By Dhiraj K Nite
Hrishikesh Da (1922-2006) was a cinematic craftsman known for pioneering a middle-path between the melodrama and extravagance of mainstream cinema, on the one hand, and, on the other, the shrieking realism of art cinema. He was the most successfulpractitioner of the product of this variously called middle cinema or parallel cinema in the Bollywood. The following commentary briefly surveys his cinematic expression with a view to question the conventional wisdom that parallel cinema was an expression of the Nehruvian socialist ethics on celluloid. It reveals the extent ofHrishiDa’s cinematic efforts as a fraternal critique of the claim made by such ethics, and his technical improvisation in achieving this on celluloid.
Nehruvian socialism, the popular assumption suggests, informed and inspired a variant of cinematic craft, called Parallel cinema. The latter chose the realsocial issue(opposed to melodramatic fantasy) and its socio-political context asa subject of its narrative; adopted a socialist perspective; and minimised crash commercialism in its presentation. Unlike the so-called art cinema, parallel cinema kept an eye open to the demand of Box office. Its cast, location and screenplay, therefore, charged higher costs.
The cinemagoer saw HrishiDa continuously developing this particular craft by directing and editing a large number of Hindi movies from the late 1950s and in the subsequent four decades. The prestigious Dada SahebPhalke Award, awarded to him in 1999, was the recognition of his mettle. The popular assumption about his endeavour does not help us understand how distinctive was HrishiDa as a practitioner of this craftsmanship? Nehruvian socialism inspired only certain content of his story. What about his cinematography, narrative style, screenplay, and other aspects of cinema production? He was after all not dependent on theNational Film Development Corporation. He looked out for producers, and took into account the box office. He worked with a specific principle and improvised a specific technique in doing so. What were these?
The story often unfolded in flash-back in his presentation. It was only a small element of his narrative strategy in his earliest directorial venture Anuradha (1960). Soon it was to become a hallmark of his craft. It marked a break from his contribution as an assistant to the production by directors,like Bimal Roy. He effectively harnessed the power of this technique in acclaimed movies, like Satyakam (1969: a righteous person), Anand (1970: a wholesome life taller than astronomical time), NamakHraam (1973: a phenomenological path of self-realisation), and Bemisal (1982: the significance of platonic love and inter-subjectivity). His presentation of story in flash-back generated curiosity between viewers. It did not have much emphasis on thrill at the cost of explanation offered for the main plot, and of an idealised resolution prescribed by the director for the problem which the plot concerned itself with. His details related to explanation and resolution, avoided all possibility of turning out preachy. These drew viewers to a secular logic of social development and human action. There, the divine intervention or pursuit did not have constitutive role to perform: which was contrary to the hallmark of commercial cinema. Hrishi Da was at his best in delivering this in movies, like Satyakam and NamakHraam. He lost this touch in his last directorial venture, Jhooth Bole KauwaKaate (1998). The latter appeared as a critique of the new love story of the defiant adolescenton celluloid. Here, Hrishi Da underscored the decision of two adult girl and boy to persuade their parents for the recognition of affectionate relationship between the couple. Here, no explanation was offered for such engaging behaviour of protagonists as opposed to those of defiant adolescents. Hence, viewers found the movie preachy and lacking details. What accounted for this slippage in his technique? Seemingly, the Bollywood saw a shift in favour of functionalism in the 1990s. The ageing Hrishi Da seems to have been a victim of it.
His narrative worked on wholesome comedy in family movies, like Bawarchi(1972), ChupkeChupke (1975) and GolMaal (1979).In his other movies the comedy was a subplot. These movies were acclaimed for noticeable absence of double-meaning dialogue. The latter has taken sway in many current comedy ventures.
