Hrishikesh Mukherjee: The Family Remembers

 

By Kavita Chhibber

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"No situation in life is so serious that one should lose one’s sense of humor." -Hrishikesh Mukherjee to his granddaughter Sujata Banerji

He was a multi-dimensional man with an incomparable mind. My love affair with Hrishikesh Mukherjee began years ago as a child, because of the music in his films. Soon I was bowled over by a body of work, which was so out of the box in so many ways and yet so familiar, evergreen and timeless. I watch the movies over and over again and love every frame, with the same intensity that I felt when I first saw each film.

It’s a love affair that will probably continue as long as I live, unless Hrishi da reincarnates himself and returns and I can then get in the interminably endless line of admirers clamoring for attention. A friend said he wanted to do the smart thing and not stand in line with me. He would prefer to come back as one of Hrishi da’s dogs, considering they were the most pampered species in what seemed quite a mad cap household.

Zindagi Kaisi Hai Paheli Hai - Kabhi to Hasaaye, Kabhi Ye Rulaye

This song from Anand which talks about life being a puzzle, that makes you laugh and cry alternately perhaps sums up the key philosophy of Hrishi da’s films. Whether it was an Anuradha, where a famous singer sacrifices her career for her husband-a sacrifice which goes unappreciated, or a Satyakam where an idealistic man married a rape victim; or a Golmaal and Chupke Chupke where the main characters come with totally crazy schemes to be one up on others; or the murder mystery Buddha Mil Gaya, where the two main leads try to figure out who dunnit in the most hilarious manner, it all seems so familiar, believable and immensely enjoyable.

Hrishikesh Mukherjee on set with Amitabh Bachchan
Amitabh Bachchan said to me in the last tribute we did, that if Hrishi da had picked up a man from the street and made him act before the camera, he would have been able to get him to act the same way. It was just that he chose professional actors like them to do it instead. That is how real his films seemed.

No matter what the theme, his films are sprinkled with life’s lessons, with life situations that could happen to anyone no matter how whacky they seemed. And that was because the man was a keen observer of humanity.

Most people who knew Hrishi da knew what a wicked, and risqué sense of humor he had. He also knew how to laugh at himself. Hrishi da was a very strict disciplinarian on sets- so strict that once Amitabh Bachchan said loudly within earshot - Kaun kehta hai Hitler mar gaya? (Who says Hitler is dead?)

And what does Hrishi da do? He incorporates the phrase in his film Golmaal!

His daughter Jayasree, and daughter in law Swati recall how Hrishi da kept a diary in which he meticulously recorded everything. “Every time he would come to visit us in Boston,” recalls Swati, “ he would make notes-the cost of gas, how much we paid for our last car, the names of all our friends, their phone numbers.”

Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s films and their characters were so believable because they were so close to the people we meet in real life. How real? Swati and daughter Priyanka laughingly say many of the family members have made it to celluloid thanks to Hrishi da’s keen recording of everything in his diaries and astute observation skills. “If you see the movie Kisi se na Kehna, the character of Ramesh Chandra, the bright, shy, obedient son, is based on my dad,’ says Priyanka. “And the daughter in law is loosely based on me. Even a fight I had with baba made it to the film,” says Swati with a laugh. Other movies like Abhimaan and Anupama were also based on singer Kishore Kumar and his ex wife Rupa Ganguly and another relative, says son Pratip. His friendship with Raj Kapoor inspired Hrishi da to make Anand. Rajesh Khanna’s character in Bawarchi was based on Hrishi da’s own father who was a chemist and used to concoct all kinds of things from Kohl for the ladies, to fire crackers in his lab.

Swati says while the whole family was acquainted with classical music, she used to listen to Neil Diamond and Abba. “Baba was aghast when he mentioned Zakir Hussain one day and I said excitedly - I know him, I know him - because he is so handsome! Baba looked at me and said What? is that all you know about him. Is this the girl I married my son to? You have to go and get some classical music records and listen to them.” Her comment about Zakir Hussain also made it into the film, where Utpal Dutt goes to see this modern girl as a prospective bride and asks her if she listens to Ravi Shankar. The girl retorts - oh he is only famous abroad, but I like that guy Zakir Hussain because he is so hot!”

Jayasree says there were times they would fight with Hrishi da as they discovered some of the daily events making their way into his films. “Mostly he let them be but at times he would remove them quietly if he felt it really bothered us.”

