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Hrishikesh Mukherjee: Master of the Middle Path

January 7, 2023 | By

A Silhouette Special centenary tribute to master filmmaker Hrishikesh Mukherjee. Ratnottama Sengupta pens a heartfelt piece on her ‘Hrishikaku’ with an exclusive pen and ink sketch by renowned artist Subrata Gangopadhyay.

Hrishikesh Mukherjee sketch by Subrata Gangopadhyay

An exclusive pen and ink sketch of Hrishikesh Mukherjee by renowned artist Subrata Gangopadhyay

“This is one of the biggest ironies of life you know! That, as we grow in years, we grow more experienced, and richer in thought. But, the more we have to give to the world, the less equal, less capable our body gets…”

Hrishikesh Mukherjee was speaking to me, then a feature writer from The Telegraph. He, with his gout and his passion for chess, had then marched into the seventh decade of his bountiful life and was gearing up to direct Jhoothi (1985), featuring the reigning queen of her times – Rekha. And I was marvelling at his definition of capability. For, with 30 years of directing behind him then, he had already given us 38 films, among them classics like Anuradha, Anupama, Ashirwad, Abhimaan.

Jaya Bhaduri and Hrishikesh Mukherjee

Jaya Bhaduri and Hrishikesh Mukherjee (Pic courtesy: Twitter)

Hrishida, as he was endearingly addressed by everyone in the industry, was a marvel indeed. Born in Calcutta on September 30 of 1922, he directed 42 features, edited films by other directors, scripted some and assisted in the making of some others — along with six television serials! This at a time when, on an average, a film would be two to three years in the making. So, what was the secret of his prolificity? Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that he had started life as an editor.

A well-read chemistry graduate of Calcutta University, he had joined B N Sircar’s New Theatres in 1945, first to supervise the paints used on the sets, as it would be seen through the camera — in short, as a cameraman, much like his guru Bimal Roy and the mentor’s guru Nitin Bose. Yet to graduate from University of Calcutta, he was an enthusiastic goalkeeper when people within NT Studios got busy with the football. There he also learnt to wield the scissor under Subodh Mitra, the NT editor who was known in the trade as ‘Kochi Da’. While spooling and unspooling reels as moviolas were unknown then, his keen eye and observant nature was noticed by Bimal Roy who had opened a new chapter in Indian cinema with Udayer Pathey (1944). He asked Hrishi to seek Mr Sircar’s permission to independently edit Tathapi (1947), being made outside NT under his supervision. Soon after, with Pahela Aadmi (1949) he also started assisting Bimal Roy in direction.

Pahela Admi (1949)

Hrishikesh Mukherjee was Assistant-Editing in Pahela Admi (1949)

This manifold foundation in the celluloid art served Hrishida all through life — while assisting in the making of Maa (1952); in scripting Do Bigha Zamin (1953); in envisaging his own films beginning with Musafir (1957); while interviewing students as a Board Member of the Film and Television Institute of India; chairing meetings at the Central Board of Film Certification (1981-82); of the National Film Development Corporation, or while identifying winners for the National Film Awards in 1982… In short, in every role he played, for the multifarious hats he donned, his incisive mind could look through his thick lenses and crisply see the scene with no need for any viewfinder.

“What books have you read? Which one is your favourite? Would you want to turn it into a film? How will you translate that into visuals?” Hundreds of entrants to cinema had to answer this to Hrishi Kaku — as he was to me, daughter of his screenwriter colleague Nabendu Ghosh; or to Subhankar Ghosh, who learnt from him at FTII; or to Jaya Bhaduri, whom he turned into the Guddi (1971) of the Indian screen.

Hrishikesh Mukherjee at work

Hrishikesh Mukherjee at work

An editor non pareil, he knew where precisely to say “Cut!” That saved time, raw stock, and money; translating into ‘viability’ the costly and uncertain profession of filmmaking, and bringing in producers who wanted the same Hrishida to direct their next production — be it a musical, a laugh riot, or a tearjerker. L B Thakur, L B Lachman, N C Sippy,  Romu Sippy — they would not think of anyone else behind the camera.

