To say that the passing of Basu Chatterjee, the writer-director who defined the hopes and aspirations, and techni-coloured dreams of middle-class India, is the end of an era, is not enough. The cinematic epoch born out of his ability to acutely observe the extraordinary in the ordinary, and translate those moments on screen, changed the texture and complexion of Hindi cinema.
Chatterjee was one of the most significant architects of the middle-of-the-road, slice-of-life cinema, whose edifice he built one film after another, from his debut feature Sara Akash (1969), to Kamla Ki Maut (1989), and so many in between. Each of those films gave us a bunch of characters we felt for, that we rooted for. And a way to see, to laugh– more smile than guffaw– and to cry. Gentle tears, which would be wiped away to greet a new day. Not loud melodrama created by the glycerine and hysteria which we were so used to, in the potboilers of the time.
Chatterjee, along with his best-known contemporaries Hrishikesh Mukherjee and Basu Bhattacharya, did not just create timeless films (Chhoti Si Baat, Rajnigandha, Baton Baton Mein, Shaukeen, Khatta Meetha, Chitchor, Piya Ka Ghar, Chameli Ki Shaadi). He imparted a sense of pride and identity to an Indian demographic which had no real visual notion of what it stood for. The angry young man in Deewaar who beat up a godown full of goons was not one of us. The young man in Manzil who wants to impress his lady love by talking himself up? We knew that guy.
Both young men were played by the reigning star of the 70s, Amitabh Bachchan: the first was a ‘hero’ moulded by Salim Javed and Yash Chopra, whose anger burnt everything around him; the second was just a lover celebrating a lovely monsoon day, singing “Rim jhim gire saawan,” in his suit and black-and-white striped tie, splashing in puddles with a wet sari-clad Moushumi Chatterjee. Why anyone would wear a three-piece suit in the fullness of a Mumbai monsoon is for you to find out, in one of the most under-rated outings of both the director and the actor.
That feeling of instant recognition, of seeing people like us on the big screen, doing the kind of stuff we do on an everyday basis– struggling with public transport woes and wily bosses and tricky colleagues and how-to-say-I-love-you to your paramours, that and so much more–was brought to vivid, wondrous life by Basu Chatterjee, and the actor who best personified Chatterjee’s ‘heroes’, Amol Palekar. The two made their best films together: Rajnigandha (1974), Chhoti Si Baat (1976), Chitchor (1976), Baton Baton Mein (1979).
While Amitabh Bachchan was forging ahead with his angsty persona, which spoke to the roiling systemic injustice and consequent political turbulence of the 70s, the Chatterjee-Palekar combine was giving us the films where we could breathe, and a world imbued by a sense of welcome ordinariness: beating up baddies single-handedly looks great on screen; living one day at a time in the real world, and making those ups-and-downs interesting, is the real deal.
It wasn’t as if he only made mild-mannered comedies. Sara Aakash, based on a Rajendra Yadav novel, was a spiky take on incompatible marriages, and how hands are forced in joint families. Chameli Ki Shaadi (1986), starring Anil Kapoor and Amrita Singh, raises the ugly face of classism and casteism, and the way it is done is quite remarkable, stinging and biting while makes us laugh. Kamla Ki Maut, starring Pankaj Kapoor, Supriya Pathak, Roopa Ganguly, and one of Irrfan Khan’s early films, is a sharply observed look at the stigma attached to pre-marital sex, and how hypocrisy is the bedrock of our social mores.
But his most-loved films are the films that brim over with quiet exuberance, the little joys and sorrows which mark and celebrate life as it is lived: Basu Chatterjee knew exactly how to make that happen, in his chhoti-chhoti-si-baat. And how apt that we sing this, today, and everyday, kisi ke jaane ke baad.
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