The films of Hrishikesh Mukherjee have become the hallmark of what can be called India’s middle-class cinema. On his death anniversary today, The Quint speaks with author Jai Arjun Singh, whose book on the legendary filmmaker was published by Penguin.
Q. What prompted you to write this book?
Jai Arjun Singh: Watching Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s work and feeling drawn to it, emotionally immersed in it, has been part of a personal journey for me as a movie watcher over the past decade. This was a period when I returned to watching Hindi cinema (old and new), after having stayed away for a long time, and as I began discovering or rediscovering Hrishi-da’s films, I found that his better work had a fluidity, an economy of storytelling, a directness, that I found very appealing. It reminded me in some ways of the Hollywood films of the 1930s and ’40s that I loved so much: the work of Leo McCarey and Ernst Lubitsch, Howard Hawks and William Wyler among others. And as I watched enough of the films and saw little connections between them, a particular sensibility – a repetition of certain themes and motifs, such as the relationship between life and fantasy – began to reveal itself.
Q. While a lot is in circulation about his films, very little is known about the man himself. If asked, how will you introduce Hrishikesh Mukherjee to the world?
Jai Arjun Singh: Based on everything I learnt about Hrishi-da (whom I never personally met), he was a widely loved man, very avuncular, almost a personification of the gentleness and conviviality one finds in his best films. He loved people and dogs. He was a wonderful father and grandfather by all accounts, but there remains a question mark about his relationship with his wife, whom he left behind in Calcutta in 1950 when he moved to Bombay with Bimal Roy, and never lived with again.
“He also seems a complicated man in some ways if you look at his interviews, because here is someone who is constantly berating himself for having made “compromises” over his career and having been “mediocre”, while at other times he gets defensive about his work. He says things like “If I had my way, I wouldn’t have songs in my films”, which is a bizarre thing to hear because there are so many wonderful, vitalising song sequences throughout his work (not just music, but the way it is used on screen and in the film’s context).”Jai Arjun Singh
He seems embarrassed about not having been an artist at the level of, say, a Satyajit Ray, but at the same time he could be snippy and condescending towards mainstream cinema of the sort that made Amitabh Bachchan a superstar in the 1970s.
At times he said that he always kept his producers’ interests in mind; at other times he asserted that most of his films were a reflection of his own concerns. The truth, as is usually the case with any creative person working within a commercial film industry, probably lies somewhere in between.
It may also be revealing that the film of his he loved the best was the 1969 Satyakam, an uncompromising film about a man who never compromises. Or maybe I’m just indulging in pop-psychology!
Q. As part of your book’s promotion, you had posted on FB asking if people can name two of his films where he made guest appearances. Can you share a few more such incidents, instances that speak of his idiosyncrasies?
Jai Arjun Singh: He played chess a lot during his shoots: everyone I spoke to who worked with him seemed to have a memory of him looking intently at his chessboard while simultaneously giving instructions to his cameraman or actors. He was also a stickler for punctuality – which I suppose can be considered an idiosyncrasy for anyone working in Hindi cinema in the ’70s! Actors like Sanjeev Kumar and Rajesh Khanna were often late, and Hrishi-da had zero tolerance towards that – it was the one thing that could turn him into a martinet.
He suffered from arthritis and gout, which became pretty bad by the ’70s or so – consequently most of his later films were house-bound stories, and many of them were shot in his own house with rooms redone for the purpose.
Q. How was he as a director with his actors and technicians?
Jai Arjun Singh: Laidback in temperament, but also firm when dealing with things as star tantrums, is what I have heard. Biswajit and Deepti Naval both told me that if an actor asked for a retake and Hrishi-da didn’t feel it was required, he would sternly tell them “Okay, but then you sign the voucher and pay for the extra film” – he worked mostly on modest budgets and was proud of the fact that he could get a film made in 30 days, even if it had a big star in it.
I am also told that unlike some other directors of that time, he supervised the filming of song sequences himself, and closely watched over these scenes – which should be no surprise if you look at the wonderfully filmed musical sequences in films like Biwi aur Makaan, Anupama and Aashirwad.
Q. What is commonly spoken about is the changing middle-class ethos of the ‘60s and the ‘70s that Mukherjee’s films are evocative of. Would you call his films middle-class cinema then? Why?
Jai Arjun Singh: Labels can be problematic, but yes, it’s safe to say they were mostly films about the middle-class and about a particular milieu. (Exceptions would include something like Do Dil – a costume drama complete with evil princes and tribesmen– or Asli Naqli, where the characters are either very rich or very poor.)
I think one of the things he did really well in his better work is to show how little transgressions can occur even within spaces and settings that we typically think of as “simple” or “safe” or “genteel” – and how, even when a film ends on a status quo-affirming note (as most commercial films are expected to), it can along the way show us glimpses of the cracks that may occur in a cosy, middle-class setting. Chupke Chupke is a good example.
(This story is from The Quint’s archives and was first published on August 27 2015. It is being republished to mark Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s death anniversary.)