27 September 2015

Driving in Many Directions

Today's Mirror column:

Ahead of Hrishikesh Mukherjee's birthday, a tribute to one of his finest, funniest films — 1975's Chupke Chupke.

Dharmendra, Asrani and Om Prakash in a still from Chupke Chupke (1975)
September 30 is Hrishikesh Mukherjee's birthday. So it's an appropriate week to remember the well-loved filmmaker, who left us in 2006 at the age of 84. In the nine years since, two of his finest films have already been remade: Rohit Shetty's cringeworthy Bol Bachchan (2012) was “inspired” by his sidesplittingly funny Gol Maal, while in 2014's Disney-Princess version of Khubsoorat, Ratna Pathak Shah replaced her mother Dina Pathak as the crusty matriarch, while Sonam Kapoor attempted to replace Rekha.
Our best-loved comedies are in the greatest danger. Sure enough, there has been talk of a Chupke remake. I will say nothing about the intended film except that it is to be written by Sajid-Farhad – who wrote Bol Bachchan's unspeakable script and made their directorial debut with the inaccurately-named Entertainment, starring Akshay Kumar and a dog – and directed by Umesh Shukla of OMG Oh My God fame, with Paresh Rawal playing Jijaji.

Since Chupke Chupke, for me, is that film of my childhood – one of the two videocassettes in my Nani's house, which I must have watched at least 15 times in three years – I thought it might be a good idea to write about it. Also because while everyone's been on about Sholay turning 40, Chupke Chupke, also made in 1975, has slipped quietly under the radar, as Hrishikesh Mukherjee films are wont to do. The neglect might also be a case of too many birthdays in the family: Mukherjee's Mili and Chaitali also released the same year. But my Happy Birthday column goes to Chupke Chupke.

Mukherjee adapted Chupke Chupke from the 1971 Bangla film Chhadmabeshi (meaning “imposter” or “disguised”). The Bangla film gave story credit to Upendranath Ganguly, screenplay credit to Subir Hajra (assistant director on Pather Panchali and Aparajito) and directorial credit to “Agradoot” (a remarkable collective of Bengali technicians who directed films together from the mid-1940s to 1989. But that's another story).

For Chupke Chupke fans, Chhadmabeshi seems to start in medias res, with the brother-in-law asking for a well-spoken Bengali driver to be sent from Kolkata to Allahabad. Hrishikesh Mukherjee added a sort of prologue: the film's first 20 minutes, which could at one level be seen as describing as “how the hero and heroine met”. But by introducing Dharmendra's Dr Parimal Tripathi as the sort who'd pretend to be a chowkidar in a dak bangla just so the real chowkidar could go see his sick grandson, the film not only makes its hero warmly appealing, it makes his later decision to turn up at Jijaji's house as the well-spoken “driver” Pyare Mohan Allahabadi more believable.

The film stretches the “servant” joke in several interesting directions. For instance, when the eligible Dr Tripathi sends his rishta to the winsome Miss Chaturvedi, the fact that he has no parents becomes an excuse to extend the moonhboli fictive kinship between the professor and the watchman: sweet old Chowkidar “Kaka” is dispatched – to ask for the Allahabad Brahmin girl's hand in marriage for the Allahabad Brahmin boy.

Of course, the whole premise of the film depends on the unanimity which it expects of its audience, on the fact that drivers and memsahibs shouldn't mix. As Sulekha (Sharmila Tagore) tells her husband coyly, “Shareef ghar ki ladkiyan raat ko chupke chupke driver se milne nahi jaati”. But there are also sly moments when the film tells its intended middle class audience how their class-tinted spectacles work to invisibilise people: Prashant (Asrani) doesn't recognise his old friend when he walks into his office in a driver's uniform. And during the entire deliberate affair she sets up with Pyare Mohan, Sulekha never fails to rib her increasingly suspicious Jijaji with “Driver insaan nahi hota hai kya?

The kind of large joint family that Mukherjee made the basis of films like Bawarchi and Khoobsurat is here divided across cities. So Sulekha and her much older brother Haripad Chaturvedi (David) live in Allahabad, while her elder sister and her husband Raghav (Om Prakash) live in Bombay. The sense of joint family is kept alive even long-distance, however, in the banter between saali and jijaji. The wedding adds to this a network of old friends, largely composed of Dharmendra's old college mates – Asrani as Prashant, and Amitabh Bachchan as Sukumar. This is a world connected by trunk calls and telegrams, whether to invite friends for weddings, or to let relatives know when your train will reach. Much of the first half is driven by people yelling loudly into the receiver before finding themselves suddenly cut-off mid-joke “six minute over? Ok ok”.

The adoring saali cannot praise her brother-in-law enough: “Genius Jijaji. Chahte toh minister ban sakte thhe...” “Lekin saabun bechne lage?” asks Dharmendra witheringly. When Jijaji invites the newly-weds to Bombay, suggesting that a trip taken together will be good for “paarasparik antargyaan”, Parimal is quick to retort: “yeh Jijaji hain ya All India Radio?”

And so starts the film's other humorous premise: language. Famous for its linguistic playfulness (a trait which also characterised at least two other Hrishikesh Mukherjee films, Bawarchi and KhubsooratChupke Chupke's nonstop shuddh Hindi jokes are also leavened by Mukherjee-style wisdom. “Making fun of a language is low, and I'm making fun of my mother tongue,” says Dharmendra guiltily at one point. “You're making fun of a man, not a language,” Haripad Bhaiya reassures him. “Bhaasha apne aap mein itni mahaan hoti hai ki uska mazaak kiya hi nahi jaa sakta.” 

In these times of quick offence-taking, it is a perspective sorely missed.

Published in Mumbai Mirror.

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