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Of Deepa, Geeta, Chameli & Rajani

The passing of Basu Chatterjee comes at a time when nostalgia is everywhere. There is much to be nostalgic about in his work, for the world in which characters reside was one for which it is easy to develop a strong sense of yearning. It reminds us of another time, and if one is old enough, of oneself at another time and it is easy to feel a palpable sense of loss. His films were heart-warming, to be sure but always a little more. He is often bracketed with Hrishikesh Mukherjee, as both focused their cinematic efforts on the everyday lives of India’s self-described middle class.

While there are good reasons why the work of these two blurs into each another, but there are elements in Basu Chatterjee’s work which set him apart. His key characters stepped outside comfortable middleclass stereotypes more easily than Mukherjee’s even as both created some memorable and well-loved characters on screen. As it turns out, most of these strong portrayals were those of women. What was fascinating is that virtually in every film, his female protagonists come through as strong independently-minded women, but each of them does so in unique ways. A fitting way to remember is through some of his most interesting characters.

Rajnigandha is one of those rare films which is not only ‘woman-oriented’, a category which also has many dubious entrants, but this is one film which is entirely about the world as seen from her perspective. Few films have explored a woman’s interiority in the way that this one does. At a time when few films presented women with any choices; romance was always seen as being inevitable once the hero took interest in a woman, Deepa, played by Vidya Sinha, quite matter-of-factly explores both her options and arrives at a considered decision. Her choice is not only of a partner, but of the kind of life she wishes to lead. What is significant is that the choice is not presented as being between two culturally familiar archetypes, but between two perfectly viable suitors.

Zareena Wahab’s character Geeta in Chitchor is again a highly unusual one. At one level, it follows a well-trodden ‘innocent young girl who comes of age as a woman while falling in love’ template. But Geeta, though not emotionally expressive, is someone who completely knows her own mind. A case of mistaken identity throws the lead pair together with the approval of her parents. The pair bonds over music, as Amol Palekar’s gentle ways win her over. When the crunch time comes and the mistake is revealed, and her parents and try and reverse it, the young girl has none of it. In an extraordinary sequence, as much for its unusualness as its restraint, the young Geeta marches off with her young sidekick Raju by her side off to the railway station to go and find her chosen beau. No melodrama, no sense of being torn between her desires and the wishes of her family, just direct action.

Perhaps the most boisterous slaphappy female lead imagined in cinema was Chameli in Chameli ki Shaadi. Amrita Singh lives and breathes of the dilphenkh protagonist, who makes no bones about her desire to fall in love and to do whatever it takes, including stepping into a wrestling ring for her chosen man. Interestingly, this film is not set in brahminical middle class setting that most other films that genre are. Chameli’s father is a coal merchant, embedded strongly in his biradari and its politics. The world of a pipe-dreaming transistor hugging girl with a mind of her own is a deliciously fresh portrayal that bears no resemblance to any other character of its kind. Chameli is in many ways the opposite of Geeta, in that she wears her heart singingly on her sleeve, but both share a rock-solid confidence in the choices that they make.

Perhaps the most outspoken character created by Chatterjee was Rajani, from the TV serial of the same name. Priya Tendulkar was the strident crusader against any and every injustice and had no hesitation in stepping into any issue around that needed intervention. While some would argue that Rajani lacked the nuance of some of his other characters, and it is true that her depiction was a single-note one, perhaps the whole point was precisely that. Instead of trying to soften Rajani with more socially acceptable attributes, Chatterjee chose to amplify her single-minded pursuit of correcting injustices, small and large. That her character became as iconic as it did is testimony to the fact the uncompromising nature of depiction struck a chord.

The notion of individuality has been largely missing from the way in which characters are fleshed out in Hindi cinema. The films tend to be crammed full of archetypes, templates that performers effortlessly slip into. This is particularly true of female characters, who if they are lucky, get endowed with some mannerisms that pass for a fully developed sense of self. Heroines can be bubbly (chulbuli), carefree (alhad), arrogant (proudy type), demure (sharmilee), fiery (phooljhadi), but rarely can they be thoughtful or analytical in the way they make their choices. The prerogative of actively making choices was denied to most film characters, but much more so for its female leads. In Basu Chatterjee’s work, not only are these choices made, they are made as if that were the natural thing in the world. In an almost invisible way, his characters brush aside the confines of the many roles that women were expected to play, and do what they think is right.

Which is perhaps why his films feel so real. In Rajnigandha, Deepa chooses the everyday and the tangible over the headier option open to her, telling herself ‘Yahi sach hai” (also the title of the Mannoo Bhandari story on which it is based). It is possible to say the same of Basu Chatterjee’s work.

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