Life ever-present, director invisible

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By The Telegraph Online
  • Published 28.08.06
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In an interview to The Telegraph a couple of years ago, Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s “babumoshay”, Amitabh Bachchan, had said: “Hrishida is planning a comeback with me and Jaya. I will do whatever he says.”

That was the magic of Mukherjee. Screen legends were ready to work with him without even glancing through the script or talking money. Dilip Kumar, Raj Kapoor, Dev Anand, Rajesh Khanna, Dharmendra, Rekha, Jaya Bachchan — none could say “no” to Hrishida. A rare mix of box-office glory and critical acclaim meant that the biggest of stars were always a phone call away.

As film-makers from Guru Dutt and Raj Kapoor to Yash Chopra and Ramesh Sippy attempted one grandiose celluloid epic after another, Mukherjee, over four decades, busied himself making his bittersweet fables mirroring myriad human emotions.

“He always chose subjects very close to life,” said actress Saira Banu who had worked with Hrishida in Chaitali and whose husband Dilip Kumar “was instrumental” in Mukherjee turning director, with Musafir, from an editor.

“He never went for any ostentatious subject and just focused on relationships. He also kept the format very simple, and so nothing in his films ever seemed put on.”

Perhaps it was an art Mukherjee had learnt from his mentor, film-maker Bimal Roy, who had got him to edit Tapish when he was just another lab boy lurking around the studio. After Musafir bagged a gold medal from the National Awards jury, commercial success for Mukherjee came with Anari and Anupama before he made his landmark movie, Anand.

It was not only a casting coup with Mukherjee bringing together Rajesh Khanna and the then little-known Amitabh Bachchan, but his cinematic tribute to best friend Raj Kapoor explored the joie de vivre of a terminally ill man in a way unseen on the Indian big screen.

The post-Anand phase would see Mukherjee punctuate his emotional roller-coasters like Abhimaan and Namak Haram with a series of lighter comedies like Bawarchi, Guddi, Chupke Chupke and then Golmaal.

Amol Palekar soon became Mukherjee’s man — a symbol of the Indian middle class that the film-maker could identify with so well and reach out to so effectively.

“Hrishida was a beautiful human being and this not only showed in his films but was a binding force in his relationship with all his cast and crew,” Palekar said from his Pune house moments after the octogenarian film-maker passed away at Mumbai’s Lilavati Hospital.

It is this personal bonding that helped Mukherjee break star images with ease. If action star Dharmendra became a botany professor in Chupke Chupke, king of romance Rajesh Khanna played a cook in Bawarchi. The Angry Young Man, Amitabh Bachchan, himself was turned into an egoistic singer in Abhimaan.

“The hallmark of a Hrishikesh Mukherjee film was that you could never feel his presence,” added Palekar. “Most directors try to impress and dazzle audiences with some technical brilliance or shot composition but Hrishida never needed to shout from the rooftop. He had such a complete command over the medium that he could give you the feeling that the director was not existent in his films.”

And that is something every second film-maker today tries to achieve. “This is a Hrishikesh Mukherjee kind of comedy” is now the catch-phrase of budding new directors trying to move away from Bollywood’s sex-and-violence routine.

No wonder Saira Banu rounds it off saying: “Indian cinema will miss Hrishida as a master who made his own film genre.” A genre defined by simplicity and sensitivity.