Basu Chatterjee (1930-2020): The Masterful Chronicler of Urban Life and Aspirations
In Basu Chatterjee's film Piya Ka Ghar, we meet a newly married couple, Malti (Jaya Bhaduri) and Ram (Anil Dhawan) who are struggling to find space for love in their small home at a Bombay chawl, where they live with Ram's entire family. The couple never seems to be alone to talk or make love as the house is always populated with Ram's many family members. 48 years later, the realities of living in Mumbai chawls are no different, although, the masterful chronicler of such urban lives, Basu Chatterjee, is no more. The filmmaker died in Mumbai on Thursday due to age-related problems. He was 93-years-old at the time of his death.
One of Chatterjee's most significant contributions to Indian cinema is that he along with Mani Kaul, and Mrinal Sen, produced the famous triads of 1969 -- Sara Akash, Uski Roti, and Bhuvan Shome -- which formally ushered in the 'new wave' movement in Indian cinema. It was a year after Film Finance Corporation (FFC) decided to back new filmmakers with innovative ideas and experimental techniques. Although parallel cinema, which has existed from as early as 1925, was already gathering steam with Satyajit Ray, Bimal Roy and Ritwik Ghatak in the 50s, and early 60s, these three films broke the mould of parochial storytelling and invented new grammar and style, introduced us to characters, not just heroes.
One of the reasons Chatterjee's movies are so relatable is because they erased the line between fiction and realism. Markedly different from the (Italian) neoliberalism inspired Satyajit Ray's parallel films-- that were influenced by the films of Vittorio De Sica and Jean Renoir -- which often talked about the class warfare, the stories of the poor and the oppressed, most of Chatterjee's stories were unmistakably about the bourgeoisie.
He populated his films with characters that closely resembled members of the middle class --- many of his female protagonists were working women, like Vidya Sinha in films like Chotti Si Baat and Rajnigandha. They dressed like average women did on the streets and did not resemble the glamorous Yash Chopra heroines who made waves for their fashion sense in Kabhi Kabhi during the 70s. The characters in Chatterjee's films were mostly urban, lived in big cities, in modest homes, and had access to the latest technology like the telephone. That is what made his films intimate and personal for many urban, middle-class movie lovers.
The problems and aspirations of these characters were familiar too, and mostly there were no vicious villains stirring up troubles. His films presents the characters with various life choices, and problems --- how to win over a girl in Dillagi and Chotti Si Baat, or how to choose between two very different kinds of loves in Rajnigandha, or how to decide whether you want to marry someone you are just dating in Baton Baton Mein --- and handhold the audiences as they see these characters navigate the course of life. Characters in Chatterjee's films, much like real humans, also resolve their conflicts through internal dialogues, trying to understand their own selves, and the people they love which is perhaps the primary preoccupation of every human that ever existed.
His movies also never came with neatly tied endings, or with an extreme climax where life and death hinged on a cliff. The climaxes of his films arrived, as any end in life does, gradually and irrespective of our preferences. In Rajnigandha, for instance, while Sinha's character waits desperately for her ex-lover to return her love through his letter, he doesn't.
Chatterjee's films exude a certain warmth, a familiar feeling like the comfort of home-cooked meals, or the touch of mother's hand on the forehead. It is perhaps because it not only introduces us to our own problems, our kind of people onscreen but also because it takes us back to similar kinds of homes, and cities we inhabit. Chatterjee, in fact, shows an inordinate amount of love for the city of Bombay in many of his films, where it almost acts as a character. Amitabh Bachchan and Moushumi Chatterjee enjoy the monsoon at the marine drive to the tunes of Rim Jhim Gire Sawan, in the film Manzil.
When Vidya Sinha's character visits Mumbai for a job interview in Rajnigandha, Dinesh Thakur's character (who was her ex-boyfriend in the film)takes her out to eat at all iconic Mumbai restaurants, Tina Munim and Amol Palekar's characters meet in Bandra to Churchgate local in Baton Baton Mein. Chotti Si Baat too is crowded with scenes from everyday lives in the city.
A classic case of Chatterjee's stories not working without its rooted realism is Main Prem Ki Deewani Hoon, which was a remake of his popular movie, Chitchor. While a village couple trying to marry their beautiful daughter off to a city engineer seems like a familiar story of many middle-class homes, it doesn't take off at all when the same story is told with over-the-top acting of Kareena Kapoor and Hrithik Roshan, exotic foreign locales, and a talking bird.
The beauty of Chatterjee's films lies in the simplicity with which he presents complex human dynamics and his ability to find the beauty of mundaneness. One of his many strengths as a filmmaker was his deep understanding of the middle-class psyche, which shines through films in which he navigates social issues. In Chameli Ki Shadi, he not only gives Bollywood a strong feminist character but also holds up a mirror at the deeply rooted caste system of India. In Kamla Ki Maut, the idea of moral, and societal judgment is so beautifully dealt with, as chawl members process the news of a 20-year-old's suicide because she became pregnant before marriage.
Chatterjee, along with Hrishikesh Mukherjee, also brought on Indian screens a gentle, and simple kind of comedy, that we have never had the privilege to experience ever again. If Bollywood was defined by an angry young man in the 70s, it was also significant for this rare brand of comedy that Chatterjee introduced.
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