Remembering 'Anand' and Its Gallows Humour of an India at Ease With Its Differences

Fifty years later, Rajesh Khanna still glows as he goes about spreading joy to all, irrespective of language, caste or religion

The year 1971 was marked with several ‘big victories’ – in politics, cricket and in war – all of which had long term implications for India. The national mood was buoyant, even if the country continued to struggle with endemic problems.

Fifty years later, we look back at those times and evoke some of that mood. In a series of articles, leading writers recall and analyse key events and processes that left their mark on a young, struggling but hopeful nation.

Rewatching Anand recently was like seeing a different film. The story was the same, of two unlikely friends. Dr Bhaskar Banerjee (Amitabh Bachchan), a medical doctor, is the author of a book, Anand, about his relationship with Anand (Rajesh Khanna), who is dying of cancer but wants to enjoy every minute of what is left of his life.

The theme is about laughter as the best medicine, while the two medical doctors, Dr Bhaskar and Dr Kulkarni, get on with their lives, the former bemoaning the disease of poverty which he can’t cure while the latter is more pragmatic, taking money by giving multicoloured placebos to wealthy hypochondriacs to allow him to set up a clinic to treat the poor. Medical ethics intrude little in the film, medicine being a metaphor rather than a science.

It seems dated to fear cancer, which is said to be untreatable in the film, more than all other diseases. The form of cancer which Anand has is rare but known by all Hindi film fans: ‘lymphosarcoma of the intestine’. One of the themes of the film is that one must live life to the full (‘zindagi badi honi chahiye, lambi nahin’). The oncologist, Bhaskar, can’t cure Anand but Anand gives him life, and indeed a publication. (It’s not surprising that while pretending to be a doctor, Munna Bhai MBBS makes the diagnosis of lymphosarcoma of the intestine while looking at an X-ray of a skull, as probably the only disease whose name he knows. Not ill himself, Munna prescribes magical hugs (jaadu ki jhappis), again showing patients loving care is more important than medicine.) Although we see some scary hospital machinery, Anand looks remarkably well and manifests none of the unpleasant symptoms of intestinal cancer but has a beautiful and fully melodramatic death.

The medical aberrations are mostly only a plot device, as for many viewers the film is about the two male stars in a bromance, Rajesh Khanna at his peak and performing as a star in one of his most cherished roles, while Amitabh Bachchan was then almost unknown.

Bachchan’s role in the middle-class Hindi cinema of the 1970s is overshadowed by his work in mainstream cinema, Anand being made only two years before Zanjeer, and four before Sholay and Deewaar. Bachchan is well cast as the Bengali (though he writes his diary in Hindi), and had worked in Calcutta before marrying Jaya Bhaduri, whose career started with Satyajit Ray and acted wonderfully with Hrishikesh Mukherjee.

Khanna, the Phenomenon, makes a wonderful star entrance to a fanfare here. I felt the urge to stand up and clap. I wrote about Bachchan overshadowing him with his emotional intensity and silence in the film in my 100 Bollywood Films but now I’m not so sure. Bachchan’s performance is extraordinary: very un-filmi, intense and broody. He’s not a Devdas figure as there’s no element of self-destruction, nor is he his Angry Young Man/Vijay character, as here he is angry about injustice and poverty rather than something that someone had done to his family.

Khanna was the guy next door, or the chap you’d like to have as a neighbour, who winked and tossed his head in a mannered way but was always charming. He was the small-town hero, though sophisticated himself, who stepped out of a Hindi novel. What struck me in Anand was his astounding ability to handle a song without dancing. It’s much harder not to look silly when walking and gesticulating while lip-syncing, but Khanna carries it off beautifully. It’s easy to say he had good music but the way he performed the songs is remarkable.

Also read: The Saddest Song of Them All

The film is said to be inspired by Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s friendship with Raj Kapoor. Bachchan’s role as Dr Bhaskar was modelled on the director (and Anand even called him babu moshai, which was Kapoor’s name for Mukherjee), while Anand was Kapoor. Certainly Anand has many characteristics of the immature but exuberant male that Kapoor and others, including Shah Rukh Khan in some of his earlier roles, have played. Lalita Pawar reprises her role as Mrs D’Sa, fierce but kind, as she had in the Mukherjee’s directed Anari, 1959, which starred Kapoor and has many elements of his style.

