b. 26 February 1937, Bombay, British India
1 March 1994, Bombay, India

‘No event of any importance in India is complete without a goof-up’
– Ramachandra Guha1


It is one of the most famous moments in Indian film.

Superstar Amitabh Bachchan is in Coolie (1983), pacing through one of the many stylised fight sequences he shot for Manmohan Desai and other Bombay filmmakers.2 The locales rarely mattered – it could be a seedy tavern, a vast desert, a slum alley, an underground car park or a revolving restaurant atop a Bombay skyscraper.  In Coolie, the setting does matter – this is Bachchan’s and Desai’s most political film, and the fight is part of the underclass coolies’ revolt against capitalist and political corruption.  As ever with Desai, it is choreographed as meticulously as a ballet or an Indian classical dance.  Bachchan is pinned against a column and an overturning poster, about to be punched by his antagonist when the screen suddenly freezes, and an astonishing caption in three languages covers the screen :


The mass audience that saw Coolie when it was released on 2 December 1983 – Coolie was by the far the most successful film at the Indian box office that year, going on to sell over 70 million tickets in twelve months – would have known exactly what was going on.  Shooting the sequence, Amitabh had miscalculated a movement, and the ‘fake’ punch hit him for real. Winded, he staggered into the side of a table, rupturing his spleen. All of these movements are captured in freeze-frame for the audience to – to what exactly? To wallow in a celebrity mishap, anticipating the future leisure activity of a billion YouTube users? To reflect on the interaction between illusion and reality that is central to Bollywood cinema in general, and Desai’s in particular? To share in and let out a collective, cathartic sigh of relief after the past few months’ trauma?  

Because this accident, not so different from on-set accidents that occur across the world on a regular basis, was a national trauma. Amitabh Bachchan was the greatest star the Indian cinema has ever known, with a privileged status in the culture unavailable to even the best-known actors in other countries. He was a receptacle for an overwhelmingly poor and divided nation’s hopes (it is significant that the accident took place in a film called Coolie, with Amitabh, scion of an upper-caste Hindu family, son of a leading poet, and closely connected to the Indian political elite, playing a proletarian Muslim strike leader), a hero who could fight state, corporate, police and familial corruption in a way that the lowliest audience member could only dream of. This superstar was so badly injured that he went into a coma for months; contemporary reports and subsequent interviews suggest that Amitabh was even clinically dead for a few minutes. A nation prayed for his recovery, with thousands gathering outside the Breach Candy Hospital in Bombay for months.

It is not the purpose of this profile of Hindi director Manmohan Desai to simply rehash this oft-told story. What is important is Desai’s artistic response to the crisis. As it happened, Amitabh clearly made a recovery and quickly returned to the shoot – despite some professional ups and downs, an ill-fated detour into politics, and further health scares, some a hangover from the Coolie incident, Bachchan remains a revered figure in India and a major box-office drawcard as he enters his ninth decade. Not only did Desai add the captions to the fight sequence, but he also completely reworked the film’s dénouement. Bachchan’s character Iqbal was originally supposed to die a martyr’s death. Now, in response to real-life events, Iqbal/Amitabh faced his nemesis armed with his Sufi faith (signalled by key texts and motifs). He is temporarily felled by the assassin’s bullets, but the prayers of the nation, of every gender, region, creed, and caste, serve to resuscitate him; Iqbal stands on the balcony of the hospital waving to cheering crowds, just as Amitabh himself had months earlier.

