Beyond Bygone

A tribute to Basu Da

A reminiscence written in fond memory of the works of Indian film maestro Basu Chatterjee, reflecting on how his simple yet grounded body of work holds great relevance in today’s ‘dark-edgy-gritty’ times

T hoda hai, thode ki zaroorat hai....

Sounds more like the budget Basu Chatterjee had to wrestle with to make his innumerable gems. 'Middle-of-the-road' is such an inane term to describe his films. What does it mean? Na yahan ke, na wahan ke?

No way. Basu Chatterjee was very snug and sure of the world whose stories he told. Middle class? Yes, that would be an accurate description. Basu Da lived a middle-class life. His observations, humour and exasperation were born from this class itself. Yet to put the range of his films — Us Paar or Shaukeen; Ek ruka hua faisala or Chakravyuh — in just this convenient box is underestimating his work and doing a disservice to him. To further cram these directors — Hrishikesh Mukherji, Basu Bhattacharya, Basu Chatterjee in 'New wave' or whatever lexicon has been invented by the critics is ignorant if not idiotic.

The only thing common to Hrishi Da, Basu Bhattacharya and Basu Chatterjee was they were Bengalis. And yes Basu Chatterjee started his career as an Assistant to Basu Bhattacharya in Teesri Kasam. That is precisely where any common labelling ends. You don't need to be a genius to see how different were the trajectories the three explored. Their films, their obsessions and their characters are very different. Hrishi Da has an unfair advantage of being a superb editor. That's all.

Basu Chatterjee's first film Sara Akash was based on Rajendra Yadav's novel Pret bolte hain. Basu Da was lucky that the government body, FFC (Film Finance Corporation, a predecessor to NFDC) which backed films where other voices found a presence.

Sara Akash has two other elements. One, the first and last time, Mani Kaul before the camera. A seeti moment for all of us who have cut our teeth editing Mani starrer, Dental Dilemma, as our first-year exercise. And the maverick cinematographer KK Mahajan. Another senior and a person whose generosity and affection for me will make him live on in my memories. Mahajan Sahab was so fluid and incredibly talented he could veer from a Subhash Ghai to Mrinal Sen and Kumar Sahani. He was god-sent for Basu Da. KK as he was lovingly called, could get into tiny pokey tenements where if you kept the lights the actors will have no space to stand, where to make a frame would be well near impossible. But Mahajan Sahab created images, a feel for the location and characters unerringly. Film after film. There were unfussy compositions which tethered you to the story which was being told. To engage you in every fleeting feeling of a character. And Basu Da always brought an efficiency, warmth and humour in the stories that he narrated through the camera.

The films found their audience. As films have always done without the makers being needled, wheedled and meddled by uncreative bureaucrats.

The audience hasn't just grown up 10-15 years back! That's one fallacy I read about with annoyance. Thank you but it's not true. Indian audiences have been rather generous and encouraging from the inception of cinema to all kinds of films. Let me one day, if angered enough, do a year chart to substantiate this. Also as part of this audience, I will confess that much as I loved and crushed on the craggy visage of Om Puri, I crushed with equal gusto on the doodh malai complexion of Rishi Kapoor.

We were open and receptive to all kinds of films. And have been so till date. We welcomed Basu Da's stories and he had an unerring hand on his storytelling. He didn't learn the craft from Syd Field or the Hollywood gang. These makers watched European cinema or whatever they could get their hands on. But they developed and honed their voice, their own invisible craft and created wonderful films.

I could segue but I am not even beginning to enumerate Basu Da's TV work where he had an unfailing grasp on the medium and knew his audience as if they were his intimate neighbours. I have felt even the post-GEC, Utran, written by his daughter has the seasoned feel of Basu Da in it.

Which gets me to the second line of this memorable song: ...zindagi phir bhi yahaan khoobsoorat hai.

That is possibly a creative person's endeavour. I am writing smack during one of the worst, most dismal phases humanity is going through. But it's not as if life has suddenly grown mean, nasty, edgy, ugly, dark. It was always like this. But each creative person makes sense of his world. He/she shines a light, sees the push and pull and shows the beauty that life is eventually. So it's not just about the bus queues, the rhythmic beat of the local trains in Basu Da's films. It's about love, friendship and rivalry which can grow out of this daily drudgery.

