not for profit

The Star and the Everyman in Basu Chatterjee's Films

05 Jun, 2020 | Short Features by Cinemaazi Team Member Nildeep Paul
Amol Plaekar, Vidya Sinha and Asrani shooting for Chhoti Si Baat (1976). Image Courtesy: Filmfare 1976 January 23-february 5.

Na jaane kyon hota hai ye zindagi ke sath / achanak ye man, kisike jaane ke baad / kare fir uski yaad, chhoti chhoti si baat

These evergreen lines from the 1976 hit Chhoti Si Baat wonderfully encapsulate the new idiom of stardom that Basu Chatterjee introduced in Hindi cinema. A mild-mannered soft spoken individual who doused fires by sprinkling wit than raining fists.  Someone who appears completely unremarkable, yet their sensitivity and amiability keep pulling us back. Someone who learns to take small confident steps rather than giant leaps. And yet this character appeared in the decade most associated with the fiery rage of the ‘angry young man’. While the brooding charisma of Amitabh Bachchan provided the most compelling canvas for the latter, the reserved charm of an Amol Palekar is usually associated with the former. But we are not concerned with these conventional groupings, but with the overlap between the two. 

Na jaane kyon hota hai ye zindagi ke sath / achanak ye man, kisike jaane ke baad / kare fir uski yaad, chhoti chhoti si baat
These evergreen lines from the 1976 hit Chhoti Si Baat wonderfully encapsulate the new idiom of stardom that Basu Chatterjee introduced in Hindi cinema. A mild-mannered soft spoken individual who doused fires by sprinkling wit than raining fists.
The films that Hrishikesh Mukherjee and Basu Chatterjee made are usually attributed the tag of ‘middle cinema’. Madhava Prasad has commented on the significant new developments in the cinema of the 70’s. There was the ‘cinema of mobilization’ centered on the righteous rage of the marginalized against a system which appeared apathetic to their concerns – namely the ‘angry young man’ films. On the other hand were the sparse narratives and formal experimentations of the Indian New Wave which espoused a radical take on art and politics. In both forms a growing unease with prevalent norms was palpable. The angry young man far outstripped the New Wave in terms of popular acceptance. But the New Wave’s commitment to changing the way we see films was far more influential than their sparse box office returns suggest. A fallout of their efforts was the emergence of a group of filmmakers who admired the realist aesthetic and the focus on ordinary characters, but wished to do so within a modified milieu of the popular film. These films concerned themselves primarily with interpersonal relationships, usually resolving the issues with an affirmation of the traditional values of the middle class family. The journey of realism in Indian cinema thus split into two paths. In one the Naxalite enters the upper middle class home (Mrinal Sen’s Padatik, 1973), while in the other the film star enacts the same entrance albeit with very different results (Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Guddi, 1971). 
The New Wave’s commitment to changing the way we see films was far more influential than their sparse box office returns suggest. A fallout of their efforts was the emergence of a group of filmmakers who admired the realist aesthetic and the focus on ordinary characters, but wished to do so within a modified milieu of the popular film.
Basu Chatterjee began his film career as an assistant to Basu Bhattacharya when he made Teesri Kasam (1966). His directorial debut Sara Akash (1969), one of the first films funded by the Film Finance Corporation, is regarded as a milestone in the history of the New Wave. Although beginning within the contours of the realist drama, he would go on to attain recognition as the maker of quaint comedies like Rajnigandha (1974), Chhoti Si Baat (1975), Chitchor (1976) and Baton Baton Mein (1979). The surprise success of Rajnigandha and Chhoti Si Baat made Amol Palekar the face of the ordinary middle class man on screen. Yet he was not the only one to step into the shoes of the middle class struggler in Chatterjee’s films. He directed the likes of Jeetendra (Priyatama, 1977), Dharmendra (Dillagi, 1978), Amitabh Bachchan (Manzil, 1979), Rajesh Khanna (Chakravyuha, 1979), Dev Anand (Man Pasand, 1980) and Hema Malini (Dillagi and Ratnadeep, 1979). While his contemporary Hrishikesh Mukherjee achieved great success directing stars in similar films in the first half of the 70’s, the same accomplishment was not accorded to these films. All the more perplexing was the continued success of the formula when anchored by the likes of Amol Palekar and Bindiya Goswami. The answer to this conundrum lies in the particular relationship between the star and the everyman that emerged in the 70’s.  
 
