At one point in Bawarchi (1972), Raghu (Rajesh Khanna), the newly-appointed servant casually professes to one of the family members, “It is so simple to be happy, but it is so difficult to be simple.” This famous line originally came from poet Rabindranath Tagore, but it couldn’t have found a better home in Hindi cinema than Bawarchi, a film that tells us life is as simple or complicated as we make it — and if there’s one artist in popular Hindi cinema who truly exemplified the importance of simplicity in art, it has to be director Hrishikesh Mukherjee.
How does one even begin to attempt a summary of the contribution of an artist as prolific as Mukherjee, who directed 42 films, co-wrote 14 of them, and edited more than 30 films in a career spanning over 40 years? One can merely try.
Bringing the middle class into the mainstream
Mukherjee began his filmmaking journey as an assistant to legendary filmmaker Bimal Roy, working both as an editor and assistant director for films like Do Bigha Zameen (1953) and Parineeta (1953), before making his directorial debut in 1957 with Musafir. It took some time for Mukherjee to find his voice. The first decade of his directorial career had several star-studded features that essentially catered to stars’ fan-bases (Chhaya, 1961; Asli Naqli, Aashiq, 1962; even the 1959 Anari to some extent) rather than coming from the director’s own sensibilities. It wasn’t until the late Sixties that Mukherjee truly emerged as an auteur, making films like Anupama (1966), Aashirwaad (1968) and Satyakaam (1969), which were distinct from each other and yet carried the unmistakable stamp of a sensitive filmmaker who believed in the power of humanist dramas above everything else. Among his early works, Mem-Didi (1961) and Biwi Aur Makan (1966) remain two underrated films that carry some of the these that Mukherjee would return to later, like characters’ penchant for role-playing and an emphasis on communion and compassion in our everyday lives.
With films like Anand (1971), Bawarchi (1972), Chupke Chupke (1975), Golmaal (1979) and Khubsoorat (1980), Mukherjee, along with filmmakers like Basu Chatterjee and Gulzar, became the pioneer of the ‘middle-of-the-road’ cinema that emerged in the Seventies.
Writer-director Ashwiny Iyer Tiwary, who grew up on a staple diet of Mukherjee’s cinema, said, “Hrishi-da was utterly simple in his style, telling everyday stories with so much passion and joy. He made a simple moment look big, with such nuance and innocence. We all have a little comedy in our lives — and he taught us how we can laugh at ourselves. What we now call slice-of-life cinema, Hrishi da did it years back with such aplomb, and in so many films.”
At a time when mainstream Hindi cinema was populated by potboilers and formula-driven escapism, Mukherjee carved a niche of his own, telling stories set in grounded, relatable universes with a middle-class ethos. The best of Mukherjee’s films were those that steered away from commercial cinema tropes. His film barely had any scenes of violence or action. There were no elaborate song-and-dance sequences and there was little play around sex. (The few times Mukherjee followed the formula in the Seventies — in films like Buddha Mil Gaya (1971), Kotwal Saab (1977), Jurmana (1979) — the results weren’t as memorable.) Iyer-Tiwari said, “Hrisha-da’s storytelling was never diluted. He was never affected by what others were doing, never compelled to second-guess his choices or go beyond the stories that resonated with him. In his choice of music, his colours, his craft, tiny comments about what he wants to say, you can see one focus, one voice.”
Conflict gift-wrapped in sweetness and humour
Even in his revered comedies, which seem endearing but simple at first glance, there’s a lot going on under the garb of situational humour. For example, there runs a subtle undercurrent of rebellion running through Khubsoorat, Golmaal, and Chupke Chupke, in which generational clashes are mined for comedy. In Khoobsurat, Manju (Rekha) sparks off the “Nirmal Anand” (simple pleasures) rebellion in her sister’s marital home, enabling all the subdued family members to assert themselves and bend the rules set by the disciplinarian matriarch (played by delightfully-stern Dina Pathak). In Golmaal and Kissi Se Na Kehna (1983), Ram Prasad (Amol Palekar) and Ramola (Deepti Naval) are accomplished young individuals but must resort to role-playing to appease the conservative elder generation. It’s only at the climax that the older folk realise that the divide between traditionalism and modernity isn’t that neatly drawn and one can be a bit of both.
