The master storyteller who gave us films like Piya Ka Ghar (1972), Rajnigandha (1974), Chhoti Si Baat (1975), Khatta Meetha (1978) and Ek Ruka Hua Faisla (1986), died on Thursday aged 93.
Basu Chatterji (1927-2020): Filmmaker who found beauty, humour and stories in everyday life
New Delhi - 04 Jun 2020 23:55 IST
Updated : 10 Jan 2021 17:22 IST
The decade of the 1970s is mostly remembered today for mainstream films that in many ways came to define commercial Hindi cinema, and for the advent of the Angry Young Man, Amitabh Bachchan.
However, in 1969, Mrinal Sen’s Bhuvan Shome, Basu Chatterji’s Sara Akash and Mani Kaul’s Uski Roti also ushered in a New Wave, making a significant intervention in the commercial form of films.
Rooted in the middle class and their ordinary lives, Chatterji’s films explored concerns that were far away from the glitz and glamour of the blockbusters of the time. The middle-class milieu created in his films and, later, television series took a new look at individual anxieties and relationships with simplicity and humour.
Far from being the chest-thumping heroes of the mainstream films thrashing dozens of bad guys, the male protagonists of Chatterji's films were often underdogs — shy, unsure young men in desperate need of a dose of confidence and some direction, but with endearing qualities.
A master storyteller, Chatterji highlighted situations embedded in everyday life; with nosy neighbours, relatives and friends forming an integral part of the set-up, so much so that the kind of films he — and Hrishikesh Mukherjee — made in the 1970s became a favourite with the middle-class urban dweller and came to be called 'middle-of-the-road' cinema.
Born in Ajmer, Rajasthan, Chatterji came to Bombay in the 1950s and started working for RK Karanjia's popular weekly newspaper Blitz as a cartoonist and illustrator, a job he kept for 18 years.
Chatterji assisted filmmaker Basu Bhattacharya on his debut project, Shailendra's Teesri Kasam (1966), which starred Raj Kapoor and Waheeda Rehman, and went on to make his own debut film, Sara Akash (1969), a critique of patriarchy and forced marriages. Chatterji won the Filmfare award for Best Screenplay for the film while his cinematographer, KK Mahajan, won the National award for Best Cinematography.
Chatterji's next, Piya Ka Ghar (1972), produced by Rajshri Productions, was an adaptation of Raja Thakur’s Marathi hit Mumbaicha Zanwai (1970) and explored the travails of a newly married couple as they struggle to find space for themselves in the cramped housing in Mumbai, a fate made worse on account of living in a large joint family! The title song from the film, sung by Lata Mageshkar, remains popular even today.
In Rajnigandha (1974), an adaptation of Manu Bhandari’s short story Yeh Sach Hai, Chatterji examined the story of a woman, played by Vidya Sinha, who is torn between two lovers. The film marked Amol Palekar and Sinha’s debut in Hindi cinema.
Chatterji's gentle comedies continued with Chhoti Si Baat (1975), which was produced by BR Chopra. Once again, he won the Filmfare award for Best Screenplay for a simple film featuring a love triangle wherein two men are in love with the same woman, played again by Vidya Sinha. Amol Palekar plays a shy, hesitant young man who is unable to express himself and must find the confidence to confess his feelings to ward off his rival.
With Chitchor (1976) and Khatta Meetha (1978), Chatterji continued to delve into the ordinary and the mundane in his good-humoured fashion, with the good musical score his films had come to be known for.
Baton Baton Mein (1979), the story of a couple who are burdened by certain apprehensions in their respective families about the significant other, featured some hit melodies by Rajesh Roshan, among them ‘Uthe Sabke Kadam’, sung by Amit Kumar and Lata Mangeshkar. Chameli Ki Shaadi (1986), starring Anil Kapoor and Amrita Singh, was also about a young couple who face intense familial opposition. The film did not do well at the time of release but went on to become a cult favourite.
Commenting on his penchant for portraying a certain section of society, Basu Chatterji once said, “I come from a lower middle-class family and wanted to show the world what I had seen.” In an interview with blogger Sandhya Iyer on the sidelines of a seminar at the Film and Television Institute of India in Pune nine years ago, he spoke about the popularity of his middle-of-the-road approach with cine-goers and remarked, “I was called a balcony-class filmmaker in those days, because most of my films had the balcony full.”
Chatterji was a very busy filmmaker in the second half of the 1970s, but not all the films he made turned out to be so memorable. He even made a film with the reigning superstar Amitabh Bachchan, Manzil (1979). The film did not set the box office alight, but the song 'Rhimjhim Gire Saawan', composed by RD Burman and picturized on Bachchan and Moushumi Chatterjee in the Bombay monsoon, remains popular to this day. Few songs have made the rain in Bombay, even with all the puddles and muck, look as romantic.
After the light romances, Chatterji made Shaukeen (1982), a mildly saucy comedy about three old geezers who still fancy their chances with the young ladies. The film was remade as The Shaukeens (2014).
Chatterji then moved towards more serious subjects with Ek Ruka Hua Faisla (1986), adapted from Sidney Lumet's 12 Angry Men (1957) to portray the sense of disillusionment with the justice system (though, of course, India had long since abolished jury trials), Sheesha (1986), which dealt with the subject of sexual harassment at the workplace long before it became a hot topic and MeToo became a trending hashtag, and Kamla Ki Maut (1989) about premarital sex and societal attitudes.
With the rapid spread of television in India in the 1980s and with sponsored shows and soap operas coming into vogue, several film directors were roped in to create quality content for the growing audiences watching at home over weekday dinner or Sunday brunch. Chatterji created four serials, each of which left an imprint as it traversed a different theme.
Rajani (1985), starring Priya Tendulkar as the eponymous crusader, created awareness about consumer rights at a time when consumer protection laws were only just being framed and consumers themselves were habituated to blaming their fate than questioning their supplier for faulty goods or services.
The series Darpan (1985) dramatized short stories from across India, with each episode being a separate story, while Kakaji Kahin (1988) was a sharp political satire, quite like the classic British television series Yes, Minister. Kakaji Kahin was based on well-known author Manohar Shyam Joshi's book Netaji Kahin and was anchored by the delightfully loud and witty yet obsequious Kakaji (Om Puri), general factotum of an often-clueless-but-eager-to-please Netaji played by the popular satirist and poet Shail Chaturvedi.
However, Chatterji really hit the sweet spot as far as success and popularity go on television with his detective serial Byomkesh Bakshi (1993), based on the works of Saradindu Bandopadhyay. The serial remains etched in people’s memory for bringing to life India’s answer to Sherlock Holmes. Starring Rajit Kapur as the amateur Raj-era Bengali detective, the series adapted 32 out of 33 stories written by Bandopadhyay and remains the definitive detective series made on Indian television.
In fact, at one point Chatterji had become so productive, juggling between television and cinema, that his senior in the film industry, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, advised him to “take it easy”.
Then times changed and so did the type of entertainment sought by audiences. Actor-filmmaker Ananth Mahadevan, in his recent book, Once Upon a Prime Time, has recalled how after Chatterji filmed two commercials over a period of three days, the agencies stopped giving him work, as they were used to the more extended ten-day-long shoots. But the filmmaker was content. Never one to beat about the bush, he said, “I’ve seen times which people today haven’t. And that is a satisfying thought.”
Update, 10 January 2021: An earlier version of this obituary cited Basu Chatterji's age at death as 90. It was 93.