Deconstructing Directors: Hrishikesh Mukherjee's 'Middle Road' Cinema!

By Yash Thakur. Posted on July 10, 2015

"Your art is your attitude to life." - Hrishikesh Mukherjee

Hrishikesh Mukherjee is one of India's most loved and respected filmmakers who bridged the gap between sensible and popular cinema. His films connected with the masses and sated the critics too. He has left behind some of the greatest classics of Indian cinema, inspired films & filmmakers and the characters he created and his films have entered folk-lore and become a part of our pop-culture. Known as the master of the 'middle road' cinema, Hrishida (as he was fondly called) made over 40 films (43 to be exact) from the 1950's till his last movie in 1998.

His films are sometimes overlooked for their cinematic brilliance, probably because they (with their invisible craftsmanship) go past you like a gentle breeze, leaving a fond memory of having experienced something pleasant. And therein lies his magic. His are the characters one can easily identify with - whether it is the emotionally recluse and withdrawn father in Anupama or the innocent and idealistic Raj Kapoor in Anari or the intense love and the ego hassles of a couple in the same profession in Abhimaan. The themes of his films were pragmatic where he spoke firmly against the ills of society.

Hrishida's movies are ageless; his stories are the story of the common man and has transcended generations. If Anand and Mili said you cannot stop living, because death is inevitable, then Satyakam and Ashirwaad showed how a few things in life are worth dying for. And what can one say about his classics Chupke Chupke and Golmaal? Rib tickling humour done without resorting to any cheap gimmickry or obscenities! His cinema spoke of the middle-class, and was laced with perceptiveness, lined with deep intelligence and a dignified observation.

Hrishikesh Mukherjee started off wanting to be a bio chemist. But his interest in photography led him to pick up editing. One day the legendary director Bimal Roy overheard Hrishida telling a friend how to edit a particular segment and then Bimal Roy asked him to edit his film. Thus, before he started off with Musafir, (his debut film in 1957 after being coaxed by his friend Dilip Kumar), Hrishida worked with Roy as an editor and a writer, assisting him on Do Bhiga Zameen, Parineeta and Devdas. Post Musafir, he was persuaded by another friend, Raj Kapoor, to make a film with him and thus was born Anari, a runaway hit that heralded the coming of a master filmmaker. From then on, Hrishida went to give one defining film after another, leaving behind a glittering trail that continues to shine brightly even today.

Simplistic, Yet Modern

Gulzar once noted that Hrishida drew heavily from Bengali literature, which is what made his movies so 'humane'. The worlds that he created in his films were a close approximation of the urban middle classes of their times. They reflected their realities, held mirrors to their lives & concerns. His characters were just like us, they faced similar issues and their heartaches and happiness found an echo in our own.

Anybody could walk into a theater playing Hrishida's film, assured that they would be treated to stories that had identifiable characters, engaging family dynamics, laced with wit, humor and sensitivity. From Abhimaan to Anupama, from Mili to Anuradha, from Anari to Anand, his cinema was about the primacy of human relationships, the fragility of life.

In later years, his ideology shifted from drama to comedies. Born in 1922, Hrishida, like many others of his generation, had dreamt of an independent India, free of poverty and unemployment. However what happened post 1947, led to bitterness and this disappointment led to movies like Anari, Gaban, Anupama & Satyakam.

Come 70's, he moved on to making family based dramas. But he made sure that it never resorted to melodrama. The scripts were tight, the characters simple and humble. The Hrishikesh Mukherjee brand of middle-cinema was firmly established in this decade through films like Guddi, Anand, Mili, Chupke Chupke, Golmaal & Khubsoorat (1980). In a decade that saw the baton pass from Rajesh Khanna's melodramatic hero to the angry young man of Amitabh Bachchan, Hrishida's protagonists continued to struggle with a more mundane, relatable set of challenges. This is especially true of his comedies.

On moving from tragedy to comedy, Hrishida once simply said: "We are all creatures of moods. At times you're angry, at times you want to laugh your head off. Critics ask me why I always have a death scene. That's because it's the ultimate truth." Watch this beautiful scene where the simple Guddi (Jaya Bachchan) is shown the world of cinema by her dream man, Dharmendra (playing himself).

Powerful Supporting Characters

Hrishida always made sure his supporting actors contributed to the story and lent a shoulder to the main leads: Lalita Pawar was unforgettable as the benevolent Mrs D'Sa in Anari, Om Prakash as the bumbling inspector in Golmaal, Seema Deo as Rajesh Khanna's compassionate sister in Anand and Asrani as Amitabh's loyal secretary in Abhimaan. And who can forget Utpal Dutt's turn in Golmaal as the boss of the protagonist, one of the most loved characters in Hindi cinema. In fact Dutt's role as Jaya's caring but scheming uncle in Guddi, kick-started his memorable career in Hindi films.

