My Picture This column for BL Ink this month:
When’s the last time you saw a Hindi film unfold at a crowded bus stop? Forty years after it was made, Chhoti Si Baat’s romance remains a rare picture of everyday, rather than epic, urbanity.
Basu Chatterjee’s Chhoti Si Baat (CSB, 1975) is still beloved as an icon of the so-called middle cinema: cinema about India’s middle class, made in a middle-of-the-road style that wasn’t either full-blown melodrama or so grimly realist that it let go of songs entirely. CSB was noteworthy for giving us one of the first middle-class heroines who goes out to work. And she’s not a rich man’s daughter who’s a lawyer or doctor or something grand, just a regular office worker, dealing with files and consignments, appointments and bosses. Vidya Sinha made her office-going seem so natural that I have never really paused earlier to think about how remarkable it actually was. In Bombay cinema, the office-going women of ’70s films, from Sinha in Chatterjee’s own Rajnigandha (1974), to Zarina Wahab in Gharonda (1977), or Ranjeeta in Pati Patni Aur Woh (1978), were still a huge exception.
Watching CSB today, one is struck by its creation of young middle-class characters who come without families attached. Both men and women inhabit the city completely, and independently. Arun and Prabha work in neighbouring South Bombay offices, and take the same bus route to work, with Arun walking besottedly behind Prabha or standing tongue-tied next to her in the queue. Much of the humour turns on the bus as metaphor. As soon as Arun finally plucks up the courage to speak to Prabha, a rival arrives to spirit her away — on his scooter. The metaphor is then taken to its logical conclusion: Palekar, irritatedly eyeing the scooter leave, decides to hail a taxi. It’s true: he needs to make his move faster, and a speedier, more impressive vehicle seems like the answer. But it’s not so easy to get out of the rut: the taxi gets taken by someone else.
The kabab mein haddi is Nagesh Shastri (Asrani in one of his finest roles). A colleague of Prabha’s, Nagesh threatens to upstage Arun with his table tennis competitions and authoritative ordering at the (recently closed) Samovar: “Chicken a la Poos, aur Peter se kehna Nagesh sahab ka order hain. Kya kahoge?” Infuriated by Nagesh literally driving away with the prize every morning, Arun decides to buy a scooter. In a hilariously deadpan scene, his local garage guys stage an elaborate ploy around an ancient motorcycle, and Arun falls for it. Next morning, Arun has a new biker look — sunglasses and flares — but the bike breaks down just as Prabha has climbed aboard, and Nagesh, of course, appears right on cue.
There is the hint here of the race between the hare and the tortoise, which inspired Sai Paranjpe’s 1982 Katha, with Naseeruddin Shah competing for Deepti Naval’s attentions with the tale-telling Farooque Shaikh. But Chatterjee’s film was a remake of the 1960 British comedy School for Scoundrels, where the race is more about the status games of modern life. The 1960 film started with the mousy Henry Palfrey arriving at Potter’s ‘School for Lifemanship’ just in time for the guru’s opening lecture: “Who then, you ask, are your opponents? Everybody in the world who is not you. And the purpose of your life must be to be one-up on them, because — mark my words — he who is not one-up is one-down.”
As Palfrey tells Potter his sad romantic predicament, we flash backwards to what turns out to be the origin of CSB’s Samovar scene: a snooty restaurant where the waiter refers to Palfrey as ‘Paltry’ and his bete noire Delauney gains the upper hand because he can read the Frenchified menu and order the wine by name rather than number. Delauney’s fancy sports car inspired Asrani’s yellow scooter, while Palekar’s motorbike stood in for Henry’s ramshackle ‘Swiftmobile’.
The film is finely adapted to its Indian setting. When Colonel Julius Nagendranath Wilfred Singh (Ashok Kumar) trains Arun, it is in table tennis and chess rather than tennis. In both films, the art of winning at sport involves deliberately distracting one’s competition. The chopsticks replace the French menu as a restaurant hurdle. The art of wooing remains crucial: the firm handshake, and the even firmer hug are the same, though spilling wine on a dress becomes dropping a lighted match on a sari.
But this is no mere copy. Chatterjee uses a device more common in Indian films than elsewhere: he includes imaginary scenarios dreamt up by Arun, in which he is a much savvier, smart-alecky version of himself. The ordinary man’s dreams of romance come via popular cinema: while watching a film at Eros, Arun mentally inserts Prabha and then himself into a Hema Malini-Dharmendra song (Jaaneman, jaaneman). Other daydreams, too, are deliberately more filmi than the film we’re watching: in one hilarious scene, Arun is proudly in the dock for Nagesh’s murder, with Prabha weeping copiously in the courtroom.
CSB has other filmi cameos, like comedian Rajendra Nath as a fake guru, and Amitabh Bachchan as himself, arriving to seek the colonel’s advice on income tax — fantastically, wearing his real costume from Zameer (1975). Both films were produced by BR Chopra, and a Zameer poster appears memorably above the CSB bus stop: playfulness, but also some smart, free publicity?
Certain elements of office life are transplanted straight from 1960 Britain to 1975 Bombay: people listening to a match on radio, and the women’s shushing of our timid hero. But Palfrey is the boss; Arun is only rising through the ranks. What struck me most is the fact that Arun’s office — Jackson Tolaram and Co — plays a much greater role here than in the British original. More scenes are set in the office — including one that makes CSB the rare Hindi film to acknowledge that tailing a woman for days might count as stalking. Also, Arun’s very propensity for romance is located in an office ‘tradition’: the film opens with a comic visual history of the Jackson Tolaram bosses and how they wooed their wives. It’s almost as if, having deprived the protagonists of family, the film turns the office into something like it. For these migrants to the city, the office is home.
Published in the Hindu Business Line, Aug 28, 2015.