He was Everyman's film-maker

Print edition : September 22, 2006

HRISHIKESH MUKHERJEE (1922-2006). - PHOTOGRAPHS: THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

Hrishikesh Mukherjee, who passed away on August 27, occupies a distinguished place in the arc of realism that started with Satyajit Ray.

THE passing of Hrishikesh Mukherjee, in the afternoon of August 27, evoked generous and nostalgic comments from many quarters. The news footage on TV was generally well-researched and sympathetic and touching scenes were witnessed when friends and followers met at the funeral. A considerable fraction of the articulate citizenry mourned the tragic loss, though the late maestro had never been much of a public figure or a path-breaking innovator. A simple, engaging, friendly man, Rishida (as he was affectionately known) would have been the first to admit that he was content with providing the common viewer with pleasurable stories and images and songs and that he dealt largely with things the middle class felt comfortable with.

More often than not, his characters would be the man or woman next door, and though the events depicted would often turn out to be extraordinary, you could see that these were grounded in the recognisable mentalities and values of that class of people. Mukherjee would not wish to offend your sensibilities or your sense of verisimilitude. He was your friendly neighbourhood film-director, poking gentle fun at you, noticing your peccadilloes, confirming your sense of right and wrong, sunnily constructing your ordinary utopias, toning down the loudness of your righteous indignations, beguiling you with gags. In Anari (1959), Anupama (1966), Guddi (1971), Chupke Chupke (1975), Gol Maal (1979) and a good many others, the master narrator in the film does not set himself very much above the common run of characters; he confirms your right to your joys and sorrows, but insists that you take a second look at the conditions which produce these things. In other words, this film-maker gently puts in place a distancing apparatus in his narrative while confirming the received standard of ordinary morality. All of us wish to be thought of as good and kind and generous, but all of us fail in one way or the other. While there is mourning when the ordinary human being faces the otherness of the universe, such as wasting diseases and calamities, there is a great deal to be said for the curative gift of laughter when we discover our own foibles.

Hrishikesh Mukherjee constantly confronts you with yourself. But this critical look at yourself is neither scathing nor cynical. It is full of fellow feeling and good humour. That is one reason why his passing evoked so much regret and nostalgia. They do not make films like his any more. People agree that that era has passed, and this can be thought and said without the usual choking sensation of mouthing platitudes. Yes, his oeuvre encompassed an era, but more meaningfully, he took the lead in creating that era.

AMITABH BACHCHAN AND Rajesh Khanna in Anand.-

The first film of his that I remember seeing was Anari. To a callow youth just out of school the fairytale mix of romance and crime and lovely songs was absolutely enchanting. This was his second film; the first one Musafir (1957), with Suchitra Sen, Dilip Kumar and Kishore Kumar in it, did not make any impact. Anari clicked not because of the formula, but in spite of it. Looking back, I can barely remember the ramifications of the crime drama which the usual Mumbai mix had thrust head and shoulders into the gentle narrative of first love. One of course fell in love with the springtime beauty of Nutan, and Raj Kapoor did an acceptable version of his bucolic-lost-in-the-big-city act, and the songs were lovely; one did not particularly notice the camera-work or the editing. This has often been called the hallmark of a kind of realism, inspired no doubt by the smooth narrative flow of Hollywood, based on a particular bag of tricks which includes shot-reverse-shot, cross-cutting, eyeline-matching, the 180-degree compass of the camera, the concertina sequence of longshot-midshot-closeup, and so on. Mukherjee was a trained professional editor and was assistant to the redoubtable Bimal Roy before he struck out on his own. So he had gone more than the primary rounds before deciding on his own particular mode of film-making. And it is clear from the beginning that he was not going to take the Hollywood option, a decision which seems very much in line with the contemporary practice in Indian films.

Loose plots (spanning generations), disjointed episodes (parallel and subsidiary plots), melodramatic ranting and moralising (by separate characters as well as split subjects), song-and-dance items (thrust any old way into the main plot), preternatural insertions (gods and goddesses, ghosts, snakes), coincidental events (chance meetings, closures), sketchy characterisation (mood swings, episodic motivations), tawdry symbolism (Western dress as emblem of modernity) and so on are some of the narrative devices deployed in extenso in most of the pot-boilers churned out by Indian studios when Mukherjee was learning his craft. Indian cinema had evaded the Hollywood way from the beginning because the producers had instinctively realised that the big buck was waiting at the end where modern technology met traditional prescriptions, resulting in a countrified melange of technical and narrative devices.