Jayasree recalls her earliest memories of her father were of a man who would arrive in Calcutta (where the kids were being raised by their mother Rani and grandparents while Hrishi da was trying to make it in films) his arms full of books, many of which they were too young to read.

“Baba would have Tagore’s poetry, Gulliver’s travels and he would read them himself, till we could. I don’t ever remember him bringing a doll or some such toy. It was always books.” The love affair with books was among the many gifts Hrishi da bestowed upon his children and grand children.

Jayasree says in spite of the big house on Carter Road in Bombay, the entire platoon of kids and grandkids would plonk themselves in Hrishi da’s room. “It would be the most uncomfortable place because he would turn the air conditioning off, or the fan or close the windows if he was feeling cold and we would keep on chatting nonstop, talking to him, talking around him, talking over his head. At times he would yell, “ Out! All of you!” But we’d stay put! Baba listened to everyone. He wrote us such beautiful letters, creating a poem for each child. I wish I had kept those letters. He was an amazing story teller, but the stories were never about kings and queens. They were always about animals-how a little mouse was lost, how a fish disobeyed her mother and swam upstream where she was caught by a fisherman. He would compose a song and we would sing that sad song about the story and cry!”

Golmaal Hai Bhai Sab Golmaal Hai... Seedhe Rastey Ki Yeh Tedhi Chaal Hai

This song that says nothing is as simple as it seems, and the straight road seems crooked as well- could very well describe the craziness in the Hrishikesh Mukherjee household, where nothing was simplistic and some people, like Hrishi da’s newly married son in law Ashutosh Banerji, may have tried to find some order in the chaos-but it seems pretty much everyone including him ended up being part of the madness and go with the tedhi flow!

Ashutosh and Jayasree Banerji
Ashutosh is married to Jayasree, the oldest daughter. She says she was married off not because she was of marriageable age at a tender 18 years, but because for seven generations there had not been a girl in the family, and everyone and anyone even remotely related to the clan wanted to see their precious girl being married off in a big event.

Ashutosh Banerji says he had no idea about all that behind the scenes stuff-he fell for this beautiful girl, with a far away dreamy look in her eyes. “ I found out later all people who are myopic have that look!” he says with a laugh, “ but at that time, I fell for “that” look.

Hrishi da became a very young father in law, to Ashutosh, who was however in for the surprise of his life when he arrived one fine morning with his wife, to visit him in Bombay, expecting a grand reception reserved for Indian sons-in law. Instead this is what he experienced.

“The gentleman (Hrishi da) was half reclining on the bed, with 4-5 chairs in the room, which were occupied by some of his favorite dogs. So here I was, the oldest and I thought most cherished son in law, standing on one foot, then the other not knowing what to do, and he would not ask his dogs to make place for me. He saw my discomfort and burst out laughing and so did I, and at that point the complicated and formal relationship between a father in law and son in law disappeared and we became friends.” And finally a dog did graciously decide to vacate a chair and the son in law who was a stickler for hygiene found himself seated on a chair full of dog hair.

“He (Ashutosh) used to bring his own towels and grumbled that there is no hygiene in our house,” laughed Jayasree. The wheel was about to come a full circle for Ashutosh Banerji but he didn’t know it then.

Ashutosh soon saw his father in law making friends as easily with his colleagues. “He had this fascination for chess and I remember coming in one day at 3 a.m. and trying to find the fastest way to get to my bed, only to be baited by the man to play chess with him at that unearthly hour. I tried to play in a way that I lost quickly but he said, “ No, No, try again. “ This went on for 6-7 games till he caught on that I was really tired and that was my polite way of trying to escape and he finally let me go!

The son in law also bonded with the grand father in law, Hrishi da’s dad, Sheetal Chandra Mukherjee who remained in Ashutosh’s eyes a “ sprightly young man” . “ In fact I could do certain things with him that I couldn’t with Hrishi da, like sharing an occasional drink, since Hrishi da did not drink. He would also visit us and take on responsibilities like going grocery shopping, refusing to let the servants do it. Off he would go, this fit and sprightly character to get the freshest of fish and vegetables from the market.”