His cast, supporting or lead, considered him more than just a director. He was a friend, a confidant and a counselor to many. Says Amitabh Bachchan in an interview: "He told us to stand there, walk here, say it in this manner, speak like this - that’s how he used to direct all of us. So our input was nothing at all. All that you see in his films is entirely his input. He was the one who used to spot talent, and the one who used to challenge and he’s the one who used to guide and direct, we were just followers. His characters were close to reality, and certainly the scenes that were written and the situations that we were put in, were so genuine and real and realistic that they gave great opportunities to actors." The scene below from Abhimaan of actor Asrani shows how every character had significance in Hrishida's films.

Uncanny Ability To Spot Talent

One of the regulars at Hrishida's home and in his films was superstar Amitabh Bachchan. Mukherjee was the director with whom he worked the most. Bachchan pointed out in a tribute: "I will have to admit that most of the interesting characters that I played have been in films that were made by him - be it Anand or Mili or Chupke Chupke, or Bemisal or Namak Haram, or Jurmana. They were all exceptionally well-etched and, of course, the greatest opportunity to perform for me has been in his films ... it is difficult to pick one character and say that's the best - there was Anand and Abhimaan, Mili too - all of them unbelievable moments in film-making."

Another great collaboration Hrishida had was with Dharmendra. Apart from the hard hitting Satyakam (which both actor-director regard as their finest performances), the duo made some evergreen classics together, including Anupama, Chupke Chupke and Guddi.

Apart from introducing talents such as Jaya Bachchan (he cast her for Guddi while she was still studying acting at FTII), he groomed several others including Rajesh Khanna, Dharmendra, Asrani, Amol Palekar, and Rekha. Hrishida tapped the full range of his actors by casting Dharmendra and Amitabh Bachchan in unconventional, comic roles (Chupke Chupke) and romantic mega star Rajesh Khanna as a do-gooder cook in Bawarchi or a happy go lucky man with a golden heart in Anand. He rated Jaya and Rekha as the most complete actresses. Check out this intense scene between two of the best actors, Rajesh Khanna and Amitabh Bachchan from Namak Haram.

Master Of Tragedies And Comedies

The influence of P G Wodehouse and Shakespearean comedies is evident in quite a few of his movies. Exploring human relationships as they are, each of his film also had a subtle of social message, be it the neglect of the girl child in Anupama or the class struggle in Namak Haram. “Your art is your attitude to life,” he’d admitted once.

Anand is often considered to be Hrishida's masterpiece, and is one of the most sensitive Indian movies ever made. The story of a terminally ill man (Rajesh Khanna) battling cancer yet embracing life with a smile on his face touched a chord with audiences then and continues to do so even today with an entirely new generation of film-buffs. His movies made one laugh, or cry, sometimes both at the same time. While Anupama explored life and death through the eyes of a young woman who has lived as a burden to her estranged father, Anuradha and Abhimaan explored the complex dynamics of a marriage.

These films boasted of great ensemble performances, sparking off a new trend of neo-realistic films that seldom failed at the box office.

Watch this lump-in-throat sequence from Anand below.

Hrishida was no stranger to tragedy. At a very young age he lost his wife, then one of his sons. Yet, he went on to make films and lived life just as any of his characters would. After making a slew of realistic, bittersweet tragedies, he moved on. And even a harder genre like comedy came at ease to him. Hrishida showed his mastery over comedy when it came to exploiting absurd (even silly) details in the most common situations.

If Rajesh Khanna was cooking up food and had anecdotes for every situation in Bawarchi, then Amitabh would try to explain the difference between karela and corolla in Chupke Chupke. The "comedy of errors" theme ran through his films like Kisi Se Na Kehna, Rang Birangi, Naram Garam and even his final film Jhooth Bole Kauwa Kaate. The humor was based on pure wit and intelligent plots. Below is another rib tickling scene from Chupke Chupke.

Classics Shot On Shoe String Budgets

People who knew him closely know that his work and home were the same. Several films got shot at his house 'Anupama'. Who knows what came first; the house or the film? The costumes were the day-to-day wardrobes of the actors and the props were homemade/pre-decided. The house was constantly used as the set and his sets therefore seemed real, warm and homely. There was little distinction between the personal and the professional. Mili was shot in the producers apartment and some in the homes of his friends. Anand too, was made on a shoe string budget with Rajesh Khanna waiving off his remuneration. The film was completed in just 28 days!

Similarly, Chupke Chupke and Golmaal too were made on tight budgets. Some said Hrishida had picked up this 'cost cutting' trend from his Bengali contemporaries Bimal Roy and Basu Chatterjee, who were his close friends.

Towards the end of his life, Hrishida had to cope up with illness and weak legs. He never remarried, and his children were brought up by his parents. Though he lived an isolated life, he was never lonely. He was always surrounded by friends and family and had almost 10 dogs. He went on to become Chairman of the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) and of the National Film Development Corporation (NFDC). The multi faceted Babu Moshai, can very well use his own line from Anand- "Zindagi badi honi chahiye, lambi nahi".


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