A Picture Perfect Night with Hrishikesh Mukherjee

(Photo Credits: Rasik Mehta)

By Kavita Chhibber

I wrote these thoughts sometime back but they hold true to this day.

His movies are ageless; his stories the story of everyman transcend generations. My grandmother, my mother and I have all been fans. I see a lot of little kids watching these films today and laughing at the crazy capers of an Amitabh Bachchan, bumbling through biology descriptions of the corolla and karela or crying at Anand’s death. No matter how many times I see Anand, I revel in the amazing music of Salil Chaudhry.

Whether it was Satyakam, Hrishi da’s personal most favorite film, where he makes the son of a raped widow gain acceptance in the eyes of the dead man’s grandfather because truth always prevails and the ties of love are not necessarily forged by the ties of blood; or a Khubsoorat where Ashok Kumar and Dina Pathak were at their best showcasing the complexities in a husband wife relationship in a multi-layered performance; or even an Abhimaan, that gave Bindu a new lease in acting and allowed her to move away from stereotypical vampish roles that had become her trademark - each movie was a beautifully polished gem, and presented in the simplest manner. The themes of his movies smacked of pragmatism where Hrishi da spoke eloquently against the ills of society. He had a master’s touch on the pulse of the middle class. He also gave Dharmendra, Jaya and Amitabh Bachchan, Rekha and Amol Palekar and so many others, some of the best roles of their lives.

More than anything, every one of his movies could be seen and enjoyed by the whole family without worrying about sleaze and bad language that unfortunately seems to be the norm rather than the exception in Bollywood films today.

And so it speaks volumes about the master craftsman Hrishikesh Mukherjee and a reputation for high level musical presentations by Mohan and Meera Subramaniam that  "A Musical Journey with Hrishikesh Mukherjee" was sold out a full month before its live presentation on May 7th.

Swati and Pratip Mukherjee
Attended by Hrishi da’s son Pratip and daughter-in-law Swati, who both flew in all the way from California, the show began with a very apt introduction by Ajay Sinha, an Art History Professor who also teaches a course in Indian films.  One of the key elements of Hrishida’s work, Sinha said was the fact that “whereas the Bengali tradition took itself too seriously, Hrishi Da brought to that tradition a light touch, and a great sense of humor. Guddi pioneered a new genre that a scholar of film, Madhav Prasad, has called ’Middle Class Cinema’.

Middle Class Cinema drew stories from the lives of the urban professionals. Guddi’s family is made up of an office worker, a retired teacher, an aspiring engineer, and a worrying mother figure. Abhimaan explores the industry of playback singers. In Anand, a doctor treats a terminally ill cancer patient. For Hrishi Da, this new subject matter also meant developing a new style of filmmaking. No crane shots and fast cuts to dazzle the audience. No low angle shots or close ups to make film stars look larger than life. Hrishi Da preferred mid-shots and long-shots to suggest the normalcy of everyday situations. In making these stylistic choices, Hrisha Da drew upon a tradition of realistic filmmaking for which Calcutta, his training ground, was well known.

The evening was a musical treat showcasing the talents of Mohan Subramaniam himself, Raghu Saranathan, Valentino Almeida, Sowmya Shri and Nidhi Tare Lad who are all no strangers to music lovers in the Metro Boston area. 

For the audience it was a confluence of  camera, action, dialogue, song and dance.  Be it the words, a telling glance, or the display of an emotion - from  humor, angst , love, envy or pathos - the essence, indeed the soul of Hrishikesh Mukherjee, found  its way on to the stage through video clips, live standup comedy  and impeccable singing and song selection.

Each song, flowed seamlessly through an apt video clip from a movie and depicted a glimpse into the life of everyman - the dilemma, the madness, the pathos but also redemption and new beginnings. There was faith with Tera mera pyar amar, angst with Sab Kuch Seekha Humne, na seeki hoshiari, hope with Bhor ayee gaya andhiara, sacrifice with Hai re who din kyon na aye,  resolve with Ya dil ki suno duniya walo- mischief with Sun sun sun didi tere liye ik rishta aaya hai, and friendship was represented by Diye jaltey hain phool khilte hai, badi mushkil se magar duniya mein dost miltey hai. The list was never ending.

Every visual was a glimpse into the days of our lives and utterly believable. That was the magic of Hrishida’s films. He could and did make it all about us and we identified with every character on celluloid because Hrishi da himself had lived some moments, and observed others, and it all made it to his films.
I had asked this question of Hrishi da’s family: “How true to life were these characters?” and Hrishi da’s daughter-in-law Swati and granddaughter Priyanka had laughingly told me that 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 (Pratip),
says Priyanka. “And the daughter-in-law is loosely based on me. Even a fight I had with Baba made it to the film,” adds Swati with a laugh. 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!” Other movies like Abhimaan and Anupama were also based on real people. 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.”
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 him to do it instead. That is how close to life Hrishi da’s films were.

