Hrishikesh Mukherjee Birth Anniversary Special: Remembering The Unassuming Genius Of The Legendary Filmmaker

Hrishikesh Mukherjee loved all his actors. Jaya Bachchan and Amitabh Bachchan were his favourites.

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Hrishikesh Mukherjee Birth Anniversary Special: Remembering The Unassuming Genius Of The Legendary Filmmaker
The omnipresent Anupam Kher tells a very interesting story about Hrishikesh Mukherjee. “We were shooting for his last film, Jhooth Bole Kauwa Kaate. Hrishi da’s legs had given away, and he’d sit and direct us. I playfully asked him if all his parts had stopped working. ‘No, Anupam, my most vital parts still work fine.…’ Hrishida answered with a smile.” An eminent, very sober and refined filmmaker who has been closely associated with Hrishi da tells another story about the prolific Mukherjee during his final days. “I had gone there expecting him to be mournful and doom-laden. Instead, Hrishi da cracked one dirty joke after another for a full hour. Finally, I got embarrassed and fled.”

Hrishi da loved a good laugh. You only have to see Gol Maal, Khubsoorat, Bawarchi or even the lesser-known laughathons Buddha Mil Gaya, Naram Garam and Jhoothi to know how much this amazing man enjoyed the lighter side of life.

About his penchant for laughter, Hrishi da once told me, “To keep laughing is the most important thing in life. Our aim in life is to be happy. But we go wrong looking for happiness in transitory pleasures. You fall in love with a girl and pin your happiness on her. She dumps you. You produce a son and you place all your dreams in him. He leaves you. Happiness shouldn’t control your life. You should control happiness.”

And yet this man who made such super-comedies also directed some of life’s most lingering moments of tragic pathos in Anuradha (the story of how a male ego thwarts a woman’s talents, inspired by Kishore Kumar’s marriage to his first wife Ruma) and later its quasi-remake, Abhimaan; Anupama (about a man who hates his daughter after his wife dies in childbirth, the story was inspired by Hrishi da’s uncle who became an alcoholic after his wife died during childbirth); Satyakaam (the director’s favourite work featuring his ‘favourite actor and human being’ Dharmendra); Anand (based on Hrishi da’s intense friendship with Raj Kapoor, featuring Amitabh Bachchan as Hrishi da and Rajesh Khanna as Raj Kapoor).

Before he moved to the hospital two months before his death, Hrishi da was completely bedridden for close to two years. The intermittent visitor apart, he lay there inert staring at the ceiling probably reliving all the golden moments from his cinema. But the spirit never flagged. This writer’s last conversation with Hrishi da had him imploring him to visit him. “Beta, come and see me soon. I’m just counting my days now.”

When I visited some years ago, Hrishi da had moved into a highrise in Bandra, just next to where his bungalow used to be. There he sat with his arthritis and memories, trying to cope with both. His living room had only one picture prominently at its centre, that of Lata Mangeshkar. “People call her a reincarnation of Saraswati Mata. I call her Saraswati. Beta, do you know this is where Lata and I sat with composers like Sachin Dev Burman and Rahul Dev Burman and Salil Choudhury to compose those gems in Abhimaan, Jurmana and Anand?”

He then revealed an unknown facet of Lata ji’s personality. “Beta, do you know she doesn’t charge a single paisa for any of the songs that she sings for me? She once made a mistake while singing one of my songs, Ek baat kahoon, for RD Burman in Gol Maal. I had my answer ready for people who asked why I allowed Lata to sing wrongly. ‘A wrong Lata is worth more than all the right singers in the industry.’" And then Hrishi da laughed loudly. He loved his fun and games.

Simi Garewal once recalled how he spent hours playing chess with her during Namak Haraam. “What an erudite and entertaining filmmaker! I learnt so much from him.”

Hrishida loved all his actors. From Ashok Kumar who was a permanent fixture in a majority of his films to Rajesh Khanna whom Hrishi da affectionately called Pintu Baba to Rekha (for whom he had a special Tamilian term of affection “Chinnapunnu” which means youngest daughter), Jaya and Sharmila Tagore.

Hrishi da’s well wishers wanted him to sign Nutan for Anupama. “How can Sharmila play the demure repressed character when she’s busy running around in a bikini in An Evening In Paris? But I knew she had the expressive eyes for it,” Hrishida told me.

Jaya and Amitabh Bachchan were Hirishida’s favourites. AB went to Hrishida to say he was marrying Jaya, recalled Hrishida, “I told Jaya I’ll be attending her marriage from my son Amitabh’s side.”

The filmmaker was very unhappy with the kind of work AB did in the 80s. “Many directors reduced him to a stuntman. Some people thought I had blundered badly by making Amit sing classical songs in Alaap, when he was holding guns and booze bottles.”

Alaap was made during the Emergency. “It was a depressing film because I was very depressed. I thought it was the end of my life. I couldn’t believe Mrs Gandhi had become such a dictator.”

To snap out of the doomed mood Hrishi da made the comedy, Khubsoorat. Explaining the hop and the skip from the grim directorial debut of Musafir to the grin mood in Biwi Aur Makaan, from the dark Majhli Didi and Satyakaam to the frothy Guddi and Chupke Chupke, from the nifty Naram Garam to the elegiac Jurmana and Bemisal… Hrishi da said, “I’m an agnostic. I believe my conscience is my God. But having said that, we’re all creatures of moods. At times you want to cry, at other times you want to laugh your head off. Critics ask me why I always have a death scene. I’ll tell you why. Death is the ultimate truth. Deven Varma once observed, Sabse Bada Sukh (India’s first sex comedy!) was my only film where no one died. I told Deven he was wrong. It flopped so miserably that it killed the distributors.”

Sobering down, Hrishi da lamented on the quality of present day cinema. “Everyone is stealing stories from laser discs. I confess I’m guilty of making potboilers like Do Dil and Asli Naqli. That’s because I had a unit and their family to maintain. I am aware my talent is severely restricted. I can never make a film like Satyajit Ray. I console myself with the thought that I’ve made decent films on family values which have touched people’s hearts. I’ve made films which have recovered their investments and fed my unit.”

After his last film, Jhooth Bole Kauwa Kaate, Hrishida was planning to adapt a short story called The Dressing Table written by music composer Salil Choudhury. What Hrishi da loved about the story was its quaint old-world values. “It talks about the value of a letter at a time when people are sending emails to one another.”

Thankfully, Hrishi da quit this world before people started watching his films on phones.

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