Basu Chatterjee passes away: Legendary filmmaker pioneered 'middle cinema' with films like Rajnigandha, Chhoti Si Baat

Basu da’s demise marks not only the passing on of a legend but also the end of a film genre in every sense of the word.

Gautam Chintamani June 04, 2020 15:37:04 IST
Basu Chatterjee passes away: Legendary filmmaker pioneered 'middle cinema' with films like Rajnigandha, Chhoti Si Baat

There are many aspects to any great filmmaker. Some of them pioneer techniques that become the template for future generations, few become a part of folklore in their lifetime, a handful become chroniclers of their time, some great storytellers also become a bridge between genres and generations.

Basu Chatterjee was all this and much more. In addition to being one of the few filmmakers that created the Middle-Cinema universe, Chatterjee is also perhaps single-handedly responsible for changing the mindset of producers and financiers of mainstream films that low-budget art-house films could be commercially successful.

The success of Rajnigandha (1974) transformed the landscape in which "middle cinema" operated by opening up a whole new world of possibilities. Basu da’s cinema is rightly celebrated as the meeting of two entirely different worlds  - Bombay masala movies and the indie-spirited art-house films.

Basu Chatterjee passes away Legendary filmmaker pioneered middle cinema with films like Rajnigandha Chhoti Si Baat

Basu Chatterjee. Image from Twitter / @FilmHistoryPic

Born in Ajmer in 1930, Basu Chatterjee never really trained to be a filmmaker. He arrived in Bombay a few years after the independence of India and worked for almost two decades as an illustrator for the weekly tabloid Blitz. Perhaps his stint as a cartoonist, who usually have to convey a story visually, of course, but also with as little words as possible sharpened his acumen to tell a story, unlike others. He was one of the founders of the Film Forum Society and went on to assist Basu Bhattacharya on Teesri Kasam (1966). Basu da made his film debut with Sara Akash (1969) that took a realist view of arranged marriages in North India. Along with Mrinal Sen’s Bhuvan Shome (1969) and Mani Kaul’s Uski Roti (1969), Sara Akash set the foundation of India’s New Wave cinema. All three films were shot by K.K. Mahajan, a Film and Television Institute alumnus, and interestingly, Basu da’s Sara Akash also featured Mani Kaul as an actor.

With his next film, Piya Ka Ghar (1972), Basu Chatterjee changed the trajectory of his career as well as the course of the kind of films that would be known as Middle Cinema. Produced by Tarachand Barjatya of Rajshri, Piya Ka Ghar is one of the first films that convinced the trade pundits that smaller budgeted films could be seen beyond the tags of indie or experimental. A remake of Raja Thakur's Marathi film Mumbaicha Jawai, Piya Ka Ghar featured the then up-and-coming Jaya Bhaduri and Anil Dhawan and explored the difficulties of living in Bombay through the eyes of a young married couple. It had the elements that would be integral to both Basu Chatterjee films and also the genre such as a realistic depiction of middle-class life but without the burden of art-house cinema and great music. At that point in time the trade seemed to have invested in Basu Chatterjee more than the genre but the filmmaker did not disappoint.

The success of Rajnigandha (1974) changed it all for nearly everyone associated with the film.

Basu Chatterjee passes away Legendary filmmaker pioneered middle cinema with films like Rajnigandha Chhoti Si Baat

A still from Basu Chatterjee's Rajnigandha, starring Amol Palekar and Vidya Sinha.

Chatterjee adapted a Mannu Bhandari short story, “Yahi Sach Hai”, and shot the film in a little over thirty-days across Delhi and Bombay but the film took almost two years to overcome financial troubles. Produced by Suresh Jindal, who later went on to produce Satyajit Ray’s Shatranj Ke Khilari (1977) and Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi (1982), Rajnigandha was initially planned with Shashi Kapoor, Sharmila Tagore and Amitabh Bachchan before Chatterjee cast Vidya Sinha and Amol Palekar.

Close on the heels of Rajnigandha, Chatterjee’s Chitchor (1976) and Chhoti Si Baat (1976) only cemented his reputation as a prolific filmmaker and made Middle Cinema come into its own. If on the one hand, Basu da made stars out of Vidya Sinha, Dinesh Thakur, Amol Palekar and Zarina Wahab, on the other hand, he got the likes of Dev Anand, Dharmendra and Hema Malini, Jeetendra and Amitabh Bachchan to shed their onscreen image to play characters that were a marked departure in films such as Man Pasand (1980), Dillagi (1978), Priyatama (1977) and Manzil (1979).

He also remade Alfred Hitchcock’s 39 Steps as Chakravyuha (1979) with Rajesh Khanna and Neetu Singh. He gave Anil Kapoor and Amrita Singh as well as Pankaj Kapur one of their most beloved films in the form of Chameli Ki Shaadi (1986). Kapur also featured in the television films Ek Ruka Hua Faisla (1986), Basu Da’s adaptation of Reginald Rose’s teleplay 12 Angry Men (1957) that was made into a film by Sidney Lumet.

Between 1977s and 1982s, Basu da made 17 films and nearly each one of them can be recalled by cinephiles. This was also a period where he worked regularly with Mithun Chakraborty and gave him some of his best roles in Shaukeen (1982) and Sheesha (1986). As an actor, Chakraborty rarely found anyone besides Basu da and Bapu, who could look beyond his ‘Gunmaster G9’ and later the ‘Disco Dancer’ avatar to tap into the actor within.  The 1980s was also the time when Basu da made popular television shows such as Rajani (1985), Kakaji Kahin (1988) and the seminal Byomkesh Bakshi (1990).  Basu da had a way of surprising his fans and his cameo as the ‘Rajani whale Basu Chatterjee’ in Pankuj Parashar’s Jalwa (1987) is the stuff of legends.

Unlike most of his contemporaries, Basu da never really lost touch with the world outside of cinema, and therefore, most of his work beyond the so-called glory days, too, remain relevant. When it came to contributing to films, Basu da played a great role beyond donning the director’s mantle. He worked extensively with the Federation of Film Societies of India and was also on the editorial board of Close Up that was published by Film Forum in the 1970s. Few understood the power of storytelling as well as Basu Chatterjee.

Basu da’s demise marks not only the passing on of a legend but also the end of a film genre in every sense of the word. 

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