Credit sequence

Manmohan Desai was arguably the most successful and influential filmmaker of the Bombay Cinema. Of the 20 films he made between 1957 and 1988, 13 were among the top ten grossers of their year – the highest success ratio in the history of Bombay Cinema, and three were the most successful of the year: Amar Akbar Anthony (AAA, 1977), Suhaag (1979), and Coolie. 1977 was Desai’s annus mirabilis – with the regular release schedule suspended for two years by the Emergency, four of his films were released in this year, becoming the first, second, fourth and fifth highest grossing films (Amar Akbar Anthony, Dharam Veer, Parvarish, and Chacha Bhatija respectively). AAA and Dharam Veer were among the ten best grossing films of the 1970s and Coolie, Naseeb (1981), and Mard (1985) of the 1980s.3 This barrage of statistics testifies to the contemporary reach of Desai’s work, which extended to re-releases in the ’90s when even comparative flops like Desh Premee (1982) and Ganga Jamuna Saraswati (1988) found large new audiences. Desai’s blockbuster formula of all-star casts and spectacle- or set-piece-structured narratives became and continues to be the dominant mode in Bollywood, and it is what most people mean nowadays when they speak of Bollywood, where earlier audiences might have pointed to the romantic melodrama or historical epic.


Desai was the Bollywood post-modernist, playing with narrative, genre, pastiche, parody, bathos, spectatorship and star personae. In his films, he took ancient Indian religion, mythology, and classical drama; folk entertainment and popular fantasy and melodrama; the Shakespearean comedy and Catholic iconography of his Jesuit education; the post-Independence idealism embodied in Bombay neo-realism; and fused them with American serials and silent comedy; Hollywood musicals; set-piece thrillers such as North by Northwest and the James Bond series; cartoons and comic books like The Adventures of Tintin; the Crosby-Hope Road to… and Tashlin-Lewis movies; American and spaghetti Westerns; and the Hong Kong action film to create the ‘masala’ movie emphasising generic discord, set-piece, spectacle, and play with audience expectations.

Part One

A teleological classification of Desai’s work into distinct ‘periods’ would see his work as heading towards what we now recognise as a ‘Manmohan Desai film’, although other elements may have been at play when the earlier films were made. Such a model would characterise Desai’s films from 1957 to 1968 as apprentice or inchoate works which contain elements that would be developed in the ‘mature’ work. If we think of the post-1970 works as ‘true’ Desai, we note that the earlier films may contain a necessary element – the all-star cast, the multiple roles, the broken-family narrative trope, the resolution by divine intervention – but not simultaneously. What they really lacked was commercial success – it is Desai’s relationship with his mass audience that defines his greatest work.

The circular motif in (clockwise) Dharam Veer, Desh Premee, and Naseeb

Nevertheless, we can see Desai developing both a meta-cinematic aesthetic and a resistance to sectional shibboleths in his early works. In Chhalia (1960), Bluff Master (1963), Budtameez (1966), and Kismat (1966), Desai honed what would become the characteristic elements of his style – shooting dynamically on movement; the symbolic use of colour; the complexity of his framing, and use of zoom and fish-eye lenses; the hysteria of his montages at pressure points of the narrative; and his interrelated staging of musical numbers and fight sequences. He took the motif of the circle – in camera movement, choreography as well as composition – to emphasise a Utopian wholeness and symmetry too often broken in his plots. Barriers and frames, such as gates, doorways, windows, railings, screens, or others’ bodies fill the frame to emphasise the entrapment of characters. Markets and train stations, spaces where people of different classes and faiths converge, become key settings.  

Desai plays with the tempo of the film frame, speeding it up to emphasise the hapless absurdity of the human body and its pretensions, slowing it down or even freezing it to register privileged emotional moments. For this writer, the most beautiful sequence in a Desai film makes use of slow-motion – at the beginning of the ‘Sari Duniya Ka Bojh Hum Uthate Hai’ song in Coolie, a train in dark green moves slowly to the left, the line of railway porters in complementary bright red move across it to the right, with Iqbal leaping in pure, affecting, heart-stopping joy.  


In these early films, Desai also began to favour narrative structures that emphasised pattern, parallelism, transformation, and reductio ad absurdum. The theme of spectatorship is central, with a focus on audiences looking at spectacles, or at themselves and others in a mirror. Several characters are amateur or professional photographers – a misplaced or misidentified photograph is a key plot point in at least four Desai films (Bluff Master, Aa Gale Lag Jaa [1973], Naseeb, and Coolie).  The staging of the qawwali number in AAA, with its audience reaction to Amar (Rishi Kapoor)’s performance culminating in his inamorata crossing ‘the line’ onto the stage, anticipates the themes of Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) by nearly a decade.

