Chupke Chupke is playing on TV, my mother is making rotis for our joint family in the kitchen and “Jijaji” Om Prakash is asking “Driver” Pyaaremohan Allahabadi (Dharmendra) if he has eaten. “I have eaten at…” says the hero and my mother completes the sentence with that magical name for trains which Gulzar’s fertile pen had crafted. Rolling out the dough, she happily intones: “ Lauhpadgamini vishraamsthal” (resting spot for she who moves on feet of iron, that is, a railway station).
We do not really need to see Chupke Chupke any more; we can recite most of the film and enjoy its flavours even with the TV switched off. The same goes for Gol Maal; cries of “Beta Ramprasaaad” fill the air whenever Utpal Dutt appears in this one-sided love story between a boss and the new employee, Amol Palekar, out to impress him. (“You will not marry the man you love,” Dutt tells his daughter firmly. “You will marry the man I love.”)
A few years later, in university and tentatively trying to understand the world through other people’s words and opinions, I came across a review of a Hrishikesh Mukherjee film by a learned critic who said that Mukherjee’s films were seen only by middle-class women. “Middle-class” was bad enough, but “middle-class women” was clearly the nadir in terms of a fan base! Indeed, the director himself agreed: “I am basically a middle-class man with middle-class values, and I can make no other kind of films.”
Just as the suffix “da” never left Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s name, the labels “middle of the road” of “middle-class” never stopped pursuing his cinema. But what did “middle” mean in the context of Mukherjee’s cinema? Was it a label given in hindsight to films that were obviously not commercial in their use of action and glamour but that did not find their leading characters among the poor and the oppressed either, in the way, say, Shyam Benegal’s films did? Did it indicate that his films were mainly comedies like Gol Maal or Chupke Chupke, which revolved around the problems, foibles, and relationships of people who lived in pukka houses and had jobs?
In his 100th birth year, the man the entire film industry knew as “Hrishida” deserves a more engaged appraisal. “Middle-of-the-road”, with its wishy-washy aroma of being neither here nor there, describes neither the man nor his work. As Amitabh Bachchan, the bachelor English professor pretending to be a married botany expert, explained to Jaya Bhaduri whom he discreetly loved: “ Jo jaisa hai, wo kaee baar nahin hota” (what seems like is often not). One of the few times the word “bourgeois” has been used in a Hindi film is in Guddi. “ Aap to jaante hain hamari bourgeois press ko….woh to paisa kamaana chahte hain” (You know what our bourgeois press is like … they just want to earn money”). Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s heroes fought for issues like wage payment to workers ( Satyakam) and preferred to declass themselves, not as an act of nobility but as one of genuine inner transformation ( Namak Haraam and Alaap).
His frequent collaborators were progressive writers like Rajinder Singh Bedi, Gulzar, and Nabendu Ghosh, as well as IPTA (Indian People’s Theatre Association) members Salil Chowdhury, Inder Raj Anand, and Utpal Dutt. This reflected routinely in the films: from Simi Garewal explaining socialism to a bored Amitabh Bachchan ( Namak Haraam) to Rekha singing “Inquilab zindabad” even if in the context of domestic tyranny ( Khubsoorat) to Amol Palekar’s friends shouting “ Ye democracy ke khilaaf hai” and “Down with personality cult” when one of them picks who he will take to a football match (in post-Emergency Gol Maal). However, Mukherjee who identified himself with “a generation which cherished nobility, sacrifice, justice and honesty” and “passionately believed in them” was often self-critical about not having been true to his values in his cinema: “I never had the nerve to break away from the commercial structure. So how can I be proud of my work?” He also said: “I am consistently making compromises.”
Variety of films
In a career in which he directed 42 highly varied films—from Musafir (1957) to Jhooth Bole Kauwa Kaate (1998)—perhaps it is worth looking for the “real” Hrishikesh Mukherjee through the prism of the films he was most invested in, the films he wrote himself: Anupama (1966), Aashirwad (1968), Anand (1970), Abhimaan (1973), NamakHaraam (1973), and Alaap (1977), and the film that he said was his favourite: Satyakam (1969).
It has been 53 years since Satyakam was made and I still tear up a bit when I see its hopeful young engineering students on the cusp of Independence. The enthralled Satyavir (Dharmendra) says: “ Bhookh, bekaari, black marketing, sab khatm ho jayega” (hunger, unemployment, the black market … all will end). But he finds that he is wrong and dies fighting the “system” with an increasingly bitter refusal to compromise. Mukherjee was dejected by Satyakam’s failure and despondent because of its truths: “I had thought corruption would end when we became independent. But this was not so. Then I thought there was nothing to do but laugh. Which is why I made Gol Maal, Naram Garam, and Chupke Chupke.”