And why just them? P Lankesh, Kannada writer-director of the National Award-winning Anuroopa (1978), trusted his scissors. Many in Bombay too turned to him whenever they floundered by over exposing lakhs of footage. And Hrishida would help them with his understanding of multiple cinematic idioms. Amar Kumar’s Garam Coat (1955), based on Rajinder Singh Bedi’s casting of The Overcoat against the Partition of India; Nitin Bose’s Ganga Jumna (1961), setting two orphaned brothers on opposing sides of law; Ramu Kariat’s Chemmeen (1965), transcreating Thakazi’s Malayalam classic interpreting the loves of fish traders; Rajinder Singh Bedi’s Dastak (1970), investigating trafficking of humans, drugs and endangered species; Manmohan Desai’s Coolie (1983), the metaphoric lost-and-found formula that has become a myth after Amitabh Bachchan’s near fatal injury on its sets: all these watershed films benefited from the brevity of Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s film language.

Hrishikesh Mukherjee and Raj Kapoor

Hrishikesh Mukherjee and Raj Kapoor

Another measure of his popularity is the range of actors and artistes he chiselled. This spans generations of triumvirate, from Raj-Dilip-Dev to Balraj-Biswajit-Haribhai, and Dharm-Kaka-Lambuji to Amol-Farooque-Anil. Thespians, to put it differently, who were stars before Hrishikesh Mukherjee cast them, and stars who scaled the heights of fame under his baton. Also note the teaming: Dilip Kumar and Suchitra Sen (Musafir/ 1957); Raj Kapoor and Nutan (Anari/ 1959); Balraj Sahni and Leela Desai (Anuradha/ 1960); Dev Anand and Sadhana (Asli Naqli/ 1962); Guru Dutt and Meena Kumari (Saanjh Aur Savera/ 1964); Sunil Dutt and Asha Parekh (Chhaya/ 1960), Biswajit and Mala Sinha (Pyaar Ka Sapna/ 1969), Dharmendra and Sharmila Tagore (Anupama/ 1966; Satyakam/ 1969; Chupke Chupke/ 1975); Rajesh Khanna, Amitabh Bachchan, Amol Palekar, Farooq Shaikh, Anil Kapoor, Rekha Rakhee Deepti Naval…  I am running out of breath.

***

Asrani and Dharmendra in Chupke Chupke

Asrani and Dharmendra in Chupke Chupke

What was special about the director — perhaps the only one — who had directed all the greats including Dilip-Raj-Dev-Dadamoni? His equation with each of them. To give a single example: Hrishikaku repeatedly cast Dharam in Anupama, perhaps the best character of his career; then in the intensely idealistic ‘tear-jerker’ Satyakam; as the idolised star in Guddi when everyone was going ga-ga over Kaka; again, in his wildly funny comic role as the ‘driver’ in Chupke Chupke; as too his least ‘performing’ character — that of Meena Kumari’s husband in Majhli Didi.  “I did the maximum number of films with Hrishida,” Dharamji once told me when the director passed away. “And when I learnt that I wasn’t cast in Anand, I had pestered him incessantly until he specified why he wanted Rajesh Khanna in that role.”

If Hrishida knew Dharam’s strength, he also knew how to handle the whimsies of the actor who never let anyone shoot his left profile. “But Hrishida would shoot only from my left!” One day his gout forced the director to retire from the sets while the cinematographer was setting up the lights. “Overjoyed, I asked Jaywant Pathare to set the camera on my right. But just as we were to start Hrishida walked in saying, ‘I knew you would do this!’” Dharamji had also recalled that “the fastest director” always okayed the first shot, “but if I insisted on a retake, he would tell Pathare, ‘Take 2, Take 7, Take 10 shots but use the first one.’” And yet, if he came to know that his actor was happiest about Take 4, he would quietly tell the cinematographer to retain that!

Hrishikesh Mukherjee giving the muhurat clap for Nabendu Ghosh’s directorial venture Dagdar Baboo starring Dharmendra and Jaya Bhaduri. The film unfortunately stayed incomplete.

