Manmohan Desai: 5 Best Films of a movie magician

Amar Akbar Anthony was Manmohan Desai’s first film as a producer too. Photo: Trailer Video Grab

On March 1, it is 28 years since Manmohan Desai left us. The magician among directors directed 20 films in his illustrious career, from the 1961 Chhalia to the 1988 Gangaa Jamunaa Saraswati. 16 of them were money-spinners—that’s a heady success ratio of 80 percent, unequalled in his times when giants were making movies.

Manmohan Desai always considered himself a simple, middle-class Gujarati, and for him, the common man was his audience. None of his films were technically very grand, though he had announced a few in 70mm that were never made. In his post-Roti (1974) movies, entertainment became his buzzword long before Vidya Balan made it popular by uttering the word thrice.

The late filmmaker, after a long struggle to make it big (two of his first three films did not do well—Bluff Master and Budtameez —though these movies entrenched his lasting bond with Shammi Kapoor), believed firmly that a complete package of stars, a story laced with emotion, action, drama, comedy, romance and music was what the audience craved for.

Manmohan Desai Photo: Publicity Photo

Here’s looking at his five best movies. 

Saccha Jhutha (1970)

Every human being is said to have seven doppelgangers in the world. Manmohan Desai’s utter conviction in making a city arch-criminal’s lookalike as a rustic simpleton actually won Rajesh Khanna his first acting award. The Kalyanji-Anandji-composed Kishore Kumar song Meri pyari beheniya banegi dulhaniya has since become a cult wedding song. This crime drama marked Desai’s turnaround despite an earlier crime thriller hit in Kismet (1968).

Aa Gale Lag Jaa (1973)

Manmohan Desai had a soft corner for this love triangle with a physically-challenged love child. The film was Shashi Kapoor’s first turnaround in a long career and also the first in which Desai’s wife, Jeevanprabha, was credited with the story. As son Ketan Desai expressed, “My mother had a great sense of script and would frankly give her opinion about my father’s screenplays. He would understand and appreciate that.” Shashi was to later do Dharam-Veer as well, but things went wrong and Jeetendra came in.

Dharam-Veer (1977)

In today’s times, one could call it Bobby Deol’s debut movie—he acted as his father’s childhood, handling an axe that looked real but was made of papier-mache. This film saw Dharmendra at his arguably most masculine after Phool Aur Patthar, and as someone said, “Only Dharam could have carried off this character, wearing a skirt-like costume and still looking manly.”

The film marked Desai’s first tryst with a complete package of entertainment and was also his first multi-star film, with Jeetendra, Zeenat Aman and Neetu Singh.

Marking the comeback of his elder brother Subhash Desai as a producer, the film won the first Gold Disc of many later films for outstanding music sales in Desai’s movies. Laxmikant-Pyarelal composed the music, and Desai rediscovered a precious magic formula—the star-studded lost-and-found story.

Amar Akbar Anthony (1977)

Manmohan Desai officially debuted as producer, and began his long relationship with Amitabh Bachchan. According to Ketan again, “Amitabh became like my dad’s alter-ego! My father never fraternized much with the film folk, except for Shammi Kapoor (now my father-in-law from a marriage match arranged by both our fathers!), but he struck a working relationship with Amit-ji. Both knew what each other wanted, and my father was impressed by his punctuality and discipline.”

The association continued beyond Desai’s swan song, Gangaa Jamunaa Saraswati in 1988 to his production, Toofan (1989), which Ketan directed.

The award-winning music of this film by Laxmikant-Pyarelal also marked Rafi’s return to big time after a brief dull phase. “My father was obsessed with Rafi, who he considered like his father!” says Ketan. “When he heard a rumor after Rafi’s death that Kishore Kumar did not like him, he refused to work with him for a while, till Kishore met dad and clarified that he was Rafi’s biggest fan! Until that, dad preferred to work with singers who sang like Rafi-saab—Shabbir Kumar in Coolie, and later Mohammed Aziz!”

AAA was also the biggest hit of 1977 and Desai’s first tryst with illogic put forward with conviction—three men, unaware that they were brothers, simultaneously giving blood to a woman they did not know was their mother! 

Parvarish (1977)

In 1977, Desai directed four of the year’s five biggest blockbusters—AAA and Dharam-Veer as the years’ biggest hits, and Parvarish and Chacha Bhatija as the fourth and fifth highest-grossing films. At no. 3 was Nasir Husain’s Hum Kisise Kum Naheen.

Parvarish had the intensity of the earlier Desai movies that was replaced by the entertainment mantra from Dharam-Veer. It had intense drama and emotions. It also has the distinction also of having the hit multi-singer song, Hum premee prem karna jaane, with Rafi singing for Vinod Khanna, while Shailendra Singh sang for the veteran Shammi Kapoor, with whom Rafi had been almost inseparable! “I was playing an old man, so that was fine!” Shammi Kapoor had once told me!

Amitabh Bachchan in Mard. Photo; Instagram / Amitabh Bachchan

Five lesser-known facts about Manmohan Desai

The filmmaker had announced a record number of movies that were never made after announcement—two multi-star movies called Ghazab, a spectacular period drama in 70mm—Rajesh Khanna-Hema Malini’s Bajirao Mastani, a cowboy Western called Khuda Gawah and a drama named Sarfarosh. Each of these titles have now been used for different films by others.

Desai had first scoffed at the idea of any Muslim writer penning convincing dialogues minus sher-o-shayari for his movies. When writer Kader Khan proved him wrong in Roti, Desai gifted him a gold bracelet, a new TV he had bought for himself, and recommended him to all.

Dimple Kapadia was the original heroine of Roti, but when she married hero and de facto producer Rajesh Khanna, she was replaced by Mumtaz.

Desai “ordered” Laxmikant-Pyarelal to look for a Rafi-like voice for Coolie after Rafi’s death. Shabbir Kumar was found, and was selected after a full orchestra audition at Mehboob Studios. He sang all the seven songs of Coolie.

Desai’s style of filmmaking inspired so many directors, notably David Dhawan. And Desai decided to make his production, Dum Dum Diga Diga (the mukhda of his hit song from Chhalia), with this director, whose movies, he thought, were similar to his. The film was announced with Anil Kapoor, Salman Khan and Madhuri Dixit in 1994, but a few weeks later, Desai died in an accident.







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