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Hrishikesh Mukherjee: In a Humane Genre of His Own

September 30, 2016 | By

Be it the tragedies like Anand, Mili and Satyakam or the hilarious comedies, Hrishida handled both genres with ease. He was the master of the masquerade. If Amol Palekar doubles up as twins in Golmaal, botany professor Dharmendra impersonates as a ‘linguist’ driver in Chupke Chupke. The universal values in Hrishida’s films, with evergreen music (usually by S. D. Burman) helped him win over generations of viewers and he is as popular today as he was two decades ago. A remembrance of the master filmmaker on his birth anniversary.

Rajesh Khanna and Hrishikesh Mukherjee

Rajesh Khanna and Hrishikesh Mukherjee during the making of Bawarchi (Pic courtesy: SMM Ausaja)

The man who discovered Jaya Bhaduri in Guddi, gave Amitabh Bachchan his first big break in Anand, immortalized Raj Kapoor as Anari and Rajesh Khanna as Anand, gave Dharmendra his “life’s best role” in Satyakam – he is none only than the legendary filmmaker Hrishikesh Mukherjee.

Hrishikesh Mukherjee was, and arguably still is, the undisputed king of “middle of the road” cinema in Bollywood. The country’s highest honor in cinema, Dada Saheb Phalke award acknowledged his pioneering contribution towards introducing simple, humane stories of people-next-door on celluloid. Earlier, he had won seven national awards apart from numerous Filmfare and other coveted awards.

Hrishikesh MukherjeeFunnily though, this strapping Calcutta lad had wanted to be a biochemist, but became a salaried film editor in New Theaters studios, and eventually came to Bombay in 1951 with veteran director Bimal Roy as editor of path-breaking films like Do Bigha Zameen. Yet Hrishida, as he is fondly called, felt “circumstances” made him foray into direction, something he was least interested in.

Suchitra Sen in Musafir

The bhajan Man re hari ke gun gaa sung by Lata Mangeshkar was picturised on Suchitra Sen in Musafir

The amiable Hrishida was literally forced by his friends in Bombay to wield the megaphone. Close friend Dilip Kumar pestered him to take up direction and even acted in his first film Musafir that had three different stories of three tenants in a house forming a sequence of marriage, birth and death. The film had a casting coup of sorts with Bengal’s screen idol Suchitra Sen, tragedy king Dilip Kumar and the irrepressible Kishore Kumar but all three starred in the three different stories and had no scenes together. Musafir picked up the first-ever national award and high critical acclaim but a lukewarm box-office. Hrishida packed his bags for Calcutta.

Enter another bosom pal Raj Kapoor. Direct Anari for me, he appealed. Anari, the story of the honest simpleton, made silver jubilee.

Sab kuch seekha humne, na seekhi hoshiyaari (Anari, 1959) Shankar Jaikishan / Shailendra / Mukesh

Heaps of offers poured in. But Hrishida ran off again to Calcutta this time pursued by veteran actor Balraj Sahani. “I can’t pay your price of Rs. 1,00,000. I can only pay Rs. 10,000,” Hrishida said.

Anupama is the story of an inhibited, introvert girl who discovers her dormant confidence and self belief when she meets the compassionate writer Ashok

Anupama is the story of an inhibited, introvert girl who discovers her dormant confidence and self belief when she meets the compassionate writer Ashok

Buy Anuradha from Flipkart.com

Anuradha also starred Ranu Mukherjee, the daughter of singer-composer Hemant Kumar in a stellar role as the talkative, loving child of Leela Naidu and Balraj Sahani

Sahani agreed. With a whole new team of technicians, Hrishida made Anuradha about the neglected wife of an idealist village doctor, with music by Ravi Shankar and new heroine Leela Naidu, who couldn’t speak a word of Hindi. Another slew of national awards followed. There was no looking back.

Hrishida had an illustrious career in cinema, sparking off a new trend of neo-realistic films that seldom failed to the box office. His films were an ode to the middle-class common man, unobtrusive, unpretentious. His perfect blend of realism with just the right amount of cinematic masala in the form of rib-tickling comedy and touching romance, wowed audiences through the sixties and seventies.

Kaise din beete kaise beeti ratiyaan, piya jaane na (Anuradha, 1960) Pt. Ravi Shankar / Shailendra / Lata Mangeshkar

Sadhna

Sadhna – a picture of innocence and dignity in Asli Naqli

He drew heavily from Bengali literature, which made his films very “humane”, as Gulzar puts it. Three of his super-hit films were Hindi remakes of Bengali originals – Chupke Chupke was the Hindi adaptation of the Uttam Kumar-starrer Chadmabeshi, Bawarchi was an adaptation of Tapan Sinha’s Golpo Holeo Shotti and Bemisaal was the Hindi version of the super hit Ami, Shey O Sakha. Using his mastery over his craft, Hrishida made his Hindi adaptations more polished and crisp, many a time scoring high over the original.

