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08 June 2020

The Masters: Basu Chatterjee

10.01.1927 - 04.06.2020
Source: Indian Express Archives
It’s a never-ending stream of bad news. If a global pandemic is devastating our lives in one corner, destructive forces are out in another; everywhere you look, there’s only negativity and hate; lies and deceit are rampant. And in these past two months, there has been death after death in quick succession. And perhaps, because these deaths are personal, and/or of those connected to my childhood, it seems like the grief is never-ending.  

I was just dealing with the grief of losing my aunt when Irrfan passed away; even before I could come to terms with that, than it was Rishi Kapoor’s turn. Less than a month later, Yogesh was no more, and while I was mourning that loss came the news of Basu Chatterjee’s demise.

Basu Chatterjee, like Hrishikesh Mukherjee, was an indelible part of my childhood. I remember initially watching their films on our small black and white TV in the 80s. I’m sure I must have seen at least some of their films in the theatre before that, but my overarching memory is that of seeing it on that tiny screen. 

They made movies about people like us. Perhaps that’s why – fascinated as I was by Amitabh Bachchan and the world of masala films – those films didn’t leave that much of an impact on me when I was a child. The people I saw in Chatterjee's films were people I met in my family. Besides, there was no way that an Amol Palekar, who looked so much like one of the men we might meet on the road, would enthrall us the way Bachchan did.

However, subsequent viewings, again on Doordarshan, on a slightly bigger TV this time, got me hooked on the simple stories about ordinary people that he brought to life on screen. There was a strong vein of humour that ran through his films; there were no villains; indeed, there were no ‘heroes’ or ‘heroines’ in these films. There were people, ordinary people leading ordinary lives with ordinary problems to deal with. I even began to appreciate Amol Palekar, even though, as a cousin put it, he was such a ‘lallu’. Palekar was just so good natured that one rooted for him in the most absurd of situations.

Basu Chatterjee joined films as Basu Bhattacharya’s assistant on Teesri Kasam. As he tells it, Shailendra was his senior whom he knew from Mathura. He asked Shailendra to let him be a part of the project, and so, he landed a job as assistant director. It took another two years and another film as assistant director (Govind Saraiya’s Saraswatichandra) before Chatterjee decided to take the plunge into direction himself.

The year, 1969; the film Sara Akash. Chatterjee holds that film dearest to his heart, and in the programme, Guftagu, on Rajya Sabha TV, confessed that he considered his best film. Sara Akash was based on a novel by Rajendra Yadav (originally named Pret Bolte Hain).
With a debutant writer, a debutant cinematographer (KK Mahajan) and a first-time director, Sara Akash, along with Mani Kaul’s Uski Roti and Mrinal Sen’s Bhuvan Shome, is considered to be the beginning of Indian New Wave Cinema. Shot on location in Yadav’s ancestral home in Raja ki Mandi, Agra, the film fetched Mahajan the National Award.

Chatterjee didn’t look upon a ‘successful’ film as one which only made money. And because his priority was the art of telling stories, his films resonated with the average man on the street, who could identify with the common problems the protagonists dealt with on screen. While gender politics didn’t play much of a role in Chatterjee’s movies, his heroines were also refreshingly different. They were mostly educated, independent, some of them worked for a living (and were shown working), lived alone (as Prabha did in Choti si Baat) or with their families (as Nancy did in Baton Baton Mein). They had a point of view to express, and however timid they may be (Geeta in Chitchor, Saudamini in Swami), they managed to find a way to speak up. And since their families were not villainous or evil, everything ended relatively happily. 
Chatterjee also allowed his female characters to have romantic lives without being judged. While Deepa in Rajnigandha is decidedly confused between a present and past lover, Choti Si Baat’s Prabha has two men wooing her; Nancy’s (Baton Baton Mein) broken relationship is just as casually mentioned.
One cannot also remember Chatterjee and not mention the seminal work he did for television during what’s considered the ‘golden age’ of Doordarshan – serials like Rajani, whose eponymous female crusader/activist turned Priya Tendulkar into a household name; Byomkesh Bakshi, possibly the best adaptation of Shardendu Bandhopadhyay’s iconic detective; Darpan, which brought regional literature alive on screen; Kakaji Kahin, a political satire starring Om Puri, etc.
I have watched and re-watched so many of Chatterjee’s films over the years; the world his characters inhabited was always a hopeful place. It doesn’t seem like that anymore. Perhaps it’s time to go back to more innocent times, when seeking some privacy from a family that loves you to bits was the most pressing problem a newly-wed couple could have. This is a specially curated list of my favourite films from his filmography.

Piya ka Ghar (1972)
A sweet little film about a young girl (Jaya Bhaduri) who comes from a sprawling village to the crowded metropolis that is Bombay after her marriage. Forced to share a ‘kholi’ with her husband’s (Anil Dhawan) bustling joint family, the newly-wedded couple struggle to find some privacy even to get to know each other.
The culture shock is indeed great, as I can vouch – I lived with my husband and in-laws in a 500sq.ft. one-bedroom apartment after my wedding. My friend, Sudha, who lived in the flat below, not only had her husband and in-laws, but also her brother-in-law and their grandmother sharing that same amount of space. It’s a story that will resonate with everyone who lives in Bombay.

Chitchor (1976)
A naïve young girl (Zarina Wahab), a young man (Amol Palekar) who’s mistaken for a prospective groom, a loving family who have their heart set on getting their younger daughter married off – these characters set the stage for a sweet romance. 
But when the misunderstanding is cleared up, the family want to change the groom (Vijayendra Ghatge), much to the young lovers’ dismay.

