Book: The World of Hrishikesh Mukherjee: The Filmmaker Everyone Loves
Author: Jai Arjun Singh
Price: Rs 599
This is a richly rewarding book and you should read it whether you like Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s cinema or you don’t. I can’t say I was a big fan when I began reading Jai Arjun’s Singh’s book; I have to admit to a much deeper respect and even admiration at the end of it. Yes, Mukherjee was the man who had Amitabh Bachchan invite Rakhee into his bedroom at a hotel and offer her samosas among a host of other things to eat. And he was one of the few directors to give the same Amitabh (in another film) a real female friend in the unlikely form of Bindu.
All this you will find in Jai Arjun Singh’s book. I have carefully selected my own memories of the oeuvre — and it is the first time I am thinking of it as an oeuvre, more fool me. Now, I see it more clearly. Somewhat distressingly, I seem to see it all. And I see it through Singh’s eyes.
For instance, when I think of Guddi what used to come back was the unbearably grating Jaya Bhaduri. The only actress who scrapes my nerves as much is Revathy. In comparison, I don’t mind Shashikala—Shrieking Shashikala, Singh calls her in her role as Annie in Anupama. So when Guddi is saying to her friends in her trademark look-at-me-I-am-such-a-natural-actress manner, “…maine Meena Kumari ki chhuti kar di” it never occurred to me to link this to the fact that Meena Kumari and Dharmendra were having an affair and so Guddi, jealous of her idol, would be rude about the tragedienne.
It occurred to Singh. Everything occurs to Singh so you follow him into the thickets of his interludes without a pause and each time there is something, some incidental adjective that will delight you. He calls Guru Dutt and Meena Kumari two tragedy queens, such a sharp and scathing descriptor that I laughed out loud.
He calls the film Anand sunny, again in passing. He has no time to stop because he’s riding a hobby horse and it’s running away with him. Sunny? Anand is about cancer, incurable cancer, innit? But he’s right, the film is sunny, so horribly sunny that you never have to think about the dreaded disease. Not one hair on Anand’s head is ever disturbed by chemotherapy and he never loses weight and he never loses a touch of his indomitable spirit. He is so sunny, he’s a fried egg. Singh points to the meta film under the film, in which Bhaskar (Amitabh Bachchan) is the cancerous growth in the body of Khanna’s stardom that is about to kill him. Ah, I think, that meta film. Until this moment, I had not been terribly bothered with the film, because of its terrible lack of courage, its inability to bear pain or confront the hysteria that a death sentence might bring. Only its music ever remained with me. So I had not even thought there could be a meta film under that veneer-thin make-believe of Raj Kapoor as cancer patient and Hrishikesh Mukherjee as Young Man Angry at even the thought of losing a friend. Now I am considering this as a metaphor, if not a meta film.
This means that Singh has convinced me. It is an uncomfortable position and I shall soon recover. I will find myself arguing with him over the next few weeks and I will return to a position somewhere between my own dismissal of Mukherjee and Singh’s careful consideration of him.
I had to read this book in one fell swoop and sometimes it felt like death by detail. That might be the problem with it, Singh’s desire to say it all, to get it all in there, the very real causal connections, the meta films, the possibilities, the probabilities, the conjectures, the post-modern leaps. Careful editing might have brought the whole into focus but it might have taken away many of the incidental pleasures that he manages to pack into his pages. A much better way to read this would be to do it in homoeopathic doses, with a pencil so that you can add your favourite details, your scenes, your lines from Rang Birangi…
Rang Birangi is my test case. I have always thought that comedy needs the best actors you have. We don’t think so. We think men need to fight and rage and cry and that’s enough. So two of the best comic actors the industry has ever had—Dharmendra and Akshay Kumar—have spent their best years trying to rage and snarl and flex their not-inconsiderable muscles. Rang Birangi has Parveen Babi, the beautiful and the hollow, who never managed to dance or act or do anything that merited screen time. Singh points out all the flaws in all the films including those of Rang Birangi. He mentions how bad the shot takings are, the ugly and almost pedestrian way scenes can end. But he always comes up with a reason why you should be watching the film. I have seen Rang Birangi once. I do not think even after The World of Hrishikesh Mukherjee, I will be watching it again.
Jerry Pinto is a novelist and writer based in Mumbai