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A love affair with Bombay & Basu Chatterjee

When people say Bombay is an emotion, my face breaks into a wide smile as I completely get it. By now every one of you who has been reading stories on The Small Wonder must know about my love for Bombay. But today, I am not just talking about my love for this city but how it shaped art and created an art form that expressed the emotion of Bombay so beautifully. I have childhood stories connected to this collection of art and it brings back so many lovely memories. Okay, enough suspense - the art I am alluding to is Basu Chatterjee’s exquisitely crafted movies which are an ode to Bombay.  

Ok, I was born in 1989 and you might wonder how I feel connected to movies made in the ’70s. So here is a little backgrounder: my parents are big fans of Chatterjee’s films, and we would watch his movies together and have an absolutely great time. His simplistic films were an escape from the typical fare that Bollywood would dish out during my formative years. His movies were all about serving entertainment with a slice of realism, telling stories of real people, and drawing humour out of everyday miseries and joys.

I’ve never been a fan of mindless comedy, horror, or larger-than-life action movies. I’ve always preferred feel-good movies. My kind of content majorly relies on storytelling and emotions. Although, lately, I’ve been open to consuming different genres of movies. And that’s mostly because Ershad is a true-blue cinephile. 

However, I come back to my comfort place - Basu Chatterjee’s movies that I can watch over and over again. Sometimes to lift my mood, sometimes to make myself feel comfortable. Basu Chatterjee’s movies always showcased the real essence of Bombay back then really well.

The characters he built coupled with the story and the accompanying music had such an instant connection, which is difficult to describe in words, it just stays with you. No wonder Basu Chatterjee’s movies were called “Middle-of-the-road” cinema. 

He made uncommon films about common lives and immortalised the city, making it as much a character in the movie as its residents.  His movies are like a trunk of memories for me. Mom and I used to sing songs from his movie “Rajnigandha” often while working at home, or walking along the length of the Marine Drive stretch. My German classes at Kalaghoda and coffee dates with E at Samovar cafe in Jahangir art gallery are all an extension of the Bombay depicted by Chatterjee. These movies made those experiences even more enriching. When I was in school, my dad would usually take me to South Bombay on the weekends. He would teach me bank operations such as depositing and withdrawing money.  Post that, we’d head to the fish aquarium, and end our day by having bhelpuri and kulfi at Chowpatty. 

In my early years of college, I used to attend French classes by my favourite (and cutest) Parsi teacher Proachy Ma’am, who always made me feel like she is a character straight from his movies. Also, my friend and I would walk the entire stretch of Sea Princess at Juhu and then head to class, where we would wait for the brownies she would give at the end of every class. We used to have potluck parties and on certain weekends, we’d end up just singing together and enjoying a good chat discussing movies. These are absolutely beautiful memories that are etched in my mind forever. Even today whenever I visit Bombay I make it a point to hang out at some of these spots with my friends/family because it brings back those memories. 

Coming to Basu Chatterjee’s - a filmmaker par excellence - movies and characters; it made me notice little things that filled me with unbridled joy. I remember these scenes so distinctly:

  • The adorable Tom uncle from Baton Baton Mein

  • Sorting out the lover’s squabbles at the bandstand.

  • A romance that brews over coffees post-work and waiting at the bus stop. 

  • Actors from Chhoti Si Baat, Amol Palekar, Vidya Sinha and Asrani visit Samovar Cafe (now shut) at Jehangir Art Gallery in Mumbai. There they order their meal which includes this particular dish Chicken, Ala Poos.

  • The local train romance between Nancy and Tony from Baton Baton Mein.

  • Vidya Sinha's handloom printed sarees from Rajnigandha

It was easy to understand that Chatterjee had a keen eye for observing people and scenarios around us. A good filmmaker is obviously a good observer first and Chatterjee is the best example of that. 

Some of my all-time favourite Chatterjee movies that I’ve watched are like a time capsule to good old simple cinema days. Basu Chatterjee’s movies are a complete vibe:

Chhoti Si Baat: A timid accountant who needed a little luck and training to impress the girl of his dreams. 

Rajnigandha: Inspired by Mannu Bhandari's short story Yahi Sach Hai, Rajnigandha spoke about the dilemma of a young woman struggling with her feelings for the man she loves and is about to get married to an old love. With its lilting music, delightful performances, and relatable aesthetics, the film became a middle-cinema classic for the ages.

Baton Baton Mein: It was a soft rom-com weaved around the daily life of people in Bombay and commuting to precise timings. Amol Palekar plays Tony Braganza, a newly employed young turk who meets Tina Munim who plays Nancy Perreira and falls in love. 

Chameli Ki Shaadi: This uproarious comedy about two lovers who must overcome family opposition to be together is a complete laugh riot. Especially the performances by Pankaj Kapoor, Bharti Achrekar, Amjad Khan, Om Prakash, and Anu Kapoor. 

Ek Ruka Hua Faisla: Inspired by a Hollywood classic 12 Angry Men, Chatterjee managed to create an equally compelling retelling of the courtroom drama with an ensemble cast of brilliant actors and seamlessly transferring the narrative to India. 

If you have watched any of his movies please let us know and let me know your favourites too. Maybe we could one day host a watch party together?

Unfortunately, his recent death is a big loss to the Bollywood Industry and marks the end of an era that some of us loved the most. The vision of an old real Bombay that he created so beautifully will always stay through his movies. To more real cinema, to touching lives through art forms. Basu Chatterjee will always shine and sparkle as a storyteller forever for me. 

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