Obituary: Manmohan Desai
Friday 04 March 1994
MANMOHAN DESAI, one of India's most successful film directors and producers, was known as the 'Miracle man of Bollywood', or Bombay, capital of the Indian film industry.
Desai was the uncrowned King of Bollywood in the late Seventies. On one occasion, in 1977, three of his fast-paced extravaganzas were released over a 52-day span, and all of them became runaway successes. One of them, Amar, Akbar, Anthony - an involved tale of secularism based on the camaraderie between three young men, a Hindu, a Muslim and a Christian - was one of the first set of commercial Indian films to be broadcast by BBC television during prime time. With its way-out fantasies, saucy song and dance routines and convoluted plot, Amar, Akbar, Anthony broke all Indian box-office records. It also established the career of Amitabh Bachchan, India's most popular actor.
The Desai-Bachchan duo created the genre of 'angry young man' films which took the actor to the pinnacle few Indian stars have reached. These films included Coolie, Desh Premee ('The Patriot'), Naseeb ('Fate') and Suhaag ('The Husband'). Such was their magic that film distributors snapped up Desai's films for astronomical sums the day they were offered for sale. But by the mid-Eighties, the director-actor team found few takers for their old, unchanged routines and gracefully ended their association.
Desai was born in 1937 in Bombay, the son of a moderately well known producer and director of entertaining stunt films. After school Desai attended St Xavier's College, in Bombay, but left before graduating for a career in films, and was apprenticed to Babuhai Mistry, a well- known film director. In 1960, at the age of 23, Desai made his directorial debut with Chhalia ('Trickster'), which starred two of the most popular stars of the day and was moderately successful at the box-office.
His next film, Bluff Master, was a commercial disaster and, after staving off financial ruin, Desai went on to direct a series of reasonably successful films like the amusing Budtameez ('The Shameless') and Kismat ('Fate'), a racy spy thriller. But Desai's big break came in 1970 with Sucha Jootha ('The Deceiver'), a thriller with good music and one which effectively used a double-role routine with Rajesh Khanna playing the main part.
This was followed by Anar, Aktar, Anthony and other blockbusters in quick succession and by the late Seventies Desai was Bollywood's 'head showman'. In 1989, however, he retreated into the background, making way for his son.
Desai was often criticised for his absurd themes and story lines - blind people in his films suddenly regain sight and twins separated at birth are reunited under bizarre circumstances - but he never sought to justify the nature of his work, saying he made movies to help people forget their tensions and worries. If any of his films carried a social message, it was incidental, he said. Desai had a keen wit and sharp repartee and his modest way of life changed little with success.
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