Manmohan Desai – The Monarch of Masala Mix
In 1994, the Ides of March brought ill tides when in a twisted irony, the lively, Manmohan Desai disproved the impossible by leaping to his death from a building named after his deceased wife, ‘Jeevan’ Complex. Like in his movies, the feet did not land first. The inconceivable end drew the curtain on the inventor of the implausible idiom in Hindi cinema.
Father Kikubhai Desai owned Paramount Studios and made stunt pictures with catchy titles like ‘Circus Queen’, ‘Sheikh Chilli’ and ‘Golden Gang’, none of which youngster ever saw. The studio was taken over by S Mukherjee and renamed as the hallowed Filmistan.
“He had made 32 films and died when I was four. While he was alive we lived like kings with seven cars. His death only left us with liabilities.”
His mother Kalavati, sister Ila and elder brother Subhash moved with him to Khetwadi in Girgaon where he stayed for life. Subhash joined Homi Wadia as production manager and eventually became an independent producer.
Desai accompanied him to the studios where he quietly heard the elders discuss the travails of film making – from budgeting to shot taking.
Cut out for editing rather than studies, he wore his flunking in Inter Arts at Xavier’s like a badge of honor. Then his brother got him an apprentice’s job, for Rs.150 a month with the special effects wizard – director Babubhai Mistry on Samrat Chandragupt (’58).
“I learnt the importance of being precise – how a director must prepare his scene to the last detail and then go on the set.”
Confident in his ability, Subhash gave him the reins to direct Chalia (’60) at 22, an age when most boys were warming benches in college canteens.
“I finished the shooting in seven months. Released along with Mughal-e-Azam, Chhalia did reasonably well. I thought it served as a good launching pad for my career. The song ‘Dum Dum Diga Diga is still a radio favorite.”
Beset with problems, his next Bluff Master (’63, except for the Govinda Ala Re song) was a disaster, “Saira Banu’s Junglee (’61) had become a big hit and she wanted her role to be redone. It was released in a tardy shape. It finished my brother and put me years behind. I had shot four reels of a film called ‘Chhotisi Duniya’ starring Raj and Nutan. The financiers backed out and Raj had differences with the story writer so it was shelved.”
“For three years. I used to sit by the window waiting for some producer to come and sign me up. At this time my wife looked after me like a child. Someone asked me to direct a Dara Singh mythological. But my wife said, ‘No, we can suffer a little more. We’ll wait’.”
Offered Budtameez (’66) at the death of its director, the light hearted social made on a tight budget restored some faith in Desai’s name.
Galvanized by the incoming Bond tide, he masterfully switched genres with the spy thriller, Kismat (’68).
“I don’t like to boast but I think its climax is the best in the history of Indian cinema. I shot on location in a creek, working in waist-high slush, among snakes and was nearly swept away by a strong tide one day. The climax involved boats and helicopters. I was young, ambitious and imaginative.”
Desai narrated his stories with the naive enthrallment of a child. The incredulous was celebrated, the mundane burnt on a pyre as nothing seemed improbable in his own ‘once upon a time…’ Disbelief was sentenced to a perpetual state of suspension.
“A director should dream up new ways to combine emotions and melodrama and approach them with novelty.
For Sachha Jhutha (’70), I gave people two Rajesh Khanna’s for the price of one; a simpleton and a crook. There was also the case of presenting a dog in a courtroom scene, absurd for some but never attempted earlier.”
“The eagle in Dharam Veer (’77) or the snake laying a protective cover for Nirupa Roy’s escape in Amar Akbar Anthony (’77, AAA), all have roots in our folklore. The ignorant criticize me because they have never read those stories.”
He ranked Aa Gale Lag Jaa (’73) as his best work. And his story ideas never called to make a prior appointment. “Aa Gale Lag Jaa came to me as I watched my son skating at the Warden Road rink. Another boy there, who had polio, was trying to learn too and I thought, here’s a fabulous film.
AAA came from a news item about an alcoholic named Jackson who, fed up of life, one day packed his three children in a car and dropped them off in a park. I twisted this around, forgot the alcoholic bit and separated the three children. I also built in a miracle – the blind mother gets her eyesight back.
People believe in miracles, don’t they? Why do they believe the story of Babar and Humayun? The father prayed that his life be taken instead of his son’s. The wish was granted. Sometimes, truth is actually stranger than fiction.”
In early seventies, probably without knowing, his personal take on Eisenstein’s synthesis was already taking shape; measured narration, mistaken identity, slick pace, comic interludes, dash of sentimentality peppered with circus feats and celestially blessed coincidence leading to a ‘found’ climax from a ‘lost’ first act. And no one did it better than him, including the contemporary pretenders with their snazzy frames and technical wizardry following the freshly coveted ‘Desai school of film-making’.
1977 was the pinnacle of his dazzling display of talent. All four of Manmohan ‘Midas’ Desai’s films; Parvarish, AAA, Chacha Bhatija and Dharam Veer were box office bonanzas.
The cult of AAA has often led to underestimation of some of Desai’s other work. He relished, “I made Dharamveer as a tribute to my father’s stunt films but on a massive scale. Even though slaughtered by the censors (during emergency), it was my biggest hit. Pleased as punch, Dharmendra’s father commented when he saw the film, ‘Lagta hai, maine apne bete ko khilaya pilaya, bada kiya, isi film ke Iiye.’ (Seems I fed and raised my son to be the man he is, only for this film). In all honesty, Dharam’s gladiatorial leg show put even Zeenat’s cleavage under clinical depression.
Prone to faulting Salim Javed for being inspired, Desai often failed to mention his own penchant for lifting motifs and scenes. The badge from Deewar (’75) makes an appearance in Coolie and Amitabh climbs atop the temple a la Veeru on water tank in Sholay (’75).
A yummy Shashi Kapoor strips to give body warmth to frost bitten Sharmila in Aa Gale… is traced to Jane Russell’s scene from The Outlaw (’43) and Hard Times (’75) gave the street fighting cage matches in Naseeb(’81).
Desh Premee (’82) appropriated the leper colony scene from Ben Hur (’56) and the archetype of Pran’s Jwala Singh in Dharam Veer was derived from El Cid (’61), both Heston starrers.
Desai is rightly credited for rounding off Amitabh’s persona by inserting a funny bone into the dour angry young man. And his loyalty to their relationship was reiterated when he stood vigil outside the ICU of Breach Candy hospital after the killer punch floored Big B on the sets of Desai’s Coolie (’83).
However, after a decade of undisputed reign, the monarch of masala mix got plagued by self parody. With changing audience dynamics, Desai relentlessly refused to re-invent. It depressed him to see the missing queues replacing the house full boards. The premature aborting of his son’s career further traumatized him.
The raconteur with a predilection for hyperbole had retreated into deathly silence much before the fatal leap on 1st March, two decades ago. And in the future to follow, what Manmohan Desai has committed to film shall bring forth restored belief in fairy tales with happy endings even if his own was not picture-perfect.