One of Mukherjee’s best realised films, Namak Haraam, explores the experience of Somu (Rajesh Khanna), who pretends to be a worker to avenge his beloved friend Vicky (Amitabh Bachchan). Somu seeks to replace the union leader in Vicky’s father’s factory. But soon, traumatised by the hunger and poverty he witnesses, he is unable to return to the bewildered Vicky’s world. Characters like Vicky’s socialist friend (Simi Garewal), the union leader (A.K. Hangal), and the despairing alcoholic poet (Raza Murad) speak explicitly against inequality and injustice.
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The musical Alaap is also centred around economic inequality. A rich and arrogant Om Prakash seeks to rule his family, especially his music-loving son Alok (Amitabh Bachchan). Alok not only prefers music but also the company of erstwhile courtesan and great singer Sarju Bai (Chhaya Devi), who becomes his substitute mother. Alok leaves home when he realises his father has deliberately engineered the destruction of her basti. He lives in a slum, drives tongas for a living, and contracts TB but does not compromise on his integrity.
Plenty of Hrishida’s films show up the director as a traditional elderly Bengali whose heroines were good daughters, daughters-in-law, mothers—the kind who in the 1970s covered their heads and held the family together with their worrying, feeding, and loving. These women were forever being asked to go make a nice cup of tea! (In The World of Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Jai Arjun Singh says he tried to count the number of times tea was had in Mukherjee films but soon gave up!)
On gender inequality
But Mukherjee was also critical of unequal gender relations. Anuradha excoriated the insensitivity of a husband (Balraj Sahni) towards his wife’s (Leela Naidu) talent and placed her singing at par with his doctoring. Abhimaan critiqued the wounded male pride of a husband (Amitabh Bachchan) whose wife (Jaya Bhaduri) did better professionally. Even the hero-centred Satyakam ended with Sharmila Tagore’s luminous heroism in unashamedly explaining to her seven-year-old son that he was not his father’s biological child.
Women characters who would be “vamps” in mainstream films were not vamps in Mukherjee’s films at all. In Abhimaan, Bindu, singing star Bachchan’s rich and fashionable girlfriend, shows sincere appreciation of his new bride, supports him when he needs space, but refuses to let him speak ill of his wife. Aruna Irani in Mili takes to “playing with men” after a heartbreak but is given immense dignity.
Anupama is the story of Uma (Sharmila Tagore), hated by her father because he lost his beloved wife during childbirth. Uma falls in love with the socialist writer Ashok (Dharmendra), but he refuses to help her leave her father’s home, as she would merely shift from being dominated by her father to being patronised by him: “The independence of a person is as crucial as the independence of a country.”
Watching Uma read Ashok’s novel, written to inspire her, and finally choose to emerge as her own person is one of my most powerful and inspiring cinematic memories.
Ethics of the middle
It would appear that in a messy world where political categories are never sufficient to explain human dilemmas, Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s films nearly always expressed a luminous sense of ethics. They came in many guises: love, kindness, fair play, integrity, a refusal to hurt others. An important part of this ethic was that being a human was a transformative process: from Namak Haraam’s Somu coming to empathise with the workers, to Anand’s Bhaskar Banerjee losing his cynical bitterness, from the Sharma family reforming in Bawarchi to Kisi Se Na Kehna’s Utpal Dutt realising he was wrong about “modern” girls, Mukherjee’s films invested their faith in the possibility of transformation.
Hardly any Hrishikesh Mukherjee film has an outright villain. The “villains” are complex characters who often turn into regretful, lonely old men (Om Shivpuri in Namak Haraam, Om Prakash in Alaap, Tarun Bose in Anupama). Villains are also given moments of redemption. Bachchan himself essayed some of his most complex “grey” hero roles with Hrishida: the spoilt rich boy in Namak Haraam, the angry alcoholic in Mili, the jealous husband in Abhimaan, the playboy in Jurmana, and the bitter complex hero of Bemisaal—invariably redeemed by the decency of those around him.
One of the freshest, perhaps even radical, aspects of Mukherjee’s cinema was how his films stayed firmly on the side of youth, who in his cinema embodied an impulse towards equality, fairness, and kindness, while the old were caught up in class and caste differences, personal aggrandisement, and rigid traditions—not to mention an absurd respect for moustaches ( Gol Maal)!