While his contemporary Hrishikesh Mukherjee achieved great success directing stars in similar films in the first half of the 70’s, the same accomplishment was not accorded to these films. All the more perplexing was the continued success of the formula when anchored by the likes of Amol Palekar and Bindiya Goswami.
Middle cinema is fundamentally targeted towards an educated middle class audience. Despite its advocacy of rationalism and sensitivity, its universal claims were in contradiction with its identity – driven nature. The everyday struggle of the educated middle class man – acquiring a job, securing a home and finding a partner – the necessities of a hassle-free social life, could hardly translate to a working class populace disenchanted with the status quo. Some films by Hrishikesh Mukherjee like Aashirwad (1968), Satyakam (1969) and Namak Haraam (1973) addressed social issues and focused on the increasing precarity of idealism in society. But later middle cinema ventures exhibited an absence of direct political statements (barring portions of Manzil) and projected a clean image which did not resonate with the blood and toil of everyday life.  Satish Poduval has argued that the middle class hero opened an avenue for the man to pursue his self-interest freeing him from greater political commitments. Such portrayals would not sit comfortably at a time when stars were associated with more robust displays of political intent. It is inevitable that in these circumstances the entrance of the star into this fold would create certain tensions. 
Later middle cinema ventures exhibited an absence of direct political statements (barring portions of Manzil) and projected a clean image which did not resonate with the blood and toil of everyday life.
A salient quality of the star is the ability to portray multiple avatars, from all sections of society, yet retain that unmistakable aura that turns the ordinary into extraordinary. The star is at once celestial and next-door. Hrishikesh Mukherjee harnessed this quality superbly in Anand (1970) which was his first major commercial success. Rajesh Khanna’s iconic role imbued the magic of his star aura into the folds of a carefully written character. The role undoubtedly was of a man more vulnerable than a larger than life persona, but Rajesh Khanna the star did not entirely disappear. The same success could not be replicated when Basu Chatterjee directed Rajesh Khanna in Chakravyuha. Chatterjee deviated from his comfort zone to make a thriller while Khanna played an ordinary man pulled into the intrigue of an espionage drama. Despite Khanna’s performance being praiseworthy the film failed to win public favour. Although nominally a thriller, it can’t be ignored that the central problem in the film was Khanna’s unwillingness to commit to a marriage with Neetu Singh. The excessive espionage plot works as the crisis that needs to be negotiated before Khanna can fully commit himself to the relationship. In short, this was middle cinema’s spy-like infiltration of the thriller genre.
Chakravyuha (1979). Image Courtesy: Cinemaazi archives
 
Although nominally a thriller, it can’t be ignored that the central problem in Chakravyuha was Khanna’s unwillingness to commit to a marriage with Neetu Singh. The excessive espionage plot works as the crisis that needs to be negotiated before Khanna can fully commit himself to the relationship. In short, this was middle cinema’s spy-like infiltration of the thriller genre.

Manzil remains the most interesting of the failed star films of Chatterjee. Starring Amitabh Bachchan (at the height of his superstardom) and Moushumi Chatterjee, the film depicts the unfortunate fate of a young man whose aspirations of upward social mobility land him in quagmire. It contained all the trappings of middle cinema – a talented protagonist who is a graduate capable of delightfully crooning a melody (the memorable Rimjhim gire sawan) who feels compelled to lie about his social status to woo a wealthy woman. He also dives headfirst into an ill-advised business venture thinking it will help him get rich quick. This decision only leads to financial ruin and a court case for him. The Amitabh we see in this film is a morally flawed individual, constantly lying and exploiting others throughout the film. But he is also framed as a victim of a system which sows these seeds, only for men like him to be cut down by the bigger players in the market. The film is unflinchingly reformist in its cadence, as he is ultimately absolved by the institutions of the same system that betrayed him. A curious mix of realist and social cinema, Manzil featured a memorably restrained portrayal by Bachchan. But in a year marked by the success of Mr Natwarlal (Rakesh Kumar, 1979) and Suhaag (Manmohan Desai, 1979), a passive character could not make a mark.  
 
Manzil (1979). Image Courtesy: Cinemaazi archives
 
The Amitabh we see in Manzil is a morally flawed individual, constantly lying and exploiting others throughout the film. But he is also framed as a victim of a system which sows these seeds, only for men like him to be cut down by the bigger players in the market.
Even more surprising is the failure of a delightful little film called Dillagi (1978). A charming romance develops between the passionate Sanskrit Professor Swarn Kamal (Dharmendra) and the disciplinarian Chemistry Professor Phoolrenu (Hema Malini). Dharmendra’s character once again bears all the tell-tale markers of the middle cinema hero. A quiet soft-spoken man with a hidden reserve of strength and commitment, in sharp contrast to the robust braggadocio of his friend Shekhar (Shatrughan Sinha in a cameo). This is a common trope of comedies like this – contrasting two forms of masculinity (think the play between Naseeruddin Shah’s reserved Rajaram and Farooq Sheikh’s smooth-talking swindler Vasudev in Sai Paranjpye’s Katha). In an impish touch, the many recitations of Kalidasa’s poetry in the film add an undercurrent of eroticism to the usually clean comedic form. The solemn and staid atmosphere of the college is immediately livened up – captured in a scene when Phoolrenu literally finds the poems too hot to handle and insists on taking a walk outside instead. 
 
