By Piyush Kant
It has hardly been a couple of months since we got shaken by the news of the incomparable Irrfan passing by. An actor who in many ways portrayed on-screen, the near accurate depiction of the life that exists off-screen with all its simplicity, complexity, and the in-between. And while we were coming to terms with this loss, Sushant Singh Rajput’s tragic death further hit us hard. It was not a surprise therefore when we witnessed a near-unanimous grieving on the part of audiences from literally the length and breadth of the nation after these two actors’ untimely demise. And therefore, it does pinch one a bit when one of the best storytellers of the previous generation, who laid the groundwork for actors like Irrfan or Sushant to do their bit, passes away almost unnoticed and not much gets discussed about him as much as he deserves. The person being talked about here is the late director Basu Chatterjee, the creator of many iconic movies and characters in Hindi cinema that still reside with us.
As a filmmaker when Basu Chatterjee was starting his journey in the early 1970s, the ‘angry Young Man’ as the larger than life persona of the average Indian male had just arrived on the scene. The alleged stagnancy and excess romanticism found in the movies of early years of independence had slowly given way to a male protagonist in Hindi cinema who had a wave of deep simmering anger. This anger got portrayed through Amitabh Bachchan at first but later on, was carried into later decades by other actors in a similar vein. But Chatterjee in place of giving in to the temptation of following in the footsteps of other directors quite ingeniously carved a ‘middle path’ for his own kind of cinema. A cinema that was equidistantly located from the extremities of ‘commercial Hindi’ movies and activist impulses found in the ‘Offbeat cinema’. This equidistance did lead to such creations that were more lifelike in form and content esp. in the urban setting. Therefore a certain Baaton Baaton Mein dealt exclusively with the lifeworld of Urban Christians. A community that has gotten screen space only occasionally in the Hindi cinema. Another minority community i.e. the Parsis, were able to get a full-screen space all for themselves in his Khatta Meetha back in those days when a certain Parsi character was merely introduced to evoke some cheap laughs in the Hindi cinema. In his subsequent movies and television serials Chatterjee kept engaging with varied communities, groups, and identities that have rarely gotten the screen presence as they deserve.
In fact, this unique quality of investing in his characters and their lives in entirety, in place of the cardboard-like caricatured way of portrayal that has come to get associated with the depiction of certain groups and identities, was something of a hallmark of all his creations. And in this endeavour, he broke away from the rigid and formulaic tropes of both commercial and offbeat variants of Hindi cinema. So right from his choice of actual locations in place of film studios for shooting, to the way in which his protagonists broke molds that they had got type-casted into was something of a novelty. So it was not just the introduction of the boy next door in the form of Amol Palekar that he needs to be given credit for. But also, with the famous Kakaji Kahin on Doordarshan, Chatterjee was able to showcase us the comedic genius and acting versatility of Om Puri in the titular role of a bumblingly brash, amoral and thick-skinned North Indian Netaji. Till then, Puri too had gradually been turned into an angry young man of the offbeat Hindi movies courtesy his earlier works in the genre.
Chatterjee’s unique ability to showcase the diversity of India, that too organically and with much less fanfare, has remained a rare commodity to date. So when the iconic Bengali Bhadralok detective figure of Byomkesh Bakshi got to be played by a Punjabi (Rajit Kapur) from Mumbai who spoke chaste Hindi on the small screen. Most of us could barely notice the difference while watching the onscreen adaptation of the famous regional sleuth. The show became an overnight sensation, which was not only a hit back when it was originally premiered but has seen multiple re-runs on Doordarshan to date. If not for Chatterjee, Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay’s magnum opus probably might have remained an obscure entity for the majority of the Indians especially the Hindi speakers. A premise that can further, be testified with the epic fail of the movie Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! that had been tailor-made for the twenty-first century Hindi movie-going audience. The gravitas he invested his characters with owed big time to his engagement with contemporary progressive authors and their works. So right from the times of his first movie Sara Akash that was based on the story of a similar name by noted Hindi litterateur Rajendra Yadav. Wherein Chatterjee collaborated with another famous Hindi writer Kamleshwar in writing his movies screenplay. He continued engaging with contemporary authors in his later works like Rajnigandha, a movie frankly ahead of its times in showcasing female desire and choice. Something that became largely possible because of its adaptation from another Hindi literary work titled Yahi Sach Hai by Mannu Bhandari. Present-day Hindi movie makers can take a leaf out of Chatterjee’s book by engaging with the works of important regional authors to bring back the alleged edge and sharpness which most of them seem to be missing.
Another of Chatterjee’s genius creations was the famous TV serial Rajani that had a feisty Priya Tendulkar in the titular role. Among the very first portrayals of a female protagonist on a small screen. Rajani had a female lead who although married into an average Indian middle-class household was invested with an agency of her own. She not only fit the bill as a modern, educated, informed woman of the twentieth century who knew her rights well. But she quite regularly took up the cudgels on behalf of other disadvantaged sections in the society. Like in its very first episode Rajani stood up against the various authorities when the city she resides in gets infested with Plague. In the process fighting for the proper distribution of essential commodities, standing against the spread of Fake News, stigmatisation of certain groups, amongst other issues. This premise does have an eerie resemblance to the present-day happenings around us during the times of coronavirus. It is only but a travesty that we have moved over from that glorious chapter of Indian television unleashed by Chatterjee to the present-day depiction of women as Naagin, Daayan, etc. on the smaller screen.
Another constant running thread found amongst all of his male characters, stretching from Rajnigandha, Chhoti Si Baat to Swami, Chameli ki Shaadi, etc. was their uncertainty, insecurity, and a certain childlike curiosity about discovering or making sense of the socio-cultural world of traditions, practices, and norms around them. These men were consistently found to be engaging in a battle with their own masculine selves, by trying to understand their own complex emotions and inter-personal relations with the other gender. For example, Rajani’s husband was found standing shoulder to shoulder with her, while she would regularly go out of the alleged safe environs of her household to bring justice for others. Many a times he would be found quizzically and with some innocence trying to make sense of her actions, yet he would rarely be seen imposing his own views upon her. This the added layer of suaveness, subtlety, tenderness and more fittingly empathy that Chatterjee invested his male protagonists with has become rare in the cacophonous cauldron of the insecure angry male characters of the present television generation. And with his demise, we have lost an auteur who could communicate to the world this subtlety of human emotions in all its myriad, complex forms.
Piyush Kant has submitted his Phd thesis at the Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University and is currently attached with the Development Journalism Department at the Indian Institute of Mass Communication.