The first ‘true’ Desai film in terms of his later work is probably Sachaa Jhutha (1970). This is where the discrete elements mentioned above come together to create that Manmohan Desai frisson. It is also one of several films written or based on a story by his wife, Jeevanprabha. Although he had worked with major stars before, such as Raj and Shammi Kapoor, Nutan, Saira Banu, and Sadhana, Desai’s breakthrough in Sachaa Jhutha was to play with the persona of his star, in this case heartthrob Rajesh Khanna, the most successful actor of the period, best known for his romantic roles. For the first time, Desai creates a double role, with Khanna playing both ‘Honest’ and ‘Liar’, simple-minded bumpkin Bhola and suave crook Ranjeet. The double role is an old device in Hindi cinema and its precursors, and one of the great sources of pleasure for audiences, but Desai takes it a step further by showing how easy it is to imitate another, and what the ethical consequences of such imitation might be. The film’s combination of the action plots and romantic comedy of Desai’s earlier films, with the added star-powered examination of stardom, makes Sachaa Jhutha the prototype masala movie.4 as the first masala and first postmodern Bombay film. Kaushik Bhaumik, ‘An Insightful Reading of Our Many Indian Identities’, The Wire, 12 March 2016,  accessed 27 April 2021.] 

The romantic coupling on the cover of R.D. Burman’s soundtrack for Aa Gale Lag Jaa gives no indication that the woman is the comatose victim of an accident and the man about to rape her

Aa Gale Lag Jaa, by contrast, is an oddity in Desai’s work, a romantic film that centres on disability. One could easily imagine its stars Sharmila Tagore and Shashi Kapoor replaced by their contemporaries Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford for a Hollywood remake if it wasn’t for the film’s extraordinary suppression of sexual violence – the ‘hero’ rapes the heroine while supposedly nursing her after an accident – that takes it into the dark territory of Vertigo. It is Desai’s most formally assured film, with a mastery and consistency of tone, composition, camera movement (all those circular pans!) and colour that would have been out of place in the masala films.  

Bachchan and Desai

Raampur Ka Lakshman (1972), Bhai Ho To Aisa (1972), and in particular Roti (1974) are all terrific entertainments, full of corrosive social satire. What truly makes a Desai film, however, is the presence of Amitabh Bachchan. Amitabh was a great actor before he started working with Desai, but after he became something else. By 1977, he was in danger of being typecast as the Angry Young Man, the tough figure of integrity in a corrupt world, the unsmiling icon in a world of fake grins. He had played roles with comic elements previously, but with Desai he becomes more than a comedian. He becomes Comedy itself, a jester, a fool, a lord of misrule. Someone who dances over the pieties that had made his name. In Desh Premee, where he plays both father and son, his huckster son is the irresponsible Id to the stern superego of the patriot father. The films play on the disparity between Amitabh’s grave and intellectual voice and commanding stature on the one hand, and dizzying verbal dexterity and physics-defying physicality on the other. In every one of his films for Desai, Amitabh breaks out of character, like one of the wisecracking creatures in Warner Brothers cartoons, and winks at or addresses the audience, as if to say, ‘We know what’s going on here, don’t we? Well, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet!’

And audiences hadn’t. This gesture of breaking the fourth wall, a compound of insolent Verfremdungseffekt and intimate empathy, set the seal on Amitabh’s transcendent stardom, leading to the unprecedented reaction to the Coolie accident. To quantify the Amitabh effect in Desai films, one need only compare the two films he made in 1977 with those made by Dharmendra in the same year. In Dharam Veer and Chacha Bhatija, Dharmendra is wonderful, a humorous, brave, moral and incorruptible figure, fully convinced of the reality of the worlds he inhabits, against all the evidence. Dharmendra’s amiable stolidity had played brilliantly off Amitabh’s comic unpredictability in Sholay (1975), the most successful Hindi film of all time.5 Desai took that unpredictability, removed it from character consistency and plot logic, and simply let it fly. Amitabh is as wayward and unpredictable as the films in which he appears for Desai, delighting in the topsy-turvy, disguise, role-play, self-reflexivity, and simply messing about. Amitabh may be Anthony Gonsalves, John Jani Janardan, or the Coolie, but he is also Amitabh Bachchan playing Anthony Gonsalves, John Jani Janardan, or the Coolie, and invites the audience to enjoy the space of play between the two.


