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Men of Substance

These greats – some of them my muses – have shaped Indian cinema in ways that could teach young and aspiring directors a thing or two

As Hindi cinema opens a new chapter with realism as its touchstone, young and emerging filmmakers would benefit from the works of the masters who came before them. Some of these greats were pioneers in different ways – in storytelling techniques, in their choice of subjects and the depth with which they handled their subjects.

Their work is timeless but, regardless of critical or commercial success, I feel they have remained unsung. This is my humble attempt to talk about nine filmmakers who have shaped my love for Hindi cinema and who are often ignored while some of our greatest filmmakers are being discussed. This list, though not exhaustive, is my tribute to those unsung heroes who we must salute and whose films we must visit for a deeper understanding of our world and our cinema.

Gulzar

The current generation will always remember Gulzar saab as an iconic writer whose lyrics, poetry and stories will stand the test of time. I believe his prowess as a director has often gone unrecognised by many. His films handled relationships with a delicate hand in a time of noisy melodrama and with great empathy in a time of high-strung emotions. His films had memorable and strong female protagonists, which is now being touted as a quality of contemporary Indian cinema. Whether it was Kajli (Sharmila Tagore) in Mausam, Aarti Devi (Suchitra Sen) in Aandhi, both Sudha (Rekha) and Maya (Anuradha Patel) in Ijaazat, Veeran (Tabu) in Maachis or Aarti (Jaya Bachchan) in Koshish, his female protagonists are memorable for their characterisation and pitch-perfect performances.

His films always boasted of exceptional performances by not only the principal cast but also a secondary cast that was always given finely etched characters like AK Hangal and Om Prakash in Aandhi, Om Shivpuri in Mausam, Deven Verma in Angoor or Raj Zutshi in Maachis. He extracted some of the finest performances from thespian Sanjeev Kumar (Aandhi, Koshish, Mausam, Angoor, Namkeen) Naseeruddin Shah (Mirza Ghalib, Ijaazat, Libaas), Raj Babbar (Libaas) and Jeetendra (Parichay, Kinara, Khushboo).

His films observed social issues but always focused on the man-woman relationship with greater depth and sensitivity than his other more popular contemporaries. This sensitivity was always laced with characteristic humour – however serious the situation. The film that I enjoy watching most with my children even today is Angoor, Gulzar saab’s brilliant and hilarious adaptation of Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors. I was privileged to watch Libaas which remains unreleased and is perhaps one of his best films to date.

The quality of writing and performances in Gulzar saab’s films have always been so good that one fails to appreciate that some of his films were also very well executed – Ashok Mehta’s cinematography in Ijaazat stands out as a glowing example. His films might not have been commercial successes – that in my opinion is entirely the audience’s loss.  I do wish this generation visits Gulzar saab the filmmaker and appreciates him for the genius he really is.

Sudhir Mishra

One of our true mavericks and somebody who is refreshingly bereft of repetition in his varied filmography is Sudhir Mishra. While Satya is still celebrated as a landmark gangster film by most of us (deservedly so), few have watched Sudhir bhai’s stylised noir thriller Is Raat Ki Subah Nahin. Featuring a fine ensemble cast, graced by lovely music and an edgy narrative, the film keeps you hooked throughout while subtly exploring crime, characters and double standards. Every little character in the film is well observed and the narrative never falters even once.

His Hazaaron Khwahishen Aisi (my personal favourite) remains one of the defining political films of our times – a delicate love story, a tale of a woman who seeks relationships ranging from the idealistic to the opportunistic without recognising true love, and a narrative that is intricately linked to the Indian political system and its various players.

Sudhir bhai began his journey in the parallel cinema movement with Yeh Woh Manzil Toh Nahin, which traversed student activism, nostalgia and past demons through great performances and a nuanced narrative. He followed this with Main Zinda Hoon and Dharavi, both acclaimed and awarded pieces of work – Dharavi is my pick of the two for its engaging look into Mumbai’s have-nots, their aspirations and their failures.

