Sweet and harmless

Print edition : November 27, 2015

Hrishikesh Mukherjee. Photo: The Hindu Archives

A still from "Chupke Chupke". Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

A still from "Sanjh Aur Savera". Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

A still from "Namak Haram". Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

A biography that slips into hagiography, though its subject, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, continues to stand out as a master of film technique.

HRISHIKESH MUKHERJEE directed some of the most entertaining, well-crafted and well-meaning films in Hindi cinema from the late 1950s to the late 1970s. He continued to make films despite increasingly painful arthritis, changing trends and the inroads made by commercial television. Jai Arjun Singh, a film lover and critic, has written a long book on the director, whose work he cherishes. It is a labour of love. The author has taken pains to research Mukherjee’s work but is reticent about his life. This is so because he never got to know the object of his admiration from close quarters, as some of the older critics such as Khalid Mohammad did. By the time Singh got going as a critic, his favourite film-maker had become a memory in the minds of those who loved old Hindi films.

Mukherjee, who was trained as an editor at the New Theatres in Calcutta (now Kolkata) in the 1940s, believed in sticking to the essentials while telling a story on screen. At least, his best work has this quality. Anuradha (1960); Anari, a film with more pronounced commercial intentions, made a year earlier and starring Raj Kapoor, Nutan, Motilal and Lalita Pawar; Anupama; Anand; Namak Haram; Satyakam; Bawarchi (a Hindi version of Tapan Sinha’s charming Bengali comedy Golpo Holo Shotti); Ashirvad; Alaap; and comedies like Chupke Chupke, Golmal and Khoobsurat were rhythmically paced and shot economically, that is, without uncalled for technical flourishes. There are no breathtaking crane shots, elaborate camera movements, combining pans or tilts with tracking shots. There is no attempt to make the viewer gasp with admiration at technical mastery. Mukherjee’s camera was almost always at eye level, so as not to distract his audience. He wanted his story to be followed with rapt attention. Many a time, he succeeded.

The editing in his films is unobtrusive yet rhythmic. He was a sitar player in his youth and a regular broadcaster for All India Radio Calcutta. Perhaps he instinctively incorporated his knowledge of sur, laya and taal from his training in Hindustani music into his film editing. His films, at least more than a dozen good ones, held the audience’s attention with ease.

The songs in his films were composed by top-notch composers in Hindi cinema such as Salil Choudhury, Shankar-Jaikishan, Sachin Dev Burman, Hemant Kumar and Rahul Dev Burman. He even had the great sitar player Pandit Ravi Shankar compose the (immortal) melodies for Anuradha, which was about a thwarted classical singer (Leela Naidu) and her idealist doctor-husband (Balraj Sahni). The director’s understanding of film music was on a par with his talented contemporaries like Vijay Anand and Raj Khosla and not far behind his seniors like Mehboob Khan, Kedar Sharma, Bimal Roy, Raj Kapoor and Guru Dutt.

He worked with Bimal Roy, mainly as an editor, and, at the very beginning, as a member of both his directorial and scriptwriting team. The influence of his mentor on Mukherjee is evident in the choice of subjects for his films and, of course, his functional but elegant technique.

Jai Arjun Singh’s book, despite the hard work that has gone into it, is one of often uncritical adoration. It would not be wrong to call it a hagiography. “‘Hrishikesh’ is the name of Krishna which means ‘someone who is lord of the senses, or someone who directs your heart and mind’.

“Yes, that sounds about right.

“Now put down this book and get around to the more important matter of watching or rewatching those films. Let yourself be directed. Hum sab kathputliyan hain [We are all puppets]” (page 287).

This is hardly a way to end a book on a director who, at his best, made simple, thoughtful films in a milieu increasingly vitiated by thoughtless commerce. The title page of Singh’s book ought to prepare the reader for what follows. A red flower, painted in kiddie-style, is on the left of the main title and on the right side of it is the image of a peacock feather. The writer is caught between a stout defence of the director’s oeuvre and a blind, adolescent love for the man and his work.

Mukherjee began his film career as a trainee editor and production assistant to Bimal Roy when Roy was making Udayer Pathey in Bengali for B.N. Sarcar’s production company New Theatres in Calcutta. Sarcar was a well-heeled and educated producer trained in Germany. He made films for the middle class in undivided India. The atmosphere at New Theatres was idealistic, as it was in Prabhat Studio, Pune. New Theatres went into a gradual slump after Independence. Bimal Roy carried his idealism with him when he migrated to Bombay and passed it on to Mukherjee, his younger colleague.

But Mukherjee was a more practical man than Bimal Roy. He did not try to become a studio owner or run a production company on a day-to-day basis and get into serious financial trouble as his mentor had done. Instead, he worked with producers who believed in him, such as L.B. Lachman, at the outset of his career. He co-produced with N.C. Sippy, a number of popular successes like Anand, Golmal, Chupke Chupke, Guddi and Khoobsurat. Jhoot Bole Kawa Kaate (1998) was, however, produced by Abbas Rizwi and Sibte Hasan Rizwi. The choice of subjects for his films and the money he made from them as a co-producer spoke of a shrewd sense of money. He was a middle-of-the-road director who provided wholesome entertainment. Gulzar (Sampooran Singh Kalra) travelled on the same road, but he was not afraid to take up darker subjects in Mausam, Namkeen and Maachis. Interestingly, Gulzar, too, had begun as an assistant to Bimal Roy.