And Basu Da delighted in it. Whether it was the one-room-kitchen tenement of Piya ka Ghar or the dull offices of Chhoti si baat, people lived, breathed, felt melancholic, wanted that little snatch of sunshine, were nasty and selfish, loved and refused to lose in these settings.

For Basu Da had unerringly put his finger on the nub of the matter. Audiences don't even come to watch stories. They come to watch people. People like them or unlike them. To be immersed and engrossed in their life, to project their own life, possibly learn a lesson but eventually come out feeling a glow that their lives are not some existential, despairing, meaningless nightmare. These filmmakers never lost sight that human beings need that dignity to live.

Which brings me back to this 'labelling' with which I had started writing this. Basu Da, the Bhattacharya, started his film making career with Raj Kapoor and Waheeda Rehman. The biggest stars of that era! Then he casts Rajesh Khanna, Sharmila Tagore on top of their game in a marvellous Avishkaar.

There was no particular allergy to stars that he or Hrishi Da or Basu, the Chatterjee had. In fact, Hrishi Da created stars. Basu Da gave a platform to unknown faces. Yet they in their own turn created a 'parallel'/ 'new wave' or what-have-you alternate star system. So Basu Da was not finicky about taking popular cinema actors and melding them with absolute unknowns. He on his steam worked with Dev Anand no less. Hema Malini, Amitabh Bachchan and Sanjeev Kumar. As and when they suited his story, they came for a gamely cameo.

Basu Da also never sniggered and sneered about songs and music in Hindi films. Bless him! Because thanks to this we have such heartwarming, foot-tapping songs from Salil Da and Yogesh combination. In fact, the spoof of the Hindi film songs that he and Hrishi Da did, Basu Da in Jaaneman Jaaneman, Hrishi Da in Guddi owe their real inspiration to the maestro of song picturisation, Guru Dutt. His Dil par hua aisa jadoo from Mr and Mrs 55 starts plum in the middle of an Irani cafe, into sunlit Marine Drive, inside a bus, elements that Basu Da repeats.

What also set me to write such a long homage is the outpouring I read from so many people, in so many forums. Here I had been made to believe the dark-gritty-edgy was the new mantra, the buzzword for the times we live in. But people are missing, remembering, even going nostalgic for the sweet, simple stories of the bygone era.

I thought they were dead. At least that's what the creatives in corporates will have you believe. Surprise-surprise they still have an audience! My own efforts mostly turned down because my characters are 'innocent' has always amazed and aggrieved me no end. I also feel Basu Da passed away yesterday. But his cinema was slain by the generations which came after him. In creating a gallery of despicable, ugly gargoyles, these filmmakers forgot the first tenet of storytelling. What do you off-set this ugliness with!

I particularly chose this song from Khatta Meetha to highlight one other great quality of Basu Da's cinema. These were days when casting directors didn't decide the actors. The director did! And what a stroke of genius to get a complete unknown English theatre actress to pan-Indian audiences. The delectable, delicious, dancing eyes Pearl Padamsee (who had done a tiny unforgettable cameo in Junoon) opposite the 'Daddy' of Indian cinema, Ashok Kumar. In an interview, Persis recalls that her son Ranjit who was also part of the film was to join them for the shoot in Pune. She warned him not to take it easy. The adept actors on the sets were nothing to sneer at.

In Basu Da's Parsi world no one stretches too hard to 'do' the Parsi right. Well, they are people like us. He, of course, gets the wonderful David, Ruby Meyers and Piloo Wadia who bring their cultural nuances seamlessly into the film.

This song starts as a strum-strum and each character is drawn into his/her fantasy. Very filmy. We flow with their small dreams, hopes, wishes. Till Priti Ganguli gets the cake in her fantasy! Lovely, Basu Da. Thank you for such wonderful constructs that on viewing seemed so simple and easy but trying to crack them is formidable work indeed.

The author is a writer, producer and director.

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