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December 4, 1998


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'I am a simple man and middle class is the only class I know'

Hrishikesh Mukherjee
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He is 77 years old. And has two artificial kneecaps. Which stops Hrishikesh Mukherjee from being very active these days. Age and infirmity though have not deterred his zest for film-making. Even though Jhoot Bole Kauva Kaate is his first film in ten years, Hrishida -- as he is known respectfully throughout the film industry -- seems almost casual about this week's release of his latest film.

Hrishida has always made films with small budgets and the family at its core, films which have often hit the bull's eye at the box office. Films like Musafir with Dilip Kumar, Anupama and Satyakam with Dharmendra and Sharmila Tagore, Ashirwad with Ashok Kumar, Anand and Bawarchi with Rajesh Khanna, Guddi with Jaya Bhaduri, Abhimaan and Mili with Amitabh and Jaya Bachchan, Chupke Chupke with Dharmendra, Sharmila Tagore, Amitabh and Jaya Bachchan, Khubsoorat with Rekha and Golmaal with Amol Palekar.

Abruptly in the late eighties, Hrishida stopped making films. With the changing tastes and times, he didn't want to make films which people might not like. He moved to television for a while, directing 84 episodes.

What brought him back to the movies was the dream run films like Golmaal, Chupke Chupke and Khubsoorat had on the satellite television channels. Producers began to pester him to return to the sets. Convincing him took the best part of two years, and Polygram finally signed him on to make Jhoot Bole.

Hrishida never formally learned film-making. His dream of wanting to be a cinematographer led him to become a laboratory assistant. He went on to edit films for Bimal Roy, at whose instance he moved from Calcutta to Bombay in the early fifties. He edited all of Roy's films till Madhumati, after which he decided to direct his first film at good friend Dilip Kumar's behest.

Hrishida says Jhoot Bole... is a comedy, but the treatment is different. "It is very simple to be happy," he adds, "but it is so difficult to be simple."

Despite ill health, Hrishida took time off to speak with Sharmila Taliculam.

What prompted you to make a film again after so many years?

I have been making films continuously, but not feature films. I have made some 84 serials for television, which amounts to 10 films.

Juhi Chawla, Sajid Khan, Anupam Kher and Anil Kapoor in Jhoot Bole Kauva Kaate
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I am making this film after more than 10 years. I am an old man and I have two artificial knee joints. My old friends from the industry have been asking me to make films for a long time now. I told them my kind of film may not run, but they assured me otherwise.

They have been showing reruns of my old films on television and I was told they were very popular with audiences. I thought that with changing times, everybody's tastes changes too, but this was a surprise.

I still thought it might work for television, but cinema was another thing altogether. In films today, in a song, I find 50 girls and boys dancing together and I can't do that.

But again I was asked to make my type of a film. So I decided I should and took it on as a challenge.

You have always worked with dedicated, serious actors. What do you think about actors today?

I have made lots of comedies apart from serious films. I have worked with brilliant artistes. But today such films are not being made. The actors then were great performers.

Look at the performances of Dilip Kumar or Raj Kapoor. They were so effortless and entertaining. I have always worked with good artistes even when I made serials.

Anil Kapoor and Juhi Chawla are brilliant artistes and I have no complaints about them. I liked Anil in Viraasat. Juhi has performed extremely well in my film.

My film is a situational comedy. It is a comedy, not slapstick. So I needed good artistes. They (Anil and Juhi) are fantastic artistes. The only thing is that film-making is so costly these days. People are not geared to do good, serious films.

How is that?

Growing consumerism demands expensive entertainment. I think the audiences are to be blamed too. Otherwise, we still make films like Hazaar Chaurasi Ki Maa, but they are for very select audiences.

In my time I used get back the money invested in the film. They may not have been superhits, but they were hits. I was sure I would not lose money on a film.

I used to make films for Rs 6 lakhs or Rs 7 lakhs (Rs 600,000 or Rs 700,000). Today the negative alone will cost Rs 10 lakhs (a million rupees). Forget the artistes, sets, the camera and such things. There are a lot of restrictions for a film-maker these days.

I think somebody famous once said that till the price of raw materials comes down to the level of paper and pencil, it's very difficult for films to survive as an art form.

How have you adapted to the changing trends?

I have always adapted to the changing trends. I have moved with the tide, always. I have been in the industry for 53 years now. Since 1945.

I made my first film in 1956 (Musafir). I joined New Theatres as a laboratory assistant. Then I started editing and then started writing scripts. But I was always flowing with the tide. There was no question of adapting to anything.

How did you come to the industry?

            Bimal Roy
I was a teacher of mathematics and science. I had majored in chemistry and I wanted to be a cameraman. I was told to join as a laboratory assistant first. I did that. I would help the editor sometimes in my spare time. He was a friend.

