The benign terror of Hrishi da

The legendary film-maker was like a strict but lovable schoolteacher to actors—an exclusive excerpt from a forthcoming book on him


The original song booklet of Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s ‘Satyakam’ (1969), starring Dharmendra, Sharmila Tagore, Ashok Kumar and Sanjeev Kumar. Photograph courtesy: National Film Archive of India, Pune
The original song booklet of Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s ‘Satyakam’ (1969), starring Dharmendra, Sharmila Tagore, Ashok Kumar and Sanjeev Kumar. Photograph courtesy: National Film Archive of India, Pune

‘Yaad rakho... acting mein aath aana gussa, chaar aana dimaag, do aana shanti, ek aana humbleness, ek aana guroor.’ (Fifty per cent of acting is anger, 25 per cent is brainwork, the rest is divided between stillness, humility and pride.)

Game master David in Chupke Chupke, tutoring the nervous Sukumar for his performance as Parimal

‘We would groan, “Arre, yeh film khatam kyun ho rahi hai? When are you making the next one, Hrishi-da?’”

The late Farooque Shaikh,
speaking with the author in 2013

On a special 2010 episode of the game show Kaun Banega Crorepati (KBC), hosted by Amitabh Bachchan, the appearance of Dharmendra as a guest allowed audiences the nostalgic pleasure of watching Veeru and Jai (or Professor Parimal and Professor Sukumar) bantering and reminiscing, thirty-five years after their most memorable work together. And Dharmendra reversed the show’s usual order of things by asking the first question:

Amit, hamaaray kaunse aise director thay jin se hum dono ghabra jaate thay, darte thay—jaise kisi schoolmaster ya headmaster se?” (‘Amit, who was the director we both were afraid of, the same way we’d be afraid of a schoolteacher or principal?’)

If the question had been addressed to a regular KBC participant who judged the personalities of directors by the things that happened in their movies, he would have needed a lifeline or three to get the answer right, and may have faced eviction nonetheless. Ramesh Sippy, he might have said first, thinking of Gabbar’s sadistic games or Shakaal and his torture chamber (Shaan) or Seeta being tormented by her vicious aunt (Seeta aur Geeta). Second choice may have been Manmohan Desai, who planted Dharmendra in a miniskirt and Amitabh in an Easter egg in separate films released in the same year. But no. ‘Hrishi-da ke saath hum dono kaampte thay kyunki unka ek rutba hee aisa tha (We would tremble before Hrishi-da, such was his aura),’ Bachchan told the audience.

This is not the mental picture one gets of Hrishikesh Mukherjee from watching his films or from the many recollections that cast him as an avuncular, much-loved figure. Shooting Jhooth Bole Kauva Kaate in 1997, he asked Juhi Chawla—who was a little nervous working with someone so revered—to think of him as her grandfather. And both Dharmendra and Amitabh, among many other stars, have said elsewhere that he was family to them and that they would have willingly worked for him anytime without asking to see the story or script.

Yet the schoolmaster imagery often crops up too. Those who didn’t fit into the Mukherjee world or couldn’t take to his types of movies or his old-school style of working may not have cared for it. In his typically no-punches-pulled memoir And Then One Day..., Naseeruddin Shah recalled being chastised at the FTII in the early 1970s for showing disrespect to veteran film-makers: ‘actually only to Mr Hrishikesh Mukherjee, who tried explaining to us in words of two syllables why in movies the director is so much more important than the actor and was told by us to cut the baby talk’. It is perhaps the only aggressive personal remark about Hrishi-da that I have encountered in everything I have heard about him, and coming as it does from a man who is famously unwilling to be part of back-patting fraternities within the movie world, it deserves attention. When I first read it, I was reminded of the stories about Alfred Hitchcock rubbing some actors the wrong way because of his treatment of them as chess pieces (or as ‘cattle’, to mention a famous Hitchcock quote) who were subservient to the larger visual design of the film.

That doesn’t compute though: Hrishi-da may have been a chess enthusiast (he played on the sets and was a voracious consumer of books about the game), but he was also much more of a ‘people person’ than Hitchcock was, and less interested in the formal elements of film-making. One explanation may be that when dealing with FTII students, he allowed himself to get pedantic on occasion, and the young man who used to carry around books by film theorists like Sergei Eisenstein in the 1950s made an appearance. In other words, perhaps I was wrong when I said a few chapters ago that he was represented in his own films by the ‘David type of old man’ rather than the ‘Utpal Dutt type’. Perhaps his personality had shades of both.

