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Revisiting Chhoti Chhoti Baten, Motilal's last film

On the actor's 107th birth anniversary today (4 December), a look at his passion project, Chhoti Chhoti Baten — the only film he wrote and directed.

Sonal Pandya

Actor Motilal, born in Simla on 4 December 1910, made his debut in the talkie era with Sagar Movietone's Shaher Ka Jadoo (1934). His natural style of acting in the era of Sohrab Modi and Prithviraj Kapoor won him many fans.

Author Ashok Raj wrote of Motilal in Hero Vol 1, 'He was the first to put in place the flamboyant, happy-go-lucky, unpretentious and glamorized image of the Hindi film hero cast in the Hollywood mould of that era.'

Long before we had Bachchan, we had Motilal

Motilal played a variety of roles in the earlier part of his career, from Lagna Bandhan (1936), Jagirdar (1937), and Arman (1942) to Taqdeer (1943). He made a winning pair with Meena Shorey in the hit comedy Ek Thi Larki (1949) and continued to impress with films Aaj Ki Raat (1948) and Mr Sampat (1952).

Motilal switched to character roles in the 1950s and was part of the landmark Devdas (1955), directed by Bimal Roy. He played Dilip Kumar's good friend Chunnilal; the great Dilip Kumar himself looked up to Motilal when he joined the industry.

Other roles of Motilal in this period included Jagte Raho (1956), Anari (1959) and Parakh (1960). 

His last film, Chhoti Chhoti Baten (1965), was also written and directed by him under his banner Rajvanshi Productions. The social drama put Motilal front and centre as the harrowed father of two college-going children. His wife (Leela Mishra) spoils the children and often neglects her husband; her children follow suit. The only one to notice poor Motilal is his loyal servant Shyam.

Motilal is let go from his long-time position as he reaches work late every day, only because his son Suresh (Moti Sagar) hogs the bathroom in the mornings and delays him. But just when he is given a month's notice, his fortunes change. A lawyer comes looking for him, telling him that long-lost cousin Ramlal has died in Africa, leaving him the sole heir to his vast fortune.

At first, Motilal is astonished and refuses to believe it but comes around once the solicitors lay out the details. He is left around Rs2 crore and more — a massive sum in those days when a person with a lakh of rupees was considered rich — by his kind cousin who grew up with him.

Just a day earlier, Motilal was depressed, wondering how to provide for his family, and asks his wife and children their desires in life. They all mention material possessions — saris, a large house, and a car showroom. No one asks him what he wants.

Therefore, it is no surprise that the large-hearted Motilal comes home and promptly fulfils their wishes. He then proceeds to leave his family, lying that he is going to take care of his dying cousin in Africa. The truth is that he is tired of life and wants to care for himself finally without the pressures of working and earning and looking after the never-ending needs of his ungrateful family.

He boards a train and, forgetting his ticket with Shyam, lands up in Chandanpur, a peaceful little village where the ticket collector is from. The villagers are different from the city folk he has known — neighbourly and helpful. Motilal meets Shanti (Nadira), a beautiful unmarried woman whose boat saves him from drowning in the lake one day. They strike up a tentative friendship.

Motilal and Nadira in a scene from Chhoti Chhoti Baten

The humble, generous Motilal helps Shanti by giving her one of the rooms in his mansion to turn into a school and aids local farmers by ordering a tractor when their bullocks fall ill. In the meantime, Suresh, who has gambled away the money his father had left him, comes looking for him to offer penance. Suresh reforms himself as a farmer and even falls in love with a local girl, Radha, who is like a daughter to Motilal.

But like most good things, this idyllic setting is blemished when Shanta's jealous brother-in-law insinuates that she and Motilal have a relationship and gets the other villagers to question the kindly man. By the time the truth comes out, it is too late and the film ends on a tragic note. 

Singer Meena Kapoor dies at 87

Chhoti Chhoti Baten was also music composer Anil Biswas's swansong and he left the film industry to become music director at All India Radio. Motilal died before the film was completed and his distant cousin, singer Mukesh, helped to complete the film. 

Motilal, in a 1963 interview, had described his character as a "suburban philosopher" and said he visualized him as "a man who is silently asking himself: 'where is peace?' and is led on from corner to corner. I have borrowed of myself, of many echoes from all my yesterdays."

In her book, Take 2: 50 Films That Deserve a New Audience, film critic Deepa Gahlot writes, 'Like all good films, Chhoti Chhoti Baten endures; the concerns it expressed about materialism and apathetic urban living as opposed to bucolic tranquillity are even more valid today than they were when Motilal made his film — a fitting swansong of a great actor and flamboyant human being.'

The sad irony was that unlike his character Motilal's incredible windfall, the filmmaker Motilal, who had gambled away most of the money he made as an actor, was penniless by the time he died on his last feature film. Chhoti Chhoti Baten won two National awards — Certificate of Merit for Third Best Feature Film and Certificate of Merit for Best Story Writer — for its maker posthumously.

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