Over the last three decades, Sudhir bhai has continued to explore new themes, characters and cinematic form, and he has constantly reinvented himself, often stumbling but never giving up and always remaining relevant. From the sprightly Chameli, the flawed Inkaar, the moody period piece Khoya Khoya Chand, the uncharacteristic Calcutta Mail, the convoluted thriller Yeh Saali Zindagi to the vastly polarised reception to his DaasDev, Sudhir Mishra refuses to give up.

His work, his spirit and his madness has inspired an entire generation of new filmmakers including me. His work is vastly underrated and often eclipsed by the works of either his seniors or compared unfairly to the works of newer filmmakers. Sudhir bhai, I doff my hat to you.

Raj Khosla

A true master, he was unfortunately overshadowed by his illustrious and high-profile peers. His films had rare polish, brilliant music and sublime song picturisations. He straddled various genres with ease from the cool CID, the atmospheric Woh Kaun Thi?, the mysterious Mera Saaya, the dacoit drama Mera Gaon Mera Desh (perhaps a precursor to Sholay) , the melodramatic Main Tulsi Tere Aangan Ki to the lesser known Solva Saal.

One of my favourites is Bambai Ka Babu featuring Dev Anand and Suchitra Sen, which handled a variety of moral dilemmas including a suggestion of incest with great maturity and sensitivity – something that is often not seen in contemporary cinema. 

Raj Khosla, while acknowledged by many as a versatile director, is often unheralded as a true artiste who achieved a fine balance between style, substance and popularity. He worked with some of the top-most stars of his times, continued making films for decades but ultimately left this world a disillusioned man. Such is the fate of the unsung artiste.

Asit Sen

I was mesmerised when I saw a film by Asit Sen called Khamoshi with Rajesh Khanna and Waheeda Rehman set in a psychiatric hospital. The black-and-white film was exquisitely shot, every frame had a story to tell. Later, I learnt from the internet that it was a remake of his own Bengali film Deep Jwele Jaai, starring Suchitra Sen. I haven’t seen the original but this film remains etched in my mind as a work of rare artistry with some memorable songs including Woh shaam kuch ajeeb thi, Tum pukar lo, Humne dekhi hain inn aankhon ki mehekti khushboo composed by Hemant Kumar and written by Gulzar saab.

I later watched Mamta, which again I discovered was a remake of his Bengali film Uttar Falguni. The film dealt with class conflict and perhaps had thematic similarities to Gulzar saab’s Mausam. It had memorable songs composed by Roshan and written by Majrooh Sultanpuri including Rahen na rahen hum and Chuppa lo yun dil mein pyar mera.

I also remember my father listening to dialogue LPs of his film Safar, with Rajesh Khanna, Sharmila Tagore and  Feroz Khan. I watched the film much later and found it to be an engaging drama. While I have not seen many of his other films except Bairaagi (with Dilip Kumar), I have always wondered how such a fine craftsman and a skilled storyteller never got his due.

BR Chopra

I love courtroom dramas. I have made three so far and can make many more! BR Chopra is one of my most-watched directors who might be remembered by this generation as the producer of the melodramatic Baghban or of the epic Mahabharat for television or as Yash Chopra’s elder brother. And that might be a travesty.

He made some remarkable films that dealt with social justice – some of which were critiques of the Indian legal system. One of my enduring memories is the speech delivered by Jeevan in his film Kanoon, where he pleads before the judge that he cannot be convicted for a crime that he has already been punished for. It was a rousing speech and the film was a strong critique of capital punishment and our flawed judicial system.

He dealt with various social issues in other dramas including the Muslim social Nikaah, where he criticised the triple talaq law or Insaaf Ka Tarazu, which spoke about rape and sexual harassment at the workplace. As a director, his craft was functional but as a storyteller and commentator on social justice, he was a visionary.

I can never forget his film Hamraaz – it was the only VHS tape we owned when a VCR came into our neighbourhood. So fascinated were we by the prospect of viewing films at home that we watched this film nearly every day for a month. It was a gripping suspense drama with melodious music. This film was also perhaps my introduction to Mahendra Kapoor, who sang in almost every BR Chopra film.

