Monday, June 06, 2016

Chupke Chupke, with drivers, botanists and communists

[An excerpt from my book The World of Hrishikesh Mukherjee: The Filmmaker Everyone Loves. This is from Chapter 4, titled “Milavat, Banavat”, and is largely about Chupke Chupke. This text doesn’t include the footnotes in the chapter]


Given the layers in his work – discussed in the last couple of chapters – I always feel uneasy about the use of the word “simple” to describe Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s cinema (even when it is meant as a compliment). That word, along with the related “innocent” or “sweet”, often attaches itself to the so-called Middle Cinema of the 1970s, including the work of other directors such as Basu Chatterji and Sai Paranjpye – I have used them as lazy shortcuts myself over the years – and in a broad sense one can see why. These are grounded stories involving people who are ordinary folk, “like us” – not the two-fisted superheroes and ultra-glamorous heroines of the mainstream. Thinking of these movies, we picture middle-class people in jobs where everyone rises from their desks in unison as the clock ticks 5.30 pm, and where romance can be conducted in off-hours over milk shake, cups of tea, or even – if the relationship is really serious and one person is drawing a decent salary – over Vegetable a la Kiev at a clubby restaurant (described as a “hotel”).

The courting lovers travel by bus or on shabby scooters (when poor Jeet sees his girlfriend being taken around by her boss in a green Premier Padmini in Rang Birangi, he is dismayed – she has moved well out of his league). On the rare occasion when an unmarried boy and girl meet at one of their homes, if there isn’t a parent or a sibling around you can be sure of the decorum-ensuring presence of the ancient family retainer, named Ramu kaka or Raghu chacha – there he is in the background, diligently polishing some knickknack or the other, waiting for bitiya’s instructions to bring tea. In other scenes, mildly naughty old people exchange harmless jokes. The most dangerous things awaiting the hero are the barbs issuing from Utpal Dutt’s sharp tongue (meanwhile villains in more exalted places in the Hindi-film world were dipping their victims into shark-fested pools or squeezing them between sliding walls bedecked with iron spikes). There are little misunderstandings before things are nicely resolved, and you come away feeling that all is right in the world.

Seen in one way, all this is indeed innocent and safe and down-to-earth. But nostalgia for a past when things were always “uncomplicated” can take on a patronising tone – and simple, in any case, is not the same as simple-minded. What does it mean to use these words for Hrishi-da’s films given that his work was always so mindful of human foibles and self-deceptions, so aware that our strongest relationships are perched over a pit of quicksand, that we need to constantly replenish ourselves to keep life interesting, that fantasy can play a special function in humdrum middle-class lives... and most importantly, so emotionally mature that it could treat these subjects with light humour?


Are drivers people? Can cooks be philosophers? And other breaches of “etiquette”

In some way or the other, his best films are about how little transgressions may occur, how small battles may be won, within the boundaries of a conservative society where roles tend to be pre-defined: where certain divides are very hard to bridge, family is sacrosanct, young people are expected to unconditionally “respect” their elders (even when those elders are being unreasonable or behaving more immaturely than the youngsters) and women are permitted to dream only so long as those dreams don’t clash with their principal “duties” within the family structure.

To clarify: when I say “transgression”, I use it in a benign sense (and always within quote marks) as a lapse or breach that usually has a desired outcome, such as lampooning social barriers. (And this is a form of milavat as well: after all, introducing liberal ideas into a tradition-bound society is a way of “diluting” or “corrupting” it – just ask the patriarchs!) It is a big, scholarly-sounding word, but think of its use here in ironical terms, the same way Prof Parimal Tripathi uses shuddh Hindi – and words like shahensheelta and vaahanchaalak – to jeejaaji’s (Om Prakash) bewilderment in Chupke Chupke.

Now there’s a film where transgressions are couched in humour from beginning to end.


“The p is silent, as in pshrimp,” he reminded her
(The immortal Psmith, one of the great comic creations in 20th century literature, explaining how his name is to be pronounced, in PG Wodehouse’s Leave it to Psmith)

Words in which the P is more legitimately silent – “pneumonia”, “phthisis” – occur in Chupke Chupke, but even without them this film – a peppier, more manic remake of the Bengali Chhadmabeshi – would be arguably Hrishi-da’s most Wodehousian work. It is set in a world made up of imposters, shams and counter-shams that become more and more chaotic, and like Wodehouse’s characters (and without wanting to undermine the heartbreak suffered by Monty Bodkins and other young swains) the people here are relatively privileged sorts. They are better placed than the protagonists of the other comedies Biwi aur Makaan, Gol Maal or Naram Garam – they don’t have to worry much about such things as financial security, finding accommodation or a secure job – which is why this is a “light” film in the purest sense of the word. There isn’t much at stake. If Parimal’s deception were to be discovered by his wife’s brother-in-law, it would cause nothing more than a few indignant “hmmphs” or raised eyebrows, after which you sense that this family would sit down together, digging into mithaai and singing songs.

