Hrishikesh Mukherjee: Giving Cinema a New Definition
Honesty has been the hallmark of Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s films which neither pretended to be of the arty-intellectual kind nor compromised to the demands of the box-office. A tribute based on a lengthy interview Shoma A Chatterji had with Hrishikesh Mukherjee.
Hrishikesh Mukherjee gave Hindi cinema a new definition when he graduated from editing to direction without having given up his first love – editing. He defined Hindi mainstream cinema in terms of wholesome family entertainment richly interwoven with a strong storyline, good music, solid, full-blooded characterizations and a probing, dissecting look into human inter-relationships.
In essence, honesty has been the hallmark of his films which neither pretended to be of the arty-intellectual kind nor compromised to the demands of the box office. Yet, they grew in popularity in terms of the box office taking veterans by surprise. . Hrishi-da belonged to an era where film people did not wear that imaginary halo of stardom around their heads that alienated them from the mainstream. It was easy to draw him out and make him talk about his long experience in cinema.
“I think I am the only director to have directed the triumvirate of Hindi cinema – Dilip Kumar, Dev Anand and Raj Kapoor,” he says proudly.
Mukherjee began his career in 1945, where he learnt editing on the job at New Theatres in Calcutta. “There was no FTII (Film and Television Institute of India) then and we learnt mostly through observing others at work, or while working ourselves. Those who could have taught us did not. World War II brought a slump in film production and then, those who were willing to teach, could not.”
His first independent work as editor was for the Bengali film Tathapi. “I then came down to Bombay in 1951 to team up with Bimal Roy who too, had just migrated.” He edited films like Maa, Do Bigha Zamin, Parineeta, etc. By then, he was bent upon getting into direction seriously and his first effort at producing and directing his own film was Musafir, composed of three short stories conceived by Mukherjee himself while Ritwik Ghatak collaborated on the script.
Sa re ga ma (Chupke Chupke, 1975)
He not only gave break to absolutely new faces, but he could also extract completely out-of-the-box performances from actors who already were slotted into their own genre of films. Dharmendra for instance, gave his best performance as a poet and a lover in Anupama opposite Sharmila Tagore. Sharmila too, had the rare opportunity of doing a very low-key character who hardly speaks.
In Chupke Chupke, Amitabh Bachchan came out of his slot and added spice with his comic take in an interesting role pretending to be a professor of Botany. Bachchan gave mind-blowing performances in Alaap and Namak Haraam. Alaap had flopped but it was one of Mukherjee’s best-made films exploring the multiple layers that make a father-son relationship.
Khubsoorat gave a completely different perspective to the talents that lay hidden in Rekha while veteran Ashok Kumar marked one of his milestone performances in Aashirwad. Mili presented Bachchan as a character that evolves from a pessimistic, unfriendly man who hates kids and avoids socializing to an empathetic and enlightened lover while Jaya complimented him only as she could.
Arjun Pandit presented Sanjeev Kumar in a very unusual role on the story based on a novel by the noted Bengali littérateur Banaphool. Rajesh Khanna could hardly repeat his performance in Anand where, dying of cancer, he spreads hope and cheer among people who have a long life ahead of them. Johny Walker perhaps got his greatest break in a small cameo in the film. Rajesh Khanna did a completely against-the-grain character in Bawarchi adapted from Tapan Sinha’s Golpo Holeo Shatti.
Zindagi kaisi hai paheli hai (Anand, 1971)
He lamented the changes that made it impossible for a filmmaker like him to make films anymore. “My first film Musafir, shot in Black-and-White, (1957), was released all over India for a meager sum of rupees six lakhs. Today, the ambience has changed. Like it or not, we must make way for the new generation of cinema culture that is being redefined by the new entertainment symbols like MTV, rap, uncensored video on which a child can watch a blue film for ten rupees. I am no part of this scene. Besides, I do not have the patience to work with the big team that one needs to make a film. I get easily annoyed and irritated.”
He was angry with the powers-that-be for its failure to tackle the video menace through properly framed and implemented censorship. “The government is either incompetent, or is part of the whole corrupt drama. Imagine children watching all kinds of programmes and films they ought not to watch. Is the administration deaf and blind? It may be that but it is definitely not mute,” he accused.
Some critics accused Mukherjee of having pandered to this same administration with a serial like Hum Hindustani for Doordarshan. He shrugged this away with, “I don’t find what’s wrong with making a serial on a governmental scheme I personally agree with. Hum Hindustani was inspired by the Family Planning programme. If I agree with a government programme, this does not mean I am pandering to the government, does it? After being in this line for five decades, do you believe that I need to pander to them?”
“Television has a different format, calls for a different approach towards creativity. It lends itself ideally to the short story format. Of the serials I have made, my favourite is Dhoop Chhaon, a six-episode serial of six short stories penned by noted authors from across the world. Doordarshan requested me to give them some more episodes. But I am not sure whether I will go ahead and make it,” he said.