‘Everyone loved him,’ the actor Biswajit (who presumably never exchanged notes with Naseeruddin Shah on this subject) told me in Mumbai, ‘but everyone was a little scared of him too, because he could be like a teacher—a Master Moshai! He never indulged any stars, no matter how big they were. And he was very particular about punctuality. “I won’t tolerate anyone being late,” he would say, wagging his finger at us like he was standing at a blackboard.’ Sushil Bhatnagar, who played a small part in Arjun Pandit, recalls Sanjeev Kumar being perpetually late and slinking to his tent for a costume change when he thought Hrishi-da wasn’t looking. But the ‘headmaster’ noticed all right and—eyes never leaving his chessboard—remarked to his assistant, ‘See, Hari is sneaking in—he knows I will scold him if he comes to me first. Well, I won’t say anything to him yet. Let him keep sweating!’

Nor did he have much patience for finicky actors who wanted another take—especially in the later years, when he was very conscious of budgets and the need not to waste film stock or time. Deepti Naval, a beneficiary of Hrishi-da’s parental concern long before she worked with him, discovered this aspect to his personality when they did Rang Birangi together. ‘If he had okayed a shot and I said, “Please, just one more take, I think I can do that better,” he would make a dramatic gesture to the production assistant and tell them, “Chalo, Deepu se voucher sign karvao—she wants to do this, so she has to pay for the extra footage!”’

He could get actors to do what he wanted by putting things across in funny or practical terms. In an email interview, Asrani recalled the song—‘Binati sun le tanik’—that he performed in his own voice at the beginning of Alaap, where he plays a tangay-wallah taking Alok home from the station: ‘It was originally to be sung by Kishore Kumar, but he couldn’t come to the recording studio for some reason. Hrishi-da immediately asked me to sing the song in my own voice. I was scared, but he told me, “Tonga-wallahs are not singers—just sing like a tonga-wallah would sing!”’ Persuading Asrani in this situation was no great challenge for a man who had convinced a very reluctant Dilip Kumar—one of Hindi cinema’s biggest stars—to sing for Musafir twenty years earlier.

‘I can never imagine Hrishi-da saying something like “Accha, ab gadhe pe baith jao, ya chhoti chaddi pehen ke bhaago, ya cake mein gir jao (Okay, now sit on a donkey, run around in your underwear, fall into a cake)”,’ Deven Varma told me in Pune. ‘The quality of comedy in his films reflected his personal tastes.’ But despite his emphasis on clean and wholesome humour, Hrishi-da could shake things up a little when he felt it was required. Varma recalled being reluctant to do the climactic scene in Buddha Mil Gaya where he and Navin Nischol dress up as women. ‘I said, Hrishi-da I won’t do this, maa aur behnon ka mazaak nahin banaoonga—that isn’t the type of comedy I do.’ Hrishi-da’s response—no doubt aimed at lightening the air rather than making an actual philosophical statement—was: ‘But you aren’t making fun of Indian women, this is a Hawaiian dress you’re wearing!’ It worked. The principled Varma did the scene, and he needn’t have worried—he and Nischol are so goofy together that there is no question of finding it vulgar.

Dharmendra (centre) and Mukherjee (right) on the sets of ‘Satyakam‘
I wouldn’t be surprised if this impish side to Hrishi-da’s personality emerged in subtler ways in his treatment of actors. There is an oft-told story about how he once ‘punished’ Dharmendra for being late for a shoot by canning a scene without him, then shooting and putting in an insert of the star dashing out from a place that had a ‘Toilet’ signboard next to it. (The scene is near the end of Chupke Chupke.) But watching Satyakam, I imagined another, more playful form of castigation. In one early scene in that film, Dharmendra, required to speak in shuddh Hindi, mispronounces the elegant word ‘parichay’ as ‘preechay’, in a recognizably Jat accent. Perhaps Hrishi-da got back at his star by casting him, years later, in a role that would constantly require him to speak in high-sounding Hindi!

