THE HRISHIDA I REMEMBER…by Monojit Lahiri September 30 2023, 12:00 am Estimated Reading Time: 7 mins, 24 secs
Monojit Lahiri pays a personal tribute to this iconic filmmaker on his 101st birth anniversary. Hrishida was born on September 30th, 1922.
While Hrishikesh Mukherjee looked up to his mentor Bimal Roy with gratitude and admiration, his basic approach to filmmaking in terms of characterisation and storytelling was a universe apart.
Being a Bandra boy, at least in the 1950’s and 60’s, sure had its advantages for an impressionable kid drawn magnetically towards anything to do with the starry universe. Residing in the sylvan environs of Pali Hill, the home of several A-lister actors and directors, I am convinced that the fault lay in our stars! My father, a corporate biggie, had no real interest in this area, but since he possessed magical social skills, Sanat Lahiri was a much sought-after person, amongst other circles, in the Bengali film group: Amiya Chakravarty, Hiten Chowdhury, Hemant Kumar, Basu Bhattacharya, Abhi Bhattacharya and yes, Hrishikesh Mukherjee were some names that come to mind. Hrishida, along with Abhi, were especially fond of him and dropped by for some chai and adda on weekends. Over time, we moved back to Kolkata and later, I relocated to Delhi with my family for professional reasons.
By then I was an advertising professional who also freelanced as a film journo. I never failed to take advantage of my family connection with Hrishida. Interviews, bytes, opinions, advice, the man was always generous and warm with his time, despite his towering stature and seemed to thoroughly enjoy it, since there was no awe, formality or hesitancy in our relationship, my out-of-the-box and irreverent/politically incorrect queries. On one occasion, after he had just finished a somewhat bizarre conversation with one of his non-Bengali associates, I candidly asked him why, despite staying in Mumbai for years, he didn’t pay a fraction of his time and attention to Hindi as he paid to his work.
He smiled and let fly an amazing response. “What is language – a vehicle of thought that enables you to connect with the other person in a convincing manner, to come through and be understood? I’m neither qualified nor interested to be a threat to Pandit Mukhram Sharma, Kamleshwar or Munshi Premchand. As long as I can communicate, I am fine.” Point made, and taken. Looking at his track record over the years, when he connected (and how?!) with the likes of Gulzar, Kaifi Azmi, Rajinder Singh Bedi and others, the case was dismissed immediately!
Much has been written about his background and how as Bimalda’s first pupil, he symbolised his school of filmmaking. Nothing is further from the truth. While he indeed looked up to his mentor with gratitude, admiration, respect and certainly learned the art of keeping it simple and human, Hrishida’s basic approach to filmmaking, in terms of choice of subjects, characterisation and storytelling techniques, was a universe apart.
There were never any forays into elevating, socially uplifting cinema as a game-changer, or thrusts into the area of social reforms. He viewed cinema as a platform that intelligently entertained, enriched, and on a good day, empowered. His focus was on compelling stories that emerged from the theatre of everyday life and infused it with warmth, grace, charm, drama and most importantly, humour. The weren’t films like Do Bigha Zameen, Biraj Bahu, Devdas, Bandini and Sujata, thank you!
As veteran Shyam Benegal famously pointed out “Roy’s material was mostly marked by a heightened sense of reform-mindedness, which revolted against rigid, mindless orthodoxy, and unjust conservatism. It came from his sensibilities, background and mindscape. Hrishida pursued a vastly different trajectory.”