The fine art of chiselling the artiste within an actor was not reserved for stars alone: Hrishida ‘rechristened’ even character artistes by breaking typecast and creating new stereotypes. His magic baton transformed alike vamps and villains, Lalita Pawar, Shashikala, Bindu, and Johny Walker, Deven Verma, Asrani. Sumita Sanyal of the Bengali screen, whom Satyajit Ray cast in Nayak as an aspiring actress, lives on in our memory for Anand and Ashirwad. And he breathed new life into Utpal Dutt and Ashok Kumar!

***

Yes, Hrishida did not keep Bengal at bay. He gave Utpal Dutt, his theatre stalwart buddy from IPTA days, a new identity as a cameo artiste (Golmaal/ 1979). With Ashirwad (1968) he crafted a new peak for Ashok Kumar, the giant who helmed Bombay Talkies when Hrishikesh had landed in Mumbai as a member of Bimal Roy’s team. When his mentor passed away, he paid his homage through Anupama (1966): apart from the dedication, he revisited the finale of Udayer Pathey when the lead actress climbs down the stairs and the father stops those trying to stop her by saying, “Let her go forward!”

Chaitali

Dharmendra, Saira Banu and Hrishikesh Mukherjee at the shooting of Chaitali

And, after his master passed away (8 January 1966), Hrishikesh also directed Chaitali, the last film made under the banner of Bimal Roy Productions. It was his ‘Guru Dakshina,’ I remember him saying when I too had donned a yellow-and-purple cotton sari to blend in with junior artistes for a scene filmed at Ismail Yusuf College in Jogeshwari. One doesn’t have to go far to seek the reason.

At a time when there was no Film Institute nor any Dept of Film Studies in any University, Bimal Roy had given chance to so many new artists, new writers and new technicians, “from his very first film, Udayer Pathey,” Hrishikesh pointed out in several interviews. To the students he taught Editing as guest lecturer at FTII, he would share how he learnt from his mentor: “I asked Bimalda, ‘How did you think of that particular sound effect in Do Bigha Zamin?’ He told me, ‘Be intense when you visualise the scene Hrishi, and you can hear the sound (of galloping hoofs and whipping of a horse when Shambhu is being exhorted to run faster with his rickshaw). That is how you can teach yourself to make films.’”

Nargis, Bimal Roy, Nirupa Roy, Salil Chowdhury, Hrishikesh Mukherjee and Radhu Karmakar

The Indian Delegation in Moscow, 1959 (Third from L to R) Nargis, Bimal Roy, Nirupa Roy, Salil Chowdhury, Hrishikesh Mukherjee and Radhu Karmakar (in front)

To Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Bimal Roy was more than a mentor, he was a father figure. He intimately knew the icon who was apparently so quiet and withdrawn that many thought he was remote and proud. “He was the most kind hearted man, with no shred of artificiality,” he once said in an interview to film critic-writer-director Khalid Mohamed. Hrishida substantiated this by saying, “All my life I have worn his discarded dresses. Neither had he any hesitation in giving them to me. He would say, ‘I’ve put on weight, and this coat doesn’t fit me Hrishi, see if it fits you.’”

Not without reason was Hrishikesh described as the ‘Chela No. 1’ of Bimalda by Nabendu Ghosh. The screenwriter was among the four unit members who travelled with Bimalda on that historical train journey in 1951 from Kolkata to Mumbai with Hrishikesh, Asit Sen and Paul Mahendra. In a Saridon Ke Saathi programme hosted by Amin Sayani on AIR he gave a most absorbing word picture of their friendship: “We stayed together in the same room at Van Vihar. We would spread out our beds on the floor — in fact, the beds were laid out 24×7, and we would sweep only the floor between the beds.

