Remembering Hrishikesh Mukherjee; Timeless Stories that Warm the Heart

October 01, 2007
Kavita Chhibber

"I don't consider myself big enough to give people a message. But people should remain happy." - Hrishikesh Mukherjee

He would have turned 85 on 30th September - the man of the masses whose films showcased the middle class of India and humanity with all its quirks and idiosyncrasies. Perhaps the most wonderful thing about doing a tribute to Hrishikesh Mukherjee is that I get to hear some lovely stories about a man and film maker I have loved and admired so much, from those who worked with him and knew him closely. Better still, I have been spending a lot of time seeing his films again and being transported to a world that is so real in spite of being make believe.

I saw Anand ,Guddi, Mili, Abhiman, Namakharam, and Chupke Chupke just before I was to interview Jaya and Amitabh Bachchan. Jaya ji told me, that Hrishi da had come to meet her after hearing about her from her Principal at the Pune Film Institute, that during the shooting for Guddi her first film with Hrishi da she hid behind a sofa when she saw the dashing Dharamendra. She had been a huge fan and was overawed by his Greek God looks. The warmth and love that emanated from her words as she told me about her relationship with Hrishi Kaku as she called him, was incredibly moving. She said it was always a pleasure to work with him because she had a deep comfort level with Hrishi da. Swati Mukherjee, Hrishi da's daughter in law added that indeed Jaya's style of talking and her mannerisms reminded him a lot of his second daughter and he had a deep attachment for her. Towards the end, Hrishikesh Mukherjee's kidneys had failed and he would undergo dialysis. "Jaya Bachchan was deeply attached to Baba, "says Swati and adds, "He was also her second father, and it was because of her intervention and speaking to the trustees at Lilavati hospital that he received the best care and personal attention." Hrishi da's close friend Bidhu Jha said Hrishi da made certain films only with Jaya in mind and considered her to be an unparalleled actress who had no peer during her time. I couldn't agree more with that.

Amitabh Bachchan is a legend today, but he told me that when he enacted the death scene in Anand Hrishi da cut short his emotional explosion by stopping the shot and asking him not to overact. "It quite deflates you," he said as I laughed imagining his chagrin. Amit ji added that, "The single most important advice he gave me was not to overdo things, to be normal."

Both Jaya and Amitabh Bachchan talked about Hrishi da being a producer's director. He was very economical, an incredible editor, a master technician and edited the entire film in his mind. Many times they would not know why he was asking them to walk a certain way or stand a certain way but they just left themselves in his hands, and then were dazzled by the results when they saw the final film on screen. The music of Hrishi da's films was outstanding because he was a trained musician and understood music. Amitabh Bachchan feels its also the Bengali influence that made him so empathetic and sensitive to melody.

Amit ji also shared the fact that when Jaya and he decided to get married, Hrishikesh Mukherjee was the first person they told the news to. He was a father who loved them but also disciplined them, a very compassionate man, and a simple man, who told simple stories. If he had picked up a man from the street and made him act before the camera, said Amit ji, he would have been able to get him to act the same way. It was just that he chose professional actors like them to do it instead.

I was told that life was picnic on the sets always, there was no star system, and everyone was a part of a large and loving extended family. When I asked Jaya ji which was her favorite role among the ones she had done, she said without a doubt it would remain Guddi for sentimental reasons as well. Amit ji couldn't choose and said he loved all of them. It was interesting that while all actresses envy Jaya ji her roles in Guddi and Abhiman she says she would have loved to do the lead roles in Anupama and Satyakam. While Anand catapulted Amit ji to fame, he too said he would have, given the choice, preferred to do Rajesh Khanna's role in the same movie and wanted to be associated with Anupama in some way because he loves the film.

Jaya ji misses Hrishi da's presence in more ways than one. She said in our conversation that he would have been such a guiding light for those up and coming directors who are trying to make movies like his.

Amol Palekar who is also featured in this month's webcast knew Hrishi da before he ever acted in his films. Hrishi da would often come and watch Amol ji's plays and then offered him the block buster Golmaal. Amol Palekar told me that their deep attachment for each other grew over the years and remained till the day Hrishi da passed away. His aged mother would often make laddoos made of fresh coconuts from the trees in Hrishi da's house, for Amol because she knew how fond Hrishi da was of him.

It was cute how an entire scene was later picturised in Golmaal with the coconut laddoos making a cameo appearance. But then that was Hrishi da's forte, to bring common life to life on the silver screen. While Hrishi da was a strict task master on the sets, say the Bachchans and Amol Palekar, he also bent some rules for his favorite actors, as happened when Hrishi da wanted Amol Palekar to act in his next comedy Rang Birangi. Amol told Hrishi da he could not give him the dates he wanted under any circumstance. A flummoxed Hrishikesh Mukherjee, said what was the problem? He would go and request whoever had the dates, to accommodate him.

When a sheepish Amol said it was not because any other director had those dates but that he had blocked them out for a cricket match. Hrishida said - Oh is that it? He promised Amol ji that he will have a television on the sets and they will shoot the scenes in between overs! And that is how it was!

Hrishikesh Mukherjee's sense of humor stands out in every film, no matter what the genre, and it is something that every one who has worked with him appreciates to this day. Utpal Dutt who I'm told was really serious in real life was the mad hatter in so many films Hrishi da made - he was priceless as a sleuth in the matter of the mooch (mustache) in Golmaal as the cinema hating cop in Rang Birangi and the strict patriarch allergic to modern girls in Kissi se na Kehna. In Chupke Chupke Amitabh Bachchan's yet untapped talent for comedy was exploited to the fullest and added a dimension to his acting.

I had heard that Hrishi da didn't like Amit ji's angry young man image, that he felt it was not worthy of his caliber as an actor. To which Jaya ji said that the angry young man image actually started with Hrishi da's Namak Haram. Amit ji said she was right to some extent.

Bidhu Jha says that in fact according to what Hrishi said to him, the angry young man image was created in Anand itself where Amit ji was the angry young doctor! In fact according to Jha, it was the smoldering anger, and intensity that Hrishi da saw in Amit ji's eyes because of all the struggles he had been through when Khwaja Ahmed Abbas brought him to see Hrishi da that inspired the film maker to sign Amit ji for both Guddi and Anand.

All three interviewees said that Hrishi da always had a very clear vision of what he wanted from his actors and he mixed encouragement with tough love. There would be times he would let them improvise and at others he would be totally exacting and say - No stand there, and do this, and there was no more argument.

Amol Palekar says that Hrishi da was incredibly generous and supportive of all film makers who tried to be different and make meaningful cinema. When Amol Palekar decided to become a director Hrishi da not only gave him access to his unit crew and his equipment, he also handed him a director's view finder, which was a legacy from the great master Bimal Roy.

For a man who wanted to be a Bio-chemist but stumbled into film making by accident, his movies captured life at its simplest-it is not easy to be simple and natural, we all know-that is why we recognize and empathize with so much that we see in the people and their stories that Hrishi da brought to life. It was all so believable because so many nuances of human nature, quirks and incidents, characters and caricatures were taken from many real people, including his family. His comedies had us laughing till the end; his tragedies, still carried a glimmer of hope as we exited the cinema hall.

I'd like to quote some excerpts from a lovely tribute paid to Hrishi da by Raja Sen, a wonderfully gifted writer because he captured so beautifully several aspects of why Hrishikesh Mukherjee's films delighted several generations of Cinema lovers and why they will continue to do so.

"..Mukherjee's cinema was beyond directorial technique, or storytelling. His are films with depth and one-liners, films with pathos and slapstick, films with farce and grand tragedy � above all, however, they are films bred in familiarity. Absolute familiarity. Wonderfully etched characters are drawn with such tender nuance that not only do we relate to them, they echo people plucked uncannily from our lives. From job hunters in short kurtas to lanky alcoholics with telescopes, Hrishida's folk have been disarmingly real, even despite great caricature. You can't help loving them.

The stories are literature by themselves. From immense marital discord to the inevitability of death, from delicate Wodehousean farce to war of the classes, he tackled it all but laced his movies magically with an earnest realism that touched us to the core. A Hrishikesh Mukherjee film didn't come with any massive pretensions of grandeur, any conceit of inaccessibility. This was dal-bhaat filmmaking, supremely fresh everyday slices of life, served up unfailingly warm and tender.

And how they endure. From Rajesh Khanna's babumoshaai to Utpal Dutt's eeesh, not to mention lyrical dialogues impossible to forget. And the dramas are infinitely compelling, peopled by characters he turned into our extended family. The stories are ever poignant and never overdone, and we're repeatedly forced back into choking back a sob. Or stifling louder-than-acceptable guffaws with our hands. The magic lies, of course, in the fact that we are often torn by both emotions simultaneously.

Hrishikesh Mukherjee was truly the heart of Hindi cinema. His films have transcended libraries and genre, and simply become a part of who we are"

Well said!

Today a year has passed since the man who gave Indian cinema a lot to be proud of, left us, but for me 30th September, the day Hrishikesh Mukherjee would have turned 85, is a day of celebration-a celebration of his life, his films and the magical spell he cast over all of us.

