THE MMD Magic
The name could probably be a part of a quiz contest because few of the present generation of cine goers would remember the great magician of mainstream Hindi cinema, Manmohan Desai, and what some of these did to Amitabh Bachchan’s career, beginning with Parvarish (1977) co-starring Shammi Kapoor, Vinod Khanna, Neetu Singh, Shabana Azmi, Amjad Khan. Before this he had directed another 11 films, at least two of which were Aa Gale Lag Ja (1973, starring Shashi Kapoor, Sharmila Tagore, Shatrughan Sinha) and the cult-classic Roti (1974—Rajesh Khanna, Mumtaz). Altogether 20 films in a career spanning almost three decades. He showed promise with his very first release Chhalia (60), produced by Subhash Desai’s without knowing that the hero, Raj Kapoor had given a conditional approval, and he passed the test. Chhalia also had Nutan, Rehman and Pran. Written by Inder Raj Anand the story set against the background of partition. It did not make a big impact at the box office though won critical acclaim for the sensitive handling of the difficult subject.
The year 1977 brought in the big change as two more blockbusters—Dharam-Veer, a period drama with Dharmendra, Jeetendra, Zeenat Aman, Neetu Singh, Pran, and the contemporary Amar Akbar Anthony co-starring Amitabh Bachchan, Vinod Khanna, Rishi Kapoor, Parveen Babi, Neetu Singh, Shabana Azmi, Pran. With these three he also successfully patented the lost-and-found formula. Parvarish also marks the advent of the formidable Desai-Bachchan combination that dominated Hindi cinema for the next decade. Others included Suhaag (79) with Shashi Kapoor, Parveen Babi, Rekha, Amjad Khan; Naseeb (81), starring Rishi Kapoor, Shatrughan Sinha, Hema Malini, Reena Roy, Amjad Khan, Amrish Puri, Prem Chopra and others; Desh Premee (82) opposite Hema Malini, Sharmila Tagore, Navin Nischol, Parveen Babi, Shammi Kapoor, Uttam Kumar, Prem Nath; Coolie (83) with Rishi Kapoor, Waheeda Rehman, Rati Agnihotri; Mard (85) which had a young Amrita Singh cast opposite Big B. And then the forgettable Ganga Jamuna Saraswati (88) co-starring Mithun Chakravorty, Meenakshi Sheshadri, Jaya Pradha, Amrish Puri and; Toofan (89) with Jaya Pradha, Amrita Singh, Amrish Puri, Pran, the direction of which was credited to Ketan Anand though it carried the typical Manmohan Desai stamp.
From Raj Kapoor in Chhalia to Shammi Kapoor in Bluff Master (63) and Budtameez (66) was not a calculated move, though the former was again produced under the banner of Subhash Pictures. Both crashed at the box office. According to MMD, Bluff Master (his worst possible) had actually been incomplete, “It was delayed because of all sorts of problems, artistes and so on. My brother had to compromise and released an almost incomplete film. It had some good sequences though. The ‘Govinda ala re’ dance is remembered to this day.” Though not many old-timers really wish to recall either Budtameez with Sadhna as the leading lady, or Kismat (68—his first in colour) with Biswajeet and Babita, Desai was happy with the box office response, especially the latter. He told his Paris-based biographer, Connie Haham: “I still like that film very much. I put a lot of hard work into it. I feel, it has the best action climax ever in any Indian film.” Jhutha (70) with the then reigning superstar Rajesh Khanna alongside Vinod Khanna and Mumtaz. It was written by Prayag Raj who then either went on to either contribute the story or the screenplay of all his films until Mard.
Not many people even in the industry know how this union of the writer-director came about for Prayag Raj was even credited with partial direction of Coolie. Besides, now in the autumn of his life he is working on a definitive book on MMD. Asked to speak, he categorically told the columnist: “The book will be the culmination of the long successful association, and there are things that people do not know about it, especially the way he made his films. I feel people have been fascinated the way he mesmerised the common man with his cinema, but what they don’t know is what went behind the scene, behind that unique vision. Most of Manji’s films were panned by the so-called critics, but hailed by the viewing public as he delivered jubilees in succession.”
Quizzed more, the writer whose last job with MKD banner was Dewana Mastana completed after MMD’s suicide, he said: “Life came to a standstill somewhat after the disaster of Ganga Jamuna Saraswati. The screenplay had to be rewritten several times. Manji kept changing the main track. It bombed at the box office.” He only contributed lyrics to the next disaster Toofan that had originally been written by Salim Khan after his split with Javed Akhtar. “After that Manji went into depression, and we lost contact until he called me again just four days ago his death. MKD was making Dewana Mastana with David Dhawan as director. To my surprise he told David, “I want Prayagji on board for the script. The film became a big hit. That is my tribute to the genius of Manmohan Desai.”
Manmohan Desai committed suicide by jumping off the terrace of his South Bombay residence on March 01, 1994 at the age of 57. Nobody knows why? “Laugh at me today, but mark my words, you’ll appreciate my work some day, even if it’s too late,” recalled Amitabh Bachchan and added: “He was quiet prescient about the fact that his films, as a collective whole, would be ultimately accorded their just estimation by the critics, thinkers and academicians.” The process began some years ago with Haham’s Enchantment of the Mind: Manmohan Desai’s Films, and now being carried forward by Prayag Raj who and which, perhaps, will answer the perennial question: “And where, one might ask, do Manmohan Desai’s films fit in this newly emerging picture of Indian cinema? The answers are complex. His cinema has not been forgotten…Desai has gone from often being maligned to something of an icon.”
Although MMD films relied almost totally on fantasy, and made. Almost all his films followed his intent: Get people into the theatre, and make them watch the movie. And logic be damned. They must forget their sorrows while they are watching your films, it does not matter if they abuse you at the end of the show. He knew his formula would not last forever. Nobody has always made hits. An element of complacency, over-confidence, self-indulgence always catches up. He was no fool: “I’ve got to compete with myself now because, to be very frank, I’ve got 12 jubilees in a row. ‘How long’ is the question? Some day the law of averages will catch up with me.” And it did. When that happened, he couldn’t take the failure.
By Suresh Kohli