“The whole day we would chat and talk and discuss, and when everyone went off to sleep for the night, I would settle down to write. But that’s when Asit would start snoring, forcing Hrishi to stay awake too. One day he could no longer bear it. He jumped out of his bed, went near Asit, lowered his voice and repeated in his ears: Mosh pora kha, mosh pora kha, mosh pora kha…’ Meaning? Chew on a roasted buffalo! ‘It’s a mantra to stymie the snoring of all sleeping giants,’ he had explained.

“As if by some magic, Asit stopped snoring. Hrishi triumphantly looked at me and smiled as if to say, ‘See the wonder I’ve worked!’ Just then Asit resumed his snoring — at a louder pitch. In fact, so loudly he snored that it woke him up. Startled, he sat up, “Who’s that? Who’s snoring?” Crestfallen Hrishi could only say, “Motumal, you are awakened by your own snoring?!” 😊 This incident is also mentioned in the pages of Eka Naukar Jatri/ Journey of a Lonesome Boat, the autobiography of Nabendu Ghosh.

Jaya Bhaduri and Amitabh Bachchan in Abhimaan

Jaya Bhaduri and Amitabh Bachchan in Abhimaan

The camaraderie between the two continued well beyond those early days in Mumbai. Hrishikesh Mukherjee and Nabendu Ghosh’s names figured, respectively as editor and screenplay writer, in Roy classics Maa, Parineeta, Biraj Bahu, Devdas. As director and writer, in Majhli Didi and Abhiman. Jaya Bachchan said in an interview to the Bengali daily Ei Samay, “Hrishikaku entirely followed Nabendu Kaku’s script, and what a memorable film it turned out to be!”

Their friendship led them to share inspirations too. Hrishi directed Pyar ka Sapna and Nabendu wrote Nahe Phool-Haar – both with roots in Tagore’s narrative poem, Sadharan Meye. The screenwriter narrated the idea of Satyakam, which became the director’s centenary homage to Mahatma Gandhi’s experiments with truth. Which is why Hrishi Kaku prized like an award ‘Nabenduda’s response after he saw Satyakam. “Your Baba called me up,

Dharmendra and Sanjeev Kumar in Satyakam

Dharmendra and Sanjeev Kumar debate the corrosive effects of corruption in Satyakam (Pic: YouTube)

only to say, ‘Hrishi we will chat later, right now I have a lump in my throat!”

***

Hrishida’s homage to his roots in Bengali cinema expressed itself most notably by way of remakes. His Bawarchi retold the story of Galpo Holeo Sattyi (1966) directed by his NT colleague Tapan Sinha. Biwi Aur Makan (1966) recounted the outrageously funny tales of the inmates of Joy Maa Kali Boarding (1955). The ribtickling Chhadmabeshi (1971) became Chupke Chupke (1975), one of the unbeatable bests of comedy on Indian screen. Hrishida’s kinship-friendship-relationship oriented, progressive value based social narratives also stem from his attachment to literature. This accounted for his long-term bonding with literary figures like Nabendu Ghosh, Rajinder Singh Bedi, Gulzar. Further, although he came from the Science stream he, much like his mentor Bimal Roy, sourced his storylines directly from, or derived them from literary works including poems.

Original poster of Bemisaal featuring the love triangle – Amitabh Bachchan, Raakhee and Vinod Mehra
Pic courtesy: SMM Ausaja

Witness Majhli Didi/ 1967: Sarat Chandra Chatterjee’s immortal tale of a mother’s protective love for an orphaned child, while Ashirwad has strong shades of Kashinath wherein a zamindar strikes a friendship with an underdog and takes up cudgels for him against his own wife. Gaban/ 1966 followed Munshi Premchand’s novel about the falling moral values in the middle class that sought to maintain false image in colonial period. Satyakam, as mentioned before, came from Narayan Sanyal’s writing. Arjun Pandit/1976 got Bonophul the year’s Filmfare award for Best Story. Bemisal/ 1982 recast Ashutosh Mukherjee’s Aami Se O Sakha/ 1975 about friendship, love and loyalty. Chaitali / 1975, once again the story of an idealist professor who supports a thief to protect her from becoming a prostitute, was written by Samaresh Bose.

