Chronicler of simple romances (1927 – 2020)

Basu Chatterjee was a legendary film producer, director, screenplay writer, dialogue writer, and a master of middle-class minutiae. Ajmer born Chatterjee discovered humour in the commonplace, a streak often attributed to his 18 – year phase, as an illustrator and cartoonist with the Bombay weekly tabloid Blitz of Russi Karanjia, before switching paths to filmmaking.

Fondly called Basuda, his interest in filmmaking was nourished by the 1960s film society movement. A quiet, soft – spoken, gentle human, who delved into social and moral issues, he was a director ahead of his time, an effortless genius, and pioneer of a new cinema universe, with lifelike characters, in tandem with his namesake Basu Bhattacharya and Hrishikesh Mukherjee.

His relatable, light-hearted brand of cinema always retained simplicity. It resonated strongly with middle-class India which had only films as a refuge from reality. His characters were seeped in reality. There was nothing larger-than-life about his films. His path allowed Hindi cinema to move away from its obsessions with glamour, love between impossibly good-looking people, violence and, nationalism.

Basuda found beauty in the quotidian; made the ordinary extraordinary and discovered poetry in everyday things. He made middle-class love stories endearing and enigmatic. A Bimal Roy School of cinema product, in his world, women were as equal and as fickle as men when it came to relationships. His films had no heroes, no heroines; just simple, heartfelt stories of common people. Mumbai was his lasting muse. He made uncommon films about common lives and immortalised the city making it as much a character in the movie as its residents. He made critically-acclaimed cult films on a staggering range of subjects, from rural comedies to social issues, without being preachy. There were also socially-conscious movies that were darker and sadder, but always, always relatable and well-told. Good music was also one of the highlights of his films. Three years after working as an assistant to Basu Bhattacharya in the 1966 National Film Award – winning Raj Kapoor-Waheeda Rehman starrer Teesri Kasam, Chatterjee debuted as a director with the 1969 movie Sara Akash and soon earned the tag of balcony class director. It won him the Filmfare Best Screenplay Award and a long cinematic association with literature began.

Soon followed popular films in the 70s and 80s like Piya Ka Ghar, Us Paar, Swami, Priyatama, Chakravyuha, Shaukeen, Chameli Ki Shaadi, Ek Ruka Hua Faisla, Rajnigandha, Chitchor, Khatta Meetha, Choti Si Baat, and Baton Baton Mein, Dillagi, Manzil, etc.

Chatterjee made a star out of Amol Palekar, as a slim, medium-statured mild – mannered person at a time when the ’70s were dominated by Amitabh Bachchan’s volcanic Angry Young Man persona. He made it a point to cast relatively unknown faces to inject realism into his fims. He later presented reputed stars in unique avatars.

Basuda also directed many Bengali films and expanded his range with the small screen. The protagonist of Rajani, which promoted consumer rights, became a symbol of the conscientious middle-class homemaker, Darpan unveiled gems from regional literature, Kakkaji Kahin was a masterly portrait of a canny small-time politician and the 34 episodic Byomkesh Bakshi became a benchmark for detective shows.

His Awards included IIFA Lifetime Achievement Award (2007), National Film Award for Best Film on Family Welfare for Durga (1992), and six Filmfare Awards. He was also a jury member at the 10th Moscow International Film Festival in 1977 and a member of the International Film and Television Club of the Asian Academy of Film & Television. His death at 93 after an almost five – decade career left Bollywood celebrities in despair.  He is survived by daughters, Sonali Bhattacharya and Rupali Guha, the latter, a film director.

A. Radhakrishnan

A. Radhakrishnan is a Pune based freelance writer, poet and short story writer.

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