Hrishikesh Mukherjee has never been in sympathy with the hurried smoothness of Hollywood. He liked the more expansive, leisured, amiable amble through events and episodes; he is very Indian, even oriental, in this respect. But he had learnt to be chary of melodrama and mix. His plot lines are clean, his characters coherent though perhaps neither very deep nor complex, his songs mood-contextual, his dialogue respectful of the cadences of common speech, his narrative logic resolutely tied to common sense. In a way Hrishikesh Mukherjee describes an interesting kind of intermediate regime in modernity. Anari unerringly fits the bill.

I call his efforts intermediate rather than middle cinema because what has been labelled `middle cinema' (the start conveniently traced to 1973 with Shyam Benegal's Ankur) has generally conformed to the `international' style with gestures to Hollywood. Mukherjee's art is much more indigenous and evolutionary. From what I can recall of the first few films (Anari, Anuradha, Mem Didi, Asli Naqli), there is no effort to go over to the international style, of which several versions were available in the 1960s; the main thrust seems to be on cleaning up the act of indigenous film-making, respectfully acknowledging the demands of the ordinary viewer, who is not yet ready to forego his accustomed visual pleasure. In Asli Naqli (1962) one remembers with affection the ease with which the feckless Dev Anand leaves home and creature comforts in order to defy family dictates on marriage. It is coincidental that he falls in with the generous Anwar Hussain (a lovely actor just right for the role of the rough gruff worker with a heart of gold), but the interesting thing is the director's take on slumming. Dev Anand's sojourn in the chawl is made out to look totally unfussy; very little is made of the rich heir's personal sacrifice, for in the scheme of things prevailing in India after Independence, the state of being rich is never very far from the state of being poor. The same family will have an upwardly mobile fraction while the other half goes under, and the mentalities and values will not differ much between the two. There is a hilarious episode of Anwar being massaged by a body-trampling sister (delightfully played by Sandhya Roy) after a hard day's job-hunting, paralleled by Dev Anand, after a similarly frustrating day, blissfully receiving the same treatment and snoring comfortably on the floor-mat. Both are long shots in deep focus, receiving a generous allowance of screening time, and though the studio set is meticulously conventional, the degree of naturalism is astonishing for Hindi films in general.

NEENA KUMARI AND Guru Dutt in Sanjh Aur Savera.-

One has only to contrast this episode with Raj Kapoor's own effort in Shri 420 (1955) to understand how far Hrishikesh Mukherjee had travelled in the seven intervening years. The screen commonplace, Love Conquers All, is repeated in most of his films, but the effort is towards a re-working of the cliche, so that the formulaic theme can be inserted in a fresh, recognisable, ordinary setting.

This emphasis on ordinary middle-class settings is something that has been in the air for quite some time, not so markedly in Hindi films, perhaps, but Mukherjee's original background, Bengali culture, has been exploring this for a considerable time. Fiction, poetry, theatre and cinema had grappled with the crisis of Bengali middle-class life from the beginning of the modern era, but the long period of economic and social crisis from the 1920s, exacerbated by war, famine and Partition, had seen the re-working of themes and conventions of cultural forms - and some revolutionary artistic breakthroughs - on a major scale.

Hrishikesh Mukherjee was a friend of Mrinal Sen and Ritwik Ghatak in their struggling apprenticeship years, and was pretty close to the Indian People's Theatre Association while working as an assistant editor in Kolkata. One must remember that Satyajit Ray comes from the same background and grapples with the same crisis, both social and cultural. One must be careful to separate the Mukherjee trajectory from the big three's; but his common cultural and linguistic background remained an essential part of his film-making in Mumbai. It is on record that Pather Panchali (1955) excited Mukherjee no less than other serious film-makers. The artistic and technical conditions for the production of Pather Panchali, stark at one end and startling on the other, have been documented with great good humour by Ray himself. The camera of Subrata Mitra and the sets of Bansi Chandragupta, mavericks of enormous innovative talent, came up with technical solutions to the rigorous demands of Ray's imagination. He was charting an artistic path untrodden by any Indian film-maker so far. Lighting up an old broken-down house, for instance, or getting complete novices to face the camera, needed formidable ingenuity and aplomb.