Pyar Ka Sapna/ 1968, as I have mentioned, has its antecedents in Tagore’s Sadharan Meye while Gol Maal/ 1979 germinated from the clinching lines of Sukumar Ray’s Gof Churi which reads: Gofer aami, gofer tumi, Gof diye jaay chena… Men are identified by the whiskers they keep. The seeds of Namak Haram/1973 lay in the Hollywood production, Becket/1964, based on a Jean Anouilh play — but who would have imagined that the dilemma of a pretender to the robes of a Catholic Archbishop in England of Henry II could be reimagined to trace the rise of trade unionism in Mumbai’s then-flourishing textile mills?

Zindagi kaisi hai paheli (Anand, 1971) Salil Chowdhury / Yogesh / Manna Dey

That was the other side of the Phalke award winner who was also decorated as Padma Vibhushan: even at his idealistic best he seldom moved away from reality. That is why he could fashion a lasting tale like Abhimaan/1973. It probably came out of the divergence of the classical life of Ravi Shankar and Annapurna Devi. Some have traced the roots of this musical to the clash of egos between singer-actors Kishore Kumar and his first wife, Ruma Guha Thakurata. But remember, Hrishida had seen the sitarist and his first wife — daughter of his guru, Baba Alauddin Khan of Maihar – at close quarters, especially when the raga maestro composed for his musical Anuradha (1960). That film which featured the beauty queen Leela Desai as a vocalist (which she actually was) not only bagged the National Award for the Best Film, it was also nominated for the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival of 1961.

Rajesh Khanna and Hrishikesh Mukherjee

Rajesh Khanna and Hrishikesh Mukherjee (Pic courtesy: SMM Ausaja)

Music has remained a stellar feature of Hrishikesh Mukherjee films, leading him to come up with films like Abhimaan, Anuradha and Alaap (1977) which he even produced. But even when the production was not a ‘musical’ films like Anand, Chupke Chupke, Chhaya, Asli Naqli, Anari, Bawarchi, Golmaal or Guddi, his films always embedded nuggets like Zindagi kaisi hai paheli haay, Itna na mujhse tu pyar badha, Bhor aayi gaya andhiyaara, Golmaal hai bhai sab golmaal hai, and Bol re papihara. As for Ashirwad, it came up with what might be the first rap in Hindi, be it the immortal Rail gaadi chhuk chhuk chhuk or the unique Naao chali Nani ki naao chali!

Rail gaadi chhuk chhuk chhuk (Ashirwad, 1968) Vasant Desai / Harindranath Chattopadhyay / Ashok Kumar

The secret lies as much in his own ear for music as in his selection of the composer and the song writer most suitable for the theme. The classical Anuradha — I repeat — saw Pandit Ravi Shankar create deathless numbers like Kaise din bitey piya jaane na; while the other musical drama, Alaap revolved around a young man’s clash with his father when he chooses music over the family’s legal profession. For this production he chose Jaidev who went on to bag the Filmfare award for Best Music. In Bawarchi, Hrishikesh had the interesting mix of actors like Kali Banerjee, his IPTA mate from Kolkata; Usha Kiran from Bombay Talkies, Harindranath Chattopadhyay made famous by Ashirwad, and Patiala gharana singer Nirmala Arun. And who set the film’s songs in ragas like Desh? Madan Mohan.

Jaya Bachchan- Sets of Mili

Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Jaya Bhaduri and Ashok Kumar on the sets of Mili

S D Burman immortalised the songs of Chupke Chupke and Mili, while the maestro’s son RDB rose to the demands of Bemisaal and Naram Garam.  Hrishida’s friendship with Hemant Kumar resulted in the muted melody of Kuchh dil ne kaha and the poetic Ya dil ki suno (Anupama) as in the paean to motherhood, Maa hi Ganga, Ma hi Jamuna (Majhli Didi). And his deepest fellowship with Salil Chowdhury? Yes, it had preceeded the making of DBZ; stood by in Musafir; continued through Chhaya and Memdidi, to culminate in Anand. As for Vasant Desai, his fluidity with musical genres could compose such divergent memorables as Rail gaadi chhuk chhuk, Hum ko man ki shakti dena and Bol re papihara

