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'I don't do all that. I only womanise'

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By now, I have seen Amar Akbar Anthony more than 20 times and listened to its soundtrack at least 50 times. The initial joy remains ?

Connie Haham;
Preface; Paris, 2005

Manmohan: his name literally meant ‘mind charmer’ ? Man: mind; Mohan: enchantment, charm. It was a fitting name considering the enchanting fantasy that he brought to the screen. Manmohan Desai himself saw his name in a different light and found it appropriate for other reasons:

“Manmohan is one of the names of Krishna. My father and mother must have given me the name because they knew I’d turn out a womaniser; they gave me the correct name. Once I told my wife that if I womanise, it’s not my fault. My father gave me the name Manmohan, that Charlie who had 1,000 gopis ? women ? around him. So if I have a couple.. She said, ‘That’s no excuse!’”

While at one moment Desai was ready to use his namesake’s activities as a rationalisation for his own behaviour, at other moments he vehemently lashed out against the lord he considered to be unworthy of worship:

“Krishna! He’s no god! He left Rukmani for Radha. Why glorify a man who has a mistress, who was a womaniser with all those gopis! And he won the whole Mahabharata war by cheating, by deceit, treachery. I have no respect for Krishna. He makes my blood boil. I’ve talked to pundits, but they can’t answer my questions about Krishna!”

Manmohan Desai was as energetic talking as filmmaking. His boisterous enthusiasm whipped contagiously through the room as he added rhythm and emphasis to his speech by raising his arms, beating the air and slapping the back of one hand against the palm of the other. Finally, he punctuated his sentences with a nervous tick, drawing his forefinger assertively under his nose to the accompaniment of a loud sniff. He spoke at such a rapid clip that it was often difficult to catch each word, but when he decelerated, his intonation became eloquently lilting. His voice was that of a much younger man, and in 1984 at 46, when he broke into song, one could easily have divided his age in half. By his own admission, he was no diplomat. His rage at his pet peeves was unapologetic, uncompromising, and easily provoked. Lord Krishna, school, and art films were a few of the subjects that sparked his fury

***

“I had a very tough time between 1960 and 1970, the 10 worst years of my life. That’s when my wife stood by me like a rock. [Jeevanprabha Gandhi, a Maharashtrian lady who lived across the street, had a love marriage with Manmohan, a Gujarati, in 1959.] A great lady she was. I couldn’t have asked for a better wife than that?. She said, ‘Don’t give up films.’ And I used to think up ideas in the night. I couldn’t get to sleep. I’d wake up my wife. I’d wake up my son. ‘Please, look, I made up this idea. Here’s a plot.’ She would hear me for two hours. She would say, ‘Now it’s late, Manmohan. Go to sleep. Okay?’ We’ll hear it in the morning.’ I am what I am because of her. She prayed for me. She stood by me. Very possessive. Naturally, since we had a love marriage, I wasn’t supposed to monkey around after marriage. But I did. She didn’t like that. But she looked after me and my home. She was very loyal to me, very faithful, looked after every need of mine.

“Now I realise?.. There’s a saying: you know a person’s worth when he’s not there. Why a person? Any object, for that matter. You only know when it’s not there. Now I think she might have been my spinal cord, my backbone. I never had to bother in my house whether anything was there or not. So I miss her. Now my spinal cord is my son?. I suppose all filmmakers are womanisers in a way. Anyway, I don’t like to be a hypocrite and say I’m a person of virtue. No. But just one vice! Others have plenty. I used to say to my wife, ‘Look, in the film world, people drink, smoke; they gamble; they go to the races. I don’t do all that. I only womanise.’

“She said, ‘That’s no excuse.’

“But my weakness is like my father’s. My brother died in August, 1983. He was elder than me by six years: cirrhosis of the liver. So I always told him, ‘We have divided the vices in our family.’ He never womanised. He only drank ? cards, races, smoking ? no womanising. I suppose any man who thinks, who works mentally, he needs a diversion. Alcohol is not a good diversion. I feel alcohol benumbs your nerves in the long run. So I don’t take refuge in alcohol, nor in gambling. I don’t like to lose. I’m a bad loser. So I said, my only refuge is womanising. But I used to get in trouble with my wife.”

***

Shyam Benegal, New Cinema director who has gained recognition worldwide, was generous in his praise of Manmohan Desai:

“I enjoy Manmohan Desai’s films. I would never miss one. Manmohan Desai is definitely the best of the big mainstream directors. Amar Akbar Anthony is my favourite.

“I respect Manmohan Desai for his honesty, for never having claimed to be anything but an entertainer. In this respect, he is a success. Manmohan Desai’s films are great fun. He has taken a stereotype and changed it into an archetype. He has created a new mythology. It’s very clever, too, the way he can use the same material over and over again, refining it each time.

“I think Manmohan Desai is totally uninterested in social messages; everything happens by miracle on screen. People leave the cinema without taking any messages, but they have been entertained.”

Excerpted from Enchantment of the Mind: Manmohan Desai’s Films; by Connie Haham; Lotus/Roli Books; Rs 395

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