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The Cinema of Basu Chatterji: Simple, Straightforward, Incisive

June 28, 2020 | By

Basu Chatterji’s simple, straightforward narratives explored stories of ordinary characters placed in extraordinary circumstances they struggle to live through and overcome. A tribute.

Basu Chatterji

Basu Chatterji

Basu Chatterji, probably because he was so unassuming and grounded right through his career, did not get the recognition he deserved for having introduced a completely new genre of cinema that did not exist before. It is always labelled “middle of the road” cinema which, however, is a rather homogenised description of his kind of cinema. Because, it reached far beyond this labelling. “Middle-of-the-Road” was elaborated upon as “wholesome family entertainment” that provided powerful story-based entertainment for the entire family without sex and violence. But these descriptions are an over-simplification of a creative artist that just skims the surface of his cinema and does not go any deeper.

Basu Chatterji’s cinema neither begins nor ends with a film like Rajanigandha though this is a film that carries the sweet, romantic fragrance of the long-stemmed, tube rose used across the map of many Indian families – at weddings, funerals, receptions and other festivals till this day.

Having established a long track as cartoonist with Blitz, for 18 long years, with a colleague who later became a living icon in Maharasthra politics – Balasaheb Thackeray, Basu-da, as he was popularly known, stepped into the intriguing world of cinema as director. As he had spent his growing years in Rajasthan, his Hindi was very strong so he often relied on Hindi literature to base his films on.  His having been a cartoonist invested him with a caustic sense of humour that he used with great intelligence and artistry in his films.

Sara Akash

Rare poster of Sara Akash, one of the 3 films that ushered in the Indian New Wave cinema in 1969-70

Sara Akash (1969) was inspired by the first part of Rajendra Yadav’s debut Hindi novel of the same name published first in 1951. The film was shot on location in Agra, and in Rajendra Yadav’s old family house in Raja Ki Mandi area, Agra.  It portrays the story of a very young couple failing to come to terms with each other as husband and wife. The husband (Rakesh Pandey) was forced into an arranged marriage he did not want while his bride (Madhu Chakravarty) is not good at household chores at all. Chatterji beautifully establishes within the first ten minutes of the film, the couple’s discomfort with each other and also, inserts a small sub-plot of a young wife burning herself to death which the bride watches from the window on the night of their wedding. The director also introduces the main characters and the young man’s relationship with his family.

The film is enriched by the brilliant cinematography of K. K. Mahajan who took full advantage of the real locations in Agra specially the house which formed the centre stage of the drama, using light effects and close-ups to capture the finer nuances of the hero’s facial expressions and the bride’s frustration at her in-law’s rejection of her because she is not good at household chores. Rakesh Pandey excels as the angry young man so it is strange that he reached nowhere in the film industry despite such a wonderful performance.  Sara Akash is perhaps the first major attempt by a Hindi filmmaker to portray incompatibility in a newly married couple so openly yet subtly enough to leave a deep impact into posterity. K. K. Mahajan bagged the National Award for Best Cinematography the following year while Basu Chatterji was bestowed the Filmfare Award for Best Screenplay. It is is the only film that features filmmaker Mani Kaul as actor where he plays the elder brother of the hero. The film puts forth the message that a relationship evolves with time even when the husband and wife are not ideally made for each other. The other message is that a daughter-in-law is often harassed when she lacks her husband’s support. The music by Salil Choudhury, however, did not carry the brilliance it did in Rajanigandha. This film established what turned out to be Basu Chatterji’s auteur signature – Simple story, straightforward narrative, ordinary characters placed in extra-ordinary circumstances they struggle to live through and overcome.

Vidya Sinha and Dinesh Thakur on the location shooting of Rajnigandha

Basu Chatterji’s most celebrated film -Rajnigandha

Rajangandha: Noted Hindi litterateur Mannu Bhandari’s Yeh Sach Hai formed the inspiration for Rajanigandha (1974) which turned out to be a super-duper box office hit through the apparently simple love triangle. The film shows Deepa, a young woman who lives life on her own terms and is not bothered about other people’s opinions. Basu Chatterji introduced two absolute newcomers, Amol Palekar, a known name in Marathi theatre, as one of the two men, Vidya Sinha, as the heroine doing her Ph.D. and Dinesh Thakur, noted founder-director-actor of Ank, a noted Hindi theatre group as the estranged boyfriend of Deepa.

