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Innovative, Hrishikesh Mukherjee's movies often banked on excessive sentimentalism

By Harsh Thakor* 

Late Hrishikesh Mukherjee more popularly known as Hrishi Da, whose birth centenary was celebrated recently, ranks amongst India’s most progressive and innovative film makers, exhibiting mastery in craft of making socially relevant themes. Mukherjee knitted plots together with great visualisation and sensitivity, be it in comedy, pathos, anger or romance, weaving every ingredient in proper proportion. 
Melodrama was restrained and scripts dissected with surgical skill. Without over romanticisation, Mukherjee would do complete justice to the role of the character. He did not champion art films, but gave commercial films an artistic touch.
Rarely have artists transcended the medium of cinema to project the real essence of their cultural values so or film directors who narrate a simple tale of regular families that have characters of unique shades, characters which are bound to touch human emotions universally. His characters frequently underwent life-changing journeys of their own, raising questions that make you indulge in a bit of soul-searching. Hrishi Da knew how to convey the simplest of stories in the most absorbing manner. Most artistically both continuity and rupture were blended in his work.
Born on 30 September 1922, in pre-Independence Kolkata, Hrishi Da pursued the path of an ordinary middle class Indian, studying science, graduating with a BSc in chemistry aspiring to become a biochemist, and eventually teaching. However, soon he gravitated towards art and worked at an editing lab before taking on the role of a cameraman and editor in New Theatre, a Kolkata-based film studio, where he mastered the art of film editing.
Following his stint there, he would apprentice with acclaimed filmmaker Bimal Roy in Mumbai as his film editor in landmark films like ‘Do Bigha Zamin’ and ‘Devadas’. Mukherjee was an editor par excellence who could make a phoenix come out of the Ashes. Under the mentorship of Roy, he grasped all aspects of filmmaker and even wrote the script for ‘Do Bigha Zameen’, which was inspired by the Italian classic ‘Bicycle Thieves’.
It was actor Dilip Kumar, who was responsible for transforming Mukherjee into a filmmaker. Kumar worked for free in Mukherjee’s first film ‘Musafir’ (‘traveller’), which deals with the cycle of life of the three families living in the same house.
Most of the 40-plus films Hrishi Da made in his storied career manifested the human condition. There was nothing extravagant, or experimental in, themes he adopted, but his work touched the core of the soul of critics and audiences alike because of “their middle-of-the-road accessibility, heart-warming irony and literate sensibilities,” writes film historian Dinesh Raheja.
Mukherjee was critical of unequal gender relations. ‘Anuradha’ tapped the insensitivity of a husband (Balraj Sahni) towards his wife’s (Leela Naidu) talent and placed her singing at par with his doctoring. ‘Abhimaan’ critiqued the wounded male pride of a husband (Amitabh Bachchan) whose wife (Jaya Bhaduri) did better professionally. Even the hero-oriented ‘Satyakam’ ended with Sharmila Tagore’s heroism in unashamedly confessing to her seven-year-old son that he was not his father’s biological child.
Women characters who were cast as “vamps” in mainstream films were not vamps in Mukherjee’s films at all. In ‘Abhimaan’, Bindu, singing star Bachchan’s rich and fashionable girlfriend, shows admiration of his new bride, supports him when he needs space, but refuses to run down his wife. Aruna Irani in ‘Mili’ takes to “playing with men” after a heartbreak but is awarded total respect.
Hrishi Da’s films nearly always were a manifestation of ethics derived in many forms : love, kindness, fair play, integrity, a refusal to hurt others. An important part of this ethic was that essence of inner change within a human being: from ‘Namak Haraam’s’ Somu transformation in joining hands with the workers, to ‘Anand’s’ Bhaskar Banerjees composure in transition from pessimistic bitterness, from the Sharma family transformation into a harmonious unit in ‘Bawarch’i tto'Kisi Se Na Kehna’s’ Utpal Dutt realising he was wrong about “modern” girls, Hardly any Hrishikesh Mukherjee film portrays an outright villain. The “villains” are complex characters who transform regretful, lonely old men (Om Shivpuri in ‘Namak Haraam', Om Prakash in ‘Alaap’, Tarun Bose in ‘Anupama’).
One of the most notable characteristics of Mukherjee’s cinema was how his films stood firmly on the side of youth, who in his cinema illustrated a bent towards equality, fairness, and kindness, while the old were trapped in class and caste differences, personal aggrandisement, and rigid traditions.
A weakness that could be pointed out was Mukherjee’s excessive sentimentalism, over-glorification of individuals, and not projecting collective spirit or social struggle in radical perspective. ‘Satyakam’ and ‘Namak Haram’ exhibited such charasterictics. He did not cultivate progressive art films in the manner of Shyam Benegal or Satyajit Ray, projecting the misery and rebellious spirit of the workers or peasantry.