Dharmendra (from left), Amitabh Bachchan and Sharmila Tagore in a still from ‘Chupke Chupke‘
In any case, the welcoming house owner of ‘Anupama’ (the name of Hrishi-da’s house) could be a disciplinarian if a performer was too full of himself. ‘I have worked with the greatest of stars, and I have always been clear that while your opinions are welcome, the final decision is always mine,’ he said in a 1998 interview to The Times Of India. ‘After all, the film is my visualization...I know exactly how one sequence will link up with another.’ It is perhaps in this light that one should consider the story about Hrishi-da refusing to take Balraj Sahni’s suggestion for a subtle change at the end of Anuradha. There is also an anecdote about the climactic scene of Anand, where Bhaskar mourns his friend’s death. Amitabh Bachchan came to the sets having worked himself into high emotion, all prepared to let go once the camera rolled. Hrishi-da asked him to tone it down. ‘He put on a good show of histrionics during the death scene, howled and screamed—but that was not what I wanted. I wanted him to get angry with his friend, not mourn him.’ But watching the scene, I feel another reason could be that Hrishi-da didn’t want Bachchan monopolizing the scene too much because that might have taken attention away from Anand. If an individual contribution, no matter how impressive it might be in isolation, is in danger of working against a scene’s intended effect, a hard decision needs to be taken.

Rajesh Khanna (left) in a still from ‘Anand’

*****

From the beginning to the end of his career, Hrishi-da cast popular actors in lead roles. The list includes those who had an established screen persona before they worked with him (the 1950s star triumvirate of Dilip Kumar, Raj Kapoor and Dev Anand falls in this category, as do Meena Kumari, Suchitra Sen, Guru Dutt and Mala Sinha), it has younger performers whose screen images were to some degree or other shaped by him even though some of them went on to do other kinds of roles (prominent in this list are Dharmendra, Jaya Bhaduri, Rajesh Khanna, Amitabh Bachchan and Rekha), and it includes actors who tended to be more malleable, less associated with a specific type of role: Balraj Sahni in Anuradha, Usha Kiran in Musafir, Ashok Kumar in Aashirwad, Sanjeev Kumar in Arjun Pandit.

The big stars of the 1950s brought the baggage of their existing images to the early films, with variable results. So Dilip Kumar fits very well in Musafir because it is a Devdas-like role, exactly what the third segment of that film calls for. Raj Kapoor is mostly well-used in Anari, and the film has other good things in it in case you get tired of him, including fine performances by Lalita Pawar, Nutan and Motilal; on the other hand, the self-flagellating aspects of Kapoor’s screen persona are allowed to go badly out of control in the 1962 Aashiq, which is one of Hrishi-da’s most pedestrian films.

However, to watch Rajesh Khanna and Amitabh Bachchan in Anand, Dharmendra in Anupama, Jaya Bhaduri in Guddi or Rekha in Alaap or Khubsoorat is to see the creation of fresh possibilities, and a more assured helmsman, moulding fresh clay to his requirements. Working with these younger actors before they had become too set in their ways, Hrishi-da could use them in specific types of roles, toy with our expectations of them: consolidating Dharmendra’s bhadralok persona and later using him so well as a comedian; or allowing Bachchan’s flair for simmering anger full expression in a framework outside of mainstream cinema.

Even in the early days, he had a clear knack for seeing how a new actor would fit into the desired universe of a film. He chose the fresh, arch Leela Naidu for the title role in Anuradha himself, and watching the film you can see how she brings an immediate plausibility to so many scenes, such as the one where Deepak (after realizing that Anuradha is in love with someone else) tries to be the noble, martyred man, offering to shield her from her father’s wrath by claiming that he doesn’t want to get married—to take the responsibility on himself—but Anu refuses to be the submissive, favour-accepting woman; she holds her head high and says no, this is my cross to bear.

Not that Hrishi-da always had his way even with the younger lot. ‘Don’t mind your make-up—make up your mind,’ Sharmila Tagore recalls him saying aphoristically during the shooting of Anupama, and apparently there was good reason for this. Here was a film about a diffident wallflower who had grown up without parental love, didn’t have any friends and stayed cloistered in her large, cold house; and yet Tagore, who was just rising to stardom and on the rush of being a Hindi-movie heroine, insisted that she wear her stylish bouffant hairdo in the film. ‘Hrishi-da tried telling me the hairstyle simply wasn’t right for the character, that it was too trendy,’ she told me during an interview, ‘but I was immature and persistent and wouldn’t listen—and so eventually he gave in and said we’ll work something out. He managed to shoot me in such a way that the character didn’t look unduly glamorous or dolled up, but it was a small blot on the film’s integrity, and I still feel guilty about that.’

Such stories help explain why a certain type of film—one that seems like it was intended to be ‘realistic’ and character-driven—might look just a little glossier than it needed to, the people a little more like film stars than they should. Even a Master Moshai can occasionally be stared down by a privileged, confident student.

Excerpted with permission from Penguin Books India from The World Of Hrishikesh Mukherjee: The Filmmaker Everyone Loves by Jai Arjun Singh. The book is available for pre-order on Amazon.in and will be out in stores next week.

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