Rajanigandha established Basu Chatterji as a master of understatement who did not believe in loudness or melodrama, in sex and violence and mainly his brilliant feel for good music. Salil Choudhury’s music for the songs in the film still resonate in request programmes on AIR and other musical events. Importantly, the songs were not placed in a vacuum but in complete context with the characters and the film. Since all three major characters came without starry halos around their heads, they performed as naturally as if they were playing themselves. Deepa, caught between her former lover (Dinesh Thakur), smart, savvy and suave unlike her Delhi beau (Amol Palekar) who is simple, naïve, lacks in social niceties and the only way he can express his feelings is by arriving late for a date with a bouquet of tuberoses. Mukesh won his one and only National Award for the Best Male Singer (Male) for a song of the film. What few critics have either ignored or  not noticed is the portrait of an independent woman who decides for herself whether she will leave for Bombay where she gets the job she had gone for, or whether she would settle down to a marriage to the simple and unpunctual Sanjay.

The film catapulted both Palekar and Sinha into middle-level stars in their own right. But they form only two of the many actors who got their first break into films in Chatterji’s films. This film bagged the awards for Best Picture, the Popular Film and the Critics Award at the Filmfare Awards in 1975. G.G. Mayekar also won the Best Editor Award from BFJA which gave the film the Best Film award.

Deep Insight into Ethnic minorities

Two films, Khatta Meetha (1978) and Baaton Baaton Mein (1979) are two unique films where Chatterji decided to focus on two ethnic and communal minorities – the Parsees in Khatta Meetha and the Anglo-Indians in Baaton Baaton Mein. The former film , loosely based on the 1968 American movie Yours Mine and Ours, journeys through two Parsee families where the widower in one of the two families and the widow in the other get married and hilarious situations happen. The grown-up children who refuse to make peace finally come together when the entire family is thrown out of their home and learn to put together their fragmented lives again. Chatterji uses wonderful moments of humour and also tries to crusade for a fat girl who finally gets married. The music by Rakesh Roshan offers some of the most beautiful song numbers in Hindi cinema. Pearl Padamsee, Ashok Kumar, Ranjit Choudhury, Deven Verma, Preety Ganguly enriched the film with their natural performances.

Hindi booklet of Basu Chatterjee's Baaton Baaton Mein

Hindi booklet of Basu Chatterji’s Baaton Baaton Mein

Baaton Baaton Mein fell short of expectations because it did not have a powerful storyline and Tina Munim could not pull off the significant role she needed to perform. Even Amol Palekar was given a completely different get-up that did not go well with his screen image. But Rajesh Roshan’s music enlivened the somewhat dull spirit of the film along with Pearl Padamsee and Ranjit Choudhury’s performance. The cinematography, art direction, costumes, editing added to the beauty of the film.

Poster of Sheesha

Sheesha

Sheesha (1986) belongs to a genre Basu Chatterji did not handle at all before he made this film and never after. The film quite understandably got a very lukewarm response at the box office. The story revolves around sexual harassment at the workplace, a subject not handled by filmmakers at the time. It also cast Mithun Chakraborty against his routine grain of playing an ordinary or a rustic or a struggling young man. In this film, he is the CEO of a corporate firm and married to his college mate (Moon Moon Sen). But his loving wife suddenly learns that a subordinate in his firm has complained attempted rape against him. The hero presents the image of a perfect man who is well-behaved, soft-speaking and gentlemanly. So, his wife refuses to believe the accusation levelled against him. Chatterji plays around with this very serious topic so intelligently without losing track of the main theme that till the end, you are left guessing whether the beautiful but poor girl is right or whether the CEO is right. This film took a long time in the making and therefore, could not gather the audience by the time it was released.

