Basu Chatterjee: A Master Story-teller

Basu Chatterjee’s Rajni was a Sunday morning must watch for the middle-class, tired of the scams and corruption that riled India’s public life, cheered the middle class housewife turned crusader. He also brought to life one of Bengali literature's best known fictional detectives Byomkesh Bakshi on the small screen

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About 22-odd minutes into Pankaj Parashar’s Jalwa, Naseeruddin Shah and Pankaj Kapoor get off a taxi driven by Javed Khan who is looking for one Basu Chatterjee—Rajni wale. The taxi driver is upset with “Rajni wale” Basu Chatterjee for showing corruption of the Bombay kali-peeliwallahs. And it so happens after Shah and Kapur have got down and chatting with the cabbie, in walks Chatterjee and tells the driver to take him to the shooting spot late into the night. The driver can’t believe that it really is Basu Chatterjee. He asks Chatterjee and then his two previous passengers if the new traveller indeed is the Rajni one. All of them say yes. Chatterjee is under the impression that the taxi driver is a fan of his. Instead, it turns out that the driver was upset with Chatterjee for “exposing corruption of kali-peeliwallahs and chases him with a chappal in his hand.

My friend Yasir Abbasi, one of the finest chroniclers of Hindi films, while talking about Chatterjee mentioned this sequence as possibly the only instance in film lore when a filmmaker did a cameo to be insulted (I recall another cameo of Prakash Mehra about an IT (Income Tax) raid but that’s another story).

Cutting across language barriers, Basu Chatterjee’s Rajni (played by Priya Tendulkar) was a Sunday morning must watch for the middle-class across cities and towns, tired of the scams and corruption that riled India’s public life, cheered the middle class housewife turned crusader. Some years later, he brought to life one of Bengali literature’s best known fictional detectives Byomkesh Bakshi on the small screen. And also world literature, in Darpan, another serial for Doordarshan.

Basu Chatterjee straddled across mediums—film and television—with ease. I have always held the view, it’s not the story but how the story is told that makes the difference. And, Chatterjee was a master-storyteller.

Spread over almost five decades, his oeuvre is immense. The body of work that he has left behind includes dramas (Kamla Ki Maut with a young Irrfan Khan, whom we lost last month), comedies (Khatta Meetha, Baaton Baaton Mein, Laakhon Ko Baat), thrillers (Chakravyuha, Ek Ruka Hua Faisla) and some astonishing love stories (Piya Ka Ghar, Rajnigandha, Chhoti Si Baat).

Chatterjee’s films did not usually make a distinction between a hero or villain. Say Nagesh (Asrani) in Chhoti Si Baat. One cannot help liking him though you don’t want him to win the girl in the end. Manzil (a Hindi remake of Mrinal Sen’s Akash Kusum, which was dissed by Satyajit Ray), the protagonist Ajay Chandra (Amitabh Bachchan) plays a young man looking for a shortcut to riches, pretends to be a successful businessman to woo his lady love. When his trade of galvanometer fails, we want him to get it right.

Chatterjee created characters and he placed them in situations and places that his audience were familiar with. The city of Bombay—home to Hindi cinema— was a character in Chatterjee’s films, seen in a new light every time he brought it to screen. The Chawl in Piya Ka Ghar is different from the Chawl in Kamla Ki Maut, made a decade and a half later. The inhabitants have changed like the city. The Parsi colony (Khatta Meetha), the Bandra lanes with old-style bungalows (Baaton Baaton Mein), some of them still standing and the Mumbai locals were all a part of the world that Chatterjee created with simplicity, often aided with great lyrics and music.

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