Starring Amol Palekar, Vidya Sinha, Asrani, Ashok Kumar, Rajendranath

Back in the 1970s, for middle class cinegoers life was all about endless smiles. Away from the collective hysteria which greeted films like “Sholay”, “Deewar”, “Muqaddar ka Sikander”, the likes of Hrishikesh Mukherjee and Basu Chatterjee carved out their own niche, putting together neat and clean entertainers targeted at the urban middle class viewers; the kind who loved their cinema soft, gentle, cheerful. Indeed, watching films like “Golmaal”, “Chupk Chupke” and, of course, “Chhoti si Baat”, it was easy to smile, difficult not to.

In “Chhoti si Baat”, we had the ultimate example of a middle class man being able to smile at and through everyday situations! There was something so beguilingly simple about the film that you scarcely noticed that the director had a wafer-thin story to work with — boy meets girl, then another boy meets her! Yet he sailed through on solid characterisation and microscopic attention to detail.

In fact, the film is a little situational triumph; be it transporting the viewers back to the days when office-goers huddled around a transistor to listen to live cricket commentary, or a friendly game of table tennis was used to score a few brownie points, or clerks worked on Remington typewriters! Ah! The comfort of nostalgia.

Or the days when young men and women travelled by public transport buses in pre-congestion Bombay, the men eyeing the beauties, and almost inevitably finding another passenger getting the seat next to the cynosure of their attention! Not to forget age-old Ambassador cars struggling for space between two vehicles, bus shelters with hoardings of Amitabh Bachchan’s films, young men stopping at the bus stand, offering to give a lift to single girls!

All an everyday affair, all so identifiable. On such delectable asides, Basu Chatterjee spins together the story of a tongue-tied lover — Amol Palekar, the man who celebrated ordinariness — and a playful girl — Vidya Sinha, happy to tease him, lead him on and play coy in same measure!

In Vidya, Basu Chatterjee had somebody who could hardly have been a dream girl. But she was doubtlessly a girl you could have coffee with, spend a quiet evening. A girl who dressed up the way young middle class women did before liberalisation changed it all — cotton saris with floral prints, big earrings, loose hair with just a little curl in front. She was a girl you could take to meet your mom and never risk being upbraided for your taste. Vidya had that indecipherable quality that charmed you. Pitted opposite her was Palekar, the man who rose to be the Bachchan of middle-of-the-road cinema: no swagger, no flamboyance, not quite handsome, yet a man easy to like; his failings were our failings, his aspirations mirrored ours! As Arun here, he loves Prabha (Vidya) yet cannot muster up courage to express himself. He follows her to the bus stop, inside the bus, to the office, restaurant… his heart pounds, words fail him! Hasn’t it happened to many of us? In retrospect, does it not bring a smile to our face?

Much like Salil Chowdhury’s music. The maestro relied heavily on light strokes and ultimately gave a breezy music score that sailed above the film. A self-taught flute player who spent plenty of growing years in the lap of nature, he made full use of his early years to craft a score that has a buzz about it. Remember “Jaane Jaaneman”, Yesudas’s early introduction to Hindi film lovers? Or “Naa Jaane Kyun”? Well, who has forgotten? Yogesh’s lyrics, Salilda’s music and superb rendition by Yesudas and Lata Mangeshkar, with apt picturisation, made the songs a bonding force.

And to think the film has a straight laced narration of a simple story: Arun loves Prabha but cannot say so. All is fine until there emerges a competitor — Asrani as Nagesh. He is Arun’s foil: intelligent, fast, talkative, boastful. All this sends Arun rushing to Colonel Nagendranath, who teaches him a thing or two about love and girls. What follows is a series of hilarious sequences with the hero trying to master the technique of expression!

There are so many sequences that evoke a laugh, many bring a smile. And then there are those that send you on your nostalgia trip. The song, “Jaaneman jaanme tere do nayan…” which has Yesudas at his breezy best, is filmed inside a hall on Dharmendra and Hema Malini on the big screen.

We have Amol Palekar as a common viewer, easily slipping into his dream world with the screen hero! Only to get a rebuke or two from fellow viewers. Hasn’t it happened to many of us, particularly in those early years of heady youth — you see youth has its compulsions, reason its limitations!

Basu Chatterjee’s “Chhoti Si Baat” was a fine confluence of those little things we called love, of those little moments we call memorable.

Keywords: Chhoti Si Baat