There is one idiosyncratic motif in Desai’s work that deserves further research – that of disability. Most of his films feature, and occasionally pivot on a character with a disability, whether suffering from polio or another form of paralysis, leprosy, blindness, mutism, or mental illness. Some of this is ‘metaphorical’ in a way that would be unacceptable today, contrasting the idealised bodies so central to popular culture with broken bodies holding pure or impure souls. None of this is very different from, say, Hollywood’s traditional treatment of disability – it is the very persistence of the motif in Desai’s work over three decades that is noteworthy. 

The problem with the release of popular energies, is that their very freedom from hierarchy and oversight can result in something very ugly. Take Desh Premee, which begins with an overpoweringly sado-masochistic synopsis of racist British colonialism, yet doesn’t see the inconsistency in climaxing with a racist minstrel show, the most repulsive episode in Bollywood’s long history of marginalising and ridiculing people with ‘dark skin’.  

Desh Premee

Desh Premee

Part Two

The whole Coolie episode and Desai’s response to it is an extraordinary magnification of what was already standard practice in Desai’s cinema – namely, the foregrounding of cinema as cinema, and the relationship of cinema to life and to its audiences. In one sense, Desai is typical of his industry. Long before the term ‘post-modernism’ was coined, long before the Disney/Marvel cartel got audiences used to complex, interrelated, extended, and open narratives across media, the Bombay Cinema was – and Bollywood continues to be – in the words of Vijay Mishra, ‘a continuous and thoroughly systemic cultural practice’ where ‘all films become part of a grand intertextual system’. Bombay Cinema is ‘a totality, as each film is in one sense a “segment” of a much larger semiotic continuum’.6 Hindi films were steeped in stories recycled and reconfigured from religious and mythological texts, and from Indian history itself. Motifs, characters and narratives were adapted from festivals, folk theatre, and popular melodrama. The cinema created its own iconography, characters, and narratives that migrated from film to film. Remakes of films from one language to others are regular practice; songs from classic films by Desai and others are reused in later movies, and seep into the wider culture through their use in wedding celebrations and the like.  

Desai – a filmmaker who lived with his impoverished family in his producer father’s film studio when he died – took this inherent intertextuality further than most. Desh Premee, for instance, features the extraordinary number ‘Khatoon Ki Khidmat Mein’, wherein Amitabh pesters one of his regular co-stars Hema Malini. Not only is this sequence a memory of previous Amitabh-Hema films, but Bachchan plays the sex pest in imitation of comedian Mehmood’s famous song ‘Hum Kaale To Kya Hua Dilwale Hain’ from the thriller Gumnaam (Raja Nawathe, 1965). Where Mehmood played a character singing a song of imagined love, Amitabh plays a character in one film playing a character from another film to declare his mad love. The whole set-up brings to mind Umberto Eco’s definition of post-modernism:

I think of the postmodern attitude as that of a man who loves a very cultivated woman and knows that he cannot say to her “I love you madly”, because he knows that she knows (and that she knows he knows) that these words have already been written by Barbara Cartland. Still there is a solution. He can say “As Barbara Cartland would put it, I love you madly”. At this point, having avoided false innocence, having said clearly it is no longer possible to talk innocently, he will nevertheless say what he wanted to say to the woman: that he loves her in an age of lost innocence.7  

