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The rise and fall of Prakash Mehra, Amitabh Bachchan, Manmohan Desai

The rise and fall of Prakash Mehra, one of the most prolific filmmakers of his time, coincided with that of his mascot Amitabh Bachchan and his rival, Manmohan Desai. On Mehra's birth anniversary, we look at the parallel careers of the trinity who created the formula for blockbusters in Hindi cinema in the 1970s.

Shriram Iyengar

Speaking to a national magazine about his films, Manmohan Desai once remarked, "You will seldom come across an Indian who has never seen a film made by me or Prakash Mehra." A filmmaker who began the trend of blockbusters that cast a magical spell on the nation, Desai shared a common vision of cinema with his great rival, Prakash Mehra. Their stories emerged from the zeitgeist around them and captured the attention of the masses. For instance, Amar Akbar Anthony (1977) arrived at a time of great religious uncertainty. Prakash Mehra's Zanjeer (1973) launched the career of Amitabh Bachchan, and the trope of 'Angry Young Man' in Indian cinema. This trio would go on to define the 'formula' blockbuster in Hindi cinema.

Amitabh Bachchan in Zanjeer (1973)

The common thread in the lives of Prakash Mehra and Manmohan Desai was Amitabh Bachchan. Though Desai made his directorial debut with Raj Kapoor in Chhalia (1960), it was the period between Amar Akbar Anthony and Coolie (1983) that proved to be his purple patch. Mehra made his directorial debut with the Shashi Kapoor-starrer Haseena Maan Jaayegi (1968). But it was Zanjeer that cemented his legacy for future generations. Between 1975 and 1990, Mehra worked with Bachchan on nine films. Incredibly, in the same time frame, Desai also shot with Bachchan for exactly the same number of films. 

The commonality between the trio runs deeper. Mehra began his career as a production controller. He dabbled in multiple jobs in the industry, including as a songwriter, before turning to direction at the age of 45. In an interview, he said his first salary was Rs30. Over the next two decades, he would churn out blockbusters like Zanjeer, Muqaddar Ka Sikandar (1978), Laawaris (1981), Namak Halaal (1982) and Sharaabi (1984). From living in a one-room apartment, Mehra went on to turn up on the sets in a limousine.

Desai began his career working with Hrishikesh Mukherjee and Raj Kapoor, before suddenly being handed the reins for Chhalia. It proved to be his chance, and he took it. He followed it up with films like Bluffmaster (1963), Raampur Ka Laxman (1972), and Roti (1974). 

Between them, Desai and Mehra gave birth to the 'formula' film. Their films would often be hammy tearjerkers, revolving around a predictable plot, but touching on the social and political situation of the time. Lacking the grandiose style of Desai, Mehra would often make films that revolved around a singular plot of revenge, drama, or comedy.

An industry that worked on pure chance found a calming certainty in these formulas. Both filmmakers also had a keen understanding of the city of Bombay. Its tastes, cosmopolitan culture, language, and emotions. Though they were disdained as manufacturers of escapist dreams, both Prakash Mehra and Manmohan Desai were savvy filmmakers. As Bachchan said in an interview, "Both have given the masses what they want. They have been successful – not once but almost always."

This uncanny run of success was what led many people to believe that the Mehra-Bachchan-Desai combination was infallible, and guaranteed box-office success. Mehra's Namak Halal went on to earn Rs1 crore in Bombay in the 1980s. Desai received Rs3.5 crore for the distribution rights of Coolie (1983) even before the film was completed. If the critics had doubts, the economists certainly didn't. 

However, this brilliant run was to come to a halt. Desai's Desh Premee (1982), Mard (1985), and Ganga Jamuna Saraswati (1988) turned out to be superduds. Bachchan's commitment to these films left Mehra with no choice but to sign Raaj Kumar for his flops, Muqaddar Ka Faisla (1987) and Mohabbat Ke Dushman (1988).

The year 1989 was a flashpoint for the Prakash Mehra-Amitabh Bachchan-Manmohan Desai relationship. It saw the release of Toofan and Jaadugar, both starring Bachchan in the almost replicated role of a vigilante magician. Both films performed dismally at the box office, bringing down the curtains on the filmmakers' careers.

Prakash Mehra on the sets of Bal Brahmachari (1996)

An emotional man, Prakash Mehra never made another film with Amitabh Bachchan. He had once promised Bachchan that the day he was unable to make a hit film with Bachchan in the lead, he would not work with him anymore. His career kept spluttering with films like Zindagi Ek Juaa (1992) and Zakhmi (1993) before coming to an end with Bal Brahmachari (1996).

On the other side of the fence, Manmohan Desai's sudden accidental death in 1994 left everyone shocked. The superstar Amitabh Bachchan himself had huge debts and a spate of flops to deal with, and almost filed for bankruptcy. Only his longevity has ensured his revival, even in the absence of his dearest partners.

The careers of Mehra, Bachchan, and Desai will always run parallel in cinematic history. Theirs was a historic run through the box office. Between them, the trio delivered 18 superhits over a span of 15 years. Mehra lacked the holistic view of Desai, but his understanding of the people's pulse was unique. It is unsurprising that Desai, a rival, was among his admirers.

Desai, on his part, often followed the formulaic plots used by Mehra. Though laughed at in their time, recent years have been kinder to their memories. Filmmakers like Farah Khan, Abhinav Kashyap, and Rohit Shetty replicate patterns and themes that were the staple of the Mehra-Desai genre. Time has proved one thing; the Formula still works.