Basu Chatterji's Rajnigandha was like a breath of fresh air in the 1970s film universe of Bombay. At a time when the Angry Young Man was beginning to dominate celluloid screens, Amol Palekar was as un-hero-like as you could get. He was the Common Man who traveled in buses, did not have hero-like mannerisms and did not breathe fire and brimstone at his opponents. Basu Chatterji's Middle of the Road Cinema burst on to the scene and surprised the movie-going audience with its everyday situations and storylines that had an undercurrent of humour. Chatterji catered to an audience that he liked to call the "Balcony Class".
Anirudha Bhattacharjee, author of Basu Chatterji and Middle-of-the-Road Cinema writes an entertaining and heartwarming account of the life and work of Basu Chatterji, one of the most under-rated directors of Indian cinema. Recall of Chatterji's brand of feel-good, slice-of-life movies is perhaps highest for his Rajnigandha, Chotisi Baat, Baaton Baaton Mein, Khatta Meetha, Piya Ka Ghar and Priyatama. Apart from these Sara Akash, Swami, Ratnadeep and the iconic Rajani for television were Chatterji's calling cards. But for a prolific filmmaker like Chatterji, who was known for his low-budget and tightly scheduled filmmaking, these are just the tip of the iceberg in a body of work that includes more than 40 films and about half a dozen TV series.
Bhattacharjee has done meticulous research, which includes interviews with 100+ cast and crew members, colleagues and peers, friends and family of the filmmaker apart from several interviews with the director (before he passed away), to write what is clearly a definitive biography of Chatterji. Exploring the different facets of the director's craft - including his penchant for making low budget films, his preference for always having a ready script, and his use of background music to take the story forward - Bhattacharjee's book is a delightful read. It will appeal to fans of Chatterji's films as well as those who may not be well versed in the filmmaker's work.
Replete with anecdotes, the book also gives the reader an overview of the dynamics of the film industry between the 1970s through the 1990s. The book provides insights into Chatterji's storytelling and his way of exploring 'serious' issues with a light touch. The author writes, "Serious film buffs looking for life changing equations in a film woud have an issue with Baton Baton Mein, as, like most Basu's films, it had no message to be driven home. As a storyteller, Basu also remained on the side of conservatism, advocating the importance of marriage not only as a necessary landmark in life but also as a certificate of long term commitment. But that was Basu. A believer in simple solutions to complex problems, he hardly every broke basic paradigms which set social revolutionaries discussing poverty, socialism and mass struggle in spas and five star coffee shops."
And perhaps because of this, some of his serious films such as Ek Ruka Hua Faisla and Apne Paraye were sidelined as they didn't quite fit into the typical Chatterji film mould. Bhattacharjee's approach to looking at Basu's body of work is comprehensive and will appeal to the serious film buff and the lay reader. It will definitely inspire readers to check out many of Chatterji's films.
Interview with Author Anirudha Bhattacharjee
All your previous books have been about music composers or singers. This is your first book about a director. Could you tell us about what inspired you to write this book and why you chose Basu Chatterji as the subject of your book.
Anirudha: The idea cropped up when I met Basu Chatterji in 2014 during an exhibition in Calcutta. I always liked his films; most of his 1970s cinema was part of my growing up. I also found that there was very little literature on him. On the contrary, there was a lot on Hrishikesh Mukherjee. Everybody is writing on Gulzar. The same stories are told and retold like WhatsApp forwards. People consider themselves intellectuals by analyzing Gulzar, however stupid and irrelevant the analysis might be 😀. Basu-da, poor guy, there was hardly any analysis about his cinema. Forget analysis; even stories were hard to find.
So, I thought, why not write a book? My R D Burman book was already there. It had done reasonably well, both critically and commercially, which gave me confidence in my ability to write a non-fiction book. Music is my strength, but I have remained a cinephile. I see at least 5-6 films (can be the same film over and over again) every week. And I identified very strongly with Basu-da's 1970s cinema.
The stars of Middle of the road Cinema were Hrishikesh Mukherjee and Gulzar apart from Basu Chatterji. What in your opinion made Chatterji’s films different from those of Mukherjee and Gulzar?
Anirudha: You see, Basu Chatterji did not like drama to be part of his cinema. You will not find people dying of cancer (in contrast to Mukherjee’s Anand or Mili). Or people sacrificing their lives (Again, in contrast to Mukherjee’s Satyakam or Musafir). His films were lighter, entertaining, and, at the same time, would end on a very happy note. No three-hanky affair. Even his serious films – Sara Akash, Swami, Apne Paraye, Kamla Ki Maut, among others - had a positive chime. Gulzar’s films were different. They were serious stuff, like Mausam or Aandhi. Or, for that matter, Mere Apne, Achanak, or Namkeen. Even Parichay had elements of sadness. So, while the nature of the films made by Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Basu Chatterji, and Gulzar were similar, the texture and the treatment were different.
Anirudha: I think that songs form an integral part of middle-of-the-road cinema. The use of songs, by Basu Chatterji, Hrishikesh, Gulzar, and Sai Paranjype has been exceptional. As you mentioned, some of the films like Baton Baton Mein have songs as the wait-for-moment today, 40 + years later. But overall, songs are nicely woven into the scheme of things. You would love to hear “Na Jaane Kyon” in isolation, but I am sure you would also love to see the film once you hear the song. The same can be inferred for songs like “Thoda Hai Thode Ki” or “Pal Bhar Mein Yeh Kya Ho Gaya”. In hindsight, the songs, the background score, dialogues, and periods of silence, all add up to the cinema of Basu Chatterji. Especially in his common man films. I would keep Rajanigandha as a true representative of the style Basu patented in Hindi cinema.
While the recall value is higher for Chatterji’s family comedies, would you say the filmmaker's ‘serious’ films have not got the appreciation they deserved? Could it be because he got stereotyped as a maker of low-budget feel good films?
Anirudha: You have hit the nail on the head. Swami and Apne Paraye are fantastic films. Which somehow do not garner the appreciation they deserve. These films need to be shown over OTT platforms. Especially Apne Paraye, as it did not do well when released. Swami was a big hit pan India. The failure of Apne Paraye forced Basu to go back to his time-tested formula of low-budget feel-good comedies. Which is unfortunate, as his serious films were extremely watchable.
Chatterji made quite a mark on TV serials, particularly with Rajani and Byomkesh Bakshi. But in the onslaught of today’s OTT content, do you feel that legacy is now forgotten.
Anirudha: I really do not know. I found Rajni very engrossing. I was a 3rd-year student at Kgp and would never miss a single episode at the R K Hall Common room. I am sure if Prasar Bharti and DD combine to re-release Rajni on some OTT platform, it will do well. Byomkesh is there on YouTube, and people are very fond of it. I am not a huge fan; have certain issues against the serial, and the same have been voiced in my book. Though Rajit Kapur was fabulous as Byomkesh.
As a researcher and writer what were the main challenges in writing this book?
Anirudha: Getting access to information. He was so soft-spoken and media-shy that there is very little literature on Basu Chatterji. Thankfully, I had taken notes for years. Combined with the interviews (over 60), articles shared by Dr. Sakti Roy (immensely grateful to him), and a lot of stuff on Basu that I found at NFAI, things became manageable.
What would you say is the most memorable interaction you had with the filmmaker.
Anirudha: Basu-da crying when talking about Basu Bhattacharya. And trying to sing like S D Burman when going back to the song “ Yeh Jab Se Hui Jiya Ki Chori” (Us Paar).