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A Tribute: The Importance Of Basu Chatterjee’s Female Protagonists & Relatable Middle Class Stories

Posted: June 5, 2020

Basu Chatterjee, the maker of some of our iconic Hindi films, passed away yesterday, leaving behind a rich legacy of eminently relatable films that are classics. A tribute.

The Indian film industry has lost one of its greatest stalwarts with the passing away of Basu Chatterjee on Thursday, June 4. In a career spanning four decades, he has gifted priceless gems that posterity will always hold close to their hearts.

Basu Chatterjee began his career as an illustrator and cartoonist with the weekly tabloid Blitz. His cinematic excursion started when he assisted Basu Bhattacharya in Teesri Kasam in 1966.

It was with Sara Akash in 1969 when he began his journey of directing and producing films to carve a niche as one of the greatest Indian filmmakers in history.

It is indeed a herculean task to summarize the illustrious career of a director with the caliber of Basu Chatterjee. Hence, it is just my humble attempt to pen my thoughts on the artist, his craft, and his films on the basis of the movies that I have watched and intensely loved.

The importance of the female protagonist

What loomed large in the films of Basu Chatterjee is the indispensable role essayed by the female characters. The ones that instantly come to my mind when I think about his films are Rajnigandha, Chitchor, and Choti Si Baat.

It is surprising that although I was a child when I watched these movies, they have left a lasting impression on my mind. Perhaps it was the fact that he molded his female characters to be so lifelike that I could instantly see in them someone that I have known my whole life.

Chatterjee understood the female psyche with fine sensitivity. With delicate nuances, he delved into their minds, painting the multiple shades of emotions: their love, their longing, their anger, and their sadness. So realistic was his portrayal that any woman could identify herself with a character and live the experience displayed on celluloid.

With such warm affection, he brought to us the beautiful character of Deepa in Rajnigandha who fights with her inner feelings while having to decide between her ex-lover Navin and her fiancé Sanjay. Intensely heartwarming is the love story of Prabha (Choti Si Baat) who realizes the intensity of her feelings for Arun, whom she is attracted to, after he temporarily leaves town. Then there is the childish, naive Geeta from Chitchor who strikes a chord with her free, happy spirit.

Similarly, in Swami, one empathizes with Mini when she is given in marriage much against her wishes and when she struggles to fit into the role of a wife and daughter-in-law. The sadness that Nancy (Baaton Baaton Mein) experiences when her relationship with her boyfriend almost crumbles becomes a part of the viewer’s sentiments too!

Long before cable television made its inroads and featured women-centric serials, Basu Chatterjee’s Rajani (1985) aired on Doordarshan and won hearts. With Priya Tendulkar in the lead role, the story centered around a crusading homemaker who raised her voice against government laxity and corruption.

The simplicity of themes and a middle-class India

Glitz and glamor were not the edifices on which Chatterjee’s films rested. At a time when potboilers were extremely popular in Bollywood, he ventured into a genre which highlighted the quotidian actualities of the Indian middle class.

The scripts that he either wrote himself or selected were dipped in realism that spread its roots and engulfed the audience. The human mind undergoes a plethora of moods and reactions, and Basu Chatterjee brought them to focus through his stories and his characters.

The themes that embraced the films were intelligently drawn from everyday life. Arun (Amol Palekar) riding the bus in Choti Si Baat or Ram and Malti (Anil Dhawan and Jaya Bhaduri) looking for privacy in a cramped Mumbai apartment in Piya Ka Ghar are easily relatable to.

Equally realistic is Chitchor which dwells on a story where the parents prefer to get their daughter married to somebody well-placed financially in terms of a career.

Basu Chatterjee also forayed into a different territory with films like Ek Ruka Hua Faisla (1986) and Kamla Ki Maut (1989). These films were moored in social and moral issues.

The light-heartedness in some of the films

The strains of humor that surfaced in some of Basu Chatterjee’s films were aptly tailored to fit the situation.

With that brigade of naive, foolish, eccentric, and nosy characters contributing their share in films like Choti Si Baat, Chitchor, Khatta Meetha, and Baton Baton Mein, the comic moments felt like the pleasant breeze that swept the audience to some truly enjoyable moments.

The evergreen music in Basu Chatterjee’s films

It’s the music in Basu Chatterjee’s films that was the cherry on the cake. He had an ear for music and worked with the best of music directors. “Rimjhim Gire Saawan”, set against the backdrop of the rains in Manzil, is a delightful mix of romance and melody that still causes a flutter in the heart. Soulful numbers like “Rajnigandha Phool Tumhaare”, “Najane Kyun”, “Jab Deep Jale Aana”, and “Jaaneman Jaaneman” among many others have been musically magical and will always have a special place in Bollywood’s music granary.

A genius has left the world bequeathing to us a rich legacy. Let us convey our heartfelt thanks and say a silent prayer for the man who has given us such fine works of art. Rest in Peace Basu Chatterjee ji!

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Born in India, Rashmi Bora Das moved to the United States in the early nineties.

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