How the 1990s struck the death knell for middle-of-the-road cinema in Bollywood.
“For after all, the best thing one can do when it’s raining is to let it rain.”Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Humour, romance and music, at times in isolation, and generally as elements of the same set made for the cinema of Basu Chatterji in the 1970s. Unfortunately, the 1980s Bombay panorama was mostly about hamming and pelvic thrusts, which left the likes of Hrishikesh (Mukherjee), Gulzar and Basu confused. The 1990s struck the death knell for their kind of cinema. Hrishikesh bid adieu to the rat race. Gulzar was marginalized till he hung up his boots.
Curiously, Basu, who had crossed sixty in the late 1980s, kept on making films, while deeply identifying with the dilemma faced by the troika. In an interview with critic Sanjeev Verma, on being asked if his cinema was being phased out, Basu said: “So it would appear. Not just me. All of us—Gulzar, Hrishikesh Mukherjee—are finding existence as film-makers increasingly difficult. The audience is simply not there. The whole thing is going from bad to worse.”
It is at this cusp that Basu seriously thought of shifting to television. His Bombay chapter had started in 1985 with Rajani; the Calcutta one (talked about later in the book) began in 1988. But the balancing act between cinema and TV, something Basu had managed well in the mid-1980s, was seriously upset in the years to come. The dividing line between the two genres had fundamentally blurred. Basu’s relationship with visuals was gradually veering towards close-ups and mid shots.
The failure of Kamla ki Maut made him go back to a tried and tested formula: comedy. And thus, was born Hamari Shadi, a feature for television. Receiving its film certification on 12 October 1990, a shot of the leads Ajit Pal and Indrani Halder adorned the cover of the now-defunct NFDC magazine Cinema in India. Unfortunately, this remained its only claim to fame.
The film was lost in the maze that was 1990s cinema, where simplicity was no longer a status symbol. Binod Pradhan’s stylized cinematography with high crane shots, low-angle tracking shots, and complex points of view—especially in Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s Parinda (1989)—was branded as a game-changer. As was Santosh Sivan’s artificially created, deeply saturated colours in Mani Ratnam’s Roja (1992).
The bottom line was that in an era where film-makers were moving towards new techniques of shot-taking, handheld cameras and static shots with the zoom was passé. Hamari Shadi, for all its naiveté, was like an extension of a DD TV serial, which needed multiple ‘happening’ episodes to hold the interest of the viewers. Today, prints of the film are not available in the public domain. NFDC is also partly to be blamed for its policy of distribution, mentions actress Indrani Halder: “…I am not sure if the film had a commercial release at all. I think it was released at Nandan, which was the case for most films produced by NFDC. That’s about it. How I wish I could see the film sometime… I must say that Basu uncle was one of a kind. It is difficult to find someone of his level of intellect and brilliance.”
The genesis of the film happened much before though. Rupali Guha mentions that in a discussion with Basu; I.K. Bahl had talked about the roadblocks to his marriage and how he had to circumvent the same. Basu loved the conflict angle. ‘Surely a film can be made on this?’ was his reaction.
However, the crystallization happened later. The story development was the result of a separate discussion, as reported: The story of Hamari Shaadi was conceived in the Times of India building at the Filmfare office. ‘Bikram Singh and Umesh Kalbagh (both journalists working with Filmfare) developed this idea of two teenagers struggling to get married in a big city like Bombay.’ The copyright of the story was purchased by Basu-da and he wrote the screenplay for Doordarshan’s approval. Doordarshan accepted the film idea without any fuss. After that, Basu-da shot the film in twenty-one days in Bombay on a shoestring budget.
Budget was indeed an issue, mentions Sanjoy Chowdhury to the author. “I was paid only Rs 5000 for composing.” In this context, it could be mentioned that Sanjoy’s father Salil Chowdhury had received Rs 10,000 for the music of Basu’s first film Sara Aakash. Twenty years later, when the price of gold had gone up by eighteen times (ten grams of 24-carat gold was Rs 176 in 1969, whereas it was Rs 3,140 in 1989), the music director was paid half the amount.
Sanjoy also mentions an amusing incident that took place during the song sitting. After hearing the compositions, Kumar Sanu, the singer, blurted out, ‘Why are the tunes so complicated? Who do you think you are? Salil Chowdhury?’, not knowing that he was talking to his son.
The music of the film was Sanjoy’s, though Basu used portions of the background score previously composed by his father. Both were credited in the film. Few would take notice, as marketing efforts for his joint venture between Basu and DD was zilch.
Basu went on record expressing concern over the film’s success at the theatre, admitting that it would be very optimistic to hope that the film would run for over three weeks. But he was hopeful that it would be seen by more than a million people on TV. That never happened.
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The failure of Hamari Shaadi probably made Basu come out of his comfort zone. And attempt a satire on the exploitation of women, especially in and around the villages in central and northern India. Durga followed. Few remember a commercial release that should have been a natural successor to the censor clearance, which happened on 31 July 1991.
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Not losing heart, Basu gave a few interviews about Triyacharitra, his next film, which had rape of a most unusual kind as the central theme. Technically one of Basu’s better works in terms of locale, dialect and night photography (by Ajay Prabhakar at a set put up at Kamalistan Studio), the film suffered from the syndrome which had become Basu’s Achilles’ heel: production values. And immature acting by some of the supporting cast, inasmuch as bigwigs Naseeruddin Shah and Om Puri failed to elevate the film beyond the ordinary.
In his effort to control the budget, Basu landed in a penny-wise pound-foolish situation. He did not create authentic, elaborate sets needed for the story. ‘He would focus only on the content. His reliance on zoom during the outdoor shoot at Allahabad was at the cost of the ‘Block lens’ which he had ordered. Prabhakar wanted to use the same, but Basu-da continued the trend of zoom in and zoom out,’ mentioned Deepak Qazir to the author, and continued, ‘At the end, he was a content-based director. The story is good, and it touches you, right? Let’s take it ahead… The shot compositions, bereft of depth, gave the work a telefilm-like quality—which it was partly, a joint venture of NFDC and DD—sans the arresting flow a telefilm was supposed to have. Triyacharitra was no Sadgati (1981). Neither was it an Aadmi Aur Aurat (1984). Or a Tamas (1988).
This was Basu’s last work for NFDC. While Basu would often blame NFDC for the lack of strategic foresight in building small theatres for art films, in his heart of hearts he surely knew that good cinema eventually did well. Contemporaries like Shyam Benegal made Suraj ka Satvan Ghoda (1993), Mammo (1994) and Sardaari Begum (1996) around the same time. These films enjoyed critical acclaim. They still do.
But the worst was still to come.
Edited extracts from Basu Chatterji and Middle-of-the-Road Cinema, by Anirudha Bhattacharjee. Excerpted with permission from Penguin Random House India.