The subtle but poignant social messages

Each film had a subtle of social message be it the neglect of the girl child in Anupama or the unscrupulous capitalist vs. the toiling, starving worker in Namak Haram. “Your art is your attitude to life,” he’d admitted once.

Anupama‘s courage to break out of her emotional shackles with quiet dignity and conviction with gentle yet firm support from the writer Ashok (Dharmendra) has inspired many a woman.

Kuch dil ne kaha (Anupama, 1960) Hemant Kumar / Kaifi Azmi / Lata Mangeshkar

Anand is one who can nonchalantly cock a snook at impending death and inspire everyone around him to live life in the moment and enjoy it in the NOW. You can’t dare to brood when Anand is around although you know well he is not going to be around for long!

Namak Haram‘s socialist flavour looked at the everyday trials and tribulations of the ordinary mill worker pitted against the interests of the industrialist, probing whether friendship can survive amid class boundaries and economic power or succumb to it.

Dharmendra and Sanjeev Kumar in Satyakam

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

But he always rated the national award-winner Satyakam as his best film, which was produced and acted in by Dharmendra who also rates it as his best.

Born in 1922, Hrishida, like many others of his generation, had dreamed of an independent India free of poverty and unemployment. When India did win independence in 1947, the opposite happened. “There was more poverty, more corruption,” Hrishida recalled once. “That burning sense of frustration and disappointment led to Satyakam.”

In the film the honest Satyakam pays with this life for refusing to compromise. Not surprisingly, Hrishida was one director who never compromised on the quality of his film to cater to the whims of producers or the public. “Compromise is corruption,” he would say.

The stars shone brighter in a new light

Hrishikesh Mukherjee did not make different films. He made films with a difference.

Rajesh Khanna and Amitabh in Namak Haram

Namak Haram’s socialist flavour looked at the everyday trials and tribulations of the ordinary mill worker pitted against the interests of the industrialist, probing whether friendship can survive amid class boundaries and economic power or succumb to it.

The he-man actor Dharmendra got his career best roles in Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s films without flexing his biceps or bashing up goons. He was the sensitive writer in Anupama, the fiercely righteous engineer in Satyakam, the prankster professor of Botany doubling up as a shuddh-bhasha-bolne-wala driver in Chupke Chupke and none other than himself, the superstar Dharmendra in Guddi trying to break the fantasies of a starry-eyed fan.

Rajesh Khanna again got three of his career best roles in Anand, Namak Haram and Bawarchi – bringing about sweeping changes in the mindsets of people around him in both films. The takeaways? Unforgettable lines that never fail to inspire:

“Babu Moshai…! Zindagi badi honi chahiye lambi nahi.. Maut ke darr se agar zinda rehna chhodoon, to maut kisse kehte hain? Babu Moshai, jab tak zinda hoon, tab tak mara nahi hoon. Jab marr gaya, saala mein hi nahi. Toh phir darr kiss baat ka.” Anand

“Its so simple to be happy. But so difficult to be simple.” Raghu as Bawarchi

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

It was Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Aashirwaad (1968), written specifically with Ashok Kumar in mind that tapped the full range of his acting and singing talents.

Rajesh Khanna, Amitabh Bachchan and Sumita Sanyal in Anand (1971)

Rajesh Khanna, Amitabh Bachchan and Sumita Sanyal in Anand (1971)

In his slightly nasal voice, he had earlier belted out some hit numbers such as “Mera bulbul so raha hai(Kismet) and “Main ban ki chidiya” (Achchyut Kanya).

But singing  had taken a backseat once the playback norm caught on. However, Ashok Kumar showed that he had lost none of the lilt when he sang “Rail gaadi, rail gaadi” and “Naani ki nao chali” in Aashirwad and not surprisingly picked up the Filmfare award for best actor for the film where he played a benevolent landlord and a loving father.

“Rail gaadi, rail gaadi, Chhuk-chhuk, Chhuk-chhuk
Chhuk-chhuk, Chhuk-chhuk!
Beech waale station bole, ruk-ruk, ruk-ruk!”

This song that has delighted children for close to five decades will continue to do so for years to come. Few know that it was sung with such vitality, not by a professional singer but by the colossal actor Ashok Kumar, fondly called “Dadamoni” in Bengali,  who strode across the Indian screen for 6 decades.

Rail Gaadi Rail Gaadi Chhuk Chhuk (Ashirwad, 1968) Vasant Desai / Harindranath Chattopadhyay / Ashok Kumar

Jaya Bhaduri: The discovery of the dynamite

With an uncanny ability to spot talent, Hrishida selected Jaya Bhaduri for the role of the star-struck Guddi when she was still a student of acting at Film & Television Institute of India, Pune. Jaya had earlier debuted as the teenager sister of Anil Chatterjee in Satyajit Ray’s Mahanagar and was in fact, a ‘Ray discovery’. But it was Hrishida who cast her in a tailor-made role as the ribbon-and-plaits-and-school-uniform-clad impish Guddi,  and Jaya walked into the hearts of thousands of movie lovers. The film also had macho actor Dharmendra playing himself with a tongue-in-cheek look at the real happenings in the film studios, blowing away myths about heroes and their machismo.

