Why Manmohan Desai is Bollywood's most commercially successful director ever

“Manmohan Desai was the genius who had the audacity to tell the audience in the very first frame that he was going to be illogical, make a fool of them and they better enjoy it.” -- Amitabh Bachchan

Be it Box Office or enduring value, the propellants of cinema are the hoi polloi, the common people, not the critics: no one symbolized, and underlined, this fact more resoundingly than Manmohan Desai.

Throughout his career, critics derided his films as ‘illogical’, ‘formulaic’, ‘corny’ and ‘crass’, but the audience lapped them up gleefully and turned them into massive blockbusters. What’s more, his films have stood the test of time and are fondly remembered even by the current generation, be it ‘Amar Akbar Anthony’, ‘Naseeb’, ‘Coolie’ or ‘Parvarish’.

Manmohan Desai

Desai certainly had the grasp of the audience’s pulse, current and future, more than the critics.

“When the audience comes to see a Manmohan Desai film, they have set expectations. They want to see my standards tropes -- lost and found formula, bracing action sequences, lilting music and a dash of humour -- all over again. Of course, I present these elements in different styles and packages in different films. A filmmaker should never cheat his audience,” he said in an interview.

As for a handful of people scouring logic in his films, he had a stinging response: “I don’t believe in logic. And I can’t show what I don’t believe in. It takes a lot of imagination and ingenuity to conjure up what my detractors call ‘illogical films’. My audience has always proven them wrong. The audience cannot be wrong. I believe in miracles. I have seen many miracles in my life and my films manifest them.”

And the Box Office performances of his films were miraculous too. In 1977, he delivered four superhit films in one calendar year -- a record that still stands. Four of his films -- ‘Amar Akbar Anthony’, ‘Parvarish’, ‘Chacha Bhatija’ and ‘Dharam Veer’ -- were running to packed houses simultaneously.

No other director ever since has come close to emulating this miraculous feat.

He’s also one of the four directors, along with late Raj Kapoor, Rajkumar Hirani and Sooraj Barjatya, to whip out highest grosser of the year three times. ‘Amar Akbar Anthony’, ‘Suhag’ and ‘Coolie’ were the highest grossers of 1977, 1979 and 1983, respectively.

MD with Amitabh Bachchan

Although he started his journey as a director in 1960, at the age of 23, with Raj Kapoor’s ‘Chhalia’, it wasn’t until 1970 when he hit the top league. ‘Sachaa Jhutha’, starring Rajesh Khanna and Mumtaz, became a blockbuster and reinforced the status of the then rising star Rajesh Khanna.

It also gave Desai the template he was to use, with stupendous success, for the next 15 years.

‘Lost and found’ and ‘surreal items’, in his own words, became his standard tropes. Be it men of three different religions donating blood to an old woman, unaware that she’s their mother, in ‘Amar Akbar Anthony’; a falcon saving a child in ‘Coolie’; or a dog giving evidence in ‘Sachaa Jhutha’, his films were replete with such ‘items’.

They also had subterranean social themes -- presented with fanfare -- like secularism, love for animals and anti-capitalism.

“I give my viewers an item in every reel and allow them no time to think,” he fessed up.

After ‘Sachaa Jhutha’, he gave a string of hits until he hit the purple patch in 1977. That year, he also collaborated with Amitabh Bachchan for the first time in ‘Amar Akbar Anthony’, arguably his greatest film. But he called it a fluke and revealed that this film took minimal efforts and time to be made.

Desai maintained till the end that ‘Naseeb’ was the most complete film in his oeuvre.

Desai and Bachchan ruled the roost between 1977 and 1985 as they churned out superhits such as ‘Amar Akbar Anthony’, ‘Suhag’, ‘Naseeb’, ‘Coolie’ and ‘Mard’. ‘Desh Premee’ was the fly in the ointment though.

But after the mid-80s, his template started to wear off as the winds of change started to blow across India and Bollywood. His swangsong ‘Ganga Jamuna Saraswati’ bombed abjectly at the turnstiles in 1988 and he decided to hang up his boots as a director.

In the same year, Aamir Khan made his debut with superhit ‘Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak’, and a year later Salman Khan leapt to limelight with blockbuster ‘Maine Pyar Kiya’. The transition had started. A new crop of directors and young stars took over the mantle and pushed the Angry Young Man to the periphery. Love stories toppled Desai’s brand of potboilers.

But it was a hiatus, not the death warrant.

A bevy of successful directors from the current lot owes allegiance to Desai. David Dhawan, Farah Khan, Anees Bazmee, Rohit Shetty and many others have admitted that their films are an extension, and reflection, of Desai’s brand of cinema.

He was a doyen of potboilers and the subsequent generation of directors picked up his template, if not the exact tropes, from his films.

The man who gave so much joy to the people and filled their life with fantasies died a painful death. On March 1, 1994, he jumped from the balcony of his house and committed suicide, ostensibly because of the chronic back pain.

“Perhaps, I will get respect only after I pass away. The future generation will watch my films again and again to understand why they resonated so deeply with the audience. The common people will continue to enjoy my kind of cinema long after I leave this world. That will be my victory,” he said in his last interview.

How prophetic!