Bhimsain

A niche in the middle

Print edition : June 08, 2018
Bhimsain (1936-2018) made only a few Hindi films, but his animation films and series for Doordarshan captured the hearts and minds of his target audience.

BHIMSAIN, film-maker and pioneer of animation films in India, was a master of the unsaid. There was no space for hyperbole or melodrama in his art. If he could narrate a story with just a fallen twig or a few autumn leaves, he would do so happily. He used melancholy rather than the all-pervading gloom to depict the challenges of life. This came through most poignantly in his debut Hindi film, Gharonda (1977), and more searingly in his next film, Dooriyan (1979).

Between Gharonda and Dooriyan, Bhimsain traversed a distance that put him in the thinking man’s category. His films had all the elements that appealed to middle-class audiences: soothing music, restrained acting performances, neat cinematography and, above all, a plausible storyline.

Gharonda enjoyed a long innings at the box office. The film showed the gently unfolding drama of a couple (played by Amol Palekar and Zarina Wahab) wishing to build a house of their own before getting married and the subsequent twist in their lives. The film tackled problems of urbanisation, a big city where a couple struggles to pool in resources to have a house of their own; also a city where building agents are known for duping the gullible. Between the struggles of Amol Palekar and Zarina Wahab, both fine actors, but neither a star, director Bhimsain came up with a film which left youngsters humming its songs, even if their eyes were moist.

Gulzar’s “Do deewane shehar mein”, sung by Bhupinder Singh and Runa Laila, and “Ek akela iss shehar mein”, sung by Bhupinder Singh, are memorable numbers from the film. Jaidev’s music was a delight compared with the more rumbustious “Anhone ko honi kar de, honi ko anhoni” from Amar Akbar Anthony (1977) of the same period.

Gharonda held its own in a year when blockbusters were aplenty and the competition was hot. At the high end of the Hindi cinema of 1977 were films such as Satyajit Ray’s Shatranj ke Khilari and Shyam Benegal’s Bhumika; at the other spectrum were multi-starrer entertainers such as Amar Akbar Anthony, Parvarish and Hum Kisise Kum Nahin. Saddled between the two extremes, Gharonda carved out its own niche.

For an audience that found Benegal’s reality boring and Manmohan Desai’s larger-than-life sagas implausible, Gharonda was just right. Bhimsain, who had already made a mark in animation films by then, announced his arrival on the film scene. What is more, he had proof that his way was the accepted one in the Hindi cinema of the 1970s. Gharonda created quite a space for itself. And the film which arrived as a low-key, quiet Sunday afternoon entertainer went on to redefine melancholy in cinema. It remains Zarina Wahab’s best definition of speaking eyes. As for Amol Palekar, he was to define the middle-class hero in that segment of cinema.

Strength in understatement

Talking of redefinition, Bhimsain soon made bold to tackle marital woes in Dooriyan. The Uttam Kumar-Sharmila Tagore starrer was a topical venture. Back then, India was just beginning to experience working couples, and many a marital relationship faced a crisis as women sought their own space in the professional sphere. But the demands of domestic chores remained the same for women. This resulted, in many cases, in unhappy marriages, neglected children or estranged spouses. Dooriyan, replete with fine performances by Uttam Kumar and Sharmila Tagore, was notable for the subtleties displayed by the director in showing these struggles. There was not a hint of melodrama, just a disturbing unravelling of a lovey-dovey relationship.

In lesser hands, Dooriyan could have become a sermon or a sob story. The film was a realistic take on the problems faced by urban couples. It had personal angst and moments of longing as well as camaraderie. Once again, Bhimsain’s film, pitted against box office hits, stood out for its understatement. That was no small achievement.

In a way, the song “Zindagi mere ghar aana, aana zindagi” from Dooriyan encapsulated Bhimsain’s approach to life. Always on the outer edge as far as cinema was concerned, Bhimsain loved to depict life in all its shades but made sure to cut out the garish ones.

His career as a director of films and television serials reflected his own life: oodles of good charm, some hiccups, lots of artistic engagement, and an occasional foray gone wrong. For instance, when he helmed Tum Laut Aao (1983), based on a short story by the noted Hindi writer Mridula Garg, Bhimsain, probably not quite accustomed to open-ended stories, changed the climax much to her disappointment. That she was disappointed with the adaptation was not an insignificant moment, for she said in an interview to The Hindu: “I am a pessimist. I am not easily disappointed.” But Bhimsain and Mridula Garg moved on.

As did Bhimsain’s innings as a film-maker. Yet the fact that he became a film-maker was a no mean achievement. Born in Multan (Pakistan) in 1936, he made Lucknow his home after Partition. He studied classical music and fine arts. He then picked up the basics of animation before going on to be an independent film-maker with The Climb in 1971. The film won the Silver Hugo Award at the Chicago Film Festival. Ecstatic at the success, Bhimsain named his production house Climb Films.

Joy in animation

For many years, his joy lay in animation, shorts and documentaries. Children of the 1970s and 1980s grew up on a staple diet of his films made for Doordarshan. In 1974, Bhimsain made Ek Anek Aur Ekta, based on the theme of unity in diversity. It told the story of a little boy who wonders, “anek kya hota hai”(What is many). The answer is provided by his elder sister through a series of metaphors of butterflies, squirrels and birds.

So powerful was the animation, and so catchy was Sadhna Sargam’s vocal expression that the film became compulsory Sunday viewing. The film had animation way ahead of the times, and it went on to win the National Award for the Best Educational Film. It won the Best Children’s Film Award in Japan.

Bhimsain notched up 16 National Awards. Lok Gatha (1992), which was India’s first computer-generated animation series, won him three National Awards.

After Munni, Shad Shadi and Der Aaye, Durust Aaye, Bhimsain made Chhoti Badi Baatein(1986), a television series with Rohini Hattangadi, Maya Alagh, Harish Bhimani and Sulabha Deshpande in the main roles. Although the series came hot on the heels of the soap operas of P. Kumar Vasudev’s Hum Log and Ramesh Sippy’s Buniyaad, its story struck a chord with educated, middle-class viewers as it was a hilarious account of superstitious beliefs.

After the successful run of Chhoti Badi Baatein, Bhimsain continued to plough a lonely furrow. He did many things at a time: television movies, series, serials, documentaries and shorts. With each venture, he gave away a bit of himself. Each new venture revealed what he stood for, and each new venture made him move away from cinema. And the man who promised to move bag, baggage and luggage into the world of dream merchants found his calling elsewhere. He did attempt to overcome the lack of numbers in his resume with quality fare though.

However, in an industry where singers have made a name with claims of singing more than two dozen songs in a day, and directors brag about having half a dozen projects on the floor, his lack of significant numbers meant Bhimsain was always taken as a respected, graceful name in the industry, not much more. To get into the heady realms of the popular director, he needed half a dozen box-office hits. Or at least one hit film a year.

To get into the rarefied zone of a Kamal Amrohi or K. Asif, he needed a Pakeezah or a Mughal-e-Azam. He had neither. Gharonda and Dooriyan were engaging, appealing films, the kind you could recommend to parents or a friend next door. They did not threaten to rewrite the annals of cinema.

But what he did not seek to achieve in mainstream cinema, Bhimsain did with animation films. The first success came with Ek Anek Aur Ekta, and he consolidated his position in the genre with Lok Gatha. Bhimsain was sure of his target audience. He was an honest film-maker. With his departure, quality wears thin in the world of cinema, television and animation, and in the world outside.

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