So what is that Basu Chatterjee touch? He smiles and shrugs, “You see, I was a political cartoonist. I had to get humor out of dry political situations. So I was groomed that way. But other than that these things are inherent in a person. How did Billy Wilder grow into the greatest comedic filmmaker in Hollywood?” Incidentally, after running across the screenplay in a book, Basu Chatterjee re-made one of Wilder’s films in Hindi—
Laakhon ki Baat based on The Fortune Cookie.
Now over 30 years after his Hindi film debut, he is still going strong. In the San Francisco Bay Area recently to promote his new Indo-Bangladeshi production Chupi Chupi at a festival of Bengali Cinema organized by Prabasi, Basu Chatterjee spoke to India Currents.
After all these years of making Hindi films why a Bengali film now? He laughs and says his last Bengali film Hothat Brishti was such a runaway hit in Bangladesh, he decided to make another one. “After all even though I am a prabasi Bengali, having grown up in Uttar Pradesh, I must have it in my blood.”
Though he has been working for over 30 years, in many ways he was a latecomer to cinema. Basudeb Chatterjee started out as a cartoonist for Blitz, one of India’s biggest weeklies. He was drawn to cartooning by the work of Shankar who used to draw for the Hindustan Times.
But Chatterjee was drawn into the Film Society movement in Bombay where he was exposed to some of the best film in the world—from France and Sweden and Germany. “That is an experience denied to most people,” he reminisces. “That brought me an awareness that film is an art form.”
However in the ’60s there was no such thing as a film school in India. The only way to learn the ropes was to actually do it. “I was rather late into films,” he admits. “I was already in my 30s then.” Basu Chatterjee became a chief assistant to the avant garde filmmaker Basu Bhattacharya and assisted him in his first film Teesri Kasam starring Raj Kapoor and Waheeda Rehman. The producer Shailendra was an old schoolmate. He also ended up assisting a Film Society colleague, Govind Saraiya who was making Sara- swatichandra. “I was an assistant for just two films. My aim was different—to direct myself. Since I was a practicing cartoonist it was not a case of bread and butter which I had already—it was to acquire a certain knowledge that I did not have.”
Once he felt he had acquired a decent grasp of the nuts and bolts of filmmaking, Basu Chatterjee made Sara Akash starring Rakesh Pandey, Madhu, and Dina Pathak. Sara Akash, Mani Kaul’s Uski Roti, and Mrinal Sen’s Bhuvan Shome, are often regarded as the three films that launched parallel Hindi cinema in 1969-70. “Of course, nobody knew that at that time,” says Chatterjee. “We were just making films the way we wanted to—there was not a single studio shot in the film. It was all on location—that gave it a feel of freshness. We grew up appreciating Bicycle Thief—my inspiration was not Hollywood films.” Mani Kaul even acted in Sara Akaash for 300 Rupees. Basu Chatterjee made Sara Akash because he was brought up in Mathura and the milieu of the story was one he recognized. At that time the Film Finance Corporation had started to do loans for different kinds of films and he got one forSara Akash, which he was soon able to pay back in full.
After that there was no looking back. Films like Piya ka Ghar, Chhoti Si Baat, Chitchor, Swami, Manpasand, Manzil, Rajnigandha, and Dillagi followed. Some of the biggest stars in Hindi film lined up to work with him like Amitabh Bachchan, Dharmendra, Dev Anand, and Hema Malini. But in a strange way it was the smaller stars, the everyman of Indian cinema that really came into their own in Basu Chatterjee films. Like Amol Palekar in films like Rajnigandha, Chhoti Si Baat, andChitchor. In fact, Amol Palekar’s office worker’s white shirt, the bus stops, the daily bustle of city life all added up to make the city itself a character in Basu Chatterjee films. “I am not a larger than life director,” he explains. “I am just relating on film the way of life I have experienced. This is what I understand so I am making it. I don’t have a village background; I am city-bred so I stick to that.”
Now 36-37 films later, people wonder if the era of small films like his is over. Perhaps they are just doomed to the small screen. “Nothing is doomed,” he says thoughtfully. “Unlike the U.S. or European countries, India has a peculiar problem. It is the largest filmmaking country in the world but it has the least number of theaters for that number of films. We just have 10,000-12,000 throughout the country when it should be 80,000-90,000 at least. It is the small theatre owners that rule—they go for thebig stars. We have always had discerning audiences. If only there had been a small theater chain of art theaters it would have been different. The charm of seeing films in theaters—you can’t get it in the idiot box.”
But the idiot box has been good to Chatterjee giving him one of his greatest hits—the teleserial Rajni starring Priya Tendulkar as the housewife as the consumer rights crusader who attacks the travails of middle-class life. Basu Chatterjee admits he just did it for the “extra bucks.” Doordarshan was new to India and the government was anxious to tap into the Bombay film industry to fill air time. It asked several filmmakers to make something for television that would have some social value. Once Basu Chatterjee started to make Rajni he realized this was not an extra buck. It was a full-time job. Luckily his background as a cartoonist came in handy since he was already aware of many of the social issues in the country and deft at portraying them in a few brushstrokes.
But Rajni caught on like wildfire. Though, of course, as Chatterjee points out, Doordarshan was the only channel at that time and people did not have an array of television programming choices like they do now, Rajni was the everywoman that had the nation rooting for her. “I remember when Indian Express (an Indian daily) had one full page of letters about Rajni from all over the country,” recalls Chatterjee. Soon he became a fixture on the small screen with other serials like Darpan, the detective serial Byomkesh Bakshi.
But all along, on screens big or small, Chatterjee has refused to compromise on his values. That has meant his films always attracted the discerning few. As the industry grew bigger and glitzier, the songs going from Manali to Switzerland and Egypt, Chatterjee’s spare little films about middle-class headaches seemed almost quaint and archaic. But he does not care. “I am not sitting idle. My films run,” he says, “But if they don’t run, they don’t. In those days we were called the balcony class directors.
Our films were supposed to appeal to the balcony-class (the more expensive tickets as opposed to the stalls). I am a creator not a caterer. If you want a caterer, I am not your person at all.”