the club. He does so by disrupting a pop band’s performance, slipping Bob Christo’s baldhead into the drum-set and beating on it with cymbals and sticks. The British of course deserve this: “khoon choosna” (sucking blood) is exactly their trade as they suck blood of Indians at concentration camps, store them in bottles, and ship them off to British soldiers fighting in Burma!
The only scene, I suspect, where Desai outdid these symbolisms is in Coolie, where a bunch of workers fight the bourgeoisie prince (Suresh Oberoi) with sickles and hammers, holding them up for a moment in the position of the communist party symbol.
Godless communists couldn’t have been on the filmmaker’s side though. He rightly saw mythical powers promised by every religion – Islam, Hinduism, Christianity, Sikhism, Bachchanism — as fix for his divided unwashed masses. He pleaded them to keep faith. Which may be necessary if you’re attempting such leaps of faith.
The Mard, hoping to find his real mother he’s never consciously met, drops a random letter into a river, listing a time, date and place they must meet. The metal pot with the letter in it flows into a canal of the concentration camp, where the mother is prisoner. The son sings a song in praise of Hindu goddess Maa Sherawali. Power is in the prayer alone.
The mother (Nirupa Roy, of course!), mute until now, finds her voice — the same way she had cured her blindness with cosmic rays from Sai Baba’s statue in Amar Akbar Anthony.
The hero and the mother reunite. The hero’s super-horse Badal finds his soulmate in a metallic statue of a horse. They bring that statue to life. The two horses ride away together.
No one, but Desai himself, could’ve put his creativity to sleep. The audience tried. Desai’s Ganga Jamuna Saraswati (a bizarre love triangle), his last film, was probably his only commercial flop as director, with Bachchan as hero. Little is known about the director’s death in the early ‘90s.
It is said he committed suicide from his house near Mumbai’s Grant Road. That was the only story with an unhappy ending he left behind for the world. His happy stories had an important public service message missed by many.
You don’t need mind-altering substances to suspend yourself into new highs. A film by Manmohan Desai isn’t illegal, and if being peddled around, can do the trick. Truly, say yes to his films. Say no to drugs.