As we celebrate his life today on the 30th, and in the weeks to come, I have just been given the news that an entire stretch of Carter Road will be renamed Hrishikesh Mukherjee Marg. His daughter in law Swati Mukherjee says this project was the brain child of her older brother-in-law Ashutosh Bannerjee who worked relentlessly to make this dream a reality. In an email to me Ashutosh Banerji wrote that his father in law, a teacher in Calcutta fell in love with Bombay, and he was very touched that the city in return responded very quickly towards bestowing this honor on the legendary film maker. The email is produced below:

"On this occasion I wish to share with you a fine gesture by the Government of Maharashtra, the Municipal Corporation of Mumbai and the people of Mumbai to name a portion of Carter Road where Hrishida lived for nearly 5 decades as the Hrishikesh Mukherjee Marg.

Jayasree Banerji his eldest daughter and my wife made a request to Mr Johnny Joseph the then Municipal Commissioner for an appropriate commemoration for a school teacher who came to Mumbai and fell in love with its people. He made them the heroes, heroines and main characters of his movies with their joys and sorrows. Their rigours of daily life were weaved into human stories scripted in the background of this wonderful city

My wife and I made an impossible request to implement the naming before his 85th Birthday on the 30th September 2007.We pursued but were never sure of success. Swati and Pratip from Boston continued to give us moral support and encouragement. Moved by perhaps our persistent efforts, the powers that be threw the procedures to the wind and in an hurriedly called press conference announced the renaming on the 28th September 2007, pending official sanction. I was requested to address the press conference to explain the rationale behind the feelings of the family. The media fully supported this gesture of announcement by the commissioner, even ahead of the formal sanction. I was also authorized by the Commissioner Mr. Pathak after the press conference to go ahead and celebrate the event appropriately with our family members and not worry about the public commemoration function which will be organised by the Mumbai Corporation.What magnanimity!

Who says Mumbai is without conscience or the administrators are heartless? In fact I would go on record to assert that this couldn't have happened in any other city. Let this be our family's tribute to the mutual affection between Hrishikesh Mukherjee and citizens of this throbbing metropolis. Peoples's director honoured by the people of Mumbai.Somehow it brings and also wipes a tear of from our eyes."

Initially, the tribute to Hrishikesh Mukherjee was to be one webcast, but the sheer numbers have turned this into a month long, maybe more of celebrating his memories in the words of many who worked with him. Enjoy this week's show where I feature Jaya and Amitabh Bachchan, and Amol Palekar.

I cannot thank enough the many people who have helped me in making this webcast a dream project. From Swati Mukherjee, Hrishi da's daughter in law, his son Pratip and daughter Jayasree, who not only trusted me with this project but gave me access to whatever I needed to make this a reality. Ravi Gupta, CEO of Mukta Arts, Rajeev Pandya who worked with Hrishi da, actor Faroukh Shaikh, and writer Sachin Bhaumick who provided a lot of phone numbers and were a great help. Thanks also to Jaya and Amitabh Bachchan who took my call late at night, (and Amit ji had just returned from a shoot) and shared their thoughts warmly and Amol Palekar who also very graciously took the time to speak from Pune very promptly.

Please click here for KavitaChhibber.com's Special Webcast Tribute to Hrishikesh Mukherjee

Next week I will be back with more amazing artists who will share their thoughts on a man who lives on through his films and a legacy of humanity that enriched not just the lives of those who came into contact with him, but the world at large.

KAVITA CHHIBBER is an accomplished freelance writer and media personality. She is well-known for her in-depth interviews of celebrities, authors and public officials. She also writes hard-hitting news articles and cover stories for publications. You can get a full range of her work and her interests (including astrology!) at KavitaChhibber.com.
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Deepti Lamba
October 1, 2007
06:18 AM

Beautiful post Kavita:) H.M was truly a jewel of India and to hear Jaya B talk about him in such personable glowing terms shows her to be anything but a sourpuss that most of us think her to be.

Thanks for sharing.

October 1, 2007
08:18 AM


greatness lingers because the truly great have no hesitation in sharing ... enjoyed the write-up:)

Amol Palekar says that Hrishi da was incredibly generous and supportive of all film makers who tried to be different and make meaningful cinema. When Amol Palekar decided to become a director Hrishi da not only gave him access to his unit crew and his equipment, he also handed him a director's view finder, which was a legacy from the great master Bimal Roy.

October 3, 2007
04:59 PM

Wonderful tribute to a truly unique filmmaker. His movies never bothered to be crafty or "visually appealing". His hero too was the non-hero (Amol Palekar's everyman). But the content was too good to need any form-it was sincere, simple and made us smile.

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