Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Basu Chatterjee (1930-2020): The maestro of Middle Cinema

Is your go-to image of Bombay on film Amol Palekar nervously approaching Vidya Sinha aboard a bright red BEST bus? Or Amitabh Bachchan and Moushumi Chatterjee walking in the rain on Marine Drive, drenched and happy? Perhaps it’s Palekar sketching Tina Munim in a crowded local train. All these moments come from the films of one man. Basu Chatterjee, whose four-decade career yielded some of Hindi cinema’s most beloved films, died this morning at his Mumbai home, of age-related ailments. He was 90.

Along with Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Chatterjee was the undisputed master of Middle Cinema, a strand of Hindi film which emphasized everyday settings and concerns, a happy mean between commercial and arthouse fare. His glory days were the 1970s, a decade where he directed 18 films, most of them gentle comedies and dramas about teachers and secretaries, struggling artists and government employees. Several of these are classics: Chhoti Si Baat (1976), Rajnigandha (1976), Chitchor (1976), Baton Baton Mein (1979) and Manzil (1979).

His first film, though, pointed in a different direction. Sara Akash released in 1969, a remarkable year which also saw Mani Kaul’s Uski Roti and Mrinal Sen’s Bhuvan Shome. Filmed in dramatic black and white, Sara Akash, with its dream sequences, angular compositions and Bressonian non-acting by lead Rakesh Pandey, was indebted to art film traditions both Indian and global. These experiments would persist in his later films, but in a less stark form: the freeze frames in Rajnigandha, the charming “Jaaneman Jaaneman" daydream in Chhoti Si Baat.

It’s with his second feature, Piya Ka Ghar (1972), a comedy about newlyweds played by Jaya Bachchan and Anil Dhawan unable to find privacy in their cramped living quarters, that Chatterjee settled into the style we now associate with him. Though the inconveniences and disappointments of daily life are at the heart of the film, the tone is forgiving, hopeful. It’s a small but crucial adjustment from the harsher Sara Akash – which is why Chatterjee’s first film is mostly associated with the serious, socially minded Parallel Cinema movement and his work after that with the milder Middle Cinema.

Chatterjee’s films are often spoken of in terms of their simplicity, which belies his eye for striking images. Working with the great cinematographer KK Mahajan, he found a sort of poetry of the everyday in parks, verandahs, bus stops, movie theatres, office spaces, cafes. Since many of his films were set in Bombay, the city in the 1970s was immortalised in his films. Few directors used clothes as effectively to draw the viewer’s eye, whether it’s Vidya Sinha’s white sari with dark red flowers in Rajnigandha or the inspired idea of having Bachchan in a suit and tie in the rain for “Rim Jhim Gire Saawan".

Chatterjee continued to work steadily in the 1980s, making popular films like Shaukeen (1982), Chameli Ki Shaadi (1986) and the 12 Angry Men adaptation Ek Ruka Hua Faisla (1986). Like many of the Parallel and Middle Cinema directors, he also turned to TV, directing 34 episodes of the beloved 1990s detective series Byomkesh Bakshi. Even as his own career stalled, he continued to influence younger directors. A film-maker as different as Ram Gopal Varma wrote: “I remember seeing Chitchor seven times somewhere in the late 1970s or early 1980s, and the simplicity of narration that I learnt from it was pretty much what shaped my vision of Rangeela." Indeed, beneath its MTV-style flash, Rangeela (1995) was a film in the Chatterjee mould, a sympathetic look at middle-class dreams and struggles.

Chatterjee’s influence on the New Middle Cinema of recent years is also pronounced. A key film in this movement, Dum Laga Ke Haisha (2016), is basically a smart update on Sara Akash. Films like Bareilly Ki Barfi (2017) and Shubh Mangal Saavdhan (2017) might be more outspoken than anything Chatterjee made, but the immersion in the everyday, the attention to speech and clothes and setting, is much the same. These films are part of his legacy. It’s fitting that he occupied the middle ground, for it becomes clearer with every passing year how central Basu Chatterjee is to Hindi cinema.

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