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Kolkata Film Festival Pays Centenary Tribute to Hrishikesh Mukherjee

Hrishikesh Mukherjee was born in September 1922 and the 28th Kolkata International Film Festival (KIFF) has organized a centenary tribute to Hrishikesh Mukherjee through the
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Hrishikesh Mukherjee was born in September 1922 and the 28th Kolkata International Film Festival (KIFF) has organized a centenary tribute to Hrishikesh Mukherjee through the screening of eight of his wonderful films made over a career spanning four decades. The films chosen are – Abhimaan, Mili, Anuradha, Anand, Satyakaam, Anupama, Anari and Bemisaal. Sadly, Alaap, one of his best productions, starring Amitabh Bachchan, Rekha and Om Prakash, has been left out of the list, perhaps because it did not do well commercially. So was Namak Haraam starring Rajesh Khanna and Amitabh Bachchan. I have chosen four of these films- Anuradha, Mili, Anand, and Abhimaan, four of my personal favourites from the great filmmaker.

Abhimaan (1973)

The inaugural film which doubled up as a birthday tribute to Amitabh Bachchan was Abhimaan which featured Amitabh Bachchan along with his wife Jaya Bachchan. The film, apart from being enriched by the sterling performances of the lead pair along with Asrani, A K Hangal, Bindu and David in important supporting roles, it stands out because of the “pooled” storyline, script and dialogue coming out of the powerful pens of Rajinder Singh Bedi, Nabendu Ghosh, Biresh Chatterjee, Hrishikesh Mukherjee himself, Mohan N. Sippy and Biren Tripathi. 

Since so many powerful writers collaborated on the project, the film had a skewed narrative which went astray somewhere in the middle. It began with a conflict of talent between a famous singer Subir Kumar (Amitabh) and a village girl Uma (Jaya) after they got married. Uma is also a trained vocalist and Subir Kumar has no objections to her joining him in his vocation. But it is discovered that she is much more talented than her husband and soon eclipses her husband in popularity and fame. The husband does not take it well and the marriage falls apart. Till this point, the story presents a very unusual perspective of the husband-wife relationship. But after Uma miscarries, the story steadily declines to pure melodrama spoiling all that was built up so carefully. However, the music scored by S.D. Burman forms the highlight of the film. Burman bagged the Filmfare Award for Best Music and Jaya Bacchan got the Best Actress award. 

Mili (1975)

Jaya Bachchan was the star of this film where she is seen to be a cheerful, happy-go-lucky young girl very friendly with the kids in the residential society in which she resides with her father (Ashok Kumar). A new tenant, Shekhar Dayal, takes up residence on the terrace flat of the same complex. But he is an alcoholic and hates to interact with his neighbours. He keeps to himself and has a telescope he uses for stargazing. When Mili tries to befriend him, he treats her very rudely and she turns back. Then, he realizes that she means no harm and he allows her to use his terrace space to train the kids in a dance number at the society’s programme. 

Hrishikesh Mukherjee
Hrishikesh Mukherjee and Amitabh Bachchan collaborated in several films.

They fall in love but then he gets to know that Mili’s days are numbered as she is suffering from pernicious anemia. He insists that they get married before she gets in for a final surgery. The film ends on an ambiguous note with the couple flying away to Switzerland for her medical treatment. We are not told whether she will survive but that is a good closure for the film. Bachchan portrays a dark, angry, very quiet and unfriendly social recluse who begins to change when he falls in love with Mili. This film fetched Amitabh Bachchan the Best Actor Award from BFJA the following year. 

Anuradha (1960)

Anuradha was one of the earliest films directed by Hrishikesh Mukherjee. It had a very memorable musical score by Pandit Ravi Shankar on lyrics penned by Shailendra. It is the only film in the history of Hindi cinema to pair Balraj Sahni and Leela Naidu as husband and wife and Abhi Bhattacharya as the third angle in an imaginary triangle. Some studies say that the film has been inspired by Gustave Flaubert’s famous novel Madame Bovary but it really does not bear any semblance to the novel. The film also marked the debut of Leela Naidu, winner of Miss India title, in Indian films. Though her career in films was rather short-lived. The film won the President’s Gold Medal at the National Film Awards.

