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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 18, 19, April 29 & May 6, 2023 (Double issue)

The Rise and Fall of Basu Chatterji | M.R. Narayan Swamy

Saturday 29 April 2023, by M R Narayan Swamy



Basu Chatterji: And Middle-of-the-Road Cinema
by Anirudha Bhattacharjee

Vintage/Penguin Random House
Pages: 305; Price: Rs 699
ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 0670096253
ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-0670096251

He put his own hard-earned money into the making of his first film, whose story be bought from noted Hindi writer Rajendra Yadav for Rs 21. It was the late 1960s. Sara Akash became a huge success and gave Basu Chatterji not just fame but a standing in the film world that stood by him till the very end.

The affable Basu (born Basudeb) Chatterji comes alive in this very readable work on the life of one of India’s most underrated directors who made some memorable Hindi films. He did not change as a human despite his many successes and failures.

The people linked to the film industry recall Basu as a meticulous professional who always finished his shootings within the stipulated time. He was a natural man at work, never displaying tension or histrionics. He was a spontaneous director too. Even after he earned the sobriquet ‘director with the Midas touch’, he remained simple and easygoing. He was also a keen observer of life. Although not very outgoing, he often went out of the way to help unsung people. And he was the only film-maker apart from Hrishikesh Mukherjee who never took extra shots.

He allowed no frills in Sara Akash because he was depicting moderate-income characters. The actors’ clothes were not ironed but pressed under mattresses to crease them. The women wore blouses stitched by a tailor for 25 or 50 paise each in Agra where the movie was shot in just three weeks — normally, the time taken to shoot one Hindi film song. Despite critical acclaim, Basu did not win any National Award for Sara Akash. But he always considered it his best work.

When Basu turned a Hindi story Yehi Sach Hai into a cinematic hit titled Rajnigandha, it was clear a master filmmaker had arrived. After two months of shooting and spending Rs 7 lakhs, the movie became one of the most applauded films of the 1970s. It was thought then that a successful film needed either a strong romantic angle or captivating music or a powerful actor. But Basu circumvented the paradigm. With his ear to the ground, he identified the ordinariness of people and circumstances and told their story in a manner not tried before. It lacked gimmicks and had a lot of heart with an undercurrent of humour. Rajnigandha won two awards including a Filmfare award.

Film Still from Choti si Baat (1976)Then came the superhit Choti Si Baat — about the Bombay of the salaried middle-class working in mid-sized family-owned organizations. Released on January 9, 1976, it quickly became a superhit. Urban audiences loved it. Rajnigandha and Choti Si Baat made Amol Palekar one of the most sought-after actors.

Almost in parallel with Choti Si Baat, Basu began working on Chitchor, based on a story by Subodh Ghosh. Few expected it to turn into a real hit — so much so that its success helped Zarina Wahab buy her first flat in Bombay. Apart from becoming a sentimental favourite in due course, Chitchor was the third back-to-back Basu-Amol Palekar film to celebrate a silver jubilee. In all three films, Amol Palekar was Basu’s common man: an extension of the small-towner in a big city.

Basu produced some 40 films in all but there were plenty of failures too. Us Par, a teenage love story taken from a Czech movie, was a commercial disaster. Another failure was Safed Jhoot, after which Filmfare pulled up Basu. Fortunately, Khatta Meetha, inspired by a Turkish film, was lapped up in the south and west of India although it flopped in the north. His next production, Swami, among the finest adaptations of a Sarat Chandra story, opened in 1977 to a near-disastrous response before picking up audiences across the country. It won a National Award.

The failure of Apne Paraye, which Basu considered one of his best films, saddened him. It was cable television that gave it renewed life some 20 years later. Dillagi, a romantic comedy, didn’t work despite an amusing story. Chakravyuha, the only Basu film in which India’s first superstar Rajesh Khanna starred, met a similar fate. After Basu’s improbable tale of a failed romance through successive rebirths in Tumhare Liye could not sustain audience interest, Basu confided that he was signing films left, right, and centre to make up for the money lost during Us Paar. It was his undoing.

Cinema-goers were not kind to Man Pasand despite a big star cast. Manzil, his film with Amitabh Bachchan whose release happened seven years after its launch, met a similar fate. Baton Baton Main, with no message to be driven home, had a moderate run although it got renewed life later on TV and OTT platforms. Jeena Yahan, where Basu appeared to be in a hurry to shift from scene to scene, flopped. Ratandeep (1979) also fizzled away from public memory. The earlier Do Ladke Dono Kadke was a comic disaster. Shaukeen, Basu’s first film to get an Adults Only certificate, broke the trend to score a major hit.

Notwithstanding Shaukeen, it was increasingly clear this was not the same Basu. He had departed from the realistic norms he espoused in Sara Akash and Rajnigandha. His films were no longer different from the run-of-the-mill variety he detested. Some films had poor stories, some had poor acting and there were bloomers in many movies almost to the point of carelessness. A weak premise, a complete lack of rhythm, and abysmally bad acting all came together, for example, to create a disaster called Kirayadar. But despite his growing failures, the temptation to act in a Basu film was high.

Basu’s last hurrah was Rajani, a hugely popular television serial. In no time, Priya Tendulkar, daughter of playwright Vijay Tendulkar who played the lead role, became a national icon: she was a housewife who challenged the government machinery and its dysfunctional systems. Rajani’s huge success — after a string of failures on the big screen — helped Basu buy a flat at Seven Bungalows, Versova. Chameli Ki Shaadi had a decent run and was perhaps Basu’s last hit.

Maybe Basu should have stopped with Rajani. He did not. He just could not keep away from cinema. Most of whatever he did in later years were bitter failures. Even Rajani’s sequel flopped. Humour, romance and music made for the cinema of Basu in the 1970s. But the 1980s Bombay panorama was mostly about hamming and pelvic thrusts, which left the likes of Basu confused. The 1990s struck the death knell for the kind of cinema Basu, Gulzar, and Hrishikesh Mukherjee espoused. Mandi House also severed its relationship with Basu. But Basu refused to call it quits. On June 4, 2020, Basu Chatterji, suffering from old age ailments, passed away at age 93.

This book is a wonderful tribute to one who never forgot his humble roots. That itself was a rare quality in Bollywood where stardom often makes people dump their past as they embrace riches, glitter, and fame.

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