Out of the 20 films that Manmohan Desai directed in his career span of 29 years (1960-1988), as many as 13 films were stupendous hits. His success ratio was 65 per cent, in an industry where flops abound.
For a spell of nine years (1973-1981), success seemed to obey every command of Desai. In this phase, he delivered only hits, most of them Amitabh Bachchan-centred enterprises. It seemed as Desai could keep his finger pressed unerringly on the pulse of the audience.
What was the 'X' quality in Desai's films that made them such crowd-pleasers? His films had a surfeit of identifiable emotions incorporated into fantasies. His flight of imagination could accommodate the unthinkable -- in Sachcha Jhootha, drinks are mixed with a potent substance that makes an entire collection of people freeze into inaction; in Amar Akbar Anthony Amitabh, Rishi Kapoor and Vinod Khanna simultaneously offer blood via three tubes to their mother Nirupa Roy; in Dharamveer a falcon plays the hero's love courier and saviour.
In keeping with this director's style of telling a story in a linear fashion, let's rewind to the year 1936. It was the year in which Manmohan Desai was born in the house of Kikubhai Desai, the owner of Paramount studios. Babhubhai Mistri initiated him into films. In latter years, Desai's films bore the unmistakable stamp of his mentor Mistri's penchant for special effects and surreal elements.
Manmohan Desai's famous songs
Dum dum dig diga
Govinda aala re
Shamshad Begum, Asha Bhosle
Meri pyari baheniya banegi
Ghum hai kisike pyar mein
Rampur Ka Lakshman
Lata Mangeshkar, Kishore Kumar
Tera mujhse hai pehle ka
Aa Gale Lag Jaa
Kishore Kumar, Sushma Shresta
Gore rang pe na itna
Kishore Kumar, Lata Mangeshkar
Saat ajoobe iss duniya mein
Mohammed Rafi, Mukesh
My name is Anthony Gonsalves
Amar Akbar Anthony
Teri rab ne bana di jodi
Mohammed Rafi, Asha Bhosle, Shailendra Singh
|Chal mere bhai
|Mohammed Rafi, Amitabh Bachchan, Rishi Kapoor
At the age of 24, Desai directed his first film Chhalia (1960). Despite topnotch stars like Raj Kapoor and Nutan, the film was only a moderate success. However, Kalyanji Anandji''s score from Chhalia still resounds on the radio. Though he never cast Raj and Nutan again, they remained Desai's idols forever.
Keen to establish himself, Desai tried to conform and made listless escapist fare with 1960s youth icon Shammi Kapoor (Bluff Master, Budtameez) but could not bluff his way into big time. But Shammi's faith in good friend Desai was vindicated when Rajkumar (1964), a costume drama penned by Desai, hit the jackpot.
It was only a decade after Chhalia that Desai got his first whiff of big-time success. Sachcha Jhootha, a Rajesh Khanna double role starrer, showcased Desai's eye for the absurd and the emotional angle (the lost and found brother-sister track between Rajesh Khanna and a physically handicapped Naaz was one of the film's biggest draws).
Desai status as an in-demand director grew steadily in the early 1970s but films like Aa Gale Lag Jaa (1973), a terse tale of awry relationships, gave no hint of the joyous escapist fare that Desai would be associated with in the coming years.
The film that defines Desai best is Amar Akbar Anthony (1977). The film had rollicking music, several major stars and a script that had the purity of inspiration. Imagine a frisky ladies tailor Rishi Kapoor, a one-man band Vinod Khanna, and a perky padre Amitabh Bachchan, breaking into a jig in the villain's den. Or Amitabh breaking out of an Easter egg to play hide 'n' seek with Parveen Babi's bodyguard while he woos Parveen. The film spelt pure entertainment.
With three other thumping hits in the same year: Dharamveer, Chacha Bhatija and Parvarish, Desai was anointed as the box-office badshah in 1977.
Manmohan Desai's landmark films
Rak Kapoor, Nutan
Rajesh Khanna, Mumtaz
Bhai Ho To Aisa
Jeetendra, Hema Malini, Shatrughan Sinha
Rampur Ka Lakshman
Randhir Kapoor, Rekha
Aa Gale Lag Jaa
Shashi Kapoor, Sharmila Tagore
Rajesh Khanna, Mumtaz
|Amar Akbar Anthony
|Amitabh Bachchan, Rishi Kapoor, Vinod Khanna, Parveen
Babi, Neetu Singh, Shabana Azmi
|Dharmendra, Hema, Randhir Kapoor, Yogeeta Bali
|Dharmendra, Zeenat, Jeetendra, Neetu Singh
|Amitabh Bachchan, Vinod Khanna, Neetu Singh, Shabana Azmi
|Amitabh, Shashi Kapoor, Rekha, Parveen Babi
|Amitabh, Hema, Shatrughan Sinha, Rishi
|Amitabh, Rishi Kapoor, Rati Agnihotri
|Amitabh, Amrita Singh
Interestingly, Desai could not create any woman character which was as involving as the characters he created for his heroes. A quick scan of his top songs' list indicates he scored better with solo male songs, or even male duets, rather than female solos or the male-female duets.
He either defied the women (Nirupa Roy playing the mother) or employed them as decorative dolls (even an intense actress like Shabana Azmi was used as a mere prop in both Amar Akbar Anthony and Parvarish).
Though Desai had made hits with Rajesh Khanna (Sachcha Jhootha, Roti), Dharmendra (Dharamveer, Chacha Bhatija) and Jeetendra (Bhai Ho To Aisa, Dharamveer), after AAA, he donned blinkers and could not see beyond Amitabh. He did employ the services of Shashi Kapoor and Rishi Kapoor, but the spotlight stayed firmly rooted on Amitabh.
Understandably so. Amitabh hit the bull's eye in a series of Desai entertainers: Parvarish, Suhaag, Naseeb and as the eponymous hero of Coolie and Mard. In all, the A-team delivered six straight superhits.
As an acknowledgement of Desai's goodwill and his box-office supremacy, stars from Raj Kapoor to Rajesh Khanna and Dharmendra made a special appearance in the Desai-directed Naseeb.
Desai attempted am ambitious star-studded communal drama, Desh Premee. Despite a star ensemble that read like a laundry list, Desai smudged his copy book.
His next two ventures, Coolie and Mard did well but his work now reeked of self-parody. Desai, a widower, got engaged to Nanda and attempted to begin life anew. But plans were rudely aborted when an ailing Desai decided to put a full stop to his life and career.
Desai probably could not digest the twin shocks of the failure of his swansong Ganga Jamuna Saraswati (1988) and his son Ketan's directorial debacles like Allah Rakha and Toofan.
Desai's films have been and continue to be a wellspring of hope and happiness to multitudes. Amitabh remembers him thus: 'Manmohan Desai emitted a lot of energy in his films and as a person.'