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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

The benign terror of Hrishi da

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

‘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.

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!"’

Dharmendra (centre) and Mukherjee (right) on the sets of ‘Satyakam‘
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Dharmendra (centre) and Mukherjee (right) on the sets of ‘Satyakam‘
Dharmendra (from left), Amitabh Bachchan and Sharmila Tagore in a still from ‘Chupke Chupke‘
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Dharmendra (from left), Amitabh Bachchan and Sharmila Tagore in a still from ‘Chupke Chupke‘
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