Saturday, July 04, 2015

Biswajit, Hrishikesh Mukherjee and a five-year-old movie star

(Part of a series of posts around the upcoming Hrishi-da book)

Trivia question: Which popular Bengali star of today was directed by Hrishikesh Mukherjee when he was only five years old?

Answer: Prosenjit Chatterjee – of whose performance in the 1968 Chhotto Jignasa a reviewer wrote “He is the grandest thing to happen to the Bengali screen so far this year.” (The piece appeared in February, but still.)

If you look at that write-up, you’ll notice a “Chief Advisor” credit for Hrishikesh Mukherjee at the bottom. The film was produced by Prosenjit’s father Biswajit, but he had a falling out with the original director – at which point Hrishi-da stepped in to complete the film pro-bono, as a friendly gesture.

Biswajit told me this when I met him in Mumbai two years ago while doing spade-work for the book. He seemed reasonably fit and active in his late 70s, but it was hard to recognize him. (Sunken cheeks make other aging actors look fragile, mildly different; but with Biswajit – who had a distinctly cherubic face in his prime – they had the effect of greatly altering his features. Besides, he hasn’t been in the public eye to the degree that other, higher-profile stars have been; we haven’t seen him growing old over the years.) Here is a photo, take at the Govinda’s restaurant in the ISKCON temple, Juhu: 

He spoke warmly about his association with Hrishi-da, but also expressed sadness that he had never worked with the director on any of his “real classics”. I disagree with that: while three of the films they did together (Pyaar ka Sapna, Phir Kab Milogi, Do Dil) were mediocre or passable, Biswajit played a starring part in one of Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s most delightful films, the under-watched 1965 musical-comedy Biwi aur Makaan. And though far from being one of my favourite actors, he really is very good in that film, as the singer Arun who has to disguise himself as a woman so he and his friends can get accommodation in a bachelor-unfriendly flat. A much warmer, more appealing performance than his more famous adas and nakhras as a woman in “Kajra Mohabbat Wala”.

To my disappointment, the actor barely remembered making Biwi aur Makaan. In general, his memory was sketchy. But not when it came to Chhotto Jignasa – he couldn’t stop saying how pleased he was about being the only producer who got Hrishikesh Mukherjee to direct a film in his first language.

(Earlier post about the HM book: a photo from the Satyakam set)

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