Basu Bhattacharya

I had only watched Teesri Kasam as a child on Doordarshan. I remember thinking a lot about the film for many days. I visited Basu Bhattacharya’s films in the ’90s when I was trying to become a director.  His trilogy of marital discord that included Anubhav, Aavishkar and Griha Pravesh was a series of intimate portraits that rekindled memories of marital relationships around me as I was growing up.

This trilogy unscrambled many events from my past which were disjointed instances that I remembered vividly but which had left me confused. The films had sparkling humour, some beautiful music and insightful dialogue writing. Of course there were the lengthy takes which one of his producers and one of my early mentors always joked about. I found those lengthy shots, those awkward silences, those stolen glances, the avant-garde vibe very cool and something we as modern filmmakers don’t do any more – dwell on relationships, explore them until they become an awkward maze and then find an unusually elegant way out of that maze.

The last film of Basuda that I saw was Aastha, which had some lovely music by Sharang Dev. The film was bold but definitely not his best. Surprisingly, it was a commercial success. There were some films that I know were part of his filmography but which I believe were failures both critically and commercially. Hopefully, Basu Bhattacharya will be remembered for his exquisite artistry and not for his failings.

Abrar Alvi

Known for his dialogue in Guru Dutt’s immortal works like Pyaasa and Kaagaz Ke Phool, his work as a director in his only film as a director has always been questioned and unfortunately doubted. Sahib, Bibi Aur Ghulam remains a great film and for many occupies pride of place in Guru Dutt’s filmography. Only, Guru Dutt did not direct the film. Abrar Alvi did. This has been confirmed time and again by his peers, by Guru Dutt’s brothers and sadly enough by Alvi himself. He directed one film and in exchange for that one film, many filmmakers including me would give up their entire filmography.

Abrar Alvi was a fine writer and a director who should have directed many more films. Sahib, Bibi Aur Ghulam was a fine adaptation of a Bengali novel by Bimal Mitra with brilliant cinematography by master lensman VK Murthy. The moody cinematography in a tale of crumbling feudalism with memorable performances by Rehman, Meena Kumari, Waheeda Rehman and Guru Dutt (better than his performances in films directed by himself) are testimony to a director that could have been.

Chetan Anand

His Neecha Nagar was awarded the Palme d’Or at the first-ever Cannes Film Festival in 1946. Yet this gifted brother of the flamboyant Dev Anand and the brilliant Vijay Anand has never been celebrated enough. I saw Neecha Nagar on a film archive platform and while the print was particularly bad, it might have been the actual beginning of a parallel cinema kind of movement in India.

I enjoyed Kala Baazar, where Chetan Anand acted with his two siblings Dev saab and Goldie saab. It was under his own banner Himalaya Films that his partnership with Madan Mohan in films like Haqeeqat, Heer Ranjha and Hanste Zakhm truly blossomed. These films had exceptional music and varied treatment – from the emotionally charged patriotic Hoke majboor (Haqeeqat), the melodramatic ballad Yeh duniya yeh mehfil (Heer Ranjha) to the jazz-inspired melancholic strains of Tum jo mil gaye ho (Hanste Zakhm).

Heer Ranjha was brilliant in its use of verse (written by Kaifi Azmi) for dialogue. The film was beautifully shot and had an earthy passion that very few films can match. The film was a treat to just listen to. Haqeeqat, a great war film on the futility of war, was elegant, refreshingly free of faux patriotism and featured a fine ensemble cast (including playback singer Bhupinder Singh).

Hanste Zakhm was perhaps one of the great Balraj Sahni’s last films and its delightfully convoluted story and treatment still have a contemporary feel. What was most striking about directors and writers of the time (including Chetan Anand) was their awareness of the world around them and how well they expressed their social agenda through popular cinema.

Chetan Anand also made an engaging melodrama on reincarnation, Kudrat (1980) with the immortal number Hume tumse pyaar kitna sung both by Kishore Kumar and Parveen Sultana (composed by RD Burman and lyrics by Majrooh Sultