A champion of middle class ethos
He can be located at his apartment in an upscale Mumbai suburb, still itching to make yet another film, in half a shoestring budget. And quietly, he often takes off to Kolkata to confect a Bengali film, which requires neither outlandish finance nor brain-curdling plots.
At the age of 82, he has countless stories to tell — of the people he knows best — the middle-class buffeted by plausible crises, which are overcome with honesty and humour.
No French-bearded baddies, cigarillo-puffing vamps and stunt-addicted superheroes spoil his considerable oeuvre of over 35 Hindi films and five in Bengali, not to forget those vintage, trend-setting TV series: Rajni (1985) showcasing a firebrand housewife and Byomkesh Bakshi (1983) following the adventures of a Sherlock Holmes-like sleuth.
That’s Basu Chatterji. Garbed in a navy blue lungi, bare-chested (unless an unfamiliar visitor is expected) and enjoying his evening quota of Scotches (“Yeh single malt valt I don’t like”), Basuda, as he is termed, doesn’t entertain the notion of semi-retirement.
“I keep doing small films whenever a financier is interested,” he shrugs in a study equipped with a state-of-the-art computer. “I surf Internet,” he continues. “There’s so much going on. Making films on high definition is everywhere. Just one digital film has to click in a big way in the Mumbai film industry, and everyone will be running towards the medium. It’s here but hasn’t become as strong as it has in the West.” The entries at the Berlin International Film Festival three years ago, he recalls, were largely digital. Today, he is amazed, that even Avatar and the lately released Hobbit opted partly for digitally enhanced visuals.
Beyond a point, a conversation on technoflash, bores him. To switch topics, one wonders why he hasn’t agreed to an authorised autobiography. Pouring us patialas, he laughs, “A book? Forget it. I would have to lie through my teeth, say I’m nice and everyone has been nice to me. I’ve always hated politically correct biographies. They don’t inform readers about what they don’t know already. Who needs that?”
On the frontline of the film society movement from the mid-1960s onwards, for the book, Chatterji could surely dwell on topics that aren’t personal or gossipy. To that, he says not many would be interested in his role as the leading force of the Film Forum society. “It was a time to crusade for better cinema and to expose people to world cinema,” the snowhaired stalwart rewinds. “Screenings of short films from the Oberhausen festival in Germany, a collection of Czech films and the French new wave masterpieces were jampacked and in fact, have influenced major Indian film directors. That era has gone. Today, it’s the time of DVDs, and from what I hear, downloading any film from any part of the world. People don’t travel miles to see rare masterworks anymore — like they would for the morning shows of Satyajit Ray films at the Chitra cinema in Mumbai.”
While spearheading the Film Forum society along with the late Arun Kaul, Chatterji began working on his debut black-and-white film Sara Akash (1969), which delved into a young man’s resistance to an arranged marriage. It attracted praise from the mandarins, but the trade — producers and distributors — woke up to the director’s brand of intimate films which could make cushy profits only five years later with the sleeper success of Rajnigandha, which looked at a young woman’s dilemma in choosing a life with a mousy middle class clerk or a city slicker in the glamour advertising trade. No prizes for guessing that the mouse walked away with the heroine towards a comforting, happy ending.
Next, in 1975-’76 Chitchor and Chhoti Si Baat sided with the awkward simpleton over the diametrically apposite suave man-about-town. Intermittently, there’d be no denying that Chatterji took on more on his plate than he could chew, resulting in the disappointing Us Paar, Safed Jhooth, Do Ladke Dono Kadke to cite random examples. Yet the director, after the downers, bounced back with Khatta Meetha, Baaton Baaton Mein, Swami, Apne Paraye and Shauk-een. Ask him about the film which is the closest to his heart and he immediately responds Jeena Yahan (1979), a barely remembered, uncompromised take on a young couple’s adjustment to the rigours of urban pressures.
Inevitably, Basuda’s films have been compared with those of Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s for their modest budgets, solid storytelling and accomplished performances from the top stars of the time. Monitor them closely, though and both the auteurs reveal their individualistic signatures.
So does the champion of the middle class ethos ever sit back and watch reruns of his films on television? Never. After the third patiala, he scratches his ears and says he would like to take off for the next Indian international film festival, wherever it’s happening — be it Goa or Thiruvananthapuram. That said, he clinks glasses, “Here’s to my next film — whether it happens or not. Cheers!”
The writer is a journalist, film critic and film director