One of Hrishida’s specialities was his mastery of characters that blended quirkiness with quaintness, sometimes pitching it over the top for effect. Beyond his much loved and super popular lead characters - Rajesh Khanna’s Anand, Jaya Bachchan’s Guddi or Rekha’s Manju in Khubsoorat – there were other several brilliantly observed and sketched characters in supporting roles that stand out in memory. Who can forget the lovable Mrs. D’sa, played by Lalita Pawar, in his first major hit, Anari? He kept the name and actor years later, this time playing the role of strict matron who is totally charmed by the new patient Anand in the film of the same name? Or the self-styled music-maker Babbu in the Bawarchi madhouse (played by Asrani), whose idea of music was purchasing English video cassettes from the market and replacing the lyrics with Hindi? Or Dina Pathak’s hilariously adventurous Mrs Srivastava in Golmaal where she pretends to be Amol’s mother? Or the bewda driver James D’Costa, played by Keshto Mukherjee, whose knowledge of Hindi is as scary as his insight in cars?
At another level, look at the guts and confidence Hrishida invested in altering towering established brands like Dharam, Amitabh, Sharmila and Rekha to radically change their image from superstars to solid, credible actors! Can one imagine the virile, He-man, Dharam-garam doing those amazing comic turns in Chupke Chupke, or the soft, sensitive roles in Satyakam and Anupama? Or the ‘Angry Young Man’ engaged in a laugh riot in Chupke Chupke and intense, romantic roles in the likes of Abhiman, Alaap, Mili, Jurmana and Bemisal?
Or the superstar of superstars, Rajesh Khanna, wearing shorts and engaged in housework in Bawarchi? Or the fashionista and style diva with those impossibly towering hair-do’s, Sharmila Tagore, going totally de-glam for Anupama? And sexy Rekha following suit with Khubsoorat and Alaap? Or the evergreen rib-tickler in the fantastic Amol-Utpal Dutt comedy Golmaal? And be honest, Rajesh Khanna in his heyday was the king of romance with girls swooning and writing letters in blood, but can any of those blockbusters ever compare to his moving deathless role in Anand?
Due to the nature of our relationship, I often asked him questions that other journos would hesitate to ask. He was impressed, amused or irritated but always indulged me. I once shot off two questions: the first enquired about his recognising the change taking place in society and pulling back to take stock of his stories, characters and treatment vis-a-vis a landscape where sex, violence and corruption called the shots. The days of innocence were over. Salim-Javed and gang ruled. Didn’t he see the writing on the wall?
His response was simple. “You were a student of literature, right? Shakespeare wrote his plays over 500 years ago, right? Shouldn’t they have vanished with his death? Why are they still so popular today across the world, forever being plagiarised, adapted or inspired in some form or the other? Because human nature doesn’t change...love, sorrow, passion, envy, ambition, greed, lust, compassion, generosity, hopes, dreams, aspirations don’t change. They are my raw material, my source feeder of my work. To present them in a form that is warm and instantly relatable, touched with grace, charm and large doses of humour is my mantra. Celebrate positivity, optimism and the triumph of the human spirit in the common man - that’s my agenda.”
I followed it up with another question. Popular rumour states that despite being such a celebrated and successful filmmaker, reeling out hit after hit, the fees that you charge are peanuts compared to your contemporaries.
He flashed a benevolent smile. “See, I am an old man, rapidly getting older by the day. I am also unwell with diabetes, gout, etc. My personal lifestyle, as you know, is very simple and so are my eating habits - doctor’s orders! I am perfectly content with what I make. Supposing I were to demand double my fees and get it, what would I do with the money? I am not into the share market, gambling, racing, parties, alcohol or smoking. More money will not spice up my Dal-Roti with gold and silver or bhaat-maach with pearls and diamonds, right? I live alone with my dogs and my trusted Ramu-kaka. I am happy. In any case, for me, money is a convenience, a means to an end, not the end itself. A nice game of chess, a great book, lovely music, but above all, a good adda with close friends, they charge me up.”
Moving away, I asked him one last question: did he really idolise anyone?
The reply came in a flash, “Manikda. Do you know, I once requested him if I could be his assistant for a while, just to observe the master closely at work. He just laughed and didn’t take it seriously...”
Finally, how did Hrishikesh Mukherjee rate himself as a filmmaker? And, he said, “Maybe a little above average, but in Bollywood, I am considered a genius!” Laughter.