Basu Chatterjee: A legacy of slice of life films celebrating life in middle class lane

PTI Mumbai | Updated on June 04, 2020 Published on June 04, 2020

Basu Chatterjee’s cinematic world was a lived one, most of his films distilling the little joys and struggles that are the stuff of everyday life in the middle class lane and still relatable decades after they were made.

His men were not angry or macho, his women never coy or simpering but down to earth and real. And through Chatterjee’s extraordinary lens on ordinary people, they found romance in local trains, buses and office corners in films such as Rajnigandha , Chhoti Si Baat and Baton Baton Mein .

There were no rough edges in the light as the films of the director, who died at his home on Thursday at the age of 93. With his death, it is the end of the triumvirate — Chatterjee, Hrishikesh Mukherjee and Basu Bhattacharya — which blazed a middle-of-the-road cinematic trail in the 1970s and 1980s.

Chatterjee, who started his career as a cartoonist, found intimacy in crowds and beauty in the familiar. His films, almost celebrating mundaneness, could have got sidelined with the machoism and melodrama of the times in films centering on the angry young man, played most effectively by Amitabh Bachchan. But they never did.

Instead, his brand of gentle, unhurried cinema, also including gems such as “Khatta Meetha” and Chitchor , found many takers and is still relevant with directors like Shoojit Sircar and Ashwini Iyer Tiwari taking the torch forward.

Chatterjee’s cinema was progressive for its times. While his men were not heroes, at least not the kind that mainstream cinema served, his women were not heroines in the conventional sense either.

The male protagonists were often gentle, hesitant and even lacking in ambition.

The women, in contrast, not glamorous or made-up, were determined, focused and unwilling to bow down to convention just because society demanded it. Vidya Sinha’s Deepa in Rajnigandha is confused between her love from the past and the man she is dating. Zarina Wahab’s Geeta in Chitchor decides to follow her heart in the face of family’s opposition.

In Chatterjee’s world view, the journeys of working class India were important -- remember Vidya Sinha’s character waiting at a bus stand in “Rajnigandha”, or Palekar and Tina Munim stealing glances in a Mumbai local in “Baton Baton Mein“.

The Ajmer-born Chatterjee’s cinematic sensibility probably took root early in life. His father was a railway employee and the family moved around in Agra and Mathura, where he completed his graduation and watched his earliest movies.

The director, in an interview on a TV show, said he loved watching all kind of movies at the only theatre that Mathura had at the time.

The shining lights of Mumbai beckoned, as it did for many others.

His dream was to land in Mumbai and work in movies and he found his way to the city through a job as a librarian in a military school.

He later found a job as a political cartoonist in Blitz newspaper and worked there for 16 years. He continued his love for cinema by watching world cinema as part of the Film Society Movement.

The entry into films came through his friend, lyricist Shailendra, who gave Chatterjee a job as an assistant director in the film he was producing. The movie was Teesri Kasam , directed by Basu Bhattacharya, and released in 1966.

Three years later, he made his debut as a director with Saara Aakash , based on a novel by Rajendra Yadav.

The film, about a newlywed couple in a traditional middle class joint family in Agra, set the trend of the Chatterjee brand of slice of life cinema.

His next was “Piya Ka Ghar”, featuring Jaya Bhaduri and Anil Dhawan, an empathetic, often humorous take on a young couple’s struggles for privacy in a one-bedroom apartment in a joint family in Mumbai.

That was his forte — finding private spaces in the stuffy confines of a crowd, whether at home or in a public space in cities buzzing with people and activity. And extraordinary stories of everyday people unfolding over cups of chai and coffee.

Though his films were more suited for actors rather than showcasing stars, Chatterjee did sometimes work with the biggies -- Rajesh Khanna and Neetu Singh in “Chakravyuh”, a thriller different from his staple fare, Jeetendra in “Priyatama”, Dev Anand in “Man Pasand”, Dharmendra and Hema Malini in “Dillagi” and Amitabh Bachchan in “Manzil” among them.

Ironically, of his many films, Chakravyuha and Manzil , were the ones unsuccessful at the box office.

Palekar was a favourite, his go to person to play the self-effacing, bashful young man. Their partnership resulted in eight films, including “Chitchor”, “Baton Baton Mein”, and “Apne Paraye“.

“He was the one, if you see the film history, who reduced the gap between parallel cinema and commercial cinema... He looked at life with humour. No matter what the situation, he knew how to smile and laugh,” Palekar, who worked with Chatterjee in eight films, told PTI.

Actors who worked with him remembered the simplicity that was his hallmark as a director — and a person.

Moushumi Chatterjee, worked with him in three films, said he loved the ‘rajnigandha’ flower. Maybe the title of the film stemmed for his fondness for the flower.

Whenever he would visit me, he would always get rajnigandha flowers,” the actor said, remembering the filmmaker who was like a family member.

Music was an important component of his movies.

The songs were simple, philosophical and full of longing. The lyrics were mostly written by long time collaborator Yogesh Gaur, who also passed away recently.

Be it the wistful Rajnigandha Phool Tumhare and Kai Baar Yun Hi Dekha Hai from Rajnigandha , the shy Suniye, Kahiye from Baton Baton Mein , Na Jaane Kyun from Chhoti Si Baat or that ultimate monsoon song in a rain soaked Bombay, ‘Rimjhim Gire Sawan from Manzil , music in Chatterjee’s films, like his stories, stand the test of time.

Chatterjee also stepped out of character to sometimes do different kinds of films.

In 1986, Chatterjee made the TV film Ek Ruka Hua Faisla , a remake of the Hollywood classic 12 Angry Men , a nail-biting legal drama. In 1989, he made Kamla Ki Maut about a young woman in a Mumbai chawl who commits suicide.

Chatterjee’s last commercially successful film in Hindi was Chameli ki Shaadi with Anil Kapoor, Amrita Singh and Amjad Khan in 1986.

In his latter years, Chatterjee turned to directing Bengali films and also some television serials, including the popular Rajani , the Om Puri-starrer Kakaji Kahin as well as the cult show Byomkesh Bakshi for Doordarshan.

Byomkesh Bakshi is still considered the best detective show that India has produced.

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Published on June 04, 2020
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