Dillagi (1978). Imaeg Courtesy: Cinemaazi archives
 
In an impish touch, the many recitations of Kalidasa’s poetry in Dillagi add an undercurrent of eroticism to the usually clean comedic form. The solemn and staid atmosphere of the college is immediately livened up – captured in a scene when Phoolrenu literally finds the poems too hot to handle and insists on taking a walk outside instead. 
The film’s climax involves Dharmendra rushing to stop his beloved’s marriage to another man. Once again showing a tendency of deconstructing the action hero, Chatterjee has the star get swindled by a tonga driver but fail to teach him a lesson. The famous He-man even fails to dispatch a few common thugs who stop him and is soundly beaten up by them. The problem is ultimately resolved through the heroine’s intellect and not the hero’s muscles. Perhaps the character of Dharmendra seemed too derivative of his more popular turn as Professor Parimal Tripathi in Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Chupke Chupke (1975). The tension between the star’s usual image and its deconstruction is the chief source of pleasure in these films, in which the star is humanized but never truly effaced. Nowhere is this more true than the next film in our discussion – Man Pasand (1980), Chatterjee’s adaptation of Pygmalion starring Dev Anand, Girish Karnad and the then unknown Tina Munim.
Once again showing a tendency of deconstructing the action hero, Chatterjee has the star get swindled by a tonga driver but fail to teach him a lesson. The famous He-man even fails to dispatch a few common thugs who stop him and is soundly beaten up by them.
Dev Anand plays Pratap, whose prowess at misogyny far outstrips his talent as a musicologist. For a contemporary audience, the film may be a difficult watch, and not just because of its problematic source material. The musical form is an odd match with Chatterjee’s realist canvases. It featured sequences like Dev Anand abruptly breaking into a song (Logo ka dil agar) in a crowded rail compartment to lecture Tina Munim on proper etiquette. The film featured a few memorable ditties like Charu Chandra Ki Chanchal Chitwan and Hothon pe geet jaage. But this is not enough to tide over its ambiguous ending. While Pratap realizes his love for Kamli (Tina Munim) despite going on an extensive rant about women’s ‘irrationality’, the film does not provide any certainty regarding his willingness to change. While this decision can be traced back to the original (Higgins expresses no desire to change either in Pygmalion) it still makes for a discomfiting watch. 
 
Man Pasand (1980). Image Courtesy: Cinemaazi  archives
 
But this is not enough to tide over Man Pasand's ambiguous ending. While Pratap realizes his love for Kamli (Tina Munim) despite going on an extensive rant about women’s ‘irrationality’, the film does not provide any certainty regarding his willingness to change. While this decision can be traced back to the original (Higgins expresses no desire to change either in Pygmalion) it still makes for a discomfiting watch. 
Dev Anand plays the most uncharacteristic of all Basu Chatterjee protagonists. The star’s mannerisms, his iconic dialogue delivery is used to the hilt. An undoubtedly talented, yet arrogant and unlikable character, it is Anand’s charisma which generates any sympathy for him. Anand has a history of playing both romantic and grey characters, and he brings his considerable skills to the role. Both Pratap’s immense passion for music and conviction that Kamli can be a great singer, and his all-consuming egotism are magnified when cast in Anand’s star image. This plays off of the energy of Munim and the restraint of Karnad (a Basu Chatterjee favourite). One can say that no one but a star could have played such a character, as otherwise the inherent tensions of the character would not have surfaced. 
Both Pratap’s immense passion for music and conviction that Kamli can be a great singer, and his all-consuming egotism are magnified when cast in Anand’s star image.
The star and the everyman have always had a contentious relationship in middle cinema. One remembers the delightful Sapno mein dekha ek sapna from Gol Maal (Hrishikesh Mukherjee, 1979) that is a paraphrase of this relationship. In the song Amol Palekar sings of replacing Amitabh Bachchan as the top star of the industry, of romancing heroines and performing with Lata Mangeshkar. A similar fantasy appears in the song Jaaneman jaaneman mere do nayan in Chhoti Si Baat when Amol Palekar fantasises himself transforming into Dharmendra to romance Vidya Sinha as he watches a film. In these fantasies he is both the action star and singing star, yet in reality his desires are far more measured. It is this tension between the desires and fantasies of the common man that middle cinema capitalises on when featuring a star. At many times this did not align with the surging political climate of the nation which may have contributed to the films’ failures. Still they remain fondly remembered, their humour and humanism bringing a smile to our lips.
As the everyman attempted to capture some of the star’s latent magnetism, the star also had to listen to the common man’s chhoti si baat. 
Basu Chatterjee’s later career would involve making dramas like Sheesha (1986), Kamla Ki Maut (1989) and Triyacharitra (1994). This was indicative of middle cinema’s general loss of appeal in the 80’s. He would also make forays into television, making the hugely popular Rajani (1985). Free from the demands of popular cinema, Chatterjee could combine his everyman character with an activist energy in Priya Tendulkar’s eponymous role. 

Without the tension between the star and the common man middle cinema would not have been as pleasurable. The two would become inseparably intertwined in the hero of the 90’s and would have a long afterlife. As the everyman attempted to capture some of the star’s latent magnetism, the star also had to listen to the common man’s chhoti si baat. 

Notes

Poduval, Satish. The Affable Young man: Civility, desire and the making of a middle-class cinema in the 1970s, South Asian Popular Culture, 10:1, 37-50, 2012. DOI: 10.1080/14746689.2012.655105

Prasad, Madhava M. Ideology of the Hindi Film: A Historical Construction. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1998.        
 

  • Share
331 views