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Of the People

by Khalid Mohamed June 10 2022, 12:00 am Estimated Reading Time: 10 mins, 30 secs

Khalid Mohamed writes on why he could never attempt a biography or documentary on his mentor and first employer, Basu Chatterji, whose second death anniversary was last week.

His second death anniversary passed by quietly on June 4, last Saturday. His daughter, Rupali Ghosh, reminded us of the day through social media with memorabilia photographs, and that was it.  

Basu Chatterji (1927-2020) was born in Ajmer to a Bengali family. He was one of the filmmakers from the Bengali School, as it were, who was a major force in his individualistic way within the Bombay film industry, like the redoubtable Bimal Roy, Asit Sen, Shakti Samanta, Satyen Bose, Dulal Guha, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Anil Ganguly and Basu Bhattacharya who had their separate distinct styles and thematic concerns.

More prolific than most he helmed 41 Hindi and Bengali films and as many as eight TV series, stamping his seal on stories revolving around little big people of the rising social strata, described somewhat facilely as the middle class. I say faciley, because within this class there were sub-stratae, be it a landed family on its last legs, the unemployed and the more secure white collar workers.

This remembrance is a week late, yes, but for me it’s important to recall him for a personal reason: he was my mentor (though I never told him that) and a gateway to world cinema since he was one of the chief pilots of the strong film society movement dominant in the 1970s especially. From the minuscule library of film-related books at the office of Film Forum besides the Dadar Railway Station, he would press upon me volumes of studies on the great directors, be it of Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa and Satyajit Ray, and of the critics Andrew Sarris, Penelope Houston and Pauline Kael, to cite random examples. “Return what you borrow within a week or a fine will be imposed on you,” he’d stay strictly but would ignore the stricture if I ever erred, which was quite often.

On being asked why he spelt his surname as Chatterji (with an i)  instead of the usual Chaterjee, whenever I interviewed him for a publication later, he’d laugh lightly, “You do ask inane questions. Both ee and i are fine by me.”

As he advanced in years and was largely housebound, monthly visits to his first floor apartment in a tree-shaded lane of Khar-Santa Cruz building were a must. His wife would retreat into another room or to the kitchen to rustle up pakoras for snacks. And he would ask me, as seriously as a magistrate, “Why don’t you remake Rajnigandha (1974)? It’s still relevant as they say. I won’t charge you except for a bottle of Black Label Scotch. Do make sure it’s not fake stuff.” 

And once he had whipped out a script from his desk’s door titled The Window, about a cloistered Muslim girl who’s romanced by a stranger on a mobike. He waits on the street below her home’s window till she waves back to him every day and accepts the roses he flings to her. She’s attracted to him, their wedding is finalised, which means that her Dubai-based brother has to make it to the nikah ceremony. The sibling does so reluctantly, only to be arrested by the groom-to-be, an undercover police officer who had conned the girl so he could arrest the brother, suspected to be working with a mafia syndicate. The girl never opens her home’s window again.

“This script is for free. Just do a good job of it, no item numbers please,” he had said sombrely. Regretfully, I could never raise funds to make it. ‘Muslim’ stories were and still are considered risk-prone by the film trade cashbags. On facing an impasse, I asked Basuda if I could edit the script and use it in a compilation of stories titled Faction. His disappointed response was, “Do people still read books? Anyway I’ve given it to you. Just send me a copy of the book whenever it’s published.”

The point is that Basuda was still itching to make yet another film himself, on half a shoestring budget. And despite his deteriorating health, he would often take off to Kolkata to confect a Bengali film, which required neither outlandish finance nor brain-curdling plots. At the age of 93, he had retreated into himself but still had countless stories to tell, of the people he knew best, upright men and women in a big city buffeted by plausible crises, which were overcome with honesty and humour.

No French-bearded baddies, cigarillo-puffing vamps and stunt-addicted superheroes marred his oeuvre of feature films not to forget those vintage, trend-setting TV series: Rajani (1985), showcasing a firebrand housewife and Byomkesh Bakshi (1983) following the adventures of a Sherlock Holmes-like sleuth.

That was Basu Chatterji. Garbed in a navy blue lungi, bare-chested (unless an unfamiliar visitor was expected) and relishing his evening quota of Scotch (“Single malt valt I don’t like”), Basuda couldn’t ever reconcile himself to the notion of semi-retirement.

“I keep doing small films whenever a financier is interested,” he would shrug in a study equipped with a state-of-the-art computer. “I surf the Internet,” he continues. “There’s so much going on. Making films in high definition is everywhere. Just one digital film has to click in a big way in the Mumbai film industry, and everyone will be running towards the medium. It’s here but hasn’t become as strong as it has in the West.” The entries at the Berlin International Film Festival three years ago, he recalled, were largely digital. He was amazed that even the Hollywood blockbusters Avatar (2009) and The Hobbit series (2012 onwards) opted in no small measure for digitally enhanced visuals. Beyond a point,  conversations on techno-flash bored him.

Frequently, I would wonder why he hadn’t agreed to an authorised autobiography, hinting that I would be grateful to do it. Pouring us Patialas, he would grin wryly, “A book? Forget it. I would have to lie through my teeth, say I’m nice and everyone has been nice to me. I’ve always hated politically correct biographies. They don’t inform readers about what they don’t know already. Who needs that?”

