THE Manmohan Desai’s unabashed proclamation, "I don’t make films for critics", sums up the cinematic genre of fantasy-entertainment created by him. In Preface, Amitabh Bachchan compares this auteur-director to a child who has clambered onto a Ferris wheel and could have enjoyed the ride till the kingdom come.
The believe-it-or-not stories spun by Desai with their repetitive lost-and-found themes, their speed and drama were openly criticised by the scions of serious cinema. In the face of such criticism, Desai simply declared that as most people in the world were facing poverty and misery, "Why can’t I give them an escape hatch? My films are an escape hatch".
Desai offers the audience a carnival, where the rigid norms of society are relegated to the background and the audience takes part in the thrill of watching the protagonist survive the vagaries of fate all the while thinking, "I could’ve been like that chap". In tune with such fantastic optimism, we have the protagonist in Coolie surviving even after being riddled with bullets and we have the infant Dharam in Dharam-Veer being saved by the omnipresent falcon.
Desai’s wonderland peopled with fantastic characters is, however, strongly rooted in reality—the reality of Mumbai’s Khetwadi district. Anthony of Amar Akbar, Anthony, and Iqbal of Coolie are both real characters Desai found in the backstreets and dark alleyways of Khetwadi. Even the timeworn lost-and-found gimmicks have been given a fresh patina. Desai himself admitted that "it is very difficult to bring about the union in a different way every time". But he has done it with great panache every time.
Connie Haham’s treatise is an analysis of the significant aspects of Desai’s genre with its trademark flair for adventure, pie-on-the-face comedy, flamboyant sets and costumes, catchy tunes, lost-found formulae and colloquial dialogues. This American Professor teaching in Paris has done what the most reputed Bollywood buffs and critics could not do—he has taken an objective look at Desai the filmmaker. Haham has fleshed out the true character of this filmmaker who although avowedly a box-office director wove into his cinema the sub-texts of romantic idealism, optimistic survival, communal harmony and traditional familial values that went either unnoticed or disregarded. This ‘anhonee ko honee karde’ director may cringe at the academic analysis of his work, but I for one feel that Haham’s cerebral perspective of Desai’s genre was required to shrug of the label of a non-serious commercial money-spinner that has struck Desai for decades. And what better time than Desai’s 12th death anniversary to do the good deed. Desai once said: ‘Laugh at me today but mark my words, you’ll appreciate my work some day, even if its too late." And we do. More so after Connie Haham’s book.