Jai Arjun Singh insists on calling his subject “Hrishi-da”, as very many of his professional associates did. In the prologue he observes: “Anyway, after returning from Godard Nagar and Dreyer Ganj [referring here to two of world cinema’s undisputed greats, Jean Luc Godard and Carl Dreyer], I spent much of the last decade rediscovering older Indian cinema, savouring its many treasures, and in the process the Hrishikesh Mukherjee world opened itself up to me. It isn’t easy to say why I was initially more drawn to his work than to the films of other filmmakers who did similar things—Basu Chatterji and Gulzar among them—but here are some possibilities: Hrishi-da simply made more films than the others, both comedies and dramas, which means there was more to choose from, more tonal variations and more ways of seeing how one film built on another.” So far, so good. Then he makes a tenuous claim in the same paragraph. “His [Mukherjee’s] work has a fluidity, an economy of shot-taking and storytelling, a directness that I find very appealing (this is probably linked to Hrishi-da’s editing background). And these films were close in some ways to the Hollywood films of the 1930s and ’40s that I loved so much: the work of Leo McCarey and Ernst Lubitsch, Howard Hawks and John Ford, Frank Capra and William Wyler.”

To put it mildly, the opinion expressed is highly subjective. Not only did the Hollywood masters work for a much bigger, more diverse and more literate viewership than did Mukherjee, their mastery of the film craft, the art of storytelling included, was also far greater than his. Otherwise, they would not have succeeded with a diverse world audience. Mukherjee’s films were a success at a particular time, from the 1960s to 1985, with the reasonably educated Hindi-speaking Indian middle class, which formed a very small part of the Indian population.

Mukherjee was a mild-mannered gentleman off the sets and a hard taskmaster on them. His producers believed in him because he made his films within the given budget and on time. In an industry riddled with incompetent hacks and egomaniacs, he came across as a thorough professional, competent and reliable. He understood his audience much better than those working with bigger budgets and viewerships to match. He chose his subjects carefully so as not to give offence to the paying patrons.

There were wives neglected by idealist husbands ( Anuradha); daughters neglected by a bereaved father misguided by superstition; loving, mildly deranged fathers ( Ashirwad); friendships ending violently through an unfortunate misreading of loyalty, not betrayal of class privilege ( Namak Haram); comic misunderstandings resolving happily (Golmal, Chupke Chupke); outwardly defiant girls taking on their elders with sly wit when seen as objects by them rather than as individuals ( Jurmana, then in Kissi se Na Kehna); and the unity of disparate family members brought about by a benevolent outsider ( Bawarchi). Whatever the problems faced by the characters in a Hrishikesh Mukherjee film, they are resolved within the paradigm of sentimentality of the Indian (possibly Hindu) middle class. There is a gentle attempt at civility and the possibility of a (limited) democratic resolution. Mukherjee’s films are, to be sure, entertaining but they do not possess the kind of deep insights into the human condition that make for enduring art in popular cinema the world over.

The idea of the home as a centre of well-being and the family as a vital anchor for the individual permeates his films. The core idea is present in his first film, Musafir (1957). He co-wrote it with Ritwik Ghatak, then languishing in Bombay, who subsequently made five profound films.

The idea of a barhi, or home, was present in Nagarik (1952), his first film, the non-release of which found Ghatak in Bombay, working with Bimal Roy, whose actors and technical crew helped make Mukherjee’s Musafir. In Ghatak’s films, the idea of the home is an El Dorado for people uprooted by the upheavals of history, in his case, Partition. Mukherjee saw the home as a place of well-being for the people who live there, though in his early work the home appeared as a caravanserai where people stopped over for a while passing through life (Musafir) and, more dramatically, as a prison ( Anuradha). The pessimism in these two films must have come from his association with Ghatak and other communists. But he went on to shake off his left-wing associates and their ideas. He seems to have resolved to make well-crafted, gentle, sentimental, entertaining films that would not give offence and hence would do steady business at the box office. He knew what he wanted and how to get it.

To expect revolutionary ardour from a reliable middle-class Bengali film craftsman would be foolish. But to compare him with a few contemporaries or seniors from mainstream Hindi cinema would not be out of place. One may well ask if, like Mehboob Khan, he had the courage to examine serious social issues like rural indebtedness (as in Aurat and its remake Mother India) or probe the base impulses that lead an educated, sophisticated male to commit rape (as in Amar). Could he have made eloquent films about outsiders, as Guru Dutt did? Pyaasa, Kagaz ke Phool and even Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam are about individuals who cannot fit into society. Could he have made tender films about ordinary women, like Kedar Sharma ( Bawre Nain; Rangeen Raatein) or Gulzar ( Namkeen; Mausam)? But perhaps these are unfair comparisons.

It is, however, certainly relevant to examine the director’s work in the context of contemporary commercial Hindi cinema, where most directors have neither technique nor the inclination to do anything worthwhile. Most films are about sex and mindless violence. The desire for self-promotion surpasses the urge to make a meaningful, entertaining film. The films of Hrishikesh Mukherjee would win hands down today.