His screenplay concerned itself with the main pursuit of Hrishi Da, i.e., explanation for and characterisation of protagonists in his movies. He was at par excellence in Anupama (1966) and Bemisal.The former movie depicted the meaning of life lived through by a reticent, traumatised girl in the midst of plenty. The statement was that pecuniary opulence does not amount to spiritual elevation. In the latter, the sources of vice and virtue in humankind were under his scanner. In his couple of early movies some houses, dwellings and most actors were the same. Locales were as per story and modest budget. Dialogue was sharp, focused, straightforward and Poetic. Lyrics received greater attention than the accompanying instrumental composition. Stories drove lyrics and songs. Therefore, listeners have not remembered songs of his particularly 60s’ movies. On top of everything, he eschewed from absorbing the new pulse of viewers for expensive scenic locale in the 90s, in his comedy venture Jhooth Bole…
Cinematography and film-editing
Cinematography is usually the shoddiest feature in Bollywood. Hrishi Da began his career as a cameraman in the 1940s. Unlike many of his colleagues, he relied on close-up shots, still and straight-angled camera. The former necessitated the fact that the director persuades actors to mould themselves in his frame. Hence, actors were able to exude emotion through facial contortion, voice modulation, and body gesture. He was remarkable in his effort. He worked with actors, like Dharmendra, Sharmila, Amitab, and AmolPalekar. All of them later became well known for their superlative talent. At the stage they joined in the venture of Hrishi Da, they were between the youngsters and bereft of stardom.Notably, Amitab performed some of his socially memorable roles in HrishiDa’s company. One can readily recall Anand, NamakHaraam, Abhiman (1973), Mili (1975), and Bemisal, where Amitab was shore off of his image of angry young man.
Hrishikesh Mukherjee was indisputably the ablest cinematic editor of his time. He performed this job in a large number of movies, including those of Bimal Roy from the 1950s. Here, he was succinct. Once again, his concern for explanation and characterisation defined his editing. His all filmfare awards recognised this particular skill, including for Do BighaZamin(1953: the everyday ways of resistance to depeasantisation and land enclosure) andMadumati(1959) and his greatest directorial venture Anand.
Let’s see how far Nehruvian socialist he was in his details and plot!The characters invariably belonged to the professional class in his narrative. His characters embodied the spirit of new, enterprising, advancing humankind. The latter were a social, public person. Their ideal was an attachment to social progress. Indeed, the latter defined national progress.Such ideal meant in daily life the ethics of social service, fraternal relationship between classes and gender, welfare of underprivileged, and a pleasant contented life for everyone. His movie Anuradha epitomised all of these. Seemingly, Hrishi Da lost this touch in his commercially successful venture Bemisal. Here, Amitab (Dr Sudhir Roy) committed murder of an honest nurse to save dignity of the family of his friend cum well-wisher. But, his image was extenuated from it, and the soul turned out pious without any remorse. Sudhir’s crime was bracketed, like melodramatic revenge committed upon an anti-social person. This was a singular preposterous lapse in his directorial venture. One can see it as his vulnerability to viewers’ appreciation for a hero in negative character on the celluloid in the 1970s on.
The resolution proposed in his movies was pre-eminently an individualist initiative of the protagonist. The character appeared as uniquely eccentric on this front in the movie Satyakam.NamakHraam was possibly an exception, where the source of change lied in social collectivity and ideological awareness. The latter was a schema in his work. Hence, one finds characters evolving, and this very process stands out as the main plot.
He was far from being any propagandist and apologist of Nehruvian socialism. He zeroed in on exposing the perpetuation of many of those problems, which the Nehruvian polity claimed to uproot. Viewers readily remember Anuradhafor the missing medical service in the countryside; Anupamafor bourgeois parental authoritarianism; Satyakamfor the persistence of rotten administrative and cultural life in the form of corruption and ostracization; NamakHraamfor the perpetuation of class exploitation and bourgeois chicanery. His protagonists were dialectical antithesis of those problems, and of the limitation of Nehruvian polity. His characters in Anand and Mili (1975) represented the extraordinary human spirit how to live a full life and radiate envious charm in the surrounding.In this sense, it is folly to reduce HrishikeshDa’s parallel cinema to the alter-ego of Nehruvian socialism. Nor the latter can help us appreciate the craft of parallel cinema and distinctiveness of HrishiDa’s craftsmanship in the very terrain.