The Director of the Center for Global Studies, Associate Director of the Jackson School and Associate Professor of South Asia Studies Christian Novetzke talks about how India’s most popular film from over 40 years ago offers insight into modern India in “Amar Akbar Anthony: Bollywood, Brotherhood and The Nation” (Harvard University Press, January 2016), a book he co-authored with William Elison and Andy Rotman. Reviews have also appeared in media outlets in India, including “Straight as for Secularism” in The Hindu, among others.
What inspired you to write about a Bollywood film?
This isn’t so much a book about a Bollywood film as it is about the Bollywood film. We were inspired by the hunch (or maybe wild assertion) that Amar Akbar Anthony is actually the first Bollywood film. What we mean is that Amar Akbar Anthony perfects the genre known as the masala or “spicy” film, with its eclectic blend of song, dance, drama, action, romance, comedy, etc., and initiates a new filmic era. As the culmination of the masala format, it also found a way to instill commentary about India’s economic and cultural conditions into the genre formula. Amar Akbar Anthony brought everything together: the story elements and visual thrills everyone expected from a masala film, and an economic and political awareness that linked real-life experiences to this newly perfected genre of commercial cinema.
If Amar Akbar Anthony were filmed today, what do you think would be “the mixed blessings of modernity in India”?
You know what? It is being filmed today! There have been numerous remakes of Amar Akbar Anthony, including one made in South India last year. The film’s story remains relevant, and modernity’s blessings remain mixed. India continues to be the world’s largest and perhaps most vibrant democracy, consistently surpassing the United States in voter turnout, for example. But like the United States, India struggles with problems of diversity, social equality, and secularism. Our book examines the film within its context in the mid-1970s, but also looks back to that time from the present as a way of understanding the genealogy of contemporary debates about modernity. At the same time, in reflecting on the historical past from its own 1970s perspective, the film is itself delivering a critique of post-Independence India. According to Amar Akbar Anthony, the present is corrupt, both by comparison with a traditional past and with an idealized future. Perhaps Indian notions of modernity’s mixed blessings haven’t actually changed much over the years.
What would you like the reader to take away from reading this book?
We would want a reader to sense our deep admiration for India’s people and culture, and also for Indian culture’s generous capacity for humor and irreverence. This is a film that celebrates India, but an India beyond any political party, single issue, or simple nationalism. Underlying the film’s madcap energy we see seriousness and purposeful critique, but we also take the film’s funny side seriously. Amar Akbar Anthony is a labyrinthine text—it contains multitudes, encompassing a diversity of voices, and in this complexity we see a metaphor for the Indian nation. In our book, we have looked to the film as a touchstone for the ways Indians have grappled with important questions—democracy, religion, family values—and also ways they have made fun of them.
Anything surprise you when researching this book?
There were not many surprises for us, but many delights. When we told people we were writing a book on this film, the conversation would invariably change. Many times, eyes would light up, smiles would appear, and stories would pour out of the first time they saw the film, of their favorite scene, or how they had a friend who was just like one of the characters. The film transported people to a different time and mood.
Sometimes, reactions would be incredulous, followed by: “Why would you write a book about that film?!” Many people have dismissed Amar Akbar Anthony as a cheesy “entertainer,” meant not to make sense but money. We disagree, which is why we wrote the book. So perhaps the surprise is not so much our surprise as the surprise of others at the notion that it took three academics to write one book on this “senseless” film.
What is your next book project?
We are all engaged in new book projects. Christian is about to finish a book called The Quotidian Revolution that will be published this year by Columbia University Press. That book is about the emergence of a public discourse around social equality in the thirteenth century that coalesced in the regional language of Marathi, and its connection to a nascent public sphere. Christian is also writing a book with UW Professor Sunila Kale called The Politics of Yoga, which will also be published by Columbia University Press at some point in the future.
Andy recently finished Divine Stories: Translations from the Divyāvadāna, Part 2, the second half of a two-part translation of an important collection of ancient Buddhist narratives, which is forthcoming with Wisdom Publications. Andy is also working on another book, Bazaar Religion: Marketing and Moral Economics in Modern India, a longitudinal study of the main bazaars in Varanasi, India, which examines the moral economy behind the objective economy of visible transactions, and the ways that it creates, mediates, and sacralizes various moods and modes of behavior. He hopes his book will come out before the next remake of Amar Akbar Anthony.
William is completing Neighborhood of Gods, which the University of Chicago Press will be bringing out next year. The book is an ethnography of religious practices in Mumbai that center on the worship of local, urban gods and spirits based in public places: gods of street corners, slum neighborhoods, and apartment buildings, for example. Ethnographic research at the city’s film studios is a major component of the study, as is a study of Mumbai’s “patron saint,” Sai Baba of Shirdi—the divine figure whose miraculous intervention brings about the resolution of Amar Akbar Anthony.