***

 

Chupke Chupke

Lily Chakraborty, Jaya Bhaduri, Asrani and Hrishikesh Mukherjee at the shooting of Chupke Chupke

Note through all this, the variety of genres tackled by the director who is best remembered for his delightful good cheer. But Ashirwad, which was adjudged the Best Film at the National Awards and also crowned Ashok Kumar the Best Actor of the year, was such a tear jerker that the thespian’s daughter confessed to me she couldn’t ever sit through a second viewing of the father-daughter story. Just as was the case with Mili. Satyakam. Aalap. Or Majhli Didi. But ‘Intense’ is perhaps a better way to categorise his movies. For, even when they were serious unravelling of relationships, including between a husband and his wife — as were Saanjh Aur Savera, Pyar Ka Sapna, Anuradha, Abhimaan, Namak Haram — Hrishida used humour to underscore a serious observation. As he did in Jhooti /1977.

Hrishikesh Mukherjee

At home… In his late years

That is why he is best remembered as the director who always made you smile. Yes, his films that were never over-the-top entertainers which once comprised the mainstream from Bollywood, never veered to the other extreme of burdening his viewers with excessive evocation of the stark realism that dogged the poverty stricken nation post-Partition. Thus, keeping a judicious distance from both, the intellectualism of art films and the mindless mirth of mainstream movies, he earned the sobriquet of the Master of the Middle Path Cinema.

Honours, olives, applause, awards, adulation, friendship, laughter — these filled the life of Hrishikesh Mukherjee as was predicted in 1951 by Saradindu Bandopadhyay, the renowned Bengali litterateur who had — in 1940s, preceded as screenwriter with Bombay Talkies. Yet, sunset boulevard saw him a pain-stricken, despondent man. And, “as he retired in his apartment that overlooked the sunset in the Arabian Sea every night, he was surrounded by a vacuum,” Mrinal Sen recounted when Hrishida breathed his last in 2006. “That is why he had man-sized mirrors all over his apartment – so that he would feel surrounded by people when he shut the door to the world!”

More to read

Hrishikesh Mukherjee: In a Humane Genre of His Own

Hrishikesh Mukherjee: Giving Cinema a New Definition

When Cinema Matched Music Beat by Beat: Nadiya Kinare in Abhimaan

Gender, Politics, Power and the World Of Hrishikesh Mukherjee: Part I

Creative Writing

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A National Award winner for her Writings on Cinema, Ratnottama Sengupta is a natural writer with keen understanding of Cinema and Visual Art. A Journalist since 1978, she has been with The Times of India, The Telegraph, Screen and been the Editor of the online magazine CineBengal.com. Daughter of writer Nabendu Ghosh, she writes extensively on Cinema and on Art. She has contributed to Encyclopedia Britannica on Hindi Films, and has to her credit many titles including on Plastic Arts. Ratnottama has curated 'Little Languages Film Festival' in Delhi, Bangalore, Kolkata; 'Prosenjit: A Retrospective', Delhi; 'Bimal Roy Centenary', Goa, Kolkata; 'Bengali Cinema After Rituparno', Delhi; and initiated the 'Hyderabad Bengali Films Festival'. * She has been on IFFI Steering Committee; National and International Award juries; with CBFC; and on NFDC Script Committee. She scripted Mukul, a short film on Nabendu (2009). She debuts as director with And They Made Classics.
All Posts of Ratnottama Sengupta

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3 thoughts on “Hrishikesh Mukherjee: Master of the Middle Path

  • Priyali Prakash

    Very well written article. Awakens you to the greatness of Hrishida. His opening remark on life’s reality is so true and meaningful.as his films were. Congratulations Ratnottama for presenting us so much information in such an interesting way. More such are welcome.

  • A Bharat

    A great write-up. We always remember him as the torch bearer of humorous movies along with Basu Chatterjee.But the writer here has brought out his commitment to serious films as well which keeps his talent panorama in perfect balance.

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