Deepa is late for her college examination. There’s a sudden downpour, and she takes shelter under the verandah of an old mansion. She’s worried, and frequently looks at her watch. There seems to be no way she can reach on time. Suddenly, Sanjay comes walking down the road. He’s Deepa’s batchmate, but they have rarely ever spoken in class. Sanjay recognizes Deepa and quickly invites her to join him under his umbrella. The umbrella in question is an old one with a large hole on top, that already does a comically poor job of protecting him. But Sanjay doesn’t seem to be worried about it. He’s sure they’ll manage, and continues waving at the prettiest girl in class with his broadest smile, as warm as sunshine.
“My films are not larger than life,” says Basu Chatterjee in an interview. “My heroes don’t fight with ten men and win. I’ve seen the journey, the pain and the struggle of the common man, and that’s what I’ve always tried to show.” Leaving aside his critically acclaimed films that remain as notable contributions to Indian parallel cinema, Chatterjee’s offering to mainstream cinema has largely followed a simple pattern. These have been stories of men and women with ordinary nine-to-five jobs, mothers with their greatest concern being the marriage of their children – most of them do not own cars, are daily commuters on the bus or the local train, and often wear the same clothes every other day. These stories are as much of the characters as they are of ours, and the fact that these films have stood the test of time tells us that the middle-class, with its simple dreams, perpetual anxiety, and capability to lead a good life in the midst of struggle has, at its core, perhaps remained the same.
I began with a scene from Rajnigandha (1974) because it is my favourite, the quintessential Basu Chatterjee film with a deep understanding of human relationships and emotions narrated in all its simplicity. Deepa (Vidya Sinha) and Sanjay (Amol Palekar) are in love and are planning to get married, when a job interview takes Deepa to Mumbai and brings her close to Naveen (Dinesh Thakur), her lover from the past. There’s a certain magnetism in first love – they say we always leave a part of ourselves in the first person we ever fall in love with. Deepa cannot help but return to the past – she finds herself instinctively wearing a sari of Naveen’s favourite colour when she’s with him. There are possibilities of rekindling an old flame, and Naveen’s constant attention to her, his impeccable sense of time are suddenly too prominent against Sanjay’s. Sanjay is hardly ever on time, but comes up with elaborate excuses each time he’s late. On a movie date, Sanjay might just forget the tickets at home. On days Deepa dresses with care, Sanjay can almost never remember to compliment her on how she looks. But there is one thing that Sanjay never forgets – unfailingly, he brings her a bundle of fresh rajnigandhas every time they meet. Mixed with the scent of the flowers, there’s peace, a reminder of the comfort in Sanjay’s love.
In several scenes of Rajnigandha, the coming and going of Sanjay translates to fresh and wilted flowers on Deepa’s table. This poignant subtlety is perhaps Chatterjee’s way of celebrating the richness of simple love stories – where there might sometimes be a dearth of wealth, but never of honesty and sincerity. His characters are never perfect, because nor are we. When Arun (Amol Palekar) in Chhoti Si Baat (1976) follows Prabha (Vidya Sinha) almost everywhere during a large part of his day, today’s audience might sometimes be worried if they should call this borderline stalking. But we soon find ourselves in his silences, in his inability to ever express his undying love for the girl, dreams that he nurtures secretly, and hopes of enough courage to speak to her one day. In an endearing scene, Arun watches Dharmendra and Hema Malini in a typical Bollywood romantic number on screen but picturizes himself with Prabha instead. There is in fact a brief and humorous moment of transition where Prabha has already taken Hema’s place but he hasn’t taken Dharmendra’s, resulting in utmost discomfort on his part. This delightful little scene full of wit reasserts the fact that Chatterjee’s films are indeed not ‘larger than life’ – the silver screen is as dazzling to his people as it is to us.
Despite having a wonderful time watching Chhoti Si Baat, I remember feeling a tinge of disappointment. The storyline goes like this: Arun understands he is too shy to ever express his love for Prabha and decides to turn things around by visiting a retired colonel who is known for his training and advice in matters of love. Arun spends a number of days being rigorously coached by the colonel who seems to have unending advice and a few weird tricks on ‘how to get the girl’. Although Arun shows enough sense to not follow his tricks in the end, there is a visible change in him after this, for he is now much smarter and quick-witted, and that is when Prabha finally starts noticing him differently. This, coming from the person well-known for portraying the quirks of the common man, I felt let down. Couldn’t we expect a story where she loved him at his simplest? Isn’t it what we mean by true love? I still haven’t found an answer to this. But sometimes, I think I understand. Perhaps it is important to change yourself a little bit for the person you love. That is what Arun shows us – all he needed was a little polish to bring out the sparkle.
It is interesting to note that several of Chatterjee’s characters are independent, working women, which is not too common if we look at the other films made in mainstream cinema at that time. There is thus a natural, relaxed and easy interaction between the men and the women that comes as a breath of fresh air. Quite subtly, this allows the city to play an active role and not remain a silent spectator as the stories unfold. Arun’s much-treasured bus ride with Prabha is often ruined because of the strict queue system in Bombay – he gets on the bus and looks back, only to find Prabha being stopped by the conductor because the bus has reached full capacity. What a waste of a day! Thus, in his elaborate dreams where Arun often asks Prabha out on movie dates and lunches, this problem is easily taken care of – he brushes aside the conductor’s remarks with a quick and breezy ‘Let us get in, we are together!’
In Baton Baton Mein (1979) too, we find the city seeping into the storyline. Driven by anxiety and consternation over punctuality that is typical of the nine-to-five class, Tony Braganza (Amol Palekar) never fails to catch the 8.50 local. Yet, as fate would have it, he gets late one day and catches the 9.10 train, leading to a chance encounter with Nancy Perreira (Tina Ambani). Tony swiftly changes his daily schedule and makes arrangements to meet her every day. They get to know each other by writing short letters on the train, which are graciously passed around by the helpful commuters travelling with them.
Baton Baton Mein, under the shade of comedy, also touches on a particularly serious and typical middle-class problem – the disregard of the parents for the space their grown-up children might sometimes need. The film beautifully addresses the common remark from mothers, ‘But I do this for their own good,’ and shows how this constant attention and interference into the child’s private space can do more harm than good.
These films are thus a montage of bits and pieces of our ordinary existence, without any effort to make them look glamorous, but to bring out the beauty that we often overlook and rarely appreciate. His is the world of bus rides and local trains, where the cacophony of the city doesn’t for once, undermine its charm. His heroes are often underconfident, can mostly never sing or dance, and shall definitely fall dead if they ever get into a fight with a ‘villain’. This is what brings them closer home – for the ones taking time to speak their hearts, a smiling Amol Palekar assures them that it is okay to wait. His films might not always soothe a troubled heart, but shall tell us that is okay to be troubled at times. Without becoming a moral science lesson, they silently remind us to stay closer to our roots and recognize truth even though lies often tend to be more alluring. It is not easy to celebrate the ordinary, yet Basu Chatterjee has done it every time with unparalleled expertise and confidence, all in the midst of the glitz and glamour of the 70s and 80s Bollywood. It is not good to cling to the past, but looking around, the simplicity in the world of Sanjay and Deepa, Arun or Prabha is sometimes too difficult to find. It shall perhaps help to return to the philosophy of Chatterjee now and then – that it is possible to be happy without having much. To me, all that his films have taught us is summed up in two lines from a song in Khatta Meetha (1978), penned beautifully by Gulzar:
‘Thoda hai, thode ki zarurat hai
Zindagi phir bhi yahan khoobsurat hai’