Hrishida had cast the gawky Amitabh Bachchan opposite Jaya. But Anand released first, pitchforking Amitabh into the limelight and keen to introduce a new face, he replaced Amitabh with Samit Bhanja. According to Jaya, Amitabh “never forgave Hrishi Kaku (uncle in Bengali) for that”.

Hum ko mann ki shakti e (Guddi, 1960) Vasant Desaid / Shailendra / Lata Mangeshkar. This bhajan is sung as the morning prayer in many schools.

But Hrishida made amends quickly. Today, Amitabh Bachchan openly acknowledges his debt to Hrishida with whom he has made the maximum number of films – Anand, Abhimaan, Mili, Alaap, Chupke Chupke, Namak Haram and Bemisaal, all of which are rated among his career best.

In fact, Amitabh says his ‘angry young man’ image was developed in films like Anand, Namak Haram and Mili. Hrishida made Abhimaan at the insistence of Jaya who wanted him to cast her fiance Amitabh along with her. The success of the film, that explored the ego clash of a talented singer and his super-talented wife, hastened their marriage.

Tere mere milan ki yeh raina (Abhimaan, 1973)SD Burman / Majrooh Sultanpuri / Lata Mangeshkar and Kishore Kumar. All the songs of Abhimaan were chart-toppers, establishing a rare feat.

Mili

Mili was the swan song of composer S D Burman. The songs of Mili were big hits.

For Mili, the two cut their price down to a fraction of what they were commanding then in their prime. The film was shot within the apartments of the producer and some of the friends. Talk of making box-office classics on shoe-string budget.

Be it the tragedies like Anand, Mili and Satyakam or the hilarious comedies, Hrishida handled both genres with ease. He was the master of the masquerade. If Amol Palekar doubles up as twins in Golmaal, botany professor Dharmendra impersonates as a ‘linguist’ driver in Chupke Chupke.

The masquerade theme ran through his films like Kisi Se Na Kehna, Rang Birangi, Naram Garam and even Jhooth Bole Kauwa Kaate. The humor was based on pure wit, slapstick and innuendoes were a strict no no.

Hrishida tapped the full range of histrionics of his actors by casting he-men Dharmendra and Amitabh Bachchan in unconventional comic roles and romantic mega star Rajesh Khanna as a do-gooder cook in Bawarchi. He rated Jaya and Rekha as the most complete actresses. Both have done their finest films with Hrishida, remember Rekha’s mischievous avataar in Khubsoorat?

Piya bawri (Khoobsurat, 1980)

The universal values in Hrishida’s films, with evergreen music (usually by S. D. Burman) helped him win over generations of viewers and he is as popular today as he was two decades ago.

As Amitabh Bachchan said about the song ‘Teri bindiya re’ (Abhimaan, 1973), which they had shot in Mohan Studio and at that point of time Jaya and he were not married, “When Hrishi da and used to sit with the great Sachin Dev Burman for music sittings, and Burman Dada used to sing the songs of Abhimaan, it used to be an incredible atmosphere. And with due respects, whatever you have listened to in the record of Abhimaan, I would like to say, it is but 15-20 percent (of what Dada created). When Burman Dada used to sing those songs to us, it was a different environment.” (Source: NDTV Imagine show titled ‘Big B’s Den, ‘The Unforgettable World Tour’.)

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

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

Only Hrishikesh Mukherjee had the guts to put Om Prakash bigger than Dharmendra and Amitabh Bachchan on the poster, in the year of Sholay, and yet deliver a hit!! (Pic: SMM Ausaja)

Only Hrishikesh Mukherjee had the guts to put Om Prakash bigger than Dharmendra and Amitabh Bachchan on the poster, in the year of Sholay, and yet deliver a hit!! (Pic: SMM Ausaja)

Most of Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s films had music that has lasted through the decades and continue to be heard, hummed and cherished till date. SD Burman, Hemant Kumar, Shankar Jaikishen, RD Burman, Salil Chowdhury, Vasant Desai – whoever he worked with came up with some of their best tunes for him. But aah… the music of Hrishikesh Mukherjee makes another story! So watch out for it!

From veteran directors like Late Yash Chopra to budding ones like Priyadarshan and Nagesh Kukkunoor, everybody drew inspirations from him. But Hrishida did have his reservations about the masala Bollywood film of today. “Six dances choreographed by the dance director, eight fights by the fight master. The director just directs the dialogue part. Where is the scope to show creativity?” he questioned in an interview.

Small wonder then that the ace director had retreated from the big screen and was happy directing TV serials such as Talaash which also became very popular. We know whose loss it was, don’t we?

More to read

Hrishikesh Mukherjee: Giving Cinema a New Definition
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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