Best films

In a career in which he directed 42 highly varied films. In ‘Satyakam’ (1969) Mukherjee brings out the best in Dharmendra as an idealist as Satpriya Acharya who wages a battle against corruption at every stage. Few Hindi movies escalated morality to such a height. With meticulous craft he portrays Satpriya Acharya’s unending quest to establish morality.
Such a character inspired pursuit of human values to the youth in place of crass materialism. The death scene of Dharmendra is amongst the most heart touching ever in Bollywoood, At the very root the end illustrates that true sainthood lies in the service of humanity and not in rituals. Starring Dharmendra, Sharmila Tagore, Sanjeev Kumar, and Ashok Kumar, it focuses on a young man’s disillusionment with what Independence has brought to India.
The emotional Satyapriya says: “Bhookh, bekaari, black marketing, sab khatm ho jayega” (hunger, unemployment, the black market … all will end). Ironically he dies fighting the “system” relentlessly fighting the system to the last straw. The movie ends with Satyapriya’s untimely death, when everyone comes to understand his ideals, including his grandfather who had refused to accept his marriage with a woman of a lower caste.
This movie dealt with the post-partition time in India, and raised questions which are still relevant for India’s social and economic structure. Today such characters need to be resurrected in Indian society, where globalisation and consumerism have trapped the public.
In ‘Anand’ (1971) with great sense of subtlety cultivates a plot about a cancer Patient, on the verge of dying. The dialogues between Babu Moshai and Anand touch the very core of one’s soul, blending humour, pathos and grace. Anand virtually looks like living many lives, within the film itself.
He did not cultivate progressive art films in the manner of Shyam Benegal or Satyajit Ray, projecting misery and rebellious spirit
Soul searching, such as “Zindagi lambi nahin, badi honi chahiye” (Life shouldn’t be just longer but, bigger!) are permanently embedded in the minds of viewers..Anand (Rajesh Khanna), is dying of a rare disease of the intestine. He leaves behind the moral of dying a living person spiritually, giving full justice to the gift of life while sharing the joy of it with others. Rarely has any Hindi movie penetrated sensitivity or in such realms.
‘Namak Haraam’ (1974) projects socialist overtones, in the story of friendship amidst background of working class disturbances. The conclusion of the movie projects how a metamorphosis or inner change could occur within the most ruthless people and the effect of environment in transforming the life of a person. It illustrated that the bond of friendship has no boundaries. The heart of an audience melts when wife of Amitabh Bachchan Simi, tells him about how merely amassing wealth is evil.
‘Namak Haraam', explores the experience of Somu (Rajesh Khanna), who pretends to be a worker to avenge his beloved friend Vicky (Amitabh Bachchan). Somu seeks to replace the union leader in Vicky’s father’s factory. Vicky (Amitabh Bachchan) is torn between his friendship with Somu (Rajesh Khanna), a blue-collared worker in a factory, and fulfilling his capitalistic dreams.
But soon, traumatised by the hunger and poverty he witnesses, he is unable to return to the bewildered Vicky’s world. Characters like Vicky’s socialist friend (Simi Garewal), the union leader (AK Hangal), and the despairing alcoholic poet (Raza Murad) speak explicitly against inequality and injustice.
‘Anupama’ (1966) is the story of Uma (Sharmila Tagore), hated by her father because he lost his beloved wife during childbirth. Uma falls in love with the socialist writer Ashok (Dharmendra), but he refuses to help her leave her father’s home, as she would merely shift from being dominated by her father to being patronised by him: “The independence of a person is as crucial as the independence of a country.” Watching Uma read Ashok’s novel, written to inspire her, and finally make the choice of becoming her true self ranks amongst most powerful cinematic memories.
In ‘Guddi’ (1971) Mukherjee portrays a young girls (Jaya Bahdai) infactuation with Superstar Dharmendra,trait very common in society. Most illustratively it portrays that film stars are as human or normal, like other persons and how the film world was make believe one. The realism is praiseworthy.
