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A touch of realism


Hrishikesh Mukherjee's films were in stark contrast to the melodramatic tradition of popular Hindi cinema.

A warm, down to earth man WITH NO AIRS ABOUT HIM AND ONE who possessed a delightful sense of humour.

Classic films: Gentle humour enlivened films like "Anand"

THE life and times of Hrishikesh Mukherjee reflect an ethos, an age, a sensibility that appears increasingly alien to us. He grew up in pre-independence India and started his profession in the Nehruvian era. He had excellent formal education and, had cinema not beckoned him, would in all probability have been a Professor of Biochemistry at a University. As it is he wandered into the business of entertainment and joined New Theatres in Calcutta, after which the destination of an aspiring director was, naturally, Bombay.

People, apparently, had ideals in those days. Cinema was supposed to have content that might be connected with things like sensibility and human nature. Along with a whole group of talented non-resident Bengalis, including his mentor Bimal Roy, Mukherjee brought fresh narrative, noble aspirations and a certain style to Bombay cinema. Just as post-partition migrants from Punjab and Sindh brought Urdu poetry, lyrics and dialogue to movies, so the Bengalis brought the art of adapting novels and plays to film. Directors like Bimal Roy, Mukherjee himself, Basu Chatterjee, Basu Bhattacharya, greatly enriched Hindi cinema. Even Guru Dutt, though he was not a Bengali, was educated and worked in Bengal before coming to Bombay. He could speak and write fluent Bengali, and this motley group of artists used to talk to each other and sometimes work together. Sarat Chandra Chatterjee's novels, Devdas and Parineeta, became attractive subjects for adaptation into Hindi cinema. There was creativity in the air.

European influences

"Chupke Chupke".

Above all, these filmmakers were students of world cinema. Hollywood films were avidly watched then and so was Italian neo realism. Bimal Roy's film, "Do Bigha Zameen" (1953), in which Hrishikesh Mukherjee is given credit for `scenario', is directly influenced by Vittorio De Sica's "The Bicycle Thief" (1949). Across India, in Calcutta, another aspiring Bengali film maker, Satyajit Ray, was also influenced by "The Bicycle Thief" and had realised that he could adapt Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay's novel, "Pather Panchali" (1955), into a film if he used De Sica's method of shooting on location and using non actors, and he could it do it on a low budget.

Certainly, young Hrishikesh Mukherjee was reading, watching and storing information from a variety of such influences, before he directed his first feature, "Musafir", in 1957. The film didn't do well, but Mukherjee had been noticed by Raj Kapoor who recommended him as director for "Anari" (1959). Hrishida as he was known, `Babumoshai' as Raj Kapoor fondly called him, was on his way.

Hrishikesh Mukherjee worked with many stars in his career but his best-known associations were with the first super star of Indian cinema, Rajesh Khanna, and the second, Amitabh Bachchan. Both acted in that memorable film, "Anand" (1970). The 1970s were golden years for Mukherjee and his ability to present a realistic perspective to personal and social problems stood out in stark contrast to the melodramatic tradition of popular Indian cinema. This was his personality as well — a warm, down to earth man with no airs about him and one who possessed a delightful sense of humour. He believed in actors, not stars. Yet the irony was that stardom often came to those he worked with and both Amitabh and his future wife, Jaya Bahaduri, who made her debut in "Guddi" (1971) went on to glittering careers.

Never did Hrishida reach down to the lowest common denominator in the audience, never did he deliberately dumb down his scripts. This was his strength but in the commercial world of Hindi cinema it eventually led to him being side lined by lesser known producers and directors. As the 1980s dawned, the angry young man films of Amitabh appeared and there was a shift in taste. Graphic violence entered Hindi cinema. Mukherjee was a writer and director from the middle class who could never tell a story that didn't please himself. He saw his work as entertainment, but for those who shared his own idea of aesthetics and style. He was a happy prisoner of the Indian middle class but this led to newer `talent' passing him by.

Changing times

The problem was that it wasn't just the content of cinema; the financing of the film industry had changed by then. The studio system was dead and a huge percentage of the budget of a film went to the stars. This didn't leave much for the development of script, authentic locations and the supporting actors. In other words, a born director of actors like Hrishida, a man who wanted realism in his films, was a bit out of place. In later years he often complained — how could he make films in this ambience?

Yet, Hrishikesh Mukherjee's sense of humour never deserted him, not did his childlike affection for the people he knew and had worked with. The humour that provides so much sunshine in his comic masterpiece, ""Chupke, Chupke (1975), was always there. Courteous and gentle to a fault, he never complained about how the stars he knew so well, and in fact created, passed him by. In Bengal there is a word for such a cultured gentleman as Mr. Mukherjee. They would describe him as bhadralog.

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