Wednesday, September 06, 2006

An ode, to Living

In my rather simplistic and dissecting mind, there are usually two kinds of movies.

The first kind is usually based on stories, scripts and screenplays, creating impact and drama on the screen through good narration. Francis Ford Coppola’s cult-classic Godfather is possibly the epitome for the same, as are the two adaptations of Shakespeare by Vishal Bharadwaj. On the other hand, someone like Subhash Ghai (especially of the 90s) demonstrates how not to do it. Ghai has been very consistent in ruining decent, even if half-baked, scripts - Khalnayak onwards.

The second kind is based on moments, creating magic on celluloid through things that are very difficult to put on paper. Maybe that’s why, I consider our biggest commercial success Hum Aapke Hain Kaun such a path-breaking movie. What must have been going through Sooraj Barjatya’s mind when he decided to start making the three-and-a-half-hour long movie, in which there is absolutely no story for the first three hours. And mind you, the House of Rajshris is not actually known for unconventional, risk-taking cinema, so there was no family legacy as such to back this conservative film-maker.

From a pure personal point of view, I consider the latter kind of film-making more difficult. I am inherently over-structured in my thought, and most art (or any of the good things in life, like sports, food, whatever) calls for some sort of flair. However, I believe if I ever come down to making a film, I would follow the Amol Palekar route (did not think much of his last two flicks, Anahat and Paheli) more than say a Tim Burton (forget the book-based Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, his Big Fish is absolutely fantabulous).

Hrishkesh Mukheree was possibly one of my favourite movie director, if not the favourite. And the main reason was his ability to spin complete yarns from wafer-thin single-line plots. Technically, he followed the usual Bollywood routine of making a movie without a written screenplay, which usually contributes to most of the mediocre stuff in our cinema. However, the end product of his relative unprofessionalism was simple, uncomplicated and rather brilliant cinema.

I first got aware of Hrishi da’s existence (sorry but cannot avoid this media-enforced cliché, it is a lot more convenient than writing his full or first name over-and-over again, and Mukherjee sounds a bit too impersonal) when I saw Anand at a very impressionable age, and the movie has still remained amongst my top choice of all times. He gave a nice personal touch to the movie by dedicating it to Raj Kapoor. Anand is easily the most immemorial screen-portrayal by Rajesh Khanna (tilting head in the Zindagi Kaisi Hai Paheli song notwithstanding). The initial lines which Khanna tells Amitabh - "zindagi badi honi chahiye, lambi nahin" - have possibly been the single biggest influence on my approach to life.

Hrishi da belonged to the generation that started working in newly independent India. He studied science in Calcutta, and subsequently started teaching it too. It was also the time when the fledgling Bombay film industry was just finding its feet, with an influx of acting talent from all over India. Pakistani Punjab exported actors (the three leading male actors of the time all originated from the region) and the Bengali Bhadralok community contributed artistic talent (the Ganguly brothers, Bimal Roy, and so on). In fact, Hrishi da did his bit when he joined Bimal Roy, assisting him in editing and in directing in almost all his hits, Devdas, Madhumati and Do Beegha Zameen. It took Satyajit Ray a decade more to risk and start off his own realistic film revolution in Calcutta, till then the main artists were plying their wares in the mainstream world of the Bombay film industry.

I cannot comment on the directorial skills as have not seen any Bimal Roy film (so sad), but Hrishi da possibly inherited his superb music sense from his guru. Anand and Anari had absolutely rocking music. And even his other movies also had at least one gem from Kishore Kumar. While we remember Aane Waala Pal from Golmaal, how many of us recall the ever popular Raat Kali was picturised on Navin Nishcol in a non-descript Hrishi da movie, Buddha Mil Gaya. He was also relatively imaginative, doing his bit to contribute to Hindi movies quizzing trivia by getting Mukesh and Manna Dey to sing for Rajesh Khanna in Anand and Bawarchi, at a time when all songs for the then superstar Khanna were sung by made-a-comeback-after-a-three-year-hiatus Kishore Kumar.

For sheer simplicity, versatility, music-sense, and impactful story telling, he was par excellence. In fact, in my usual pastime of drawing up and tabulating ratings, rankings and figures, had once drawn up a list of the directors with whom Amitabh Bachchan had done the maximum movies. While Manmohan Desai, Prakash Mehra and now Yash Chopra were the usual suspects, Hrishikesh Mukherjee also came on the very top of the list (along with Mehra if I remember correctly), with almost eight movies to boot: Anand, Abhimaan, Namakharaam, Mili, Chupke Chupke, Alaap, Jurmaana, and Bemisaal; discounting the special appearances in Guddi and Golmaal. In fact, he was the favourite director of both Amitabh and Jaya, bringing them together in Abhimaan. Jaya subsequently cut a very promising career short to avoid a real-life repeat of the same story. Hrishi da almost gave Amitabh his first major break, before Prakash Mehra and destiny conspired to create the ‘Angry Young Man’ in Zanjeer. During his superstar days, Amitabh regularly kept doing different sort of roles only in the movies of Hrishikesh Mukherjee, though we mainly remember the two Yash Chopra flicks, Kabhi Kabhie and Silsila.

His first movie Musafir starred Dilip Kumar, and had a screenplay written by Ritwik Ghatak. He hit the bulls-eye of the box-office with his second flick Anari, a movie which further contributed to Raj Kapoor’s persona of the tramp, something that he had actually built up in his home-production-&-direction Awaara and Shree 420. I especially like the title song, Sab Kuch Seekha Humne, and also the ultimate feel-good number, Kissi Ki Muskurahaton.

