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SAGA CORNER

The World of Hrishikesh Mukherjee: The Filmmaker

hrisikeshmukherjee.png”” alt=””hrisikeshmukherjee”” />Filmmaker Hrishikesh Mukherjee kept his films simple, based on middle class mores like his own. His comedies have provided rip roaring laughter and kept the audience regaled. Author Jai Arjun Singh makes it clear the book “”The World Of Hrishikesh Mukherjee”” is not a biography but an analysis of a creative person’s career. It reveals things about Hrishida, his influences and beliefs, how he interacted with people, the culture he came from and the circumstances he worked in. The director-editor-scriptwriter conceded that there was a lot of him in the movies he directed, some more than others. It is all about his life and personality. The book does not examine all the films that Hrishida directed or his biases. Essentially it is an enthusiast’s tribute to some of the things he finds most stimulating about Hrishida’s universe.

In a lot many ways this has been a journey of self discovery for the author. The emphasis is on themes and talking points by looking at specific films or sequences sometimes embellished with anecdotes. In the process several films like Mem Didi, Musafir, Anuradha, Alaap, Asli-Naqli and Ashirwad which may not ring many bells for casual or young viewers are discussed as are scenes or motifs from runaway hits like Gol Maal, Chupke Chupke, Mili, Abimaan, Anand, Bemisal and Guddi.

Hrishida’s directorial career spanned four decades. Initially when he came to Bombay in February 1950 he wondered aloud why should there be songs after every few scenes. It was perplexing as he loved music. It is one of the many contradictions in his personality. He spent the rest of his 56 years in the western metropolis never returning to live in his native West Bengal even though he had made a name in Calcutta. Going back was not an option.

To start with Hrishida worked for Bimal Roy in pivotal films like Do Bigha Zamin, Parineeta and Madhumati. Though his main role at that time was as editor, his work encompassed other areas like screenplay writing. He turned Salil Choudhury’s story about a rickshaw-wallah into a 24-page screenplay that would become Do Bigha Zamin. Despite the international influences of Roberto Rossellini, Vittorio De Sica, Kurosawa, the stories Roy dealt with were either rooted in Bengali literature and culture or about the issues facing a young nation state in its first decade after independence; the plight of voiceless farmers still trapped in an undemocratic world, caste discrimination, the class divide, the status of women. After having undergone his apprenticeship with Roy, Hrishikesh was ready to strike out on his own.

Almost throughout his career, Hrishida would make films that would fall into two categories: the sombre drama and the light hearted comedy. Hardly any one of his serious films was as solemn as Satyakam and hardly any of the light films as full bloodedly lunatic as Biwi aur Makaan. Beyond the out and out comedies there have also been films like Anand and Mili where the protagonist is suffering from a terminal disease but the film itself aims to a degree to comfort and reassure for lightness of touch. The author believes Hrishida’s films have always taken the side of young people, usually clear sighted and practical about change.

A notable feature of his cinema is the pointed contrast between two types of old men. The first is the stern, patriarchal figure who is rooted in an orthodox view of family and society, bent on enforcing rules and keeping young people in line. What is revealing is when Hrishida was low on motivation and creativity, he made earnest films that sometimes descended into pedantry, but when he came out of his depressed phase he did so spectacularly with Gol Maal. Many of Hrishida’s best films are about how minor transgressions may occur, how small battles may be won, within the boundaries of a society when roles tend to be predefined: where certain divides are very hard to bridge, family is sacrosanct, young people are expected to unconditionally ‘respect their elders’ (even when those elders are being unreasonable or behaving more immaturely than the youngsters) and women are permitted to dream only so long as those dreams don’t clash with their principal duties within the family structure.

Though Chupke Chupke may seem too frothy a work to even be discussed in such terms, look at its last scene. Family and community have been neatly reaffirmed: one married couple has been reunited, another young couple has just been wed, new bonds have been formed in the presence of approving elders, it has been established that everyone is comfortable middle class, that the person who shook up this society wasn’t really the driver, James, who is on the outskirts of this group.

On the face of it what can be more conformist than this, wonders the author. In the symbolism laden film Bawarchi, the narrative begins with a runaway cook (who can’t take any more of the bickering Sharma family) feeling guilty about the old man of the house not getting his morning tea. Raghu the multi-talented Bawarchi who replaces him, isn’t content cooking for the large clan; he must bring them together too.

Hrishida’s attention to detail, sympathy for people who might very easily have been caricatures, would continue throughout his career as a director. It is seen time and time again in comedy scenes where the comedians are not objects of mirth but well realised people who may be used to sharply comment on a situation, even when the framework is broad slapstick. Around the time of the Emergency when he was depressed Hrishida made high minded films like Arjun Pandit and Naukri about the state of the nation. Like some of his later works it has patches of shoddiness and an unfinished quality. However, at the end it provides a nuanced view of what patriotism and heroism can really mean.

A subject of some of Hrishida’s best films is how men and women move tentatively towards achieving parity in a relationship. How this happens not in a utopian world but within the assumptions of an often orthodox society where gender roles tend to be defined and ‘progressiveness’ doesn’t mean completely shaking up the status quo; it can mean something subtler, such as a man becoming more subtle, gradually becoming more sensitive to his wife’s inner life and learning new things about himself, his emotional dependence, his capacity for love, his own feminine side in the process.

The Amitabh-Jaya starrer Abhimaan is one of cinema’s finest depictions of threatened individuality and a marriage under pressure highlighted by good pacing, a gently mournful score (by Ravi Shankar) that acquires new depths the more you listen to it, and wonderful performances. Hrishikesh often spoke of wanting to do something off the beaten track. He threw up his hands and said: “”One’s attitude to life is often reflected in one’s art. I am basically a middle class man with middle class values, and I can make no other kind of film.””

Time and again the impression one gets of Hrishida, who to some degree or the other managed to retain his way of making movies right till the end, even as he thought himself to be a sell out. Happily others don’t have to be as conservative about Hrishida’s work as he himself was, observes the author. Some food for thought for movie buffs.

Book:The World of Hrishikesh Mukherjee
Author:Jai Arjun Singh
Publisher:Penguin Group
Pages:331
Price:599-INR

TR

(T R Ramachandran is a senior journalist and commentator.)

By TIS Staffer
the authorBy TIS Staffer

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