Once he perfected what might be called the ‘Desai Touch’, as distinctive and dependent on audience-filmmaker dynamics as Hollywood’s ‘Lubitsch Touch’, Desai used the same basic ingredients to create his masala recipes – to such an extent that it can be difficult to differentiate them in memory. The same plots – a natural, man-made or divinely ordained disaster leads to the break-up of a family; the various members have new identities forced on them, usually embodying a diversity of religious or social positions; they may come together within the film but do not recognise each other, and are subjected to bruising mishaps ranging from comedic misunderstandings to violent brutalisation, before, finally, lost relatives are found and families reunited or reconciled. The same actors – Desai gathered a stock company around him of superstars and beloved supporting actors, the most regular being Amitabh and that gloriously shifty villain Jeevan (eight each); Kader Khan, the amazing actor-screenwriter, whose creative collaboration with Desai embodied the sectional harmony that was so often the aspiration of their films (six); Shammi Kapoor, Hema Malini, Pran, and Shatrughan Sinha (four each), and Parveen Babi, Rishi Kapoor, Vinod Khanna, and Nirupa Roy (three). The same character types, from romantic heroes and conmen through holy fools and amoral crooks to stern patriarchs and idealised mothers. The same collaborators, including producer (and elder brother) Subhash Desai; music directors Laxmikant-Pyarelal; writers Prayag Raj, K.B. Pathak, K.K. Shukla, as well as Khan; cinematographers N.V. Srinivas and Peter Pereira; editor Kamalakar; and playback singers Lata Mangeshkar, Asha Bhosle, Mukesh, Mohammad Rafi, and Kishore Kumar. The same type of location, mostly in Bombay.

This kaleidoscope of self-referentiality (or incestuousness) reaches its apogee in Naseeb. Amitabh plays John Jani Janardan, aka Johnny, a waiter in the hotel owned by the men who framed his father for murder and cheated him of his fortune. In the film’s most memorable set-piece, Amitabh performs, ‘John Jani Janardan’, one of the self-presenting ‘patter’ songs that became an eagerly anticipated feature of Desai-Bachchan films after the success of ‘My name is Anthony Gonsalves’ in AAA. The sentiments of ‘John Jani Janardan’ – note the triple names with shared first letter – extol the unity of Hindu, Muslim, and Christian just as Amar, Akbar, Anthony had done. The occasion is the jubilee celebration for medieval epic Dharam Veer, one of Desai’s 1977 blockbusters. The guests include the elite of the Bombay Cinema acting community, including several stars from Desai’s earlier films, such as Shammi Kapoor, Randhir Kapoor, Rajesh Khanna, Vijay Arora, and Sharmila Tagore. Dharam himself, Dharmendra, features in the sequence several times, emerging from the guests to play-threaten Johnny – of course Dharmendra and Amitabh, as well as Dharmendra’s wife Hema Malini, the female lead of Naseeb, had all starred in Sholay. This whole sequence, the biggest ‘in-joke’ in movie history, given that millions of dedicated filmgoers were in on it, still has the power to enchant and engage audiences. It demonstrates that complex analyses of the relationship between life and art need not be the sole province of rebarbative modernism.


But what does all this intertextual tomfoolery amount to? Is it what begrudgers might label ‘plagiarism’ or ‘creative exhaustion’? Desai’s recycling would be just that if it wasn’t rooted in an ethics of identity and spectatorship. Desai was celebrated in his lifetime as the ‘King of Masala’. What is the masala film? In the archetypal masala film, Amar Akbar Anthony, Amitabh as Anthony Gonsalves begins his identificatory song by stating ‘The juxtaposition of the linear proposition of the haemoglobin in the atmosphere’. This apparent nonsense is a good description of the masala film, which overlays a linear narrative with the juxtaposition of apparently exclusive genres and tonal registers, story-halting set-pieces emphasising performance and spectacle over character consistency or narrative logic, and self-reflexive audience engagement. AAA itself is typical – it starts as a harrowing melodrama, veers into neo-realism, then lush romance, then slapstick, then violent action, and back and forward again.  