Kamla Ki Maut and Ek Ruka Hua Faisla (1986) are two very serious films Chatterji directed as part of his off-mainstream efforts. The former film was rejected for screening at the Kolkata International Film Festival and an angry Chatterji organized a closed-door screening during the festival. It is about a young woman Kamla (Roopa Ganguly) who commits suicide. The investigation reveals that all the members of the society she lives in is in some way or another responsible for her sad demise.  The story is somewhat similar to a Bengali film Thana Thekey Aaschhi but falls significantly short of the original Bengali version.

On the other, Ek Ruka Hua Faisla, shorn of songs, was based on Twelve Angry Men. Its cast included KK Raina, MK Raina, Pankaj Kapoor, Deepak Qazir and Annu Kapoor as some of the 12 jurors who must decide the fate of the young guy accused of stabbing his father to death. Since this was taken from a famous play, Chatterji was limited by the single set and the story rotating between and among the jury members. Backed  by a small group of great actors from the National School of Drama Chatterji took on the challenge and made it a very electrically charged film. Unfortunately, the film had problems with its theatrical release and was not received well. A dejected Chatterji vowed never to touch a serious subject ever again. Analysed critically, the film was centred entirely on dialogue and the acting was a bit louder than expected in a Chatterji film. The cinematography was also quite flat and lacked dimension of any kind. However, it may be concluded that it was a big step for Chatterji to have taken.

Triyacharitra

Triyacharitra

Another memorable film that did not make it among the audience was Tiriyacharitra based on a noted Hindi short story. It was the story of a young bride whose husband goes to the city for work and the father-in-law rapes her and also antagonizes the entire village so much that when the young girl tries to flee, they chase her, catch her and kill her. One telefilm I got to watch at a private screening starring Indrani Haldar was Hamari Shaadi which was a delightful take on a daughter in love with a boy her parents do not approve of, decides to elope but wakes up to the realization that marriage is a family decision where the consent of the entire family is needed for the couple to be happy. It may appear patriarchal to begin with but on hindsight, the film offers a wonderful comment on family values even with love that is counterpointed by the family’s consent or the lack of it.

Basu Chatterji’s career offers an insight into the massive range of actors the filmmaker worked with, introducing new faces who went on to become famous after their debuts and actors who played against-the-grain characters in his films. Few remember his Manzil (1979) remade as a glamorously mounted version of Mrinal Sen’s Akash Kusum. Amitabh Bachchan was at his peak at the time. But somehow, the film did not make it to the box office probably because it went against the screen image of Bachchan after he had already worked in Deewar and Sholay, two of his greatest hits of all time. Chatteree’s films based on Sarat Chandra classics Apne Paraye and Swami are immortal within literary adaptations in Hindi cinema.

Byomkesh Bakshi

Byomkesh Bakshi

In Doordarshan as well, Basu-da did leave his mark. Among his productions was the first ever audiovisual version of the adventures and explorations of detective Byomkesh Bakshi based on author Saradindu Bandopadhyay’s famous literary series. This marked the debut of Rajit Kapoor as the detective and K K Raina as his assistant Ajit. This television version is still considered to be the most memorable representation of Byomkesh Bakshi and has tremendous repeat value. The other legendary series was Rajani inspired by the consumers’ right to know and right to information through an activist movement led by a strong, middle-class housewife called Rajani portrayed by Priya Tendulkar who turned into an overnight television star as the series evolved and rose in fame and popularity.

To label him the inventor of “middle-of-the-road” cinema, is doing his creative powers, his courage of giving break to complete newcomers and standing by them, and his versatility a great disservice. Rest in peace Basu-da. They do not make men like you anymore.

More to read

A Manzil of Memories: Rare Memorabilia Of Basu Chatterji’s Films

A Walk Down Memory Lane With Basu Chatterji

The Golden Thread of Bengali Cinema: A Journey Through 100 Years

 

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Dr. Shoma A Chatterji is a freelance journalist, film scholar and author based in Kolkata. Her focus of interest lies in Indian cinema, human rights, media, gender and child rights. She has authored 24 books mainly on Indian cinema and on gender and has been jury at several film festivals in India and abroad. She has won two National Awards - for Best Film Critic in 1991 and for Best Book on cinema in 2002. She has also won four fellowships over the past 10 years.
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