Sujata Banerji with her sons
Hrishi da’s oldest grandchild Sujata Banerji says before Swati came to their home after marriage, the place was chaotic but what was overflowing in that house, along with a million people, and a huge number of dogs, was generosity and abundance of love. “We never had a single conversation at home that involved anyone from the film industry, and so the few memories I have are of Rekha removing all my clothes and putting her wardrobe in my closet. Another memory I have is of Jaya Bachchan staying at our house when I was very small and Amitabh Bachchan was courting her then. He used to come to see her in his white fiat and they would talk incessantly into the wee hours of the morning non stop till my great grand mother said to him one day in exasperation-“ Don’t you have your own house?” I remember Raj Kapoor walking in totally drunk one night and saying-Hrishi tu mera baap hai.”(Hrishi you are my father). All of them seemed like the people next door to us.

The Carter Road House in the 1970s was a mad house. It had a palm tree growing though it because my grand father didn’t have the heart to cut it down. There were 10 dogs each with their own personalities. You open different rooms in the house and you find strangers inhabiting them-some of them must be the film stars I didn’t recognize but there were also the cyclists trying to break the world record, a sadhu(holy man) from Pondicherry ashram and all kinds of other weird people who stayed for a couple of weeks and moved on. The kitchen was always busy because you didn’t know how many people were coming for lunch or dinner, and you didn’t recognize most of the people on the table. If someone from the street decided to come in, eat and leave, we wouldn’t have noticed. There was always so much happening- Who was related to who, no one knew. Who would stay for how long, nobody knew!”

Rajeev Pandya, whose father J. Pandya was a close friend of Hrishi da and both made films together, grew up in front of Hrishi da and then became an assistant director with him. He recalls how much of a prankster and Gol maal man Hrishi da was. “He used to encourage Faroukh Shaikh to tease Deepti Naval who was always too serious on the sets, sitting in a corner, with her big spectacles always reading a book. She had come from abroad, and only knew Gulzar uncle then. Dada would tell Faroukh, “Go go, pull a prank on her- dekh kaisi serious look de rahi hai-Gulzar ban rahi hai-( look at her serious “look” she is morphing into Gulzar) and Faroukh would always oblige. Faroukh is so brilliant and so well read. He would take one of his fat philosophy books, give it to Deepti and say- kindly read this one page and then we will discuss it. She’d get flustered and we’d all be laughing.”

Rajeev also recalls a film sequence being shot in Mahableshwar, where the actress Rekha was to walk down a hill, lost in happy thoughts walking towards the sunset and she was to turn around and walk back, up the hill only when Hrishi da said “Cut”. We had already been instructed to pack up and disappear. So there was Rekha merrily walking and walking and walking down the hill waiting for dada to say cut. Finally she turned around and every one had vanished. She was SO furious and we had a hearty laugh.”

Another time Dharamendra who had become a macho superstar was to come to shoot for Satyakam. He was wearing this really exciting white leather outfit made for him for another film and came straight from shooting. He was so excited about the outfit, thinking he had really arrived and was no longer that gauche young Jat from the village. So he strutted in his newly acquired feathers, thinking Hrishi da would be bowled over by his new hip persona. Instead, recalls Rajeev with a laugh, “ Hrishi da with a straight face told his staff to make Dharam ji lie down, and cover him from top to toe in a white sheet. Then he turned to Dharam ji and said-aaj tumhara death scene shoot kar rahe hain(We are shooting your death scene today). Dharam ji says the wind went out of his sails rather quickly, while everyone on the sets was probably busy snickering away!”

Another time, Hrishi da was in a hurry and couldn’t find his fake upper lip teeth, remembers Swati. “The assistants who were as nutty were running helter skelter looking for those teeth until one of them tried to borrow his second son’s fake teeth. “ Tutu, said the assistant, give your fake upper teeth, or the producer will lose his money if we get late and we will all be yelled at! That is how mad everyone was,” says Swati laughing.

Na Jiya Lage Na, Tere Bina Mera Kahin Jiya Lage Na

In Anand, the heroine sings this romantic song saying she can’t live with out the hero. In real life if Hrishi da had one passion other than film making it was his love for animals. They couldn’t live without him and he without his favorite dogs, which at one point numbered eleven, says Jayasree. ‘I remember baba asking me for a Pekinese on top of that and a harried Swati calling me behind his back asking me if I was her enemy-and that there was no way there would be a Pekinese added to the existing platoon of spoilt canines”.