Amar Akbar Anthony

Desai’s masala mayhem is a considered response to the time in which the films were made. The 1970s and 1980s was a period of renewed civil unrest in India owing to socio-economic inequality and discrimination, political corruption, institutional violence, and religious fundamentalism. The unrest culminated in Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s declaration of a two-year State of Emergency in 1975, with the suspension of the democracy and civil rights so painstakingly established by her father Jawaharlal Nehru, the extension of state power to the internment and torture of political opponents, censorship of the press and other media, and the forced sterilisation of undesired communities.8 The unrest simmered over the next decade, coming to a climax of sorts with the assassinations of Indira Gandhi in 1984. Her son and successor, Rajiv, was killed in 1991. This was three years after Desai made his last film.  

The crises that Desai’s characters undergo at the beginning of his films – colonial atrocity, Partition, displacement, homelessness and family separation, the abduction and ‘defilement’ of women, flooding, train accidents, terrorist bombing campaigns, organised crime, street violence, and sectarian unrest – might be mere plot points, but they also reflect actual crises undergone by many Indian filmgoers in recent memory.9 In Desai’s hometown of Bombay, political protest and strike action in 1956, the year before he made his first film, was met with the illegal round-up of opposition leaders and police violence, resulting in riots, looting, vandalism, and several deaths.10 It is good to remember that the apparently joyous Dharam Veer and AAA were made in the lead up to and during the Emergency period. Mard, where the ostensible subject matter is British colonial atrocities before 1947, seems to be Desai’s disguised response to the Emergency – the socially ‘unproductive’ are kidnapped and have their blood harvested in a hidden location, or made to work in a slave labour camp. If this was Desai’s intention, it was doubly subversive given his star Bachchan’s close ties to the Gandhi family.

In the ‘John Jani Janardan’ number, one figure among the guests begins to dominate – Raj Kapoor, Desai’s predecessor as ‘The Greatest Showman’ of Indian Cinema, and the star of Desai’s first major film Chhalia.11 Symbolically, the song enacts a passing of the torch from the ‘Old Bollywood’ of Kapoor, one of the Big Three superstars who dominated Bombay Cinema from independence until the late 1960s, to the ‘New Bollywood’ dominated by Amitabh.  

There is more than a mere generational or Oedipal process at work here, however. Kapoor does not simply represent Old Bollywood, he represents post-independence India itself, and the promises made by its first premier, Jawaharlal Nehru, to make it a secular, progressive, and modern nation, freed from ancient sectarian and other prejudices.12 As a director and performer, Kapoor embodied these hopes in films such as Awaara (1951) and Shree 420 (1955), where he played a figure inspired by Chaplin’s Tramp who sings hopeful and patriotic patter songs, like ‘Awaara Hoon’ (significantly written in Hindi and Urdu) and ‘Mera Joota Hai Japani’. These characters in Kapoor’s own and others’ films of the 1940s and 1950s are ideologically loaded, sociologically identifiable yet allegorically potent, at once abject marginals and embodiments of the Spirit of India, or at least abject marginals who come to recognise or participate in the New India of socialist reform and social democracy. A New India that Kapoor’s vast, diverse, and disenfranchised audience was itself invited to recognise and participate in.  Kapoor’s association with Nehruvian ideology was such that he hoped to make a film whose climax would stage a meeting between the child protagonist and the Pandit. A famous photograph from the 1950s shows Nehru with Kapoor and the two other members of the Big Three, Dilip Kumar and Dev Anand, meeting to discuss the ultimately abortive project.

Desai’s films are haunted by Kapoor, from the star’s actual performance in the early Chhalia to the dedication of his last film, Ganga Jamuna Saraswati, to his memory. ‘John Jani Janardan’ was shot at Kapoor’s legendary RK Studios, and was based on a melodic line that songwriters Laxmikant–Pyarelal had created for Kapoor’s 1973 smash hit Bobby (which launched his son Rishi, Amitabh’s co-star in Naseeb, as well as AAA). The writer of Desai’s last hit, Mard, was Inder Raj Anand, who wrote several key Kapoor films. Chhalia includes a characteristic Kapoor patter song, ‘Chhalia Mera Naam’, that provides the basis for the later examples in Desai’s work. Amitabh wears the number ‘420’ in the ‘My Name is Anthony Gonsalves’ number of AAA. Kapoor’s siblings and children appear in most of Desai’s films. And so on.