Anuradha film poster
Anuradha is Leela Naidu's debut film.

Shot in Black-and-White it was handled with great restraint by Mukherjee without his having once resorting to melodrama which tarnished his later films. It was possible because of Balraj Sahni, a brilliant but underrated actor. Sahni plays a doctor who chooses to practice in a remote village for the sake of the villagers. Anuradha, the female lead, falls in love with this quiet and calm doctor. Not only does she reject the negotiations with an England-returned gentleman (Abhi Bhattacharya) arranged by her father, but she also willingly gives up a very promising career in music. But does she adjust with the remote lifestyle of wifehood and motherhood? Or does she later regret it? The film closes on a happy note but it is perhaps one of the first Hindi films to give the woman the right to choose. 

Anand (1971)

Anand is perhaps the biggest ever commercial hit not only among Mukherjee’s entire oeuvre but also the biggest box office hit of that year. There are other features that make it a standout film in the history of Hindi cinema. One, Salil Choudhury composed the music and had different playback singers including Mukesh to belt out the songs. Two, Anand is counted among the 17 consecutive box office successes of Rajesh Khanna between 1969 and 1971. Three, it turned Amitabh Bachchan who was churning out one flop after another, into an overnight star though he played a supporting role. Four, it pushed up the box office value of Rajesh Khanna and consolidated his star value by several notches. Five, it did not have much in terms of hero-heroine Bollywood romance and yet, though the film ended with the death of the hero, it became a thumping box office hit. Anand is one of the only two films that Khanna and Bachchan have starred together– the other being the 1973 film Namak Haraam, also directed by Hrishikesh Mukherjee.

Mukherjee said that Anand was loosely inspired by Ikiru, a film by Akira Kurosawa and initially considered Shashi Kapoor and Raj Kapoor for the lead and supporting roles in the early 1960s. The character of Anand was inspired by Raj Kapoor, who used to call Mukherjee “Babu Moshay”. It is believed that Mukherjee wrote the film when once Kapoor was seriously ill and Mukherjee thought that he may die. He dedicated Anand to Kapoor and the people of Mumbai. 

Zindagi badi honi chahiye, lambi nahin” is an immortal line expressed by Anand in the film which has become a regular line in other films where any character quotes it as a philosophy of life and living.  Anand is a patient of terminal cancer of the intestines and is brought to Dr. Bhaskar Banerjee for treatment. The doctor (Bachchan) is initially both shocked and angry when he sees the lightness with which Anand treats his terminal ailment which gives him just six more months to live. Anand says, “death is just a moment, just like the million moments we live every single day, why should I be worried about that one moment and spoil the moments that I will be living in these six months.”.Though it has its many melodramatic moments, Anand remains a cult film treating death as an eventual causality of Life. It is also remembered for its feather-light flourishes of humour, bonhomie and a touch of romance. It runs along several tracks, involving a deeply evolving friendship between Anand and his young doctor Bhaskar Banerjee (Amitabh Bachchan), his self-constructed ‘family’ relationship with his doctor friend Kulkarni (Ramesh Deo) and his wife, the elderly nurse who mothers him and Bhaskar’s wife who unravels the story of his lost love through a dried up rose hidden in Anand’s poetry notebook. The unsmiling, grave and silent Bhaskar watches Anand draw the last drop of life’s juices while there is still time. For him, it is a learning experience. Anand has inspired several later directors like Karan Johar and Srijit Mukherjee to dish out films like Kal Ho na Ho and Hemlock Society but none has been as impactful or memorable.

Images courtesy: Shoma A Chatterji

Shoma A. Chatterji is a freelance journalist, film scholar and author based in Kolkata. She has won the National Award twice, in 1991 and 2000. She has authored 26 published titles of which 14 are on different areas of Indian cinema. She holds two Masters Degrees and a Ph.D. in History (Indian Cinema). She has also won a few Lifetime Achievement Awards from different organizations over time.

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