A ‘Rang Birangi’ career in Bollywood: The World of Hrishikesh Mukherjee – the Filmmaker Everyone Loves

The first book on iconic Bollywood director Hrishikesh Mukherjee and his films
The first book on iconic Bollywood director Hrishikesh Mukherjee and his films

Title: The World of Hrishikesh Mukherjee – the Filmmaker Everyone Loves; Author: Jai Arjun Singh; Publisher: Penguin Viking; Pages:332; Price: Rs.599

If films, especially the Bollywood variety, are meant to offer a brief escape from uncompromising reality, especially for middle class audiences, then why did a filmmaker who mostly represented the same reality become one of the most popular? But that was the magic of Hrishikesh Mukherjee, who easily swung across genres, created some of the most memorable characters seen onscreen (remember Dhurandar Bhatawdekar?), and reprised his plots and motifs in various innovative ways.

What does one make of Mukherjee? Not for him were the flamboyant, large-scale epics, formulaic ‘masala’ potboilers (with plenty of flailing fists, sultry beauties and unspeakable villains or those of love triangles and misunderstandings) or intense “art movies” that have generally characterised Bollywood, but his oeuvre, which spanned four decades, was undoubtedly popular cinema and still wide-ranging and even provocative – but also guaranteed to touch you.

Set mostly in a middle class millieu, and often taking a deceptively lively approach, his 43 films, which include the popular and iconic “Chupke Chupke”, “Gol Maal”, “Rang Birangi”, “Anand”, “Anupama” and “Guddi”, dealt with complex people and relationships (including of gender), the film industry and its foibles, middle class aspirations and fantasies of a glamorous and spicier life, about getting responsible and socially conscious, of ‘natak’ (performances) – both forced and voluntary – in daily life, reconciling tradition and modernity – even when the two occur in unrecognizable manifestations, and many more from life’s infinite variety.

For good measure, Mukherjee was the only who successfully utilised Wodehousian and Shakespearean comedy in Bollywood.

He was often interviewed by both film magazines as well as mainstream media (though he wasn’t very forthcoming – best-selling author Kiran Manral, who interviewed Mukherjee in 1998 during her journalistic career, recalls he was most self-effacing and reluctant to talk about his work), but there was no full length account (like for many other Bollywood directors) on the man and his work till journalist, blogger and author Jai Arjun Singh stepped in.

Singh, whose previous works include an examination of cult classic “Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron” and an anthology of film writing, stresses his book is not an biography “in the usual sense of that word” and though dealing with Mukherjee’s life and personality – from old interviews and from people who knew and worked with him, the focus on his cinema itself.

Neither is it a “close” or “objective” view of his works, but essentially “an enthusiast’s tribute to some of the things he finds most stimulating in the Mukherjee universe”, with the “emphasis on themes, talking points that can be illustrated by looking a specific films or sequences, and sometimes embellished with anecdotes” to offer a new way at looking at some of them and their director.

Singh achieves his goal well over a dozen-odd chapters in each of which he deals, with a keen insight, with three to four of Mukherjee’s key films but those discussed earlier do keep on re-appearing as points of comparison.

Also cited are the uncountable cross-references and repeating motifs in Mukherjee’s films (an incident sad and poignant in one, and flighty and humorous in the next – using the same actors. eg. Dharmendra and Sharmila Tagore in “Satyakam” and “Chupke Chupke”) .

The journey is enlivened by his wit, which can go to wildly irreverent – I defy you to read his musings on a sequel to “Anand” inspired by a current trend of supernatural horror with a straight face – but never irrelevant, as returning to seriousness, he offers a perceptive look at Rajesh Khanna’s screen career.

The author’s eclectic span of reference is among the reasons that makes this book a valuable read for anyone keen to know more about some enduring classics of Bollywood, and their creative impulses and art of their maker. If you’ve ever enjoyed a Hrishikesh Mukherjee movie (a full list is available here), you owe it to yourself to pick this up.

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