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September 12, 2000


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A cineaste in the mainstream cinema

Raju Bharatan

He had already notably directed two of The Triumvirate in Dilip Kumar (Musafir) and Raj Kapoor (Anari) and was working with the third, Dev Anand (alongside Sadhana), on Asli Naqli (1962), when I ran into Hrishikesh Mukherjee to ask how far he was through with the film. Hrishikesh Mukherjee

"The Asli part of it is over, only the Naqli portion remains!" came back Hrishikesh Mukherjee.

By this, what the 2000 AD winner of the Dadasaheb Phalke Award meant was that the true directorial part of Asli Naqli shooting was complete, only the songs remained to be picturised! Such songs as Shanker’s Tera mera pyaar amar (Lata) and Jaikishan’s Chheda mere dil ne taranaa tere pyaar ka (Rafi)!

It is not that Hrishi does not love music. It is that he always discerned a touch of artificiality inherent in the way songs had to come across on the mainstream screen. Yet, for all his reservations here, Hrishi usually did a good job on the song picturisation in his films ranging from Anupama to Anand.

And this is what makes Hrishikesh Mukherjee a cineaste with a difference: his capacity to deliver while functioning, at all times, on the artistic fringe of commercial cinema.

IN debuting as a director with the 1957 Musafir trilogy, Hrishikesh Mukherjee was ahead of his times in the matter of introducing ‘parallel cinema’. But it was, antithetically, with Anari (1959) and Anuradha (1960) that this thinker-craftsman found his directorial feet.

Sharmila Tagore Contrary to popular view, Anuradha was a disaster at the box office -- Leela Naidu in the title role appealing only to the cognoscenti. Hrishi, therefore, had belated reason to feel fulfilled when Anuradha won the National Award as the Best Film of 1960.

Those days it was called the President’s Gold Medal -- something that sounded much more impressive and impactive. And Hrishi, in Anuradha, showed himself to be a noteworthy disciple of Bimal Roy, coming up with a touching tale, still remembered for the way he got an Indo-Anglian, in Leela Naidu, to look the Indian part.

Plus how memorably Hrishi, as the film’s director, interacted, in Anuradha, with Pt Ravi Shankar as music director. Saanwre saanwre kaahe mose karo joraa joree baiyyan na marodon moree (in raga Bhairavi); Jaane kaise sapnon mein kho gayee ankhiyaan (in Tilak Shyam); Haaye re woh din kyun na aaye (in Jansamohini); and, clinchingly, Kaise din beete kaise beeteein ratiyaan piya jaane na (in Maanj Khamaj) gave virtuoso credence to Hrishi’s claim that "Lata is Saraswati" -- a claim made when this diva was the theme-song of our discussion.

FIRST Anuradha and then Anupama -- with Sharmila (Kuchch Dil Ne Kaha) Tagore in the name role -- won high critical acclaim for Hrishi, as did Satyakam (drawing out of Dharmendra a performance of unsuspected sensitivity and refinement).

Hrishi himself regards Satyakam (1969) as his best film, the most satisfying in all respects for the way he got Sharmila, too, to act rather than play act. "With Satyakam," Hrishi told me, "I came as near perfection as I could possibly hope to do in mainstream cinema."

That the lay public viewing Satyakam let him down at the counter was something for Hrishi to regret. He realised anew, following Satyakam, that quality is the first casualty on the all-India Hindi screen. It was this realisation that had prompted Hrishi to be prolific as a filmmaker.

Before Satyakam, Hrishi (in 1967) had had Meena Kumari playing Majhli Didi -- the first time he turned to his mentor Bimal Roy’s favourite author: Saratchandra. But Meena Kumari, by that stage, had a face so filled out that the mobility of visage distinguishing Parineeta was missing altogether, so that the show came a cropper.

So had Hrishi’s Meena Kumari-Guru Dutt starrer, Saanjh Aur Savera, been a total non-starter at the turnstiles. 'Triumph of Style Over Substance' ran The Times Of India heading in the case of this 1964 film -- for the flair with which a delicate subject had been handled by its resourceful director.

This tribute, coming from the most fastidious of our reviewers, Bikram Singh, was a balm for Hrishi, but his dread of the box-office abided.

Alaap BY 1977, as his Aalap hit the screen at a time when the Rekha-Amitabh pairing represented a spot celebration for the gossip glossies, it was a distinctly nervous Hrishi I encountered at the press show. "You know, Raju, there are no fewer than nine songs by Jaidev in the film -- each a poetic gem. Yet I just don’t know what’s in store!"

Aalap collapsed on the opening night itself and I don’t think Hrishikesh Mukherjee was ever the same offbeat director again.

This was in stark contrast to the confidence Hrishi had displayed in the wake of Aashirwad (1968). It was, critically viewing, not a great show by Hrishikesh standards -- the intellectual crowd around him told this stalwart director that he needed to watch his cinematic step.