Preetesh Shrivastava
Preetesh Shrivastava, wowed  not only with his crystal clear diction and highly professional stand up comedy, but also impressed the audience in the seamless way he moved from the light-hearted to the deeper, more somber themes in Hrishi da’s films.
He was especially appreciated when he showed up dressed up as Ram Prasad from Golmaal sharing reasons why Hrishi da’s films are among the top 10 in any genre,  and quizzing the audience on their general knowledge of Hrishikesh Mukherjee films, keeping them very engaged. Preetesh is a flawless performer and it is always a pleasure to see him on stage.
Preetesh mentioned that “During all the appreciation after the show was over, a lady asked me: how do you guys produce such flawless shows? I told her that we have tough directors for our movie, Meera and Mohan Subramaniam, who do not compromise on quality at all.
Addressing the Subramaniams he added that Hrishikesh da blessed you with his direction style for this show which is why you brought out the ’beauty of simplicity’ and ’larger than life feeling’ in the event.
Speaking to the artists, it was fascinating to have them share their own stories and feelings about  rediscovering Hrishikesh Mukherjee.
Mohan Subramaniam grew up in an unconventional household where both parents were Carnatic musicians but embraced Hindustani classical music after moving from Kerala to Jamnagar. Mohan never thought he could sing and initially learned violin as a child. It was in college when people were sharing different talents that he, in desperation, sang a Talat Mahmood song not knowing what else to do. “The stunned silence, at first shocked me but the appreciation thereafter encouraged me to sing at various college events. But it was only when I came to Boston a few years ago that I started seriously learning vocal music.”

Raghu Saranathan on the other hand started training in Carnatic music at the age of seven and now also trains in Hindustani classical music having performed in many other states apart from Massachusetts.
Valentino has been training for years and has also performed a piece for the popular TV serial Nukkad. He was a finalist in Lata Mangeshkar’s “Meri Awaaz suno” competition and has mastered the art of voice projection and emoting as was visible in all his songs.
Nidhi Tare Lad has been training since the age of six thanks to her parents who were avid music lovers and encouraged her to learn. She has won many competitions as has Sowmya Shri who started training at the tender age of 3 initially with her mother, and ended up being the runner up on Zee TVs Saregamapa competition.

Sowmya Shri
Nidhi Tare Lad
For each singer, their perception of Hrishi Da’s films was unique. Sowmya candidly admits that “During my formative years in India, I was not exposed to many of Hrishida’s films and work. I grew up in a generation of A.R Rahman and Pritam and my only exposure to artists from the previous generation was through some shows where I would perform some older songs. After coming to New England area I have been more exposed to music from the previous generations. Now, I have been watching Hrishida’s films and music,  and it has made a big impression on me. I most admire the simplicity of the movies and the multitude of layers that seem so wonderfully woven into the movies and of course the importance he gives to music in his productions.

Raghu Saranathan
For Raghu Hrishi da’s movies meant a family friendly simple story with good music. "The women in his movies are simple, yet strong characters. Although the music in Hrishi da’s movies was melodious, my feeling is that the stories usually trumped the music. The music was a pleasant addition to the storyline.
There was also a surprise discovery. “I was surprised to learn some of the movies were Hrishi da’s. For instance, I did not realize Anari was directed by Hrishi da!”

“I’ve grown up watching Hrishi Da’s movies. Golmaal, Anand, Khoobsurat, Bawarchi are my all-time favorites!” says Nidhi. “Hrishi Da’s way of depicting day to day human life, emotions on the silver screen is heartwarming and inspiring. His movies conveyed strong messages in a very simple way... that was his greatness! Everything about his movies - the storyline, direction, casting, and music - was phenomenal. His music was fresh. The songs carried a beautiful meaning, expressions, and the visualization was endearing. I’m sure it would have been very hard for Mohan ji to pick songs for this show.”
Valentino Almeida
Valentino candidly admits that he does not really care for “art” cinema. “However Hrishikesh Mukherjee had this unique ability to blend mainstream and art cinema to create this beautiful blend that resulted in pure, simple movies that I loved and enjoyed watching. The songs in his movies used to always blend so well with the script as if these songs were truly meant to be an integral part of the story. Being a Kishore fan I have noticed that many of my favorite Kishore songs that I love to sing are from Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s films. “
Some singers were also surprised at the various nuances they had to try and master. “Some of the songs were based on ragas such as Bawarchi’s Bhor aayi gaya andhiyara where subtle nuances in the songs were hard to grasp initially. It took us some time to get comfortable with the notes. I needed a lot of work,” says Nidhi, and adds, “Another song from the show was Khubsoorat’s Sun sun didi tere liye which was probably the hardest of the songs I was assigned. The song is not just melodious, its true essence lies in the naughtiness, laughter, squealing, and excitement. The song quickly swings from a low to a high pitch and vice-versa. I spent most of my time practicing all the nuances of this song which Asha Bhosle has sung so beautifully!”