Mukherjee had one serial going on the national hookup on a primetime slot in 1995. Ujale Ki Or had an impressive line of artists, from the small and big screen. Content-wise, Ujale Ki Or was a hotchpotch of several governmental schemes of rural upliftment. In true Mukherjee tradition, it was a neat drama with power-packed performances. For some mysterious reason known to the powers-that-be at Mandi House, it was called off. It touched upon preservation of the environment, respect for the revival of indigenous medicine, widow remarriage, initiation of employment generating schemes for rural youth and so on. Somehow, the Mukherjee magic was missing.
Like most talented filmmakers, Mukherjee had a wonderful ear and feel for music and chose his music directors and lyricists with great care. Almost all music directors of his time scored the music for his films. Alaap had music by Jaidev while Rahi Masoom Raza wrote the lyrics and the dialogue. Bawarchi’s music was scored by Madan Mohan while Chupke Chupke and Mili’s music was by S.D. Burman.
Bemisaal which did not do well but had melodious songs had the score done by R.D. Burman. Naram Garam did not do well commercially but it was a hilarious film with a mind-blowing music track by R.D. Lakshmikant-Pyarelal composed for Satyakam while Hemant Kumar wrote the music for Majhli Didi and Anupama. Anupama was was edited by Das Dhaimade instead of Mukherjee himself who is one of the best editors Indian cinema has ever produced. The best of all these is Pandit Ravi Shankar who wrote the music tracks for Anupama with lyrics penned by Shailendra. This film was also edited by Das Dhaimade.
Kuch dil ne kaha (Anupama, 1966)
His first film Musafir, has Salil Chowdhury’s name as music director while Ritwik Ghatak is credited with the three stories in the film. Chowdhury is also responsible for several other films of Mukherjee such as Chhaya and Memdidi. Anari, Aashiq and Asli Naqli had music by Shankar Jaikishen. Incidentally, Motilal, one of the most outstanding ‘gentleman’ actors of Indian cinema, portrayed a memorable cameo in Asli Naqli. Vasant Desai scored the music for Aashirwad which has the unforgettable railgadi song – actually a poem – recited to rhythmic beats by Ashok Kumar to kids in a park.
He appreciated the rapid strides in technology but did not care for the way technology was being used by filmmakers and technicians. “Technique is the means to an end, not an end in itself. Technology therefore, has no meaning if you are not sure what you have set out to do. For people of my generation, what we wished to achieve always took priority over how we wished to achieve it. Technology should develop along with the urge of what is it that we want to do and how can we use technology to do it. Not the other way round.”
Among the younger generation of filmmakers, Hrishikesh Mukherjee admired the work of Gautam Ghosh. In television when satellite channels did not rule your daily time-table, he liked Nalini Singh’s Hello Zindagi. He admired Mani Ratnam and Adoor Gopalakrishnan.
Rail gaadi and Naani ki naav chali(Aashirwad, 1968)
About the state of television in the country at the time, he said, “today’s television programmes are 90 per cent entertainment. It is a pot pourri of everything. There are current affairs, there is MTV, and there are chat shows, game shows, serials, and soaps. Television has offered me the opportunity of working with some of the best talents on the small screen from Neena Gupta to Alok Nath, from Pankaj Kapoor to Renuka Israni, from Rajendra Gupta to Harish Patel, actors from the National School of Drama I might never have got to work with had I not got into television. I might want to make a serial tomorrow. I might not want to, I do not know. I am too tired. There is talk about a feature film too. And at this point, all I can say is – let’s wait and watch.”
He was once chairman of the Central Board of Film Certification. Did he agree with the concept of censorship for Doordarshan? “In a welfare state, some kind of control is definitely called for. But it depends on who exercises that control. If it is exercised by a bunch of nitwits, then it means nothing. What credentials do these so-called controllers have? So, just as food is adulterated despite laws against it, drugs are adulterated despite drug control, it is natural that entertainment also is adulterated. This is sad because of the impact it has on children.” He won the Dadasaheb Phalke Award in 1999 and the Padma Vibhushan in 2001.
He agreed that television and cinema can bring about social change, “its capacity to arouse and perhaps generate social consciousness has definitely been overestimated.” The last cryptic remark is probably inspired from the possibility of some significant films of his that turned out to be flops. An example is Satyakam. He also expressed his doubt about Anand and Khubsoorat flopping as remakes or if the originals were to be re-released in the theatres next to a Khalnayak or a Karan-Arjun.
Author’s Note: This is based on a lengthy interview the author had with the filmmaker when he was completely bedridden, before he passed away.
More to read
Hrishikesh Mukherjee: In a Genre of His Own
Main Zindagi Ka Saath Nibhata Chala Gaya – Evergreen Dev Anand
Asit Sen: Sensitive, Women-Centric Films in a Class of their Own
Gulzar: Creating a New Genre of Lyrical Romance
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