I would give my opinions and suggestion about various scenes and that impressed Bimal Roy who was directing a film. He asked me to edit his film, but I was a little apprehensive.

I told him I had been editing for only two to three months and asked him if he had the confidence in me. He was a man of few words. He just told me he wouldn't have asked if he didn't have the confidence.

He asked me to take the permission of (New Theatre owner) B N Sircar. I did that. That's how I became an editor, with the film Tathapi. It was a big success.

Then I quit because I wanted to continue studying. At that time, Bimalda came to Bombay and asked me to accompany him. I accepted and did all his films till Madhumati.

Is that how you made your first film with Salil Choudhary and Ritwik Ghatak? They were also involved in Madhumati...

I was instrumental in getting Salil Choudhary here to Bombay. We did Do Bigha Zameen together. We were childhood friends. I was always approached to make films while I was editing. But I didn't want to do it then. It was Dilip Kumar who convinced me to make a film finally.

Dilip Kumar and Vajayantimala in Madhumati
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During the shooting of Madhumati, he would come to me and we would talk about a lot of things. Once he told me I should write and direct a film about a man, who would be the main character in the film, and a house where people came, lived and left. Only the house remained, with the memories. The subject should deal with three things. Birth, marriage and death.

I told him with a subject like that it would definitely be a flop. Dilip assured me he would work in the film if I wrote it. And that's how I made Musafir. The film had three interwoven stories.

Was directing easy for the successful editor that you had become by then?

Editing and directing a film are two different things. I think.

The editor keeps the tempo of a film going, but a good director doesn't necessarily have to be a good editor.

Bimalda was a cameraman. He never edited films. But he was a good director. There are many like that. It certainly helps if you are a good editor since you keep the film interesting that way by maintaining a certain pace. But it is not necessary.

Did you always want to be a film-maker?

I wanted to be a biochemist and I became a film-maker. That's my fate.

I was interested in plant life and wanted to study and teach it. But in a country like India you have little choice.

Go wherever you are pushed by your fate. Mine got me to this industry.

I have never regretted it. I believe one shouldn't waste time regretting things. Whatever one gets, one should make the best use of that and make it successful.

We had a tradition of science in my family since my father was a student of chemistry too. He stood first class first in his college, St Xaviers, Calcutta.

So I took the same subject. And since you have very little control over your fate, I came to this industry.

From the laboratory, I became a well-known editor and then I wrote my first script for Bimalda which was Do Bigha Zameen, and then went on to direct a film too.

My first film got the Gold Medal, the second got the Silver Medal. It was a meteoric rise and it was difficult to come back to your original plans since I enjoyed doing what I was doing. I was successful too. So I stayed on.

You have also worked with great actors. Have you at any point faced any problems with them?

I have worked with lots of stars. All superstars because they were popular and very successful too. Raj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar, Balraj Sahni, Sunil Dutt, Rajesh Khanna, Amitabh Bachchan. Lots of them. You name them -- I have worked with them.

I don't think anybody has worked with so many stars. I never faced any problems with anybody. Or how could I make so many films? I was very fortunate. I got their full co-operation while making those films.

I made maximum number of films with Amitabh. About seven of them. And with Rajesh Khanna I made four, I think. If I had any problems with these stars, I wouldn't have repeated them.

Why is that you always make simple family socials?

I am a simple man and I make films that I live. Maybe that is why they are called family socials. Middle class is the class I know and I always wove stories around the middle class.

I am born in a middle class family and all my friends have middle class values. My attitude towards everybody is that way too. And most of my films have my scripts.

How did you manage to get the actors right for the characters in your films?

One can be very good at what one does. But specialisation is a different thing. You can call a mason an artisan, but it is the architect who knows what his building should look like. He doesn't have the skills of the mason.

Satyajit Ray got artistes who had never seen a camera. But they gave him what he wanted.

Rajesh Khanna and Amitabh Bachchan in Anand
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I have a character in mind and I mould my actor into that character. How did I make Amitabh into the main character in Anand?

He was the main character because he is there throughout the film and through him, we get to know the story. Rajesh Khanna was the second main character. I just had to look at Amitabh to know that he was right for the role. People have their limitations. Sachin Tendulkar is the most brilliant cricketer I have seen, but can he sing a song? Everybody does what they are best at and this is my observation of life.

Were you responsible for choosing the stars for Jhoot Bole?

Yes. I was responsible for choosing the stars for JBKK. Anil Kapoor's father is a friend of mine. We worked together in Anari. I know him since childhood and he was available when I asked him for this film. I chose Juhi too cause she fits the character of the girl in the film very well. She is simple.

But there were rumours that Anil Kapoor was giving you trouble?

Hrishikesh Mukherjee's photographs: Jewella Miranda

'If Anil Kapoor had given me trouble, I would drag him by his ear'

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