Valentino adds “Each and every song selected for the show was beautifully composed by the respective music directors and had its own unique level of difficulty. We can never be perfect but can always strive to be better each time we perform. I believe that there is no alternative for hard work. Practice and dedication are the two key factors that have helped me prepare well in all my programs. Learning should never stop so I still continue to learn and try my best to get better with every performance. Impactful singing that touches people’s hearts takes a lot more than just being in Sur and Taal!”

For Mohan, Sab kuch seekha hamne na seekhi hoshiyaari was an eye opener. “It seems like a simple song but to get the accuracy and emotion right was a lot of work for me. No wonder Mukesh won the Filmfare award for it. Also coordinating Bhor aayi gaya was not a cake walk!”

Sowmya agrees “When you listen to these songs at first, they seem easy and very melodious and for an instance give one the false hope that these are easy to perform. But the complexity is only fully exposed when one tries to sing them.”
When asked what  were their personal favorites,  Raghu picked Diye Jalte Hain, a song that he first heard as a 12 year old and instantly became a fan of Kishore da, and Main shayar Badnaam from the same film which did not make it to the list.

Valentino picked Kahi Door Jab Din Dhal Jaye and Tere Mere Milan ki ye Raina. Sowmya  was honored to perform one of her favorite songs of all time Chupke Chupke Chal Ri Purvaiya and Piya Bina and added, “Now that I think about this more, there are at least 10 songs that fall into this category. It only makes me wonder how difficult a job it must have been for Mohan Ji to select a few to present in this program.”

Nidhi being a fan of Rekha and the film Khubsoorat was thrilled to sing Sun sun, sun didi and loved Valentino’s rendition of Ik roz me tadapkar,  the duet Tere mere milan ki yeh raina by Sowmya and Raghu and Kahin door jab din dhal jaaye by Mohan. For Mohan, Kahin door and Piya bina were special favorites.
Each singer also took something special in their hearts from the entire experience.
“When one watches a movie, one does not know anything about the actors or the director and tends to paint a mental picture about them. Hrishi da’s portrait that I had seems very true to reality. He seemed to be a very simple man who did not desire a lot of fanfare, but who was loyal to his craft. The directors who go about creating offbeat stories these days have consciously or otherwise emulated Hrishida,” says Raghu.

For Valentino, working with Mohan and Meera was special. “Performing on the day of the event is a very small part of the whole deal. The entire experience of living the show from inception, rehearsals and the final day is what made this event so exciting. I am so glad to have performed with such talented artists and wonderful people. I must admit that a lot of people here in Boston, including me, know more about Hrishikesh Mukherjee and his films now than we knew a few months ago!

Sowmya loved meeting and spending time with Pratip and Swati. “Some of the personal stories that they told me about Hrishi da’s life was a great experience.”
Nidhi agreed: “I totally enjoyed my journey in preparing for the show and delivering it till the last day. Our rehearsals were a lot of fun.  Getting a closer glimpse into the life of Hrishiada through his family members and friends was probably my biggest take away. Swatiji and Pratipji shared many inspiring stories about the director which speaks volumes about his beliefs, thoughts, character which can be all seen through his movies. I feel the need to catch up on his other movies which I’ve missed.

Mohan Subramaniam
For Mohan and Meera, the work began last year. Mohan shared some thoughts about the journey.
“I have been doing a show every year for about 5 years so the technical aspect is easy to manage now with the experience. But the tougher part is the creative and the subtler elements. Because you want to tell a story and also hold the attention of the audience. I teach strategy and I guess that finds its way into these shows. Just like while preparing for your class you try and figure out how to hold the attention of the students, it is the same for the audience, and what kind of structure should you have and what is it that you want to convey?

“The plus on our side was the fact that we were showcasing legends like Amitabh Bachchan, Rajesh Khanna, Dharamendra, Amol Palekar and others and Hrishi da’s brilliant direction and music from the films... so while the clips would hold everyone’s attention, we then had to seamlessly flow into  and present he songs and then figure out what the next clip, the next song would be to keep the continuity going.

“The songs appropriately started with Maine tere liye hi saat rang ke sapne chuney because that was the purpose of the show - that I am bringing for you a rainbow of melodies and emotions and short stories. I wanted to do Aane wala pal as the second song but switched it to the 3rd slot so that we could show the young Amol Palekar from Golmaal to Amol Palekar today talking about Hrishi da giving it a kind of continuity  which kept the audience engaged.