It’s strange to imagine Mukherjee’s original casting, that is Kishore Kumar as Anand and Mehmood as Dr Bhaskar. The story is that Kishore Kumar had a fight with some Bengali impresario over a stage show so told his doorman to refuse entry to ‘the Bengali’ if he came to the house. The doorman assumed Mukherjee was that Bengali…

Gulzar, who was a later addition to the Bengali group, despite being a Punjabi, played a major role in the film, from co-writing the story, the eminently quotable dialogues, some of the lyrics and the poem that Dr Bhaskar recites, ‘Maut ek kavita hai’.

A still from ‘Anand’.

In Anand, words are at such a premium that tape recorders move the story along, whether Suman (Seema Deo) finding out about Anand’s romance which he broke off, like Aman Mathur (Shahrukh Khan) in Kal Ho Na Ho (2003), who sacrificed his love knowing he was going to die or the recording of Anand himself at the end that allows him to ‘speak’ to Bhaskar after death.

The look of the film is sometimes problematic, as it’s quite unfilmic with harsh and unflattering lighting that makes RK’s skin look blemished and AB lugubrious.  The indoor locations are mostly undramatic and forgettable, perhaps highlighted by the wonderful outdoor scenes throughout the film.

The music is outstanding, even by Salil Chowdhury’s high standards.  The most popular of the songs is ‘Kahin door’ (sung by Mukesh), which has remained a perennial favourite and rerecorded by others including famously by Jagjit Singh.  The original song was the Bengali ‘Amay proshno kare’ sung by Hemant Kumar around 20 earlier (there’s a lovely version of Salilda himself singing it). Apparently, Hemant Kumar and Salil Chowdhury fell out over the latter’s choice of Mukesh to sing in the film when he was seeking the particular pathos Mukesh could add.  I love all three versions as each singer brings his own talents and it’s wonderful to hear the composer and lyricist, Salilda, himself singing.

The picturisation of Anand looking into a glorious Bombay sunset but feeling that something touches him in an uncanny way and reminds him of the past ends with Bhaskar appearing, bringing him back down to earth.

The other hit song, also written by Yogesh, was Manna Dey’s ‘Zindagi kaisi hai paheli’, a lilting and joyous song that has also remained popular.  Filmed on Juhu beach, I think, when it was less crowded, with the balloons flying off into the sky, a holiday song but with lyrics which the film shows of the mystery of life.

Gulzar wrote the other lyrics, including one of my favourite songs, ‘Maine tere liye’, sung by Mukesh, sitting at a piano though there’s no piano in soundtrack about bringing beauty into life day by day through dreams and little things.

Also read: The Year When Indian Cricket Came Of Age

All the songs but one are picturised on Anand, marking him as the star of the film and the person whose inner life we are following. Always cheerful and bouncy, the songs allow him to express his inner self eloquently though somewhat out of character. I may have missed it but what did Anand do before he comes to Bombay? There is a feeling that he arrives ready made, kind, trying to help people and spread joy in such a way that he doesn’t seem real.  Is he an angel, like Aman in Kal Ho Na Ho?

A poster for ‘Anand’.

Bhaskar doesn’t get a song but fortunately we have Salil Chowdhury and Lata Mangeshkar together for the exquisite ‘Na jiya lage na’, though it was a shame it was picturised on Renu – Sumita Sanyal – when she’s tidying up the house. The original song is the Bengali is ‘Na mon lage na’, again with music and lyrics by Salil Chowdhury, which is just as lovely as this version.

