They called it middle-of-the-road cinema back then. It was all about serving entertainment on the big screen with a slice of realism, telling stories of real people, drawing humour out of everyday miseries and joys.
Indeed, todays content-driven ‘small film of Bollywood, which primarily regales the urban multiplex crowd with its stories of realism, owes its roots to the middle-of-the-road wave that swept mainstream Bollywood in the seventies and the eighties.
No mention of that genre would be complete without three names — Hrishikesh Mukerjee and Basu Chatterjee, the creative geniuses that propelled the genre, and the incredible Amol Palekar, actor who defined the everyday hero for both these filmmakers.
While Hrishi da passed away a while back, Basu Chatterjee, the other titan of the seventies small wonders in Bollywood breathed his last on Thursday.
For the record, Chatterjee, at 93, passed away owing to age-related ailments. His mortal remains will perish with the last rites, to be performed at the Santacruz Crematorium on Thursday afternoon. The creative artiste who redefined the Bollywood hero in his time will continue to live in the works.
And his films did redefine the Bollywood hero. That was a time when Bollywood commercial cinema was seeing an unprecedented surge in popularity with the advent of Amitabh Bachchan’s iconic Angry Young Man protagonist and the larger-than-life awe that it inspired among the masses. Almost every other commercial hero of the industry was trying to replicate the formula.
Chatterjee’s brand of the everyday hero came as an exception to the rule, celebrating the inherent flaws of life and personality in which he revelled in.
The realistic, guy-next-door-hero, who stood as an alternative to the larger-than-life male protagonist of masala cinema of the era, was typified best by Amol Palekar in films like Chhoti Si Baat (1975), Chitchor (1976), Rajnigandha (1974) and Baton Baton Mein (1979). While Chatterjee was an expert in serving his gentle societal comments through his films, he did it mostly using the tool of humour in his brand of middle-of-the-road entertainment. Among Chatterjee’s other best-known films are Piya Ka Ghar (1972), Khatta Meetha, Chakravyuha (1978 film), Priyatama (1977), Man Pasand, Hamari Bahu Alka, Shaukeen (1982), and Chameli Ki Shaadi (1986).
He carried the trademark, believable world of his stories onto the small screen, too. With the advent of the eighties, Doordarshan took TV entertainment into every living room. Among a slew of filmmakers of the era who were brimming with ideas, Chatterjee found the small screen a natural platform where he could try out telling stories that were considered risky for the Bollywood screen.
Among his successful television serials are “Rajani” (1985), a series about a do-gooder homemaker played by the late Priya Tendulkar, who goes about busting societal ills. “Kakkaji Kahin” (1998), starring the late Om Puri was a brilliant satire on Indian politics based on Manohar Shyam Joshi’s book, “Netaji Kahin”. “Darpan” (1985), “Bheem Bhavani” (1990-1991) and the brilliant TV film “Ek Ruk Hua Faisla” (1986) were other successful efforts on TV.
The show that continues to define Chatterjee’s glory on TV, however, happened in 1993, with “Byomkesh Bakshi”. If India needed a homegrown sleuth series that generations would identify and hold onto fondly, Chatterjee gave the nation just that when he cast Rajit Kapoor as the bespectacled, Bhadralok detective, Byomkesh Bakshi. The show was a huge success and saw a second season in 1997. It continues to have reruns n Doordarshan even today.
On Thursday, Chatterjee’s demise was confirmed by filmmaker Ashoke Pandit, who is also the president of Indian Film and TV Directors Association.
“I am extremely grieved to inform you all the demise of Legendary Filmmaker Basu Chatterjee ji. It’s a great loss to the industry. Will miss you Sir. #RIPBasuChaterjee,” tweeted Pandit.
As the news spread Bollywood started paying condolences. Among the earliest to express grief was filmmaker Sujoy Ghosh. “Basu Chatterjee moves on. For me very few sees the lighter side of life like he did. All his films have a smirk on their faces. I’m a big fan. And I have kahaani 2 to prove it,” wrote Ghosh.
Filmmaker Madhur Bhandarkar tweeted: “Sad to hear the demise of Veteran Filmmaker Shri Basu Chatterjee. Will be always remembered for his Light Hearted comedies & Simplistic Films. #OmShanti.”
Basu Chatterjee was honoured with the prestigious National Award for his films “Swami” (1978) and “Durga” (1992).
Chatterjee started out as an assistant director to Basu Bhattacharya on the Raj Kapoor and Waheeda Rehman-starrer “Teesri Kasam”, in 1969.
Three years later, in 1969, he directed his first feature film, “Sara Akash”, starring Rakesh Pandey and Madhu Chakravarty. The film is regarded as one of the earliest efforts that started the Indian new wave.
His last directed film was “Gudgudee” in 1997, starring Anupam Kher and Pratibha Sinha.
Born in Ajmer, Rajasthan, on January 10, 1927, Chatterjee is survived by two daughters, Sonali Bhattacharya and Rupali Guha. Younger daughter Rupali is also a writer-filmmaker. She has made the teenybopper drama “Aamras” (2009), and also written the TV series “Ishq Ka Rang Safed” (2015).