Multicultural Rom-Com Offers Two Weddings and Three Near Funerals
DIRECTED BY ATUL MALHOTRA/2015
STREET DATE: JUNE 20, 2017/KINO LORBER
British director Atul Malhotra says there is only a “spiritual connection” between his 2015 film Amar, Akbar & Tony and the 1977 Bollywood hit Amar, Akbar and Anthony. Still, with the similarity in titles, he set an awfully high bar for himself. Comparisons are inevitable. Amar, Akbar, and Anthony, from beloved Indian director Manmohan Desai, told the story of three brothers abandoned by their father on Indian Independence Day, and raised in three different faiths – Christianity, Hinduism and Islam. Reunited as adults, the brothers band together to defeat the film’s villain, despite their spiritual differences. The film highlights themes of religious tolerance and national unity that resonated mightily with audiences. Amar, Akbar and Anthony was a blockbuster hit and received a pile of nominations and awards at India’s Filmfare Awards in 1977.
But that’s Amar, Akbar and Anthony. What of Amar, Akbar & Tony, with its obviously referential (and perhaps reverential) title? Malhotra’s story is located in the Hounslow borough of London, and follows three childhood friends: Amar, a Sikh (Rez Kempton); Akbar, a Muslim (Sam Vincenti); and Tony, an Irish Catholic (Martin Delaney). This time out there’s no biological connection between the title characters, just lifelong bonds that make them as close as brothers.
Amar, Akbar & Tony is an odd duck of a movie – or perhaps more like a Frankenduck, sewn together from too many subplots and clashing genres. It begins as a straightforward comedy, with Tony as a ne’er-do-well infatuated with an Indian girl, Nita, who lives in the neighborhood, and Akbar as a sly pick up artist who has joined his father’s real estate and lending business. Amar is the only one of the three who seems to have fully embraced adulthood, celebrating both his engagement to Richa (Amrita Acharia) and having been hired by a law firm. Rez Kempton brings calm and dignity to his portrayal of Amar, which is especially welcome in contrast to the manic, childish, Tony and Akbar’s predatory approach to women. Suddenly the movie shifts from a slight, bawdy immersion into London’s British-Asian community, to something darker and far more violent. On a night out at a club (trying to pick up women, of course) Tony is cornered by Nita’s older brother, “Southall Sanji” (Munir Khairdin) and brutally beaten. Amar and Akbar come to Tony’s defense and the ensuing brawl ends with Amar stabbing Sanji. Sanji survives, but Amar spends the next three years in prison, losing both his fiance and his career.
It’s hard to go back to light comedy after the violence of that episode, but Malhotra tries, intermittently. Amar, Akbar & Tony bounces from comedy to romance to drama. Family businesses change hands, characters fall in love and marry, there is one suicide attempt, and one closeted uncle coming to terms with his sexuality – and that’s not even all of it! And yet, in all of the varied story lines, there’s almost no attention given to the spiritual tolerance that meant so much in Desai’s 1977 film. Religion is on the periphery of life for these young men, and perhaps that’s an accurate reflection of life for many living in multicultural, post-Christian Europe. We never see even a glimpse of Tony’s Catholicism, and Akbar’s Islamic faith only comes into play in his wedding plans. Akbar marries a Christian, a union that doesn’t seem to rattle either family. They simply plan both an Anglican church wedding and a Muslim nikah ceremony. Unlike his friends, Amar is shown practicing his religion, visiting a Sikh temple briefly after his release from prison. But Amar, Akbar & Tony doesn’t so much show interfaith cooperation as interfaith nominalism.
Aside from the tonal confusion of Amar, Akbar & Tony, the sexism in the movie is hard to endure. Women are objectified, over and over. In one particularly gross subplot, Tony goes on a blind date with an Indian woman who turns out to be much older than he is, and sexually aggressive. It’s an inexcusably cheap and overused joke and only amplifies what an annoying character Tony is.
Despite these weaknesses, there are things to like in the film. In addition to Kempton, there are strong supporting performances from Dev Sagoo as Amar’s warm, genteel father, and Goldy Notay as his caustic sister, Sonia – the only woman in the film who seems to know how to handle Tony’s foolishness.
Intentions aside, the spiritual connections between Amar, Akbar & Tony and its 1977 forebearer seems to have been lost in translation. Spiritual tolerance has become apathy, and the call to unity has faded into a melting pot of violence, petty crime, and skirt-chasing lad culture. It’s not an inspiring picture.
Kino Lorber’s DVD release includes both cast and director’s commentaries, as well as deleted scenes and some making-of footage.