Amar Akbar Anthony

Bollywood, Brotherhood, and the Nation

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William Elison, Christian Lee Novetzke, and Andy Rotman
  • Cambridge, MA: 
    Harvard University Press
    , January
     2016.
     344 pages.
     $45.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780674504486.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Denounced as hackneyed by India’s film critics when it first appeared in 1977, Manmohan Desai’s Amar Akbar, Anthony came to be the nation’s greatest blockbuster, and is now widely recognized as an Indian film classic. In this book by the same name, William Elison, Christian Lee Novetzke, and Andy Rotman explore the disjuncture between the film’s critical and popular reception, and offer us an alternative explanation for the film’s success beyond the buffoonery and catchy songs that appeal to the so-called “masses.” In an analysis that is nearly as much fun to read as the film is to watch, Elison, Novetzke and Rotman reveal a film rich in cultural metaphor, sophisticated in its use of parody, and weighty beneath its seemingly featherbrained revelry.

The film Amar Akbar, Anthony is a modern comedy of errors set in Bombay from the 1950s to the 1970s, where mistaken identities and missed opportunities set the stage for a series of preposterous events—at times tragic, at times humorous—that befall a single family that is clearly homologized to the post-colonial Indian state.

The story begins on Independence Day. After serving time in prison for a crime he did not commit, a man named Kishanal gains his freedom on the same date—August 15th—that India gained hers just a few years before. Kishanal reunites with his wife, Bharati (a name that also denotes India), and his three young sons. But on the day of new beginnings, things soon unravel. The three sons are orphaned—abandoned by a sick, suicidal (and later, blinded) mother, and separated from a father determined to avenge the injustices that he and his family have suffered. In the ensuing chaos, the brothers are separated from each other. The prologue to the film concludes when the children, in quick succession, are each rescued: the eldest by a Hindu policeman, the youngest by a Muslim tailor, and the middle son by a Catholic priest. When we meet them again, they are grown men: Amar, Akbar and Anthony. Only the elder son has retained his birth name, and a connection to the Hinduism of his birth (though this is largely assumed, since it is unmarked). By contrast, Akbar’s Muslim identity, just like Anthony’s Catholicism, are each man’s defining features. Each brother comes to serve as a metonym for one of Bombay’s major religious communities—and taken together—their struggles are those of a single family/nation. The film concludes with the family joyfully reconstituted, albeit as something new: it now comprises Muslim Akbar and Catholic Anthony within its fold. Elison, Novetzke, and Rotman explore the way in which the film can be read both as a compelling vision of Indian secularism grounded in religious harmony, and as a commentary on the limits of that same secularism. The former is the more popular reading, but the latter is also defensible, and rests upon the film’s treatment of Hinduism as not just one among many, but as the normative space containing the others (Islam and Catholicism); as the terrain upon which the flourishing of “unity in diversity” can take place.

Amar Akbar, Anthony’s irony, mimicry, and its lack of a single governing theme make it a pioneer of postmodern Indian film. Elison, Novetzke, and Rotman’s analysis adopts a similar epistemological stance in that they too, refuse to produce a single “truth,” or to identify a single hero. Instead, in successive chapters, they alternatively present Amar, Akbar, Anthony and finally Maa (the boys’ mother, Bharati), as the veritable hero of the narrative. In dizzying succession, the reader is four times persuaded! In the end, determining who is “the” true hero of the four becomes moot. The brothers’ individual journeys from alienation to fellowship only make sense when viewed as the part of the drama of the family. Ultimately, it is the family—again, homologized to the nation—that is the hero.

Elison, Novetzke, and Rotman analyze the film’s setting in terms of the mythological narrative of the family/nation’s crisis, and its eventual redemption. The slum denotes the historical past, where its associations with colonial dependence, poverty, and trauma are explored; the city denotes the post-independence present: a period of confusion and disarray. The suburbs represent the future, where Maa and her children will be united—where Mother India, with a clear vision—will assume her rightful place among the nations of the world as strong and united.

Ironically, Elison, Novetzke, and Rotman make sense of a complicated storyline—one brimming with plots and subplots, twists and turns—by adding to it. Their detailed plot and character analyses serve as jumping-off points for fascinating historical and sociological explorations of a great many topics of contemporary relevance, including communalism, nationalism, religion, and secularism. Like the film it investigates, the book Amar Akbar, Anthony  delivers insight and fun in equal measure. It is monumental accomplishment that should be widely read.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Anne Vallely is Associate Professor of Classics and Religious Studies at University of Ottawa.

Date of Review: 
September 29, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

William Elison is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Christian Lee Novetzke is Associate Professor of International Studies at the University of Washington.

Andy Rotman is Professor of Religion at Smith College.

Keywords: 

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