Article Hindi

Hrishikesh Mukherjee – loving, charming, conflicted and pragmatic

On the filmmaker's 95th birth anniversary, Bimal Roy's daughter Rinki remembers her Hrishikaku, who indulged her as a child and guided her as a grown-up.

Rinki Roy

Of my father’s many major domos, our favourite, naturally, was Hrishikaku. Naturally because, unlike the other glum grown-ups, he was a fun person. At home he gave us time, but it was especially at work that he transformed the place into a playground for us.

Sometimes we visited him in the stuffy Bombay Talkies editing room. Before we entered the sacred ground, shoes had to be removed. We had to walk in carefully, through piles of shining celluloid. We found him seated on a stool near the Steinbeck, turning the wheels manually, engrossed in each frame. A strange smell of spirit and raw film pervaded the room. Without turning to look, Hrishikaku would yell: "Khuku, can you get me that white strip…?"

And I would run to find the white piece for him.

Putting the sound and picture he clipped them together expertly. Being his assistant briefly, I relished that rare privileged moment feeling important.

To amuse me (and sister Tatu) he would stop work, then turn the Steinbeck at terrific speed. The sound would suddenly go wonky. Or he would go very very slowly, making the dialogues sound like a drunken drawl. What fun it was to watch him at work, fascinating like a magic show. After that special entertainment for us, we went home happy.

Along with Baba’s other technicians, Hrishikaku lived with us at our Devika Rani bungalow home at Malad for a short while. The minute he returned from shooting, we could hear his familiar call: “Khuku, Tatu”… a cue for us to rush to the drawing room. As Ma got busy roasting puffed rice with tea for the famished homecomers and all the others melted into the house, Hrishikaku gathered us in the drawing room. It was time to pick up the Mahabharata story session from where he had stopped the previous day.

His favourite characters were Kumbhakarna and Bheem. Imitating the loud snoring of Kumbhakarna, he made us fall down laughing. His Bheem sported a curly mustachio. Hrishikaku twirled the imaginary mustachio with a flourish. The enactment of the reinvented Mahabharata stories for kids livened many a dull evening. Once I saw the very solemn Nabendukaku [screenplay writer Nabendu Ghosh] secretly grin into the tea cup, almost choking in the process.

I always annoyed Ma by fussing over dinner. She may have complained to Hrishikaku, also her favourite devar [brother-in-law]. And the result? He wrote a teasing limerick on me: Roughly translated, it went:

Have you seen Rinki?
Who refuses dinner,
and grows skinnier!!

There was one for Tatu who refused to wear slippers that was just as cheeky.

In the film Chupke Chupke (1975), Dharmendra’s character Parimal poses queries about the eccentricities of the English language. He annoys the life out the Hindi chauvinist Jeejaji: ‘Why is N-O no and K-N-O-W also no?“ — or “C-U-T is cut and P-U-T poot?”

To me, these are familiar Hrishikaku repartees. Like party jokes, he would pull them out at home and quiz us. In Chupke Chupke he uses them confidently with hilarious effect to embellish Dharmendra’s character Parimal Tripathi aka Pyaremohan. These situations never fail to raise laughs.

Many of his screen stories, particularly his comedies, I think, grew directly out of Hrishikaku’s own brand of home-grown philosophy and his engaging sense of humour. The two created enduring comedic narratives. They made an entirely convincing new genre that was unknown till then in Hindi cinema. Films like Chupke Chupke, Gol Maal (1979) and Khubsoorat (1980) are feel-good films. They appeal to our middle-class sensibilities. They also reinvent Indian family values.

The host of unforgettable characters he wrote — like the characters played by Utpal Dutt, Amol Palekar and Dina Pathak in Gol Maal, or those essayed by Om Prakash and the charmingly mischievous Dharmendra in Chupke Chupke — continue to entertain viewers four decades on. The characters relieve some of the unease of urban existence. To me, his comedy works, despite their slight subjects, are far more original than his earlier films like Satyakam (1969) or Musafir (1957).

Amol Palekar and Utpal Dutt in Gol Maal (1979)

Like all of us, Hrishikaku, too, had his frailties, his numerous contradictions. Even a mean side to his gregarious self. I hear he once claimed Do Bigha Zamin (1953) was not Bimal Roy’s but his creation. Other unsavoury stories exist. On the personal front, there was the ill-treatment of his wife and her mysterious death. His numerous romantic liaisons, something de rigueur in the film industry, are too well known to bear repetition.

Beyond it all, however, was a remarkable technician, an extraordinary storyteller who has enriched Hindi cinema with a superb legacy. Trivializing his mentor Bimal Roy may have been a temporary aberration. But to the last, he cared deeply for my parents. And, in retrospect, I was its beneficiary.

When everyone rejected Basu Bhattacharya, the man I wanted to marry, I decided to walk out on my family. Like a sentimental Hindi film heroine, I was going to walk into the sunrise, leaving behind a devastated household and, of course, embarrassing my mother. My parents called in Hrishikaku for the damage-control-and-rescue operation. He stayed with me all night, consoling me, trying to talk sense into me while my parents stood by, helpless spectators.

Hearing that I was having problems in my marriage, Hrishikaku sent for me one day. We were neighbours on Bandra's Carter Road. I found him extremely disturbed all evening. Without wasting time in pleasantries he urged me to see advocate Indira Jaisingh. His pragmatic approach helped to initiate my divorce. I wonder, had it not been for him, how long would I have floundered? I am in his debt.

Sharing these rich memories on Hrishikaku’s forthcoming birth anniversary, the 95th year, I wish to pay a personal tribute to the memory of a man who helped me find freedom. The act of taking me quietly under his wings when all doors were shutting in my face remains a significant chapter in my personal struggle. Never mind his contradictions, his many idiosyncrasies.

Thank you, Hrishikaku… thank you. Allow me to place hazaar salaams at your feet for creating those perennially charming works that bring laughter — and the occasional shower of tears — in our lives.