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Basu Chatterjee: He told stories about you and me
Mumbai, June 4, 2020
One of India's great storytellers Basu Chatterjee and the high priest of middle cinema in India passed away in Mumbai today. Basu was one of the founding fathers of the new wave cinema, with stark but poignant Sara Akash in 1969, and a fountainhead of middle cinema (along with older colleague Hrishikesh Mukherjee), so popular nowadays.
Unlike many of his contemporaries, his cinema was not obscure or tedious. A prolific filmmaker, he drew upon the cinema of his predecessors Bimal Roy and Hrishikesh Mukherjee and European new wave masters to tell human stories of middle-class Bharat that is India.
What some of our young filmmakers are doing successfully today, Basu Da did it four decades ago. Just see his oeuvre -- Piya Ka Ghar, Chhoti Si Baat, Chit Chor, Rajanigandha, Swami, Baaton Baaton Mein, Manpasand, Priyatama, Manzil, Chakrvyuh, Prem Vivah, Khatta Meetha, Dillagi, Shaukeen, Jeena Yahan, Kamla ki Maut, Ek Ruka Hua Faisla, Chameli ki Shaadi, Sheesha, Triyacharitra, Gudgudee and many others.
He worked with many top stars -- Ashok Kumar, Dev Anand, Dharmendra, Rajesh Khanna, Jeetendra, Amitabh Bachchan, Mithun Chakraborty, Anil Kapoor, Hema Malini, Jaya Bachchan, Moushumi Chatterjee, Neetu Singh, Tina (Ambani). At the same time we could see Girish Karnad, Utpal Dutt, Amol Palekar, Farooq Shaikh, Naseeruddin Shah, Shabana Azmi, Om Puri, Pankaj Kapur, Vidya Sinha, Mallika Sarabhai and others.
He was as familiar with Sarat Chandra as with as with George Bernard Shaw. He often drew on literature for his stories and was equally at home with Manu Bhandari and Paddy Chayefsky. His films were layered but were always simply told. Basu's cinema was unobtrusive, straight from the heart set in in a familiar milieu.
Always economical in his craft (his film had excellent cinematography by K K Mahajan and A K Bir for the most), he seldom compromised with quality. Much before the trend of casting directors, Basu Chatterjee's films were always perfectly cast with interesting actors doing small cameos. He had begun his career as a cartoonist (Bal Thackeray and Laxman were his contemporaries) in the fifties, which gave him his brevity of expression and wit. He had spent his childhood in Mathura and thus had an excellent grasp of the Hindi language. Usually writing his own scripts, his dialogue is laced with everyday lingo and profundities in equal measure. A staunch film society enthusiast he was always up to speed with the best of world cinema, yet he kept his own storytelling simple. Interestingly many of his films had outstanding music and he worked with a range of composers like S D Burman, Salil Chowdhury, R D Burman, Laxmikant Pyarelal, Rajesh Roshan and Bappi Lahiri, who all gave him distinctive scores.
Whether it is middle-class office romance in Rajanigandha or a lower middle class bride discovering her husband and his family in a Mumbai Chawl in Piya ka Ghar, Mumbai local romance of Bandra Christians (Baaton Baaton Mein), premarital relationships in a conservative middle class setting (Kamala Ki Maut) or the Hindi adaptations of classics like Pygmalion (Man Pasand), Twelve Angry Men (Ek Ruka Hua Faisla), Basu da's characters were always well etched out. You would often see simple everyday happenings highlighted in his films. Many of his films had strong women characters --Swami, Chitchor, Jeena Yahan, Apne Paraye, Pasand Apni Apni. Subtle humour expressed quietly was another of his hallmarks.
Basu Chatterjee was one of the first filmmakers to successfully take to the small screen. His series on everyday life Rajni (featuring Priya Tendulkar) was the first attempt at consumer guidance on Indian screen. Kakaji Kahin, Byomkesh Bakshi, Darpan and Ek Prem Katha were some of his other landmark serials. If he had been keeping good health in the last few years, I am sure we would have seen some pathbreaking stuff from him on streaming platforms as well.
Though he won several National awards (and many Filmfare awards too), he remains one of the most underrated directors in Indian cinema. He has neither been honoured with Dadasaheb Phalke Award nor has he been given a Padma award, though many lesser deserving contemporaries have been given these honours. One rarely saw him at gala film parties or award shows. Yet his films will continue to inspire generations of film makers. His passing away brings to a close another great chapter in Indian film history.
I am fortunate to have worked with him over the years. We did not meet so often but I was in touch with him until recently and had asked his daughter Rupali to please facilitate my telephonic conversation with him after his recent illness. Unfortunately, that call did not happen. I will always treasure my time spent with him.
(Amit Khanna wrote lyrics for Basu Chatterjees "Swami" (1977) and "Man Pasand" (1980). He also produced "Man Pasand" and executive-produced the 1997 release, "Gudgudee")