Basu Chatterjee: Chronicler of middle-class life

Published : June 05, 2020 16:23 IST

Basu Chatterjee. Photo: Shanker Chakravarty

The 1970s were all about extremes. We had Ramesh Sippy with the once-in-a-lifetime Sholay. We had Yash Chopra with the action-packed Deewar. Then we had Manmohan Desai’s over-the-top Amar Akbar Anthony. Not to forget his Dharam Veer, Chacha Bhatija and Parvarish. Each one of them clicked big time at the box office. They gave rise to the concept of the first-day first-show cinema.

At the other extreme from this commercial stream was the arthouse cinema, powered by Shyam Benegal. Films like Ankur, Nishant and Manthan became benchmarks of neorealism in cinema. Of course, we had Mani Kaul too, with Uski Roti and Duvidha, and Kumar Shahani with Maya Darpan. The films satiated the need for serious cinema among a section of the audiences that found the loud, escapist fare of mainstream Hindi cinema insufferable. These films told the world at large that there was more to Hindi cinema than the fare dished out by the likes of Manmohan Desai, Prakash Mehra and Yash Chopra.

However, neither arthouse cinema nor the escapist offerings of commercial cinema satisfied those who wanted their cinema to be gentle but entertaining, those who found realism a tad boring, but, equally importantly, regarded commercial potboilers not to their taste. These audiences longed for middle-of-the road cinema set in urban India, the kind dished out with elan by Basu Chatterjee with films like Rajnigandha, Chhoti Si Baat, Chitchor and Manzil.

With the passing away of Basu Chatterjee (1930-2020) not only has Hindi cinema lost a giant who could get the middle classes to flock to cinemas, film lovers too have lost a film-maker who presented the lighter side of life, a man who told us there were few villains in life and every man could be a hero. Each of his films was made for discerning audiences, the kind which regarded Amol Palekar to be their Amitabh Bachchan and saw in Vidya Sinha or Zarina Wahab a fulfillment of their wishes of a beauty next door.

Chatterjee had a knack for music, for the songs one could hum along while driving. He got the best out of Ravindra Jain and Yesudas in Chitchor. Remember “Gori Tera Gaon Bada Pyara”? More than 40 years after it was first filmed on a coy Zarina Wahab and a smiling-from-ear-to-ear Palekar, the song has not faded from the memory of cine-goers. Chitchor had a zestful tribute to life in “Aaj se Pehle, Aaj se Zyada”, where Yesudas proved what Hindi cinema had lost by using him only sparingly. As for Chitchor, well, no other director has captured Zarina Wahab’s dancing eyes better than Chatterjee, and no other director before him made the ordinariness of a man a means to wider acceptance as Chatterjee did with Palekar.

In fact, Palekar owes a big part of his fame to Chatterjee, for, it was with him that he did the frothy Baaton Baaton Mein where even Tina Munim played a fine foil. It had the dew-fresh “Suniye, Kahiye, Kahiye”, where Asha Bhonsle left Kishore Kumar playing catch up as Palekar chased Vidya Sinha. It immediately widened the film’s appeal among young men growing up in the 1970s, travelling by State transport and dreaming of riding a Lambretta. Palekar was their identifiable hero. As for their favourite heroine, well, it was Vidya Sinha, tall and slim, with eyes that could start an armada. Often, though, she settled for a bunch of flowers as in Rajnigandha, yet another of Chatterjee’s films that appealed to middle-class urban audiences in a language they understood and appreciated.

Chatterjee was in a class of his own in Chhoti Si Baat. The film epitomises all he stood for and the challenges he had to take on. It was released in 1975, the year of Sholay and Deewar. When Sholay was released, cinema halls showed no intention of changing their film for months on end. Even Deewar did a silver jubilee run. If you had not seen Sholay, you had not seen Hindi cinema, it was said. It was at such a time that Chhoti Si Baat managed to make not just a splash but a ripple that lasted long enough for others to follow suit. “Janeman, janeman” satiated the need of young romantics just as “Na Jaane Hota Hai Kyun Yun Zindagi ke Saath” told us of the longings of one left behind.

As for Chatterjee, he leaves behind a repertoire the best could be proud of. Not only did he make films his own way, and succeed, he even dished out offerings on television which were a world removed from his cinemaofferings. The crusading Rajni on Doordarshan rewrote the profile of a Hindi serial heroine. Priya Tendulkar as Rajni was a pugnacious, no-nonsense girl who showed grit and chutzpah. Then came a masterclass in comic timing in Kakajee Kahin followed by Byomkesh Bakshi, a benchmark in detective serials. If the small screen opened new horizons for him, he continued to dish out films in the 1980s, too, with offerings like Shaukeen and Chameli ki Shadi. The films were noticed but did not set the box office on fire.

As for the filmmaker, well, he had had brighter moments on the big screen expressing urban angst and cosmopolitan beauty and more memorable ones on the small screen showing myriad hues of life. When he left the world aged 90, he would have had no regrets. His fans can spend a lifetime soaking in the joys he has conferred upon them.

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