Choti Si Baat (1976)
How do you woo a girl when you’re too shy to even talk to her? Well, Arun (Amol Palekar) has to find a way. Especially when Prabha (Vidya Sinha) is also being wooed by Nagesh (Asrani), who’s everything Arun is not – suave, street smart, sophisticated. Enter Colonel Julius Nagendranath Wilfred Singh (Ashok Kumar), a man who has dedicated his life to helping young lovers win their mates. Dharmendra, Hema Malini and Amitabh Bachchan make special appearances in this rollicking comedy of hearts.
What I liked about the film is that Prabha is not only aware of Arun’s interest, she can even joke with her friend about his inability to talk to her; and even though Arun is taught how to ‘woo’ Prabha, and indeed, plans to do just that (much to Prabha’s consternation), his innate decency does not allow him to manipulate the woman he loves.
Chatterjee said in an interview that Colonel Singh’s character, with its inspiration drawn from School for Scoundrels, was added at the insistence of BR Chopra, who had not liked the initial cut of the movie.

Chameli ki Shaadi (1986)
This was an unexpectedly pleasant film, with a strong feminist core. Chameli (Amrita Singh) is the loud, unapologetic, headstrong daughter of the local coal depot owner. Charandas (Anil Kapoor) is a wrestling aficionado who intends to remain celibate. Until he meets Chameli, that is. 
Refreshingly, Chameli doesn’t turn coy and girly when she falls in love. (The scene where she threatens to bash up her ‘uncles’ is a scream.) Charandas loves her for who she is, and doesn’t expect her to change either. Amjad Khan (as the wily lawyer, Harish) and Pankaj Kapoor, as Chameli’s father, Kallumal add to the riot. Chameli ki Shaadi didn’t fare too well when it first released but has since received much love from viewers who have rediscovered this satire on the Indian caste system.

Kamla ki Maut (1989)
A slightly mores-serious film than the others in this list, Kamala ki Maut deals with the taboo of pre-marital sex, and the consequences thereof. When teenager Kamala (Kavita Thakur) commits suicide because she’s pregnant, the neighbours in the chawl where she lives are forced to reckon with their own secrets. 
It was rare for a Hindi film of the time to talk so unapologetically about sex, especially female desire, and there are many scenes in this film where these often-taboo topics are discussed quite openly between the two girls (Rupa Ganguly, Mrunal Kulkarni) closest in age to the Kamala. It also focuses on the hypocrisy of society which allows the men to walk free even while the women are slut shamed.

Baton Baton Mein (1979)
One of the few Hindi films set in the Catholic community of Bandra, Baton Baton Mein has two lovers (Tina Munim, Amol Palekar) who discover romance in the local trains, a benign mentor (David), flirtatious friends (Shobhini Singh), excitable mothers (Pearl Padamsee, Piloo J Wadia), soft-spoken fathers (Arvind Deshpande), a music-loving brother (Ranjit Chowdhry), and a faint-hearted suitor (Uday Chandra).
Chatterjee lovingly brings those tropes to life, without stereotyping the community, and the stellar cast help him pinpoint every single foible you can think of. 

Manzil (1979)
Ever seen a Hindi film that revolved around a galvanometer before? Or met a hero who has to mug through old Physics textbooks in order to make one work? Well, Manzil introduced us to an Amitabh Bachchan who wasn’t hesitant to take risks – his character, Ajay, is a man who tries to sweet talk a rich girl so he can be wealthy. He’s forever skirting on thin ice as far as the truth is concerned. He has to learn the hard way that hardwork and determination trump shortcuts when it comes to success in love or life.

For a change, we had a Hindi film mother who didn’t think the sun rose and set on her son. And of course, do watch it for Rhim jhim gire saawan – the Lata version takes you on a rain-soaked tour of Bombay.

Khatta Meetha (1978)
Loosely based on Yours Mine and Ours, this simple story revolved around a widower (Ashok Kumar) with four sons, who marries a widow (Pearl Padamsee) with two sons and a daughter (Preeti Ganguly)who’s obsessed with Amitabh Bachchan. 
What happens when the ‘kids’ have to get along? They fight over rooms, the bathroom, and everything else. Rakesh Roshan and Bindiya Goswami play the lovers whose trials and tribulations eventually bring their family together. And oh, there’s a temperamental car too.

Dillagi (1978)
An under-rated romance starring Dharmendra and Hema Malini as two college professors. She is Phoolrenu, a no-nonsense Chemistry professor and the warden of the girls’ hostel, who’s nicknamed ‘CO2’ by the students. 
He is Swarnkamal, the Sanksrit teacher, whose lectures filled with graphic passages from Sanskrit plays makes him the darling of the students and Renu’s bête noire.

Jeena Yahan (1979)
Another lesser-known but still relevant film (based on a story by Manu Bhandari), it depicted two different female points-of-view. Lekha (Azmi), an educated, independent woman, travels to her in-laws’ only to find a world that’s far removed from her own. Interestingly, the keeper of patriarchal mores is another woman, her mother-in-law (Dina Pathak). 
And then there’s Gauri (Kiran Vairale), who has the guts to forsake a man who cannot stand by her, and with Lekha’s help, move to Bombay to pursue an independent life of her own. The men are as mixed a bag – if there’s Shekhar (Shekhar Kapur) who is his wife’s helpmate in every way, there’s Devendra (Devendra Khandelwal) who cannot muster up the courage to stand up for his love. And there’s Shekhar’s father (Arvind Deshpande), who doesn’t believe in feudal values, but cannot voice his opposition to his wife.
On the sets of Manzil - Basuda with Amitabh Bachchan and Rakesh Pandey.
Source: Indian Express Archives
We remember, Basu da. Every ‘khatti-meethii choti si baat’ as Amul put it. After all, didn’t Yogesh write, Kisi ke jaane ke baad, kar phir uski yaad choti choti si baat

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