Yet Hrishi was confidence personified, believing that he had extracted, from Ashok Kumar (in Aashirwad), a performance of note. There were melodramatic overtones in the film and Hrishi’s mindframe was a pointer to how the best of them view things in a lopsided light at some point or other in their career.

But mainstream cinema is a great leveller. And, inside a year, Hrishi had taken fresh stock of himself and was back – as the darling of the critical fraternity, following Satyakam. That the film failed to find public acceptance is at once the triumph and tragedy of Hrishi.

FEAR of failure always haunts a cine person of ’s vintage. Wind back to the era in which he came up with a remarkable comedy in Memdidi (1961) – with Lalita Pawar in the title role.

Tanuja here was the blithe spirit; and there were cameo characterisations forthcoming from Jayant and David. Yet Memdidi bombed so resoundingly that Hrishi, disheartened, said to me: "I don’t think comedy is my scene, I shouldn’t be straying into this area of cinema ever again."

To think that the man speaking was one who was going to come up with such featherweight themes as Bawarchi, Khoobsurat, Golmaal, Naram Garam, Guddi and Chupke Chupke! His Mili (with Amitabh Bachchan and Jaya Bhaduri) swung to the other extreme and this is a measure of the man and his oeuvre. His Abhimaan (1973) had given the lie to the notion that he had problems fitting songs into the narrative.

Abhimaan "Abhimaan was based on the life of Kishore Kumar," Hrishi told me. "As you know, Kishore’s wife Ruma (Amit’s mother) was no less talented. Since Kishore had a bit of a struggle, early in his career, he was always conscious of Ruma’s gifts as a performer."

Hrishi certainly wove an effective tale in Abhimaan. But then, an engaging storyteller Hrishi always has been.

Weigh the superstar-metamorphosing way he ‘reversed the roles’ of Rajesh Khanna and Amitabh Bachchan in Namak Haraam after Anand.

I pointed out to Hrishi that the punchline in Namak Haraam was Gulzar’s pithily politicised dialogue. "But I always get the dialogue written in Bengali first!" Hrishi startled me by observing. "Only after that is it transliterated into Hindi."

CONSIDER the irony inherent in the fact that Hrishi’s political thinking flies in the face of the BJP-oriented NDA dispensation through which such high Phalke recognition has come his way so late in his life and times, when he is rising 79!

As one who started out editing the classy films of Bimal Roy, brevity is the soul of Hrishi’s width.

His grip on the grammar of cinema is exemplified in his shot composition. As colour came to the Hindi screen with Junglee (1961), the impression was that directors of Hrishi’s generation would not be able, mentally, to break with black-and white.

"On the contrary," clarified Hrishi to me, "colour gives the director in me so much more depth and dimension – so much more scope to underscore my point. Take the bindi or the sindoor on the Indian woman's forehead in our cinema. Black-and-white can never bring out the true effect of the bindi or the sindoor. Whereas, with colour, the director drives his point home straightaway."

Has the Dadasaheb Phalke Award, for a lifetime of achievement, come too late to Hrishikesh Mukherjee? At a time when, given his health, he is weary of life and has almost broken with cinema?

Well, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, in the case of the Phalke Award, is (for him) in the dream company of Nitin Bose (1976), Satyajit Ray (1985) and V Shantaram (1986), not to speak of Raj Kapoor (1988).

It was Raj Kapoor, playing Anari (1959), who had helped make Hrishikesh Mukherjee a cinematically viable proposition at the box office. Hrishi shared a special rapport with Raj and regrets the fact that they came together, afresh, too late in the careers of both..

TODAY, Hrishi is at peace with himself, having accomplished it all, seen it all. Seeing cricket on TV, he was supremely happy till recently. As percipient a thinker on cricket as on cinema, Hrishi but recently rang me in agitated tones, as the match-fixing scandal broke.

"Is it really true, Raju?" he sought to know. And when I confirmed his worst fears, Hrishi felt outraged, remarking: "But this is betrayal of the nation, how could any one of our players possibly bring himself to do it?"

The idealist in Hrishi is what has kept him going. He found himself a generational misfit on the sets of Jhoot Bole Kauwa Kaate, as everyone around concentrated on the cellphone rather than on the megaphone.

Hrishi still did demand, and get, unwavering attention from Juhi Chawla and Anil Kapoor. But the very fact that he had to demand such attention saddened Hrishi no end.

"WHAT have you to say about emerging a ‘Phalke’?" I asked, as I phoned Hrishi to offer my cordial felicitations.

"What’s there to say now?" shot back Hrishi. "I have nothing, absolutely nothing, to say."

Yet he had plenty to say on the big screen in his time, that is why you feel happy that the Phalke Award came to Hrishikesh Mukherjee at a point when he had reached that dangerous stage of being passed over forever.

Take a bow, Hrishida. Gout or no gout, you always did put your best directorial foot forward!

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