I’d argue that he’d been a professional cartoonist and illustrator with the  weekly tabloid Blitz and had been on the frontline of the Film Society Movement since the mid-1960s. For the book, Chatterji could surely dwell on topics that weren’t personal or gossipy. To that, he’d retort that not many would be interested. “Film societies, aah! It was a time to crusade for better cinema and to expose people to world cinema,” the snow haired stalwart would insist.

“Screenings of short films from the Oberhausen festival in Germany, a collection of Czech films and the French New Wave masterpieces were jam packed and in fact, have influenced so many of our quality-conscious Indian film directors. That era has gone. Today, it’s the time of digital, and from what I hear, downloading any film from any part of the world. People don’t travel miles to see rare masterworks, anymore, like they would for the morning shows of Satyajit Ray films at the Chitra cinema in Dadar.”

Trusting two callow students from St. Xavier’s College, Abbas Abbas and me, Basuda had asked us to take over the editorship of Film Forum’s quarterly magazine Close-Up. We were over the moon, writing, commissioning and I dare say giving finess to the articles, imagining up headlines, ferreting photographs and putting every issue for two years to bed at a darkly-lit Byculla printing press, never missing the deadline. The Forum’s members were pleased with the outcome, earning shabashes even from the then Times of India critic Bikram Singh. And then Abbas in a fit of independence, penned an article on a seasoned writer, filmmaker and social activist, calling him “mediocre” and a “charlatan”.

Basuda was furious. Our apprenticeship, at a token fee, was over and the magazine went back to an office-bearer of the Film Forum. Gratifyingly, we weren’t exiled from the film society. In private, Basuda told us, “You guys did nothing wrong. It was your opinion. But you know how it is, the majority of the editorial board voted against you as irresponsible kids.” That was a learning experience for me, vis-a-vis the career in journalism I would eventually opt for. Write what you truly feel, if there are repercussions, take them in your stride. Anyway as it happened, the office-bearer couldn’t handle the extra work burdened on him. Abbas and I were back at the Byculla printing press, chastened but wiser, and continued to bring out our baby Close-Up. Alas Abbas passed away just before college graduation of a sudden ailment. I asked politely to withdraw from the responsibility.

While spearheading the Film Forum society along with the late Arun Kaul, Chatterji had begun working on his debut black-and-white film Sara Akash (1969), which delved into a young man’s resistance to an arranged marriage. It drew praise from the mandarins, but the trade, producers and distributors, woke up to the director’s brand of intimate films, which could make cushy profits only five years later with the sleeper success of Rajnigandha (1974). This little gem looked at a young woman’s dilemma in choosing a life with a mousy middle class clerk or a city slicker in the glamorous advertising trade. No prizes for guessing that the mouse walked away with the heroine towards a comforting, happy ending.

Next, in 1975-’76 Chitchor and Chhoti Si Baat sided with the awkward simpleton over the diametrically opposite suave man-about-town. Intermittently, there’d be no denying that Chatterji took on more on his plate than he could chew, resulting in the sub-standard Us Paar (1974), Safed Jhooth (1977), Do Ladke Dono Kadke (1979).

Yet the director, after the downers, would bounce back intermittently with  Priyatama (1977), Khatta Meetha (1978), Baaton Baaton Mein (1979), Swami (1977), Apne Paraye (1980), Shaukeen (1981) and Chameli ki Shaadi (1986). Quizzed about the film, which was the closest to his heart, he’d immediately answer Jeena Yahan (1979), a barely remembered, uncompromised take on a young couple’s, enacted by Shabana Azmi and Shekhar Kapur, adjustment to the rigours of urban pressures. Of his favourite No.1 actor, he’d say Amrita Singh in Chameli ki Shaadi, adding that her spontaneous performance had bowled him over.

Inevitably, Basuda’s films have been compared with those of Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s for their modest budgets, solid storytelling and accomplished performances from the top stars of the time including Rajesh Khanna, Dharmendra, Amitabh and Jaya Bachchan.

Monitor them closely, though, and both the auteurs reveal their separate signatures. Hrishida was fulsomely sentimental and emotive, Basuda more bemused and casual. Incidentally, there has been scant if any exposure of Basuda’s last Hindi films Prateeksha (2006), featuring Jimmy Sheirgill and Dia Mirza, and Kuch Khata Aur Meetha (2007), with newcomers in the lead supported by Anupam Kher and Moushumi Chatterjee. “Don’t ask me why,” would be his terse response whenever I mentioned them.

Towards the end-years of Basuda, I was determined to make a documentary albeit on a zero-budget, sticking to his films. A team of videographers volunteered to work free of charge. However, it was much too late. Our first afternoon session at his home, merely drew monosyllabic answers. He was uneasy and couldn’t fathom why we had encircled him with technical paraphernalia. The documentary was abandoned.

Much before that documentary afternoon, I’d wished to know whether the champion of the everyday man’s ethos ever sat back and watched reruns of his films on television? Never.

After the third Patiala, he’d scratch his ears as was his habit and emphasise that he would like to take off for the next Indian International Film Festival, wherever it was happening, Goa, Thiruvananthapuram, Kolkata, Delhi, wherever, That said, he’d clink crystal glasses, “Till then here’s to my next film, whether it happens or not. Cheers!

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