Basu Chatterjee: The quintessential family man

Basu Chatterjee.

Basu Chatterjee.  

He was a torchbearer of light-hearted, middle class family dramas that often pivoted around independent women


Filmmaker-screenwriter Basu Chatterjee could well be called the quintessential family man of Hindi cinema of the 1970s and 1980s. His debut film, Sara Akash, set in a joint family in Agra, was about a young, incompatible couple, forced into an arranged marriage, trying to adjust to domesticity and gradually getting to discover each other. The 1969 film — along with Mrinal Sen’s Bhuvan Shome and Mani Kaul’s Uski Roti from the same year — is regarded as having ushered in the New Wave movement in Indian cinema. One of the lesser known facts about the film is that it starred Mani Kaul in a rare, major acting role.

Middle-of-the road cinema

Kaul, Kumar Shahani and Basu Bhattacharya (whom Chatterjee assisted in Teesri Kasam in 1966) continued to remain Chatterjee’s creative comrades and friends, though he himself opted to embrace what has since been called the middle-of-the road cinema. He, along with Hrishikesh Mukherjee, became the torchbearer of light-hearted, entertaining, middle class family dramas that offered a parallel narrative to the mainstream Angry Young Man movies on the one hand and the radical, path-breaking, artistic and experimental concerns of the New Wave.

That journey started with Piya Ka Ghar (1972), where newly married Malti (Jaya Bachchan), used to the expanse of her village home, finds it disconcerting to have no privacy with her husband Ram (Anil Dhawan) in the matchbox flat which houses all the members of the family together. Almost a decade later Chatterjee’s Hamari Bahu Alka (1982) explored a similar theme — a couple’s search for privacy — although driven by entirely different compulsions.

Family and the skein of relationships within its folds remained a lifelong concern for Chatterjee. Be it Priyatama (1977), about a young couple on the verge of divorce, or Khatta Meetha (1978) that looked at the hell that breaks loose when two widowed people decide to get married much to the consternation of their kids. There were the Perreira-Braganza families of Baton Baton Mein (1979) that came to define Bandra households, while Apne Paraye (1981) looked at the fissures within a family that can lead to its eventual disintegration.

Also Read: Get 'First Day First Show', our weekly newsletter from the world of cinema, in your inbox. You can subscribe for free here

‘Because it’s real’

Anil Dhawan, who played the lead, alongside Jaya Bachchan, in Piya Ka Ghar, says it feels fresh even today. “Till date, I get calls when someone watches it,” he says. The reason it has held so well is because it’s real, a part of the lived experiences of the audience, and holds a mirror to their lives. “There’s nothing fake about it. Filmmakers show us dreams; he showed us our reality — our homes, our food, the bags we hold while catching a bus for going to office,” he says.


Ironically, the reality of the lack of space in Mumbai still holds true, movingly so in these times of social distancing. “Things haven’t changed. Six-seven people continue to stay in a small room in Mumbai. People used to live like that in Mumbai, live like this even now, and will continue to live this way in the future too,” says Mr. Dhawan.

Hrishikesh Mukherjee once spoke about how his cinema derived from Harindranath Chattopadhyay’s line, which was also used as a dialogue in Bawarchi: “It is so simple to be happy but so difficult to be simple.” Chatterjee’s storytelling, like that of Mukherjee’s, was straightforward, unadorned and uncomplicated, even if the emotions dealt with would have been complex. “His content was like a fresh breeze even though his cinematic grammar remained simple and basic,” says actor-director M. K. Raina, who worked with him in Ek Ruka Hua Faisla (1986), an Indian adaptation of Sidney Lumet’s Twelve Angry Men.

Singular aspect

A singular aspect about Chatterjee’s films was how much they were pivoted around women — educated, intelligent and independent, negotiating personal or relationship conundrums, questioning but not quite pushing the envelope, eventually coming back to the conventional family fold than straying far away from it. Like Vidya Sinha in Rajnigandhi (1974), caught between two polar opposite men in her life, played by Dinesh Thakur, and Amol Palekar in his Hindi film debut. The film turned out to be a sleeper hit and led to a hat-trick of successes from the Chatterjee-Palekar duo — Chhoti Si Baat (1976) and Chitchor (1976).

Again, both Chhoti Si Baat and Chitchor were about women caught between two men. Swami (1977) had a bright girl at the centre, trying to forget a past love and adjust to an unwanted arranged marriage, the husband and his family. A past affair of the heroine is just as casually mentioned in Baton Baton Mein. Ratnadeep (1979) had a woman happy at the return of her long-lost husband but eventually having to reconcile with the fact that he was actually an imposter.

Even his foray into television, in the heydays of Doordarshan, was marked with the iconic series Rajani, which made Priya Tendulkar instantly popular as the crusader taking on the inefficient government offices and systems.

Journalist and cartoonist

Having been a journalist and cartoonist, he picked his stories with care. Sara Akash was based on Rajendra Yadav’s debut novel originally published as Pret Bolte Hain (Ghosts Speak). Rajnigandha was based on the short story Yahi Sach Hai by Mannu Bhandari. Chitchor came from a Bengali story ‘Chittachakor’ by Subodh Ghosh. And his popular Doordarshan series Byomkesh Bakshi (re-telecast during the lockdown) was based on Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay’s works centred on the iconic detective.

From Kishore Kumar’s ‘Ye jeevan hai’ in Piya Ka Ghar to Yesudas’s ‘Jab deep jale aana’ in Chitchor, from ‘Rimjhim gire saawan’ in Manzil (1979) to ‘Kabhi kabhi sapna lagta hai’ in Ratnadeep (1979), Chatterjee’s films were also about soulful melodies and memorable songs.

One of the last of his successful films was Chameli Ki Shaadi (1986), which has acquired cult following over the years. A rip-roaring satire on the caste system, it has Amrita Singh at her riotous best as the outspoken Chameli.

Simple, warm, homely

People who knew Chatterjee well remember him as a reflection of his films: simple, warm, homely. “He always came well-prepared on the sets, lovingly explained things to us,” says Mr. Dhawan. His films boasted of great ensemble performances, reflecting the off-screen camaraderie.

Mr. Raina recalls his habit of using the zoom lens very often, the reason why he was called “Zoom Chatterjee”. He remembers him being highly approachable, easygoing, accommodative, one who would work without any tension and displayed no ego. He recalls how Chatterjee hired a bungalow on Juhu beach to shoot Ek Ruka Hua Faisla. They all stayed on the first floor while the ground floor was the set. “We would shoot 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and then run to the sea in our swimming trunks. There was a huge terrace where we would sit and drink beer in the night,” he recalls.

It was Chatterjee’s own 35 mm camera that the New Wave filmmakers would hire for a minimal price to shoot their films. Mr. Raina recalls that their meeting point was a dive called ‘Max dhaba’ in Bandra where they had an adda over Goan feni in which Chatterjee would also join in.

Chatterjee’s films were about long-term associations, be it with Vidya Sinha or Amol Palekar or Deven Verma or Asrani or Rajesh Roshan, Rakesh Roshan, Amit Khanna or Yogesh. In a matter of two months during this pandemic we have had three of these team members pass on in quick succession — Ranjit Chowdhry, Yogesh, and now, the captain of the ship, Basu Chatterjee. The consolation is that films, and the families in them, will live on in our collective memories and shared nostalgia.

Recommended for you
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Jul 12, 2020 6:57:34 AM |

Next Story