Chowdhury was part of the Bengali group that came to Bombay in 1950 with Bimal Roy and others including Hrishikesh Mukherjee himself, several of them at the famous New Theatres in Calcutta. Hrishikesh Mukherjee was the writer for Bimal Roy’s first film in Bombay, though set in Calcutta, Do Bigha Zamin (1953), whose story Chowdhury wrote and which Mukherjee edited. Mukherjee directed his own films from Musafir in 1957, working with all the major stars of the 1950s, right through the 1970s. An AIR sitar player himself, the films have some wonderful music including Ravi Shankar’s compositions for Anuradha, 1960). He continued editing with Bimal Roy, later helping untangle directors of classic films such as the Ramu Kariat’s Malayalam Chemmeen (1965) and Manmohan Desai’s Coolie (1983). All of his films engage with issues and values of the middle classes and upper middle classes yet using the songs and stars of the mainstream cinema in a way that few, if any films, have done in subsequent years although perhaps today’s Hindi films are part of this style.

This middle class cinema is closely associated with the Bengalis who worked in Bombay, who showed the Bengali Bhadralok reimagined as middle class North Indians. Mukherjee spent more of his life in Bombay than Calcutta but his films often look like Bengali films in Hindi, and his dedications often pay tribute to his colleagues in Calcutta: Aashirwad (1968) to B.N. Sircar of New Theatres, Anupama (1966) to Bimal Roy and Alaap (1977) to K.L. Saigal (a Punjabi who sang at New Theatres, and to Mukesh). Many Bengalis today make very Bengali films in the Hindi language, such as Pradeep Sarkar’s Parineeta (2005), Sujoy Ghosh’s Kahaani (2012), or Dibakar Banerjee’s Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! 2015). Bachchan in Shoojit Sircar’s Piku (2015), said to be based on Satyajit Ray’s short film Pikoo (1980), is called, of course, Bhashkor (Bhaskar) Banerjee.

The theme of the film that I loved most is that Bombay represents all of India, being the great cosmopolitan city that welcomes all, including Bengalis. The film is dedicated to the City of Bombay and to Raj Kapoor, who is one of the great filmmakers of this city, whose style helps establish the mainstream Hindi cinema, its stars and its music. He, like the Bengalis, came from an area of India that became another country in 1947, but the opposite side. However, he had grown up for many years in Calcutta when his father worked in New Theatres and had learnt Bengali.

A poster for ‘Anand’.

The film opens with what I think is ‘Zindagi kaisi hai paheli’ set to a cinematic march, as we see Bombay, mostly South Bombay, from high buildings, when it looks achingly beautiful, the traffic bustling, not snarled, cosmopolitan, a city where the streets are lively and the population is mobile. The handsome buildings, such as VT and the high rises are set against the stunning Marine Drive.  Truly one of the world’s great cities.

In this city, people from all over the country gather. The Bengali Dr Bhaskar, the Punjabi Anand (who reads his poetry in Urdu), the Maharashtrian Kulkarnis, the Punjabi wrestler (Dara Singh), the Christian Mrs D’Sa and the Gujarati-speaking Muslim Isabhai Suratwala (Johnny Walker), and the lovely Durga Khote as the archetypal widowed mother.  They speak their own language, follow their own religions and culture but they can all live together in the great cosmopolitan city. Bhaskar’s servant, Raghu Kaka, speaks up for himself as he nourishes them with his food, which is, of course, the great blend – khichdi. The women are agents and move around with confidence. The only person who is teased is  the actor Moolchand with his huge belly.

Anand meets people by pretending they are a former friend, Morarilal, from Delhi. Only Isabhai realises the performance and responds.  Perhaps it’s a little joke that in Bombay, rather than Delhi, anything is possible?

Anand was released 50 years ago, only 24 years after independence. Many of the cast and crew grew up in British India and are shaping ideas of the new India. The British for them are almost comical. Lymphosarcoma of the intestine is mocked: ‘It sounds like the name of some viceroy. It could be announced on the radio (kisi viceroy ka naam lagta hai. Aadmi Vividh Bharati par announce kar sakta hai).’ This cultural confidence shows the characters at ease with themselves and other cultures without having to laugh at them or perform them. The absence of chauvinism in the philosophy of different but equal is part of the nostalgic charm of the film.

Rachel Dwyer is a professor of Indian culture and cinema at SOAS, University of London.