A new book takes a closer look at Basu Chatterjee’s cinematic oeuvre

Anirudha Bhattacharjee’s Basu Chatterji: And Middle-Of-The-Road Cinema reveals how the filmmaker changed the narrative of Indian cinema with his simple stories

March 16, 2023 06:23 pm | Updated March 17, 2023 11:06 am IST

Basu Chatterjee

Basu Chatterjee | Photo Credit: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

One of the most applauded Hindi films of the 1970s was Rajnigandha, starring Amol Palekar, Vidya Sinha and Dinesh Thakur. What’s interesting is that they weren’t the first choices of the film’s director Basu Chatterji, who had wanted Amitabh Bachchan, Sharmila Tagore and Shashi Kapoor to play those roles.

In his book Basu Chatterji: And Middle-Of-The-Road Cinema, author Anirudha Bhattacharjee tells us many inside stories about the ace director’s films. The anecdotes are not restricted to trivia and behind-the-scene occurrences, as films like Saara Aakash, Piya Ka Ghar, Rajnigandha, Chhoti Si Baat, Chitchor, Manzil, Khatta Meetha, Swami, Priyatama, Baton Baton Mein, Shaukeen and Chameli Ki Shaadi are analysed in detail, even with a mention of their flaws. His shift to television with Rajani, starring Priya Tendulkar, and his work in other Doordarshan serials such as like Ek Ruka Hua Faisla and Byomkesh Bakshi are deal with too.

From ‘Choti Si Baat’

From ‘Choti Si Baat’ | Photo Credit: Courtesy: Basu Chatterji: And Middle-Of-The-Road Cinema

According to Anirudha, the three main filmmakers to have purported middle-of-the-road cinema in the 1970s were Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Basu Chatterjee and Gulzar. This genre consisted of light entertainers with a deeper sub-text. They were films “with characters we encountered in our day-to-day lives, finding a bit of ourselves in them, who would encounter situations that reflected our own experiences”. In the early 1980s, Sai Paranjpye carried forward this tradition with Chashme Buddoor and Katha.

One of the strengths of Rajnigandha was that it had fresh faces, something which wouldn’t have happened if the originally-planned cast was used. Inspired by the story, Yehi Sach Hai, by Mannu Bhandari, it was about Deepa (Sinha), who has to make a choice between her boyfriend Sanjay (Palekar) and teenage love Navin (Thakur).

Anirudha, who has co-authored books on R.D. Burman, S.D. Burman and Kishore Kumar, says, “For a film to be successful then, you either needed a very strong romantic angle, a milieu where music made more sense than the spoken word, or someone convincing enough to take the bull by the horns.” Basu Chatterjee circumvented the paradigm in Rajnigandha, identifying with the ordinariness of people and circumstances, and told their stories in a manner not tried before. “It was devoid of gimmicks, but had a lot of heart… and with an undercurrent of humour all along,” says the author.

From ‘Chitchor’

From ‘Chitchor’ | Photo Credit: Courtesy: Basu Chatterji: And Middle-Of-The-Road Cinema

The last sentence holds true for other Basu Chatterjee films too, with Chhoti Si Baat, Chitchor, Khatta Meetha and Baton Baton Mein all following the same broad principles. Anirudha narrates interesting tales, sourced from those who worked with the filmmaker. One is about how a special local train was arranged for Baton Baton Mein, where Tony Braganza (Amol Palekar) and Nancy Pereira (Tina Munim) meet and fall in love. This train operated on the ‘fast’ track between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m., non-peak hours in Mumbai. Food was organised and there were make-up rooms and change rooms. Junior artistes filled the compartments.

Basu Chatterji’s description of the Bombay of those days comes under scrutiny. For instance, Chhoti Si Baat “eschews the picture-postcard imagery of the skyscrapers, the Marine Drive, or the other extreme, like the slums of Dharavi.” The author writes, “Instead, we see queues at bus stops and lifts, packed buses, even senior executives travelling to work by buses and trains, people scurrying amidst honking traffic, always in a tearing hurry to reach their offices, rushed lunch hours, frequent glances at their wristwatches…”

The role of music in Basu Chatterjee’s films is dealt with detail in the book. For instance, in the Lata version of the Manzil hit ‘Rimjhim ghire saawan’, shooting took place across various south Mumbai destinations when it was pouring cats and dogs. Recalls actor Moushumi Chatterjee, “It was difficult to walk in the rain. I had to keep pace with Amitabh, who is very tall.”

Published by Vintage/ Penguin Random House India, the book briefly talks about Basu Chatterjee’s early life — from his birth in Ajmer to growing up in Mathura. The effort focus is to study his oeuvre, beginning with his fondness for realistic films such as Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves and his habit of appearing in cameos a la Alfred Hitchcock. Besides his successes, one also gets to read about his failures such as Us Paar, Sheesha and Hamari Shaadi, and his innings on the small screen.

Basu Chatterjee passed away at 93 on June 4, 2020. His role in the creation of meaningful cinema will always be remembered. Director Sai Paranjpye puts it perfectly in the foreword. She says, “A Chatterjee film was different from a run-of-the-mill Bollywood film. He believed in showing more than telling. The ploys he used to spruce up his narrative were refreshingly charming and struck a chord with the viewers.” No wonder his films continue to be watched even today.

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