Ray's job was to think up ways of forging a new consensus on the protocols of realism with his projected audience. He had no hero or heroine or villain or fighting or melodrama or clowning or sexy dances or lilting songs or lavish sets on offer. Therefore he had to persuade the viewer to adjust her sights and her narrative desire to the new representational regime. This was done by offering a richness of detail - both natural and social - which the film-goer had seldom seen represented. Ray was teaching us how to discover our own world which we had lost to the conventions of studio melodrama. A kind of defamiliarisation was taking place in the process of watching the film-text in 1955: the available conventions of film-making had been abandoned and something rich and strange had taken their place. This meant that the older ways of seeing had to be readjusted. Ray, in fact, prepared the Bengali audience - and the discerning Indian viewers in general - to be ready for the new Indian cinema. The history of subsequent decades bears this out. And Hrishikesh Mukherjee occupies a distinguished place in this arc of realism as it travels to the formula-torn cliche-tormented world of Bombay films.

JAYA BHADURI AND Amitabh Bachchan in Abhimaan.-

One of the most seminal effects of Mukherjee's intermediate regime of representation has been on the conventions of acting. Hindi cinema, alas, and Bengali, Tamil and Telugu, had known no underacting. Everything used to be loud and obvious, and nuanced performances were not much in demand. Mukherjee changed all that. He not only got the best of the theatre artistes - Utpal Dutt, A.K. Hangal, Dina Pathak - but induced screen stars to reinvent themselves for his films. Ashok Kumar, Kishor Kumar, Raj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar, Dev Anand and others gave delightful performances, and the fresh lot of the 1970s - Rajesh Khanna, Amitabh Bacchan, Dharmendra, Jaya Bhaduri, Rekha, Amol Palekar - learnt as much from his tutelage as they contributed to the master's work. The effort was towards a coherence of tone and a re-assemblage of disparate narrative elements. Commercial Indian cinema - notably Hindi, Tamil and Telugu - had banked on the basket-of-entertainment conventions derived from the folk culture of the day, and each film therefore aspired to be a romance, melodrama, crime story, comedy, morality play, musical and so on, all at the same time. The result has often been a mindless melange of discordant segments, somehow strung together in a semblance of a narrative. The commercial motive is obvious. The movie business could make a profit only by luring the middle classes and the labouring poor together to a mode of entertainment which would offer traditional pleasures in a new and fascinating medium.

Hrishikesh Mukherjee succeeded in inviting a segment of this combined audience, possibly the urban middle class, to a different kind of cinema which would respect the emerging desire for verisimilitude and coherence. When you see Anand (1970) or Gol Maal (1979) you realise that rather exceptional demands, already existing in your novel-reading and theatre-going habits, can be met in the cinema as well.

Cinema, like any other cultural form which moves into the marketplace, survives by creating its own audience. Hrishikesh Mukherjee wanted to remain within the bounds of commercial operations. He was not tuned to the avant-gardist projects of Ray-Sen-Ghatak, taken up later by Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Aravindan and Saeed Mirza among others; but his intermediate offerings have a very significant space in Indian cinema at large. You have only to think of his contemporaries on this trajectory, Tapan Sinha, Rajen Tarafdar, Basu Bhattacharya, Basu Chatterjee, Tarun Majumdar and a handful of others to realise how much this meant for Indian cinema at a crucial juncture in its history. Times have changed and a new configuration of social and cultural desires has been active in today's globalised world. Hrishikesh Mukherjee's death has ended an era, but much to the man is due. He will be missed.

Mihir Bhattacharya taught English Literature in Jadavpur University till 1992, moving thereafter to the Department of Film Studies, of which he was the founder-professor. He was also the founder-director of the School of Media Communication and Culture and the founder-editor of the Journal of the Moving Image.

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