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The forever storyteller: Hrishikesh Mukherjee

Sanjeev Verma | Updated on September 25, 2020 Published on September 25, 2020

Good shot: Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s (centre) simple approach to storytelling is relevant at all times, especially now as we try to come to terms with our mortality   -  THE HINDU

Hrishikesh Mukherjee would have turned 98 this month. But one doesn’t need an occasion to remember him or his films, which remain evergreen

* Satyakam is the mother lode of genuine, honest sentiment. “You feel like a better person after seeing the film,” I told Hrishikesh Mukherjee in one of my meetings with him, and he declared it was the best compliment he could ever hope to receive.

* Hrishida’s simple approach to storytelling is relevant at all times, especially now as we try to come to terms with our mortality

It was my epiphany in the dark. I would have been 11 years old. It was a Sunday evening and the 6pm film on Doordarshan was due. Those days the Sunday evening film on television was an event. Everything else seemed to stop for those three hours. And this film was special. Or so my parents said. It was Satyakam.

Of the squillions of films that I have seen since that day, Satyakam is the one that entered my veins and has stayed there ever since. It isn’t hard to see why my mother and father were so keen that I see it; it’s a straightforward treatise on basic values: Truth, honesty, integrity.

Indeed, Satyakam, the story of Satyapriya Acharya, is almost unbearably sad but it isn’t the sort of sadness that depresses; the sadness is cathartic, a sadness that ennobles.

Later on in life in my experience as a film columnist, when the director’s name started to matter infinitely more than the actor’s, I sought out all the other films of Hrishikesh Mukherjee (or Hrishida) and saw almost all 41 of them. And while some — Anand, Anupama, Anuradha, Abhimaan and Chupke Chupke — I took a shine to, Satyakam is still my favourite.

It’s not just on Hrishida’s birth or death anniversary that I remember him (he would have turned 98 on September 30); I have my favourite film on DVD and VHS tape (if you know what that is), its songs are on my Apple Music list and key scenes from the film exist on my iPad for instant recall.

The story of Satyapriya is the story of all of us — when we’re young and we set out to make something of our life. He is a young engineer in newly independent India, coping with the new-found cruelties of a world that seems to be degenerating rapidly after Independence.

Satyapriya (played with remarkable restraint by Dharmendra) can’t believe that a nation supposedly built on high ideals is losing its moral core. He is the uncompromising idealist, unlike his collegiate friend (and the film’s narrator, played by Sanjeev Kumar), who is the pragmatic realist and, therefore, the film suggests, more successful.

It is mildly critical of its principal protagonist for his righteous recalcitrance but your beef, if any, with that aberration is bound to crumble in the face of a soul-stirring climactic scene. On his deathbed, when Satyapriya finally decides to make a compromise that will give his family a secure future, you get 200 seconds of melancholia that will find you dissolving in a flood of tears.

The film tells its story in a microcosm, which is only possible if you get your narrative arc and your characters right. That’s the great strength of Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s film.

Satyakam is the mother lode of genuine, honest sentiment. “You feel like a better person after seeing the film,” I told the director of Satyakam in one of my meetings with him, and he declared it was the best compliment he could ever hope to receive.

Timeless: Dharmendra and Sanjeev Kumar in Satyakam, a film that shows the disillusionment of a young Indian in a newly independent country   -  TA HAFEEZ

 

In the ’80s and ’90s, when I was film critic for The Sunday Observer, India’s first Sunday newspaper, I got an opportunity to meet and interview many film directors that I admired. Among them was Hrishida, with whom I developed a bond.

I would meet him at his seaside house on Carter Road in Bandra, and we’d spend hours discussing films. Or, when he came to Delhi, we would meet at Pickwicks, the coffee shop at Hotel Claridges that we both loved, and talk about Italian director Luchino Visconti or French film-maker Jean Renoir or Japanese cinema.

His bungalow was called Anupama, the title of one of his films. That house used to draw several young film-makers who sought Hrishida’s counsel on how to make the kind of unfussy films he excelled in.

These congregations recalled Hrishida’s early days in the Hindi film industry, when, in the unfamiliar world of Bombay, he created what Dilip Kumar once described as mini-Bengal. The group included film-maker Bimal Roy, for whom Hrishida edited several films, writers Nabendu Ghosh and Paul Mahendra, and assistant director Asit Sen. In fact, the script of his first film — Musafir (1957) — was written by Ritwik Ghatak, who had then made his directorial debut with Nagarik but was struggling to make another film.

Hrishida’s simple approach to storytelling is relevant at all times, especially now as we try to come to terms with our mortality. Among cinema’s great masters, it was Akira Kurosawa’s films that Hrishida loved and whose Ikiru perhaps inspired Anand. The protagonists in both films have cancer of the stomach and how they decide to deal with that imminent reality is contained in an iconic dialogue in Anand (dialogue writer was Gulzar): “Zindagi badi honi chahiye, lambi nahi (life should be large, not long)”.

We will all live better lives, Anand proposes, if we know how brief our time on Earth really is. That message is most relevant now as we awaken every morning in the hope that something, anything, has happened that will subdue the pandemic and allow us to return to life’s little pleasures. Like hearing this incandescent song from Satyakam: Do din ki zindagi, kaisi hai zindagi, koi na ye jaane (life is short, who can tell what it holds).

Sanjeev Verma is a writer and broadcaster based in New Delhi

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Published on September 25, 2020
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