Mohan and Meera Subramaniam
Preetesh was instrumental in moving us from the light and romantic to the more somber songs of Hrishi da’s films. I learnt a lot from Preetesh when we discussed how to do it. He understood so much intuitively,   had great suggestions and he did a great job in helping us make that transition.

Diye jaltey hain was my solo but I thought it would be a great idea to make it part of the concluding medley and share that message of everlasting friendship and kinship. And it turned out so well. I also wanted to make sure that everyone got to sing solos and duets and also participate in discussions as practices progressed. In fact I wanted to do a medley with Chand akela from Alaap but the karaoke wasn’t good and Sowmya was very candid in saying the song wasn’t sounding good, so we decided not to use it.

And at the end of it all what was his perception of the legendary film maker? “My personal take on Hrishi da was that here was a man with an incredible imagination, vision and very high integrity who somehow found a way to blend real stories, and pure art and also make it commercially viable.

What motivates Mohan, (with a full time career), to invest so much time and do shows like these, with a second show being added this year in October for the first time?
“Ideally I would have wanted to be immersed in classical music. My father would have this elaborate morning ritual where he would put an LP of these greats and have a leisurely shave. So I grew up listening to Pandit Ravi Shankar, and Ustad Amir Khan and Pandit Jasraj. But that ship has sailed and so I started thinking what is it that I can deliver with a high level of fidelity which is  also close to my original dream?

I thought of Hrishi da - a man who was in some ways a purist...  multi-talented, a scientist, an editor, a musician, and a brilliant storyteller... and yet he wasn’t only a Satyajit Ray nor was he emulating the Chopras or the Sippys who were commercial story tellers. Yet he carved this unique niche of his kind of cinema that had an element of  both.

Mohan and Meera Subramaniam with Swati and Pratip Mukherjee
So 6-7 years ago when I came to Boston I wanted to do something similar. To stay close to those musical roots and also share something that would have universal appeal. My first show was called ’Suhana Safar’ and it was on Mukesh five years back and it was theme based.  We experimented with videos, and tried to lip sync on some songs but that didn’t work out. So it has been an evolution, to ’Sham-e-Burman’ showcasing SD and RD Burman’s music then ’Khandan-e Kapoor’ showcasing all the Kapoors down to Ranbir, and finally the ’Bad -Shahe Romance’ featuring  Dev Anand, Rajesh Khanna and Shahrukh Khan.

This was the first time we featured a director's work exclusively and it has been so wonderful to also make it an evening of mingling with dinner and we also added a reception after the show for people to meet afterwards which was greatly enjoyed by all. We have learnt how much is enough...  and what people can handle. So the right amount of time and right number of singers did the trick.

Meera has been instrumental in being the backbone of every show. It makes it easier if you have a partner who is as passionate about music as you are. Meera has a very keen ear for music and she loves this genre and works equally hard. All of us are full time professionals so to get together for practices is not easy, but we are all in it for the pure love of music.”
  Buchki who is the love of the Mukherjee household represented all the dogs loved by Hrishi da and family as his pictures flashed across the screen. The audience was informed that the proceeds from the event will be going to a charity supporting rescue dogs (http://www.goldenhuggs.org).

And here I have to share a funny but telling story about how much Hrishi da loved his dogs.
Hrishi da became a very young father-in-law, but his oldest son in law Ashutosh was in for the surprise of his life when he arrived one fine morning with his wife, to visit his father in law 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 his wife Jayasree. And this is only one of the many candid canine tales.
The warmth of the atmosphere, the bonhomie and camaraderie, the perfect sound by Boston Sound Works that enhanced the quality of each song, and the love with which the audience responded to each melody, moved Pratip and Swati deeply.
For them the show was an eye opener. They had both mentioned to me earlier that towards the end of his life Hrishi da thought  people were no longer interested in his kind of cinema, and he was not willing to make the kind of cinema that had become prevalent.
“But as Pratip said at the end  of the show if Baba (Hrishi da) had seen the response and the full house it would have laid  the debate to rest about people not appreciating his kind of cinema,” said Swati. “This was probably the best show we have seen in a long time. The eye for detail, the presentation, the song choice and clips all were chosen to perfection by Mohan. It brought back so many memories.

For instance, the song Aaane wala pal was shot in our house and seeing that clip with Amol singing in a room where we sat together and shared so many fun times and happy times really made me emotional. We really appreciate the tremendous amount of  work Meera and Mohan put in from last October to make this such an amazing event.”
A telling dialogue from Anand spoken by Amitabh Bachchan can apply to  the man who brought those words to life - “Anand Mara nahin, Anand Martey nahin.
  And Hrishi da lives on too, as long as there are people who love life, sweet melodies  and stories of life told with a simplicity that is as deep as the ocean.

All Material © Copyright KavitaChhibber.com and respective photographers/videographers.

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