Hrishi da’s grand father was a zoo keeper and lived in a bungalow within the zoo, recalls Sujata. “They used to live inside and Buju Buju (a name she gave Hrishi da lovingly) used to save lunch money over weeks and months to buy those little birds that were bought to be fed to the snakes. He would buy as many as he could afford and then set those birds free. And then came the dogs. Growing up we learned that each dog had his own personality.’

Hrishikesh Mukherjee with a loving companion
“If a dog was on the sofa, we dare not ask them to get down, recalls Swati-they would growl and stay put. Husband Pratip recalls their oldest dog was Boodhi - a Pomeranian Pekinese mix who lived very long thanks to the love and care lavished on her. “ I remember Boodhi was our first dog and it was 1957. Baba brought her home, this little thing, on his red file which had the script for Anari.” Hrishi da was heart broken when she died and didn’t even want to shoot when she was sick.

Swati remembers another dog who was abused by a young girl who named her Dimple after the then superstar Rajesh Khanna married Dimple Kapadia. “ She would kick and hurt the dog, till her mother came and gave her to Baba. She was renamed Sweety and became the Queen of all she surveyed thanks to Baba spoiling her. This dog would chew paan (betel leaves) and sit on the sofa lording it over, and if I asked her to move, she would growl at me like who are you to tell me to get up-I’m the queen here.” Hrishi da would come back from work and dinner would be served to him on a tray near his bed. “ All the dogs would be sitting around Baba, and he would lovingly feed them-Sweetu-here have this chocolate, so and so, you have this.”

Little did the meticulous Ashutosh Banerji know that Hrishi da’s love for dogs would rub off on him. “ When my father finally got himself a cocker spaniel,” recalls Sujata, ‘ he became worse than my grandfather. “ So there was my dad, who would make it to my grand father’s home, sit disapprovingly on a dog hair infested chair, while two dogs would sit on each side of him, much to his dismay, and he’d keep threatening-I’m not coming back to this unhygienic household. And then the man finally got himself this cocker spaniel and was ten times worse than my grandfather. Oh has she been fed, has she been brushed, Oh isn’t she looking sad today. I don’t think I will go to work. When she died both my parents were a wreck,” says Sujata.

“Indeed the hair was never a problem, when I got my own dog,” acknowledges Ashutosh Banerji with a laugh. “Every bit of that dog became a part of my being. In the morning when I would get up, the greeting which I got from the dog, and the mournful looks she gave me when I was leaving would make me reluctant to go to office. The joy with which she greeted me when I returned made me feel like a celebrity! She made me feel wanted ALL the time. She died recently and that day I realized why Hrishi da was so attached to his dogs. Their love is irreplaceable.”

Sujata adds that apart from the dogs the most spoilt and pampered domestic help in the entire state of Maharashtra was found in the house of Hrishikesh Mukherjee. Swati and daughter Priyanka agree. “We had to switch off from our favorite program, if the regional news that one of the servants liked was on,’ says Priyanka, “ If we came home after 10 p.m. we either fixed something for ourselves or slept hungry because the servants got up early and had to get their 8 hours of sleep."

“The domestics would be sprawled on the sofa watching TV,” says Sujata. “ at that time it seemed irritating but that was our earliest lesson at social equality taught first hand. Strangely today we seem to have imbibed the same attitude and the most pampered domestic help can be found in the homes of our family.”

Ashutosh Banerji recalls that Hrishi da’s driver and Ashutosh’s pet name were the same-Gopal. ‘There were some very humorous moments when I was around and Gopal was summoned. When it was suggested that he call the esteemed son in law Gopal, and the driver by the nickname of Tambi which means younger brother in the South, where he was from, pat came the authoritative response, “Gopal the driver will not change his name-if the son in law however wished to change his, Hrishi da had no objections. It was so typical of Hrishi da. He always stood up for the underdog."

His younger brother Kalika Prasad recalls that Hrishi da was very kind to Gopal. He gave money to educate both his daughters and contributed to their marriage. He looked after his unit the same way. ‘ That was how my brother was- before anyone came to him, he would himself go and ask the servants or the unit staff if anyone needed anything. He noticed everything. If an assistant didn’t show up for a couple of days, Hrishi da would send someone to find out if something was wrong.”

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