But even a comedy where there isn’t much hanging in the balance for the main characters can offer piquant little observations about the workings and fragilities of a society. Consider: a botany professor pretends to be a chauffeur as part of a game of one-upmanship with an older man whom his wife hero-worships. In the process, he brings spice and frisson to his marriage, while also confounding the patriarch who finds that a “mere” driver can speak better Hindi than he does. In performing his various roles, Parimal shows up the little pretensions and snobberies of his own class while bonding with lower-class or even disreputable people: the poor old caretaker whom he helps at the beginning of the film (and for whom something is at stake – he needs a day’s leave to visit his ailing grandson), and later, in one of the funniest scenes, with a thief who has broken into the brother-in-law’s house.

Meanwhile Sulekha (the “driver’s” lawfully wedded wife, though no one knows it) breaks one social code after another, to the dismay of her middle-class family – first she sits in the front seat with the chauffeur (pretty radical in itself, but more is to come), then sings a song with him (“Toh kya hua? Driver insaan nahin hota?”), and eventually runs off with him. All this is part of their charade, but Sulekha has already been established early in the film as having an egalitarian side: she is labeled “communist” by a classmate when she carries her own bags from the bus to the guesthouse rather than have a chowkidar do it for her. (It’s a funny, throwaway line but it does also tell us something about the assumptions of the society these people belong to – and it isn’t like India is much less feudal today, 40 years after the film was made; even our cricketers get scoffed at by the cricketers of other countries for their apparent inability to carry their own bags from bus to hotel!) She even goes to the extent of sitting down next to a man who she thinks is a
chowkidaar and having a little conversation with him, something none of the other girls would do. Later, there are audacious scenes like the staging of the song “Ab ke Sajan Sawan Mein” with its startlingly sensual, desire-soaked lyrics, performed within the context of a family gathering. (Sulekha croons words like “aag lagegi badan mein” while elderly relatives nod their heads approvingly as if she is singing a bhajan; just out of sight of her suspicious brother-in-law, she clasps the hand of Parimal, hiding on the other side of a curtain.)

The driver-memsaab romance can be played for laughs here, but imagine a scenario where such a thing really did happen in a “respectable” middle-class family. You don’t have to look too far,
actually. Dharmendra, Sharmila Tagore and David plot the deception in Chupke Chupke; six years earlier, in Satyakam, the same three actors feature in a Very Serious scene where it is revealed that Ranjana was condemned to a life of disgrace when her mother ran away with the family driver. Some auteur-theorists would make a lot of noise about this small but pronounced link between two immensely different types of films; I’ll simply place it on record and move on.


Much film analysis tends to read deep meaning into how a movie ends – what the takeaway or the intended purpose of the last scene is – and goes on to deduce the film’s “message” or “ideology” from that closing scene. This can seem like a logical thing to do, but it can also be a reductive, one-note way of approaching a film. It may fail to take into account the shackles on mainstream filmmakers: how they are sometimes expected to keep mass-audience considerations in view, to wrap things up on a note that provides comfort or affirmation. A popular film may contain many effective, memorable scenes that serve a questioning or even subversive function, but then end on what seems like a conventional note.

The easy way to look at such an ending is to cluck one’s tongue and pronounce that the film has “copped out”. Look at Anuradha, the movie is so sympathetic towards her throughout, but eventually she ends up staying with her husband and probably never realising her dreams. Look at Manju in Khubsoorat – such a ball of tradition-defying dynamite, but at the end she is dressed in bride’s clothes and safely co-opted into the family structure.

However, there is no reason why every challenging film must end on a hard-hitting or symbolic note, like a Jaane bhi do Yaaro, with its implicated heroes looking straight at the viewer and making a throat-slitting gesture, or Govind Nihalani’s Party (the ghost of a murdered activist, his tongue cut out, appears in the nightmare of a complacent, middle-aged poet), or Saeed Mirza’s Arvind Desai ki Ajeeb Dastaan (exploited carpet-makers stare out at us accusingly). Or like Satyajit Ray’s Seemabaddha, where the last shot tells us (with heavy-handed symbolism, if one is to be blunt about it) that the once-likable protagonist has sold his conscience. 

In old Hollywood, directors and screenwriters were often under pressure to end a film in a way that would not leave a sour taste in the viewer’s mouth. And the results have been argued about for decades. When Alfred Hitchcock alters the second half of Patricia Highsmith’s dark novel Strangers on a Train so that the “hero” Guy Haines is allowed to retain his integrity, or when another Hitchcock film, Suspicion, involves a last-minute change that disallows the Cary Grant character from being a wife-killer, does it amount to a compromise that cripples the films? Some would say yes; others (and I am in this corner) point out that these movies have already done their job by peeling back layers, allowing us to see dark possibilities and to recognise that even if there is a nominal “happy ending”, the world has already been ruptured and will never be quite the same again. A canny filmmaker can achieve such effects even while working within the shackles placed by a studio system or a box-office-minded producer.

Though Chupke Chupke may seem too frothy a work to even be discussed in such terms, look at its last scene. Family and community have been neatly reaffirmed: one married couple has been reunited, another young couple has just been wed, new bonds have been formed in the presence of approving elders, it has been established that everyone is comfortably middle-class, that the person who shook up this world wasn’t really a driver. And furthermore, all this happens in a temple! (And the real driver, James, is on the outskirts of the group.) On the face of it, what could be more conformist than that?

Yet, simply by presenting a number of subversive possibilities over the course of its narrative – a married woman runs away with a servant; her husband makes the most of a bad situation and promptly commences a new relationship, even engaging in bigamy; the older people, though shocked, have to find ways to shrug their shoulders and take all this in their stride – the film has shown us what can happen to a particular world when its foundations are shaken, and even made a subtle statement about the impracticalities of being too rigid or hung up on tradition. The fact that this wacky story “regresses to the mean” in its last scene takes away nothing from what went before. (If you were to ask a Chupke Chupke fan about the most memorable scenes in the film, he probably wouldn’t even think about the ending!)

By mentioning these buried themes, I am not trying to wring the joy out of the movie or reduce it to an academic listing of “talking points”. It is, before anything else, a light comedy that can be enjoyed exclusively on that level. (Personally I could watch some scenes again and again for nothing more “significant” than Dharmendra’s expressions in them, as when he growls at the thief after the latter wishes him “all the luck”.) But the themes are very much there too, and to deny them would be to adopt the unfortunate attitude that many intellectuals display towards popular cinema – that it shouldn’t be discussed on any level other than the most obvious, surface one.


[The World of Hrishikesh Mukherjee is available here. Other excerpts can be read in Mint Lounge and on Scroll]


  1. Chupke Chupke is one of my most loved films, and not just for being a light comedy. It was a pleasure to read this piece about the intricacies of a seemingly simple film. Your conclusion that popular mainstream cinema can be intelligent too makes me very happy. A cinema lover, in their fraternity, can get too much of ironically one dimensional love for the dark, deep and abstract without any acknowledgement of anything brilliant packed with simplicity. A wonderful read indeed.

    1. thanks very much for the comment, Pragya. If you liked the excerpt, do pick up the book too - and let other Hrishikesh Mukherjee fans know about it.

  2. Interesting perspective- much as I have enjoyed these light comedy films, I confess I "missed" the symbolism behind seemingly benign gestures = such as a well to do lady chatting up with a chowkidar, carrying her own bags etc. Having read this and your last couple of blog posts, I do sense you read a bit more into these movies than perhaps their creator intented- but then, as they say, all art is subconscious and not all of it is created in the mind of the creatpr= some of it could potentially be created in the mind of the beholder:)

    1. Only "the last couple of blog posts"?! One of my guiding principles as a reviewer/critic has always been that I am under no obligation to think about what a filmmaker/author consciously intended during the creative process - the old Lawrence quote "Trust the tale, not the teller".

      And yes, all art is to a degree subconscious - but there's another conclusion to be drawn from that in addition to the one you have drawn: an artist doesn't always consciously face up to what he is doing, or to the recurring links/motifs in his work. And a good critic can sometimes help tease those things out.

  3. Agreed:) That is why it is interesting to read multiple views and interpretations of the same piece of work- you never know what you may find! I started reading your blog fairly recently, hence I referred only to the last couple of blog posts:)

  4. Does the kindle edition come with the photos? I believe i should be able to read a "color" version on a tablet?

    1. Siva: yes, all the images are in colour in the e-book version. I have minor reservations about the e-book though, because I'm told that the footnotes don't display properly there (or are turned into endnotes, which creates a very different effect from the one I was going for).

  5. That "Ab ke swan" confused me too, more so because I had heard the song several times before actually seeing it, so I had assumed that this would be something someone would be singing while being alone in the house. But now I have clubbed it with the other mystical ways of film music (for e.g. the way that two people at a party would be singing for each other, but none of the audience would guess that they are into each other).