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The importance of being Hrishida
To tell you why Hrishikesh Mukherjee is so important to cinema, one would first have to go into what cinema would be like without him. There would be no Raju Hirani, no Habib Faisal, no Rohit Shetty, no Amole Gupte and no Sooraj Barjatya, and almost certainly, no Basu Chatterjee. Even worse, there wouldn't be Anari, Aashirwad, Satyakam, Anand, Chupke Chupke, Mili, Guddi, Abhimaan, Gol Maal and Khubsoorat. More than a decade after he made his final film (Jhooth Bole Kauwa Kaate), which, to put it mildly, was certainly not the swan song he would have wished for, Mukherjee - lovingly christened Hrishida by friends and colleagues - has never been more relevant. Younger filmmakers don't just admire him, they see him as someone they can learn from.
To begin with, his influence can be felt in films as varied as Khosla Ka Ghosla and Do Dooni Chaar to the Munna Bhai series and Vicky Donor. Hirani, who it can be said is fittingly carrying forward Hrishida's legacy, often cites Anand as the definitive film that changed his life. In a television interview, he recalled how he once arranged a screening of Munna Bhai MBBS for Hrishida and was hosted by his favourite filmmaker. After hours of conversations, he discovered a screenplay booklet of Anand which he preserved as a keepsake and every time he writes lines for his own films, he refers doggedly to it.
Hrishida's films have rarely ever been out of circulation, regularly airing on television and perhaps getting better TRPs than most current movies. So what is it about his films that appeals to the contemporary audience? It is not just simplicity that draws you into the world of working-class professionals negotiating life's troubles and tragedies but it is also his sublime use of humour with which he underlines the human condition.
Stanley Ka Dabba director Amole Gupte, who is one of his admirers, picks Anand as a perfect example of that tragicomic upshot. Gupte is equally amazed by his treatment of human relationships. "He treated the bond between Amitabh and Jaya Bachchan with such moving dignity in Abhimaan that every time I see it, I weep like a baby, " says Gupte, who fell in love with his cinema after watching Chupke Chupke as a Class VII student in 1975 at the Ambar-Oscar-Minor theatre in suburban Mumbai.
Simplicity is something Hrishida is most known and appreciated for. It's the same kind of simplicity - both of thought, characters and situations - that is prevalent in R K Narayan's literature. Gupte says Narayan and Hrishida are not just literary cousins but actually, "siblings lost at the Kumbh mela". The latter's cinema was inspired by poet Harindranath Chattopadhyay's line: It is so simple to be happy but it is so difficult to be simple. Hrishida made good use of this line, quoted by the cook Raghu to his stunned master, a school teacher of some learning, in Bawarchi, the finest protoype of utilitarianism in Hindi cinema.
In director Rajesh Mapuskar's words, Hrishida's work acquires all the more significance because the values that his films represented are gradually losing their meaning. "Nobody today has the time to sit and talk over endless cups of tea. Life is too fast and there is no time for the simple pleasures that we enjoyed once. Hrishida's films are needed not only for cinematic purposes but for our cultural and social fabric, because it is, more than anything, a celebration of small moments and valuable time spent with our loved ones, " says Mapuskar, whose Ferrari Ki Sawaari bears all the hallmarks of a Hrishida comedy.
Values that Mapuskar spoke about had a touch of Bengali rootedness. According to Gupte, Hrishida - although inspired as he was by Bicycle Thieves and Italian neo-realism - was very much a product of his own land. "The aesthetics and values of Tagore can be discerned in his work, " says Gupte. Which is why you frequently see in his films men willing to help fellow men (Bawarchi), a man who gives to his family and society more than he receives (Aashirwad), a filmstar (Dharmendra in Guddi) who provides a behind-the-scenes look into the makebelieve world of filmmaking.
Juhi Chaturvedi, writer of Vicky Donor, says the values of Hrishida's characters can be ascribed to their struggle which he rarely depicts. "His characters may look wellto-do but they have had their share of struggle. They have not arrived easily at this level of comfort and it is this journey (which Hrishida never tells us) that gives them their values. "
Like all timeless comedies, Hrishida's humour arises out of their natural settings, at home where a colourful cast of characters converge with no hidden agendas. There is no place for villains. Just a moustache - or the lack of it thereof - is enough for trouble (as in Gol Maal). Many top stars of their time, including Amitabh Bachchan, readily worked with him without even reading the script. He stripped Bachchan of his stardom and made him a common man in his films, roles the superstar cherishes to date. One aspect of his work though that hasn't got its due is music, says lyricist Amitabh Bhattacharya. "His music had a touch of genius. Just to give you an example, " explains Bhattacharya, "In Gol Maal, Lucky (Amol Palekar) comes across as happy-go-lucky and vain but through the song Aane wala pal, Hrishida tells you subtly that here is a character with great depth. This song sets the tone for the rest of the movie. "
Mapuskar feels his films have thehrav, a certain stillness, and they underscore the joys of everyday life. "Who doesn't want to live in a house by the garden, have tea, talk, have wonderful friends, and a life which you live every moment?" he asks.
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