Almost every Hrishikesh Mukherjee film is a deep and poignant documentation of feelings and values, of an intricate but a well-thought framework within which an educated and cultured middle-class man stands, confident of his identity, yet seeking a meaningful, higher validation for himself. His stories are about simple, beautiful human beings who touch your heart intensely with their warmth and honesty. They don’t disrespect each other or betray or say horrible things. They are vulnerable and hopeful. The crisis in his films, often borrowed from the everyday banality of life, is dealt with such sensitivity and ease, that one can’t help but wonder that how did he have such a profound understanding of people. Of life, of death, of everything in between. The realism, wit, pathos and social commitment – all weaved in without complications in his films that it almost seems you can do it, too. But try making that attempt, the literature he has written through his kind of cinema is extremely hard to achieve. And relevance! Well, every film till date speaks as if it’s been made for you and me, for now, for today.
I’d say am grateful to Doordarshan for showing his films on television. While my parents were extremely mindful of what was being watched and clearly not all films that came on TV were permitted for viewing, but his films, those we were allowed, undoubtedly because of their meaningful and endearing content. Be it Gol Maal, Chupke Chupke, Bawarchi, Guddi or Khubsoorat, as a kid, these films connected with me more because one could laugh so much while watching them. Ram Prasad-Laxman Prasad, Ratna, Bhawani Shankar, Sukumar Sinha, Pyaare Mohan, Vasudha, Primal Tripathi, Sulekha Chaturvedi, Nirmala Devi, Anju, Manju, Guddi… these were real people! Anand (title character played by Rajesh Khanna in 1971) troubled me. So did Mili, Abhimaan, Satyakam and Anupama. I didn’t have that bandwidth then to handle such heart-wrenching emotions. All I remember is that I cried a lot. For years, I even avoided Anand’s songs. Every time I would come across a working couple, Subir (Amitabh Bachchan) and Uma (Jaya Bachchan) of Abhimaan were my reference point. But like I said, as a child, I wasn’t capable of understanding the need for such depth.
Real and relatable
As you grow older, observing your surroundings, you realise that real people argue, debate and discuss. There are certain homes where the dining table conversations may be intellectual or mundane or even mockery of an emotional crisis another family member is going through but the point is that everyone does have a sound and cultivated thinking, a mind with opinions which are freely expressed. Their education, the books they’ve read and the places they’ve been to defines them, forms their ideologies, firms their faith and gives them a standpoint on a particular topic. I grew up in one such household. There was a room for disagreement amongst its members, yet each person was valued, irrespective. Relations didn’t break in a jiffy. There was no melodrama.
I deeply connected with most of the characters in Hrishida’s films because strangely enough, it seemed as if I knew them too well just like my own. His films didn’t give its characters ‘good people-bad people’ classifications. They were not judged. They were allowed to be. I realised my relation with people was similar. Once I grew up, I understood Subir’s ego or Shekhar’s anger and I can confidently say that I do get their crisis. Bhaskor Banerji, Piku, Rana, Budhan, Moni kaki, Kaku, Dr Chaddha, Vicky, Biji, Ashima… I’ve tried my best to form deep relationship with all the characters of my stories just so that I know each and everything about them because I believe that only when I know them inside out, will the people viewing the film will relate to them. Comedy can happen only when the absolute real truth is known. That is base for finding humour. In Gol Maal, the truth was that in spite of his good education, a young man who is also a guardian of his unmarried sister, was jobless. He gets an opportunity at Bhawani Shankar’s office but the conditions attached would have made it impossible for him to get the job. Hrishida used humour to get through this crisis in that brother-sister’s life. He allows Amol Palekar’s character, Ramprasad Sharma, to lie and deceive and he does it so beautifully using his knowledge on every subject, his charm, his affection and responsibility for his family and his loyalty that no one could object or write him off as a liar or a cheat. The truth in Vicky Donor is that a man who goes donating his sperms all over town but not being able to have his own child, is a harsh one. In Piku, taking care of an ageing father, living a single life in a big city, letting desires be defeated by duties, it’s again not comedy material. But because of my own certain life experiences and the life that I have imagined through the cinema of stalwarts like Hrishida, I feel humour is the best tool to handle those grim patches. Be it for my characters in my films or for my personal use, his cinema and humour has certainly influenced me personally.
Hope, humour and a progressive quality
Hrishida’s films have an immense progressive quality about them. Even though Anand is about death, it is his philosophy that makes a subject this dark so hopeful. There’s a famous moment when Anand tells Bhaskar that it’s not how long you live, it’s about how well you’ve lived. Doesn’t matter long or short but has it been great? For me, that’s the triumph of Anand. Hrishida made us believe that death doesn’t necessarily end life. Shiuli’s death didn’t really take away Shiuli from Dan (in the recent October). With Bhashkor’s death in Piku and Shiuli’s death in October, I’ve tried to understand what losing a loved one is and I have come to the same conclusion that death is yet another incident in our lives. Satyakam, Anupama, Anuradha, these are extremely poignant films that nudge you to look inwards and reassess your own ideologies.
(Juhi Chaturvedi is the scriptwriter of the acclaimed October, Piku and Vicky Donor. Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s cinema has been a key inspiration for her. She spoke to Shaikh Ayaz)