This is more than mere fan worship. The parodic or ghostly presence of Kapoor in Desai’s work marks the failure of the Nehruvian ideal he represented. By the time of Chhalia in 1960, disillusion with Nehru had long set in, as poverty, inequality, corruption, and violent sectionalism continued to tear the country apart. The worlds created by Desai in the real world’s image are terrifying places, where criminality, injustice and sexual violence are the norm, indeed a logical consequence of a corrupt state. Lives are worth little to those who scramble without emotion or morality for power and greed. Filial, communal, or national ties are no match for organised crime or corrupt politicians. Family stability and individual identity can be shattered in an instant, while pain and suffering is protracted and seemingly without end. Sure, Desai contrives increasingly absurd deus ex machina to right these cosmic and manmade wrongs, but their very absurdity, their restriction to a tiny part of a world that is otherwise in chaos, and the fact that Desai had to keep repeating the same trick of repair in a continually broken world indicate that these are mere bandages over a gaping wound. This is a world where children are readily abandoned, even killed; where mothers – allegorical figures of the nation – are violated, tortured, blinded, subjected to domestic abuse (in Budtameez, a mother commits suicide after repeated beatings by her alcoholic husband), or traumatised into muteness, amnesia catatonia; where fathers are, at best, weak and easily duped, or capable of ruining their children’s lives on the deluded assumption it’s for their own good, at worst, capable of killing or otherwise disposing of anyone who gets in their way, including wife, child, or parent. These films of family reconciliation watched by millions and generations of families locate the ongoing crisis of India in the family unit. The family in Desai can be a refuge, a jail, a torture chamber or a tomb depending on the circumstances, but it is never ‘permanent, unchangeable, and inviolable’ as a conservative politician argued in 1954.13 By the time Desai made his masterpieces, he had none of Kapoor’s faith in a reformist government or its institutions to repair the damage, though he betrayed a profound nostalgia for Kapoor’s dream.


Desai’s response to his disillusion was to create a cinema of carnivalesque attractions. If personal identities, social roles, and even gender (as in Kismat and Desh Premee) can be swapped, flipped or adapted as easily and frequently as they do in Manmohan Desai films, perhaps the most rigid, immemorial and immovable social forces can be resisted or overturned. The films are full of festivals, processions and other organised spectacles that figure the films themselves as carnivals, where everyday hierarchies are mocked and overturned. It would be tempting to characterise Desai, like most popular artists, as a dialectical filmmaker. His films are apparently rich in oppositions between tradition and modernity; individual and community; ‘reality’ and masquerade; past and present; light and dark; rural and urban, or slum and city centre; confinement and freedom; or the interrogation of the male hero and celebration of the emergent ‘New Woman’. But, Desai tends to collapse such oppositions or turn them inside out, replacing clarity with ambiguity, certainty with doubt, rigid identity with elastic play.  

Joyous though his films are, however, they are mere sound and fury signifying nothing, to adapt Desai’s beloved Shakespeare. Desai was never much of a humanist. The most sardonic of the carnivalesque reversals in his work occurs at the climax of the first recognisable Desai film, Sachaa Jhutha, where the arbitration of good and evil, and the fate of a man’s life, depends on the whim of a dog. Elsewhere, it is a magic bird. Or a horse. Or a snake. Anything but a fellow human being.