By virtue of being almost the Godfather of Amitabh and having directed Rajesh Khanna in his most acclaimed movie, Hrishi da was close to both the superstars. In fact, when Amitabh had supposedly usurped Khanna from his throne, Hrishi da was the one to take the plunge of directing both of them together (remember, Amitabh was a small time actor during Anand). By virtue of his seniority, Hrishi da offered the role-of-choice in Namak Haraam first to Rajesh Khanna, who took the more sacrificial role of the main protagonist. Amitabh agreed to play the rich friend, and yet proved himself better by winning the Fimfare Award for an “Outstanding Performance in a Parallel Role”. And at that time, Filmfare did matter, witness how many times Amol Palekar and Nasseruddin Shah won the Best Actor award (Amitabh had just two if I remember correctly – Don and Amar Akbar Anthony). Rajesh Khanna never worked with Amitabh again after Namak Haraam.

Hrishi da was profligate in churning out movies, possibly similar to Ramu today (what blasphemy, the king of underworld being compared to the middle-class torch-bearer). Since he also turned out relatively middle-of-road movies, he was never taken seriously. However, his sheer versatility was mind-boggling. His Chupke Chupke and Golmaal are possibly two of the best comedies ever made in Hindi cinema. I especially liked Chupke Chupke a lot, where while a by then stereotyped Om Prakash was the king, even Asrani gave a superlative low-key performance. I have not seen Satyakaam and Anupama (two performances which the non-actor Dhram paaji talks about everywhere), but Chupke Chupke, alongwith Sholay, was Dharmendra’s last performance I remember.

Hrishi da’s Guddi was almost the launch of both Jaya and Amitabh, before Amitabh was relegated to a miniscule role. I believe Guddi should be the starting point for anyone who wants to undertake a structured viewing course on Bombay cinema, the moot point of the movie being the unreality of it all, and anti-star worship (though Dharmendra played a too-good-to-be-true himself in the movie).

Hrishi da sort of remade Anand into Mili, and like most remakes, I do not think it matched up to the original. Of his later movies, the best one was possibly Bemisaal, one of Amitabh’s most dignified and real characters (yes, in spite of the supreme sacrifice in the end) at a time when he was mainly acting in crappy blockbusters like Lawaaris and Coolie. In fact, Bemisaal explored one of the most unrecognized relationships from our mythology, of Krishna and Draupadi. It was not platonic in the true sense of the word, yet Krishna just addressed a possible ex-spouse Draupadi as Sakhi, same as Amitabh and Rakhi in the movie.

Most importantly, the reason I liked Hrishi da so much was his ideological purity in a corrupt era, symbolized most by our then leader, Indira Gandhi. The leading film-maker showman of those days was Raj Kapoor, an unabashed capitalist who made socialist movies. And if you subsequently see the Manmohan Desai movies like Coolie, where Amitabh stands in the elections and gives a crazily hollow speech on the plight of the poor, you realize the superstar syndrome catering to the cinema-goers (yeah, this was before the era of multiplexes when front-benchers had driven away the not-yet-great Indian middle-class from the theaters). In fact, for all their shortcomings, the popular movie-makers of now (like Karan Johar, hehe) are at least more true to their only-known environment, of making movies about the super-rich. I remember Farhan Akhtar talking about his path-breaking Dil Chahta Hai - he had made a movie about an urban milieu and rich guys, because he understood and identified with them only.

The 80s, especially the second half, were possible the worst times for India cinema. Amitabh stupidly got into politics so there were no stars, Shabbir Kumar and Mohd. Aziz were the top singers, and Rajesh Khanna was acting opposite Tina Munim (later Ambani) and Anita Raj. Sooraj Barjatya and Ajit Bijli somehow conspired to release the industry from the doldrums, giving it a fresh lease of life that has still lasted. However, what the dark period meant was that most of the top film-makers of 70s had to shift to the new medium of television.

Hrishi da also made serials like Hum Hindustani and Talaash, and when he tried a comeback in 1998 with his Jhooth Bole Kauwa Kaate, the magic was just not there. In fact, I give full credit to Yash Chopra for being the only director from an older generation who managed to re-invent himself for a new generation, at least from Chandni to Darr. However, what Hrishi da has ensured that he left a legacy behind of simple middle-class cinema, an era which I just managed to witness thanks to the Sunday evening slot on DD National. With the new policy of DD of showing blockbusters only on Fridays and Saturdays, those time just might be lost forever to our future generations.


satya said...

Great Piece dude, you give a better picture of Hrishi da's (I knew him too, uncle!) life than any of the obituaries I seen in the newspapers (I was looking for one to paste on my blog.)

I think his characterisations were very refreshing amidst the larger than life and stereotypical Hindi film format. He made one believe that he was making a film about that neighbourhood Vermaji, touched by some Prem Chandish flair that writers generally attribute to their stories.

Guddi is a must watch for anyone, it is so different a cinema from anything I have seen anywhere in the world. Very homely indeed.

I think Asrani did his most respectable roles in his movies, else we can only imagine Hindi film comedians as jokers on reel and in real life.

svety said...

I completely agree with Satya on this one (haha) Abhi, fantastic piece.
I have read other pieces in the last few weeks on Hrishida and all of them work on the tenor - You know he was like one of those things u take for granted when its around but talk fondly of when gone, Your piece, Abhi, is different because it doesn't. I see a director full of courage, innovation, fun, the ability to laugh at himself and so confident of what he was putting out into the world. Your ability to put a context to writing makes it as much a discourse on cinema as on the topic u're writing.