Basu Chatterjee, the Master Who Turned Ordinary People Into Temporary Heroes

Bollywood

Basu Chatterjee, the Master Who Turned Ordinary People Into Temporary Heroes

Illustration: Robin Chakraborty

Basu Chatterjee’s film Chhoti Si Baat (1976) begins with a voice-over that introduces us to some side characters in the film. All of them – ordinary people, not heroes or heroines – work at Jackson Tolaram, a fictional company in Mumbai. Some of these people we see only in that moment; their stories briskly summarised. These tiny pen portraits tell us that although cinema is the story of its protagonists, it in no way means that those who stand on the sidelines or remain hidden, haven’t lived their own, remarkable stories.

We are all protagonists of stories that – before Basu Chatterjee came along – seemed unworthy of cinema. Chatterjee, who died earlier this week, proved through his filmography, especially his portrayal of the middle-class urban underdog, that not all stories have to bear the burden of heroism. Most are already burdened, and therefore heroic, in their own small way.

I discovered Chhoti Si Baat by accident. So much so I had to ask my parents who the actors in the film (Amol Palekar and Vidya Sinha) even were. Even as late as the ’90s, watching an Amol Palekar film was an act in destabilising a certain order that cable television implied. Most traditional, beefed-up, charming male leads cramped prime-time TV slots, while Palekar’s timid understated protagonist was left to fill the vacuum of noon and post-lunch drowsiness.

chhoti_si_baat

Under the Colonel’s tutelage Arun transforms into the cocky, patronising man he assumed he needed to become, but it’s really his early righteous self-doubt, that ascertains Prabha’s fondness for the man he always was.

Chhoti Si Baat

Chatterjee’s film charts the story of one Arun Pradeep, an under-confident, naïve man living in Mumbai. Arun likes Prabha, a colleague he also shares a travel route with. Beset by social handicaps like personality or poise, Arun paddles against the waves of one-sided love that can only ever be considered real, if expressed. Therein lies the problem – none of the “real” heroes faced any lack of confidence and charisma. Until then, the majority of Bollywood’s heroes could sing in parks, clutch at dupattas, and stalk their love interests without the slightest bit of hesitation.

Tony from Baton Baton Mein, was similar. Playing him in his trademark sober style, Palekar managed to undercut a goatee, with the everyday self-doubt of a working-class man. Tony, who earns less than the woman he falls for, is crippled by hesitation, doubt that though familiar to urban India, hasn’t really found its way into cinema.

Basu Chatterjee’s non-heroes gradually became characters I personally related to the most. Through films like Rajnigandha, Baton Baton Mein and others that he made with then untried actors, Chatterjee sought his own path, with peculiar, never-before seen focus on the minutiae of life.

baton_baton_mein

Tony, who earns less than the woman he falls for, is crippled by hesitation, doubt that though familiar to urban India, hasn’t really found its way into cinema.

Baton Baton Mein

Growing up in a small town as a quiet, awkward introvert, I avoided social situations that mandated participation. Naturally, all my teenage love stories were scripted and concluded by my own imagination. At that time in my life, I would have loved to play anything but myself. At least that is what most cinema thought of people like me. Sometimes you are addressed, simply by not being spoken to. Arun embodied me perfectly: an unremarkable, modest man with a bottomless glass-half-empty kind of outlook. Someone who, no matter how deep he dived internally, couldn’t seem to return with anything worth mentioning to the outside that wouldn’t immediately drown in the noise.

Arun’s nemesis wasn’t just his incapacity, but also the living embodiment of the man he wanted to be. Nagesh (Asrani) is the self-assured, overtly masculine personality I have lived in the shadow of my entire life. Men who talk about cars and bikes, discuss their alcohol intake like it were an aesthetic in itself, and who, somehow, casually conquer that last frontier of social contact – talk to the other gender.

In the film, Arun finds a saviour, the unforgettably named “Colonel Julius Nagendranath Wilfred Singh” (Ashok Kumar), a pipe-smoking veteran of perhaps, several wars, some of them social. Though the colonel helps groom Arun, momentarily installing the idea that it takes a form of discipline to project a certain image, Chatterjee’s film concludes with the quiet realisation that all images, even those that speak the language of fists, require soul and sensitivity. Under the Colonel’s tutelage Arun transforms into the cocky, patronising man he assumed he needed to become, but it’s really his early righteous self-doubt, that ascertains Prabha’s fondness for the man he always was.

Given cinema’s cliched veneration for the hero, his proprietary ownership of the happily-ever-after, people like me have always been resigned to playing sidekicks with seemingly no “ever after” in sight. The hero’s story seemingly has an end, and because he is the hero, it’s usually a happy one. Common people, like me live through everything except that socio-cultural arc of eventual, if temporary heroism. We live on either side of a hero’s story, tending to the mundane, the unremarkable. Chatterjee found a language to argue that stories beyond these strict margins weren’t lifeless, they were, like our own selves, underrated and overlooked.

Through films that he made with then untried actors, Chatterjee sought his own path, with peculiar, never-before seen focus on the minutiae of life.

Chatterjee’s films can be seen through a variety of prisms. For Mumbaikars he remains a keen chronicler of the city’s urban milieu, its manifest struggles underlined by its many structural artefacts. For others, like me, he remains an acute observer of the mediocre and the ordinary.

Cinema creates the illusion that ordinary life requires dramatic, unanticipated twists to turn into a story worth telling. When life, really, for most of us is an undramatic serving of a sentence that occasionally flitters with low-magnitude emotions like envy, disappointment, self-doubt and struggle. Each of which Arun, dealt with and conquered. Not all of us will ever do that, or maybe even do some part of it but at least Chatterjee found in us a protagonist, a story worth telling. It’s as if he wanted to tell us that though cinema did not owe us anything, we owed it to cinema – to tell our insipid, garden-variety stories.

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