‘Anari’ (1959) most melodiously captures the love of tramp and how circumstances shape his life. The film is a mascot for virtuosity. Anari’ is a tale of an innocent man caught amidst tricky circumstances. A kind hearted but poor Raj, an honest man, is too honest for a corrupt world, and struggles to make ends meet .He wins the affection of Miss D’Sa, (Lalita Pawar) the landlord lady and the love of his life, Nutan. After acquiring a full time job, his innocence gets exploited by the rich and corrupt.
‘Anuradha’ (1960) is the story of a beautiful, young, eligible woman (Leela Naidu) who has a passion for singing, but decides to leave her world of comfort to marry and live with a noble man, a doctor (Balraj Sahni) who has embarked on a mission of sacrifice and devotion to save human lives. She does it, sees it all, and then gets another chance to make a choice between quitting her uphill quest or choose her man with his mission, all over again.
In ‘Bawarchi’ (1972) a ‘jack of all trades’ chef (Rajesh Khanna)steps into the life of a joint family who are deeply fragmented due to internal differences .In a heart touching manner he welds them together, striking a chord in their hearts, and inculcating compassion towards each other. The film illustrates how repressed feelings cut the bond of love lying underneath, and the need of the very source of frustration to be untapped.
The musical ‘Alaap’ (1977) is based on economic inequality. A rich and arrogant Om Prakash seeks to rule his family, especially his music-loving son Alok (Amitabh Bachchan). Alok not only prefers music but also the company of erstwhile courtesan and great singer Sarju Bai (Chhaya Devi), who becomes his substitute mother. Alok leaves home when he realises his father has deliberately engineered the destruction of her basti. He lives in a slum, drives tongas for a living, and contracts TB but does not compromise on his integrity.
In ‘Ashirwaad’ (1968) Jogi Thakur’s(Ashok Kumar) life undergoes tragic circumstances where he is cheated by his own wife, and is forced to leave his daughter behind. His life continues to test him, and he ends up in jail. Inspite of facing the most tortuous journeys, he continues to tread the path of honesty and truth, and his life’s end finally brings him to bless his child, his daughter Neena.
‘Khubsoorat’ (1980) illustrates the importance of fun and laughter in one’s lifeManju (Rekha) comes to live with the Gupta family which lives under the strict discipline of its leading lady, Nirmala Gupta (Dina Pathak), Manju rebels with fun and a bit of mischief but still tries to win Nirmala’s heart.
‘Musafir’ (1957) is one of the early films of Mukherjee. It is a three-part tale of Marriage, Birth, and Death. This movie fluctuates between hope, despair, and again hope in the end where the stories of three families are entwined by the character which is constant in the movie, the house.
‘Abhimaan’ (1973) critiqued the wounded male pride of a husband (Amitabh Bachchan) whose wife (Jaya Bhaduri) did better professionally. The struggle of a successful and ambitious singer in coping with his wife’s increasing fame and his own pride is the theme of ‘Abhimaan’. The manner Subi’s(Amitabh Bachchan) paves the road for his wife to earn more fame and success than he could, and the flux in the couple’s relationship is portrayed artistically.
In ‘Chupke Chupke' (1975), a botany professor, his wife, the wife’s brother-in-law, their many more friends, and a driver named Pyare Mohan! Parimal (Dharmendra) must win a challenge with his wife, Sulekha (Sharmila Tagore) who admires her brother-in-law (Om Prakash) to be the most intellectual man she knows. In order to accomplish that, Parimal disguises as Pyare.One of the finest comedies written in Hindi cinema.
‘Golmaal’ (1979) is a story of an ambitious fresher who has to play a double role to revive his dead mother with the help of a theatre actress, hiding his love interest, and do much more mischief, in order to secure a job under a traditional and conservative boss. Movie was a virtual fun riot.
*Freelance journalist who has extensively researched on Hindi films


Very good article. Congratulations!!!


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