This was remarkable, given the Indian tradition of revering elders. The older generation—matriarch Dina Pathak and her rigid discipline ( Khubsoorat), Utpal Dutt and his love for sanskaari behaviour ( Gol Maal), Dutt again and his belief that only uneducated girls are free of corrupting values ( Kisi Se Na Kehna), and even the gentle Om Prakash with his insistence on pristine Hindi ( Chupke Chupke)—is transformed by gentle and good humoured rebellion.
My mother, who had great affection for her father-in-law but disliked having to cover her head in front of him, watched Khubsoorat with approval. “I will also call your grandfather ‘boyfriend’ from tomorrow,” she said, giggling. In my mother’s laughter lay the impossibility of the idea but also protest against a tradition. In 1950, the 27-year-old Hrishikesh—along with Nabendu Ghosh, Asit Sen, and Nazir Hussain—had shifted to Bombay with Bimal Roy. The team lived and worked together. It was an ethos of familial comradeship that Mukherjee lived by when he came into his own. His house was a general adda and caravanserai for friends and colleagues. Several of his films were shot in the bungalow too. In an interview given to Ameen Sayani, Jaya Bachchan described how shooting with Hrishida was like sitting in “one’s own aangan [courtyard]”.
The director, “crippled by arthritis” early on, nevertheless often shot two films simultaneously. “Why do you make so many films?” a concerned Jaya asked. “I do it for my unit,” said the father figure, who had a strong sense of the film unit as a family. So strong was this ethos that the credit for a film written by one artist could be distributed among several when the titles rolled. No one would dream of complaining in front of the benign yet strict patriarch for whom Gulzar was “Gulli” and Deepti Naval “Deepu” and whom Dharmendra and Amitabh Bachchan named as the only director they were scared of. He shot films while playing chess with Utpal Dutt and watching Test matches with Amol Palekar—“between overs we used to take a shot”, according to the actor.
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Another important factor for Mukherjee was his sense of responsibility towards the producer: he would not waste money while shooting. His early cinematic training was as an editor—among his contributions to cinema is his editing of films like Do Bigha Zameen, Garam Coat, Madhumati, Ganga Jamna, Chemmeen, and Dastak. And throughout his directorial career, he refused to shoot extra takes or different angles, often “editing in his mind”. This meant that several of his films, especially the later ones, were not created with much importance given to production design and could sometimes feel like college skits. But they nearly always had a feel for story, the emotion to be conveyed, for dialogues, and for characters.
Like most important directors, Mukherjee gathered around him collaborators in various areas who made his films sparkle with beauty and intelligence. Music was one such area. A sitar player himself, Hrishida’s films had songs ranging from beautiful to astonishingly beautiful. One can only place the parade of musical albums in chronological order: Anari, Anuradha, Anupama, Anand, Abhimaan, Namak Haraam, Mili, Alaap, Jurmana….The only time Dilip Kumar sang (and beautifully) for a film ( Musafir, the song being “Laagi nahin chhoote”); one of the few instances when Pandit Ravi Shankar composed for a Hindi film ( Anuradha); the inspired take on Mozart from Salil Choudhury ( Chhaya, “Itna na mujh se tu”), all happened in Hrishida’s films. Stories, screenplays, and dialogues from Bengali litterateurs and the best of progressive writers were embodied by some of the biggest stars who deglamourised themselves as the director explored the actor in them. They all agreed that the philosophy of his filmmaking was fun, mutual affection and caring, and feeling at home.
And so, in Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s 100th birth year, his creations are out celebrating. Ram Prasad is on a picnic singing with friends and eating samosas. Driver Pyaaremohan Allahabadi has taken his employer’s sister-in-law Sulekha for a surreptitious drive. Anand is buying up all the balloons on the beach and joyously setting them free. Guddi thinks the occasion deserves nothing less than a Dharmendra movie. Manju has organised card games and a variety programme at home. Even Dhurandar Bhatwadekar softens as he watches Jogi Thakur playing with the children to Paglaa Babu’s violin, after 65 years the tune is not sad any more but life affirming. “Zindagi badi honi chahiye,” it says, “lambi nahin.” Live, not a long life, but a grand life.
Juhi Saklani is a writer and photographer based in Delhi. She writes on cinema, culture, and travel.
All quotes are taken from interviews given by Hrishikesh Mukherjee during his lifetime and from Jai Arjun Singh’s book The World of Hrishikesh Mukherjee.
- Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s films were beyond labels.
- He was a gifted editor who worked in several iconic films.
- Amitabh Bachchan essayed many “grey” roles in his films.
- His films had outstanding soundtracks by various stalwarts.
- Mukherjee was critical of unequal gender relations.