Sachaa Jhutha


  • Janam Janam Ke Phere (1957) 
  • Chhalia (1960)
  • Bluff Master (1963)
  • Budtameez (1966)
  • Kismat (1968)
  • Sachaa Jhutha (1970)
  • Raampur Ka Lakshman (1972)
  • Bhai Ho To Aisa (1972)
  • Aa Gale Lag Jaa (1973)
  • Roti (1974)
  • Parvarish (1977)
  • Dharam Veer (1977)
  • Chacha Bhatija (1977)
  • Amar Akbar Anthony (1977)
  • Suhaag (1979)
  • Naseeb (1981)
  • Desh Premee (1982)
  • Coolie (1983, with Prayag Raj)
  • Mard (1985)
  • Ganga Jamuna Saraswati (1988)

Select Bibliography

  • Booth, Gregory D., ‘Traditional Content and Narrative Structure in the Hindi Commercial Cinema’, Asian Folklore Studies, Vol. 54, No. 2 (1995), pp. 169-190.
  • Breckenridge, Carol A., ed., Consuming Modernity: Public Culture in a South Asian World (Minneapolis & London: University of Minnesota Press, 1995).
  • Garga, B.D., So Many Cinemas: The Motion Picture in India (Mumbai: Eminence Designs, 1996).
  • Booth, Gregory, ‘Religion, Gossip, Narrative Conventions and the Construction of Meaning in Hindi Film Songs’, Popular Music, Vol. 19, No. 2 (April 2000), pp. 125-145.
  • Mishra, Vijay, Bollywood Cinema: Temples of Desire (New York & London: Routledge, 2001).
  • Dwyer, Rachel, ‘Where to Start’, Film Comment, Vol. 38, No. 3 (May/June 2002), pp. 52, 57.
  • Damsteegt, Theo, Heroes and Heritage: The Protagonist in Indian Literature and Film (Leiden: Leiden University Press, 2003).
  • Ganti, Tejaswini, Bollywood: A Guidebook to Popular Hindi Cinema (New York & London: Routledge, 2004).
  • Booth, Greg, ‘Pandits in the Movies: Contesting the Identity of Hindustani Classical Music and Musicians in the Hindi Popular Cinema’, Asian Music, Vol. 36, No. 1, (Winter/Spring 2005), pp. 60-86.
  • Chute, David, ‘The Big B: The Rise and Fall and Rebirth of Bollywood Superstar Amitabh Bachchan’, Film Comment, Vol. 41, No. 2 (March/April 2005), pp. 50-52, 54-56.
  • Dwyer, Rachel, 100 Bollywood Films (London: British Film Institute, 2005).
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  1. Ramachandra Guha, India after Gandhi : the history of the world’s largest democracy, new ed. (New York : ECCO, 2019), p. 6.
  2. The term Bollywood only gained wide currency as a description of the popular Hindi film industry in the mid-1990s, several years after Desai made his last film in 1988.  ‘Hindi film’ or ‘Bombay Cinema’ were the more common terms in the international press during Desai’s career, so I use the term ‘Bombay Cinema’ in this article to describe the industry when Desai was working, and ‘Bollywood’ to describe the industry from the mid-1990s.
  3. Information taken from the website Boxoffice India, accessed 23 April 2022.
  4. Kaushik Bhaumik influentially posited Yaadon Ki Baaraat (1973, Nasir Hussain)
  5. The Biggest Blockbusters Ever In Hindi Cinema, Boxoffice India, 14 October 2013, accessed 26 May 2022.  This claim is based on adjustments for inflation, and national and international figures for first run and revival screenings, and an estimate of the many ‘unofficial’ or itinerant screenings that for decades were a staple of Hindi film exhibition.
  6. Vijay Mishra, Bollywood Cinema: Temples of Desire (New York & London: Routledge, 2001), p. 159.
  7. Umberto Eco, Postscript to The Name of the Rose (San Diego : Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1984), pp. 67-68.
  8. See Guha, in particular chapter 22, “Autumn of the Matriarch”, pp. 489-517.
  9. See Guha, passim.
  10. Guha, pp. 192-193.
  11. Chhalia is often listed as Desai’s first film, though he made Janam Janam Ke Phere three years previously.
  12. Mohammad Ghouse, “Nehru and Secularism”, Journal of the Indian Law Institute, Volume 20 Issue 1 (January-March 1978), pp. 103-116.
  13. Radha Kumud Mookerji, quoted in Guha, p. 234.