Difficult and prejudiced as they may be initially, Mukherjee always imagined the older generation as one that was capable of change. In the last act of Khubsoorat, Pathak’s Mrs. Gupta says to Manju, “I have decided to imprison you forever in my house,” when welcoming the younger woman as her daughter in-law. It’s a playful jibe at her own authoritarianism which Manju has effectively dismantled in the course of the film. Om Prakash as the purist jijaji (brother in-law) admits defeat in Chupke Chupke and the film ends with him requesting the audience to not spill the beans about his embarrassment. Golmaal ends with the spectacular pay-off in which Bhawani Shankar (Utpal Dutt) poses for a family portrait, sans the moustache that he championed so vociferously earlier in the film for being a symbol of a man’s integrity.
Mukherjee’s narratives were a perfect meeting ground for the young and the old, with both taking a few steps towards a better understanding of each other. Young protagonists found ways to respectfully (and humorously) reject the older generation’s conservatism and prejudices.
An extraordinary ordinariness
As a director, he also consistently steered clear of the standard hero-vs-villain narrative and his best work came when he focussed on finding warmth and humanity in the world around him. A film like Guddi, which deconstructs the mythical stature of film-stars and humanises them, could only come from someone like Mukherjee. For writer Biswapati Sarkar, who played a big role in the emergence of The Viral Fever (TVF) as the flagbearer of relatable stories on streaming and web shows, Mukherjee’s films stand apart because of their celebration of the ordinary. “When we think of entertainment, we think of larger-than-life, Amitabh Bachchan style. But Hrishi-da celebrated the everyday hero, who wasn’t avenging his father’s murder or bashing up villains. He had his little problems of life to solve. Hrisha-da celebrated the niceness of people and preached kindness towards one another. Bawarchi is essentially a film about our inherent goodness. Perhaps that's why people remember him a lot when they watch Raju Hirani films. Hrishi-da remains a genre of his own.”
Sarkar also pointed out how Mukherjee depicted the Indian middle-class. “He was never exploitative of the middle-class backdrops of his films. That’s who he was at heart. I don't think we have that kind of authenticity anymore. The small-town setup we see these days seems rather designed because they are in trend. Most of them try too hard to be funny, depending too much on bawdy humour and punchline-driven writing. Hrishi-da’s humour was more situational, and underneath it all, he was merely asking people to be good to each other,” said Sarkar.
Mukherjee worked with the biggest of stars, and yet rarely succumbed to sticking to the trappings of their image. Be it Dharmendra in Anupama and Satyakam or Rajesh Khanna in Bawarchi or Anand (where he cast the actor in non-romantic roles at the peak of his romance-driven stardom), Mukherjee shed the gloss off the stars and tapped into their true potential. Even when Amitabh Bachchan was at the peak of his stardom in the early Eighties, Mukherjee cast him in films like Jurmana (1979) and Bemisal (1982) which saw the actor play characters who remained morally ambiguous till the end. Sarkar spoke about performances that made him realise Mukherjee’s penchant for casting-against-type. “I remember watching Asrani in Guddi. He barely had two scenes, but one of them was an emotional one. Asrani pulled it off so brilliantly, going way past our expectations since we usually saw him in comic roles. Even Johnny Walker’s performance in Anand left me teary-eyed. At the same time, he could cast Amitabh Bachchan in a comic role in Chupke Chupke, which came way before we saw his comic chops in Amar Akbar Anthony, but that’s what Hrishi-da’s films were about, with no clear demarcations or set boundaries for a hero, heroine or comedian.”
Actor Deepti Naval, who worked with the filmmaker in films like Kissi Se Na Kehna and Rang Birangi (1983), fondly remembered her association with him. She grew up watching and loving his films, particularly Asli Naqli, Anand and Abhimaan. “He was one of the first filmmakers I met upon my return to India after my studies, after deciding to become an actress,” she recalled. “He would always tell me, ‘Just hang in there. Don’t rush, don’t go back to America. There is a place for a girl like you in the Industry.’ He said he will make a film with me, and eventually, he made two.” The director became something of a father figure for Naval. “Shooting with Hrishi-da was like going for a picnic. Such was the ease on his sets. He would round up all the artists together and narrate the scene, giving his take on how he saw its execution. He was always very pleasant, and super-approachable. I never experienced the taskmaster side that many talked about, I just saw how much he enjoyed the shoot,” she said.
Hrishi-da, the idealist
For Naval, Mukherjee’s sense of economy and editing set him apart from other filmmakers. “He always knew which shot to place at what point. There was no element of indulgence or uncertainty. He never shot extra angles. If only six shots were required, he ensured to take those precise shots, and nothing more,” she recalled.
Sarkar said he felt current filmmakers could benefit from that sense of precision and pointed to Piku (2015) as a contemporary example of Mukherjee’s school of filmmaking. “He [Mukherjee] taught us you don’t need a huge budget or big, showy things to make movies. He neither had lavish scale nor used fanciful camerawork to attract our attention. His films had simplistic art direction, with actors dressed in sombre colours playing out their scenes, and these stories still kept us hooked. He taught us that effective writing, simple subjects, and extraction of good performances are enough,” said Sarkar. Iyer-Tiwari, who directed slice-of-life narratives like Nil Battey Sannata (2015) and Bareilly ki Barfi (2017) said, “Maybe it's the simplicity of storytelling, without any clutter, that reflected in my films that led some of the reviewers to compare them to the cinema of Hrishikesh Mukherjee. It remains a huge compliment.”
In many interviews, Mukherjee describes his unit as a family, which explains why he consistently worked with a certain team of technicians. Cinematographer Jaywant Pathare shot over 35 films with Mukherjee, starting with Anari (1959) till his second–last release Namumkin (1988). Art director Ajit Banerjee was another long-time collaborator, having worked with the director till Jhoothi (1985). Mukherjee worked extensively with Rajinder Singh Bedi, who wrote the dialogues for eight of his films including Satyakam and Abhimaan. Later in his career, Mukherjee found reliable collaborators in Gulzar and Rahi Masoom Raza. Raza penned dialogues for films as diverse and remarkable as Golmaal and Mili (1975). Mukherjee and Gulzar, both Bimal Roy protegés, wrote some of Hindi cinema’s most beloved dialogue-driven scripts, including Anand, Namak Haraam (1973), Chupke Chupke and Khubsoorat.
Over the years, Mukherjee’s films have acquired a cult following, resonating with generations that grew up watching his comedies years later on satellite television. The director also explored complex and pain-riddled narratives. Two of his most poignant films centred around rocky marriages where women found themselves forced to curb their ambitions and play traditional roles as dictated by a patriarchal society. Anuradha (1960), is told from the perspective of the titular character (Leela Naidu) who, once a promising singer, now lives a lonely life and is increasingly unsure of her feelings towards her husband, who is a much-revered doctor in their village but insensitive to her. In Abhimaan (1973), Subir (Amitabh Bachchan), a famous playback singer, is consumed by jealousy and insecurity after his humble and more talented wife Uma (Jaya Bachchan) becomes more successful than him. The film, while told from Subir’s perspective never lets us sympathise with him. We feel Uma’s tragedy much more deeply and though Mukherjee ends his films with the couples deciding to reunite, the critique of self-absorbed masculinity is one that lingers past the happy ending. Mukherjee captured another facet of a dysfunctional man-woman relationship in Anupama, this time between a father and daughter. In Namak Haraam, Mukherjee examined the ever-widening class divide and labour exploitation through two young men whose hierarchy-defying friendship is put to test.
The clash between idealism and society is a theme that Mukherjee returned to repeatedly. Satyakam (1969) remains a milestone in Mukherjee’s oeuvre, with the filmmaker attempting a story without the usual effervescence, about a young, idealistic engineer. Satyapriya (Dharmendra) sticks to his principles despite tragic adversities and Mukherjee captures the despair and disillusionment that idealists like him perhaps felt as India entered the third decade of its freedom. Years later, Mukherjee would again attempt a story of an unflinching idealist in Alaap (1977), which failed at the box office, just as Satyakam had.
After Satyakam, Mukherjee consciously decided to gravitate towards lighter, more life-affirming stories and Anand marks that passing of the idealistic baton with poignant poetry. The film begins with Dr. Bhaskar Banarjee’s (Amitabh Bachchan) cynical perspective and his world is turned upside down by Anand Sehgal (Rajesh Khanna), a terminally ill patient who radiates hope despite his condition. Anand remains Mukherjee’s most popular and loved film because of how it married joy and melancholy. It’s also a reflection perhaps of the filmmaker’s heartwarming worldview, which acknowledged the sadness that plagued modern times, but still remembered (and reminded us) to look at the brighter side of life, to look for things that restore our faith in humanity and goodness.