Sara Akash opens with the legendary KK Mahajan's camera in constant motion. It's either whipping past walls (as if mounted on a car) or, more slowly, receding from people on the streets of Agra (as if mounted on a rickshaw). In the midst of this visual frenzy, occasional picture-postcard images of the Taj tell us where we are. But a larger stillness lies in wait. The first scene is that of a wedding, and the camera zooms into the groom's sullen face as he replays memories: friends asking him about this early marriage, even before he's finished his studies. But the largest stillness is a shocker: a complete freeze-frame of the man as he cycles away from his friends, when they had this conversation. The conversation continues as we zoom in on the frame of his arrested motion, his arrested development.
Sara Akash is Basu Chatterjee's first film. Along with a couple of fellow-1969 releases, Mani Kaul's Uski Roti and Mrinal Sen's Bhuvan Shome, it is seen as the dawn of a Hindi New Wave. I saw the film long after I watched the director's more beloved films — and yes, "beloved" is the word I think most people would associate with his films — and I was stunned by its formalism. (Heck, one of the actors in it is… Mani Kaul.) Basu Chatterjee would move away from this world very quickly, but even in the more crowd-pleasing or middle-of-the-road or whatever-you-want-to-call-it movies he made later, you can find echoes of his first film: they were often based on literature (Rajendra Yadav wrote the novel Sara Akash sprang from), and they were devoted to detailing the inner life of ordinary people often torn in two directions.
In Sara Akash, the protagonist is torn between the man he wants to be (a great soul like Vivekananda) and the man the world expects him to settle down to be: a "simple" householder. In Swami (1977), based on a Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay story, the educated Thomas Hardy-reading woman is torn between a man she thinks is her intellectual equal and her "simple" husband. In Rajnigandha (1974), based on a Mannu Bhandari short story, the woman is torn between the glitz of fast-moving Mumbai (where her ex is) and the old-world rootedness of Delhi, where she has a "simple" boyfriend. Even in Chit Chor and Chhoti Si Baat — two 1976 films even more beloved than the regularly beloved Basu Chatterjee movie — there's emotional turmoil: this or that. In Chit Chor, it's a love triangle. In Chhoti Si Baat, a "simple" man has to decide between his inherent meekness and the brashness on display from the new suitor of the woman he loves.
Among the oddest of Basu Chatterjee movies is Ratnadeep (1979), based on Prabhat Kumar Mukhopadhyay's short story. Its theme of a man posing as someone else would be shaped into a huge international art-house hit three years later, as The Return of Martin Guerre, directed by Daniel Vigne and starring Gérard Depardieu. Was there another underlying story in common? Also, was Basu Chatterjee extrapolating on what Mani Kaul did in Duvidha, where a woman is torn between waiting for her husband and succumbing to a ghost that looks like him? (It's tempting to imagine these filmmakers as India's answer to Godard and Truffaut, the avant-gardist and the sentimentalist, both aided by India's answer to Raoul Coutard, KK Mahajan.) In the case of Man Pasand (1980), it was the reverse: the Western version came first. The film was based on My Fair Lady. Six years later, Twelve Angry Men was reworked into Ek Ruka Hua Faisla.
Basu Chatterjee's films could be called "simple". But they were about complicated — or at least, not-so-simple — people. In Manzil (1979), surely the only Hindi film with galvanometers in the plot, the protagonist (Amitabh Bachchan) dreams big: he wants to become an entrepreneur. In Piya Ka Ghar (1972), the protagonist (Jaya Bhaduri) dreams small: all she wants is some privacy with her husband, who lives in a cramped flat with his family. There was always a gentleness, a sweetly comic touch, a sense of decency (even in a ribald, Billy Wilderian farce like Shaukeen), a recognisable middle-classness, a tendency to shoot on real locations instead of plasticky sets, and a resistance to sensationalise or melodramatise. The melodramatic concluding portions of Manzil, for instance, seem almost apologetic. It's like the director is saying: Look, I have the star of 'Deewar', 'Don' and 'Muqaddar Ka Sikandar' in my movie. I just HAVE to give it a big finish.
Basu Chatterjee worked best with lower-wattage actors like Rakesh Roshan and Amol Palekar, who was introduced to Hindi audiences in Rajnigandha. He was practically a personification of the Basu Chatterjee Movie™: modest, never visited a gym, never raising his voice, someone you could find next door. Or some people you could find next door, like the families in Khatta Meetha (1978) and Baaton Baaton Mein (1979) and Apne Paraye (1980) and the delightfully wacky Chameli Ki Shaadi (1986). In Piya Ka Ghar, they play cards. In Khatta Meetha, the family van breaks down and has to be pushed. One of my favourite Basu Chatterjee films is Priyatama (1977), about what happens when a girlfriend and boyfriend become wife and husband. In the opening song (and more famously, in Manzil), you just had people splashing and singing in the rain. Simple people, simple pleasures.
A variety of reasons — some economic, some aspirational — made the Basu Chatterjee Movie™ extinct. Some people say television serials show so much middle-classness that people don't want to see the same thing in the theatres. (Basu Chatterjee did move to TV, eventually.) Some people say when you're married to an Amol Palekar, you'd rather watch an eight-packed Hrithik Roshan on screen. I'd venture that, in the 1980s, the director couldn't conjure up the magic he did in the earlier decade. Whatever your pick of theory, along with Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Basu Chatterjee represented a gentler side of Hindi cinema, where there were no villains but the obstacle course we call life. Yeh jeena hai angoor ka daana, Gulzar wrote in Khatta Meetha. Kuch kachchaa hai / Kuchh pakkaa hai / Arre jitna khaya meetha tha / Jo haath na aayaa khatta hai. Translation: It's what we call life.
That brings me to the songs. After Sara Akash, which had a low-key soundtrack by Salil Chaudhuri, Basu Chatterjee moved to musical cinema with a vengeance. And he got some phenomenal music. We all know Rimjhim gire saawan from Manzil, but there's also the exquisite Asha solo, Man mera chahe. Another exquisite Asha solo: Aisa ho to kaisa hoga, from Ratnadeep. Lata's Na jaane kyon, from Chhoti Si Baat. Lata-Kishore's Tumse mila tha pyaar, from Khatta Meetha. Lata's Pal bhar mein yeh kya ho gaya, from Swami. And finally, one of Indian cinema's greatest albums: Chit Chor, composed by Ravindra Jain. One of the lines in Jab deep jale aana, sung by Yesudas, has the man telling the woman to line her eyes with his "preet ka kaajal". You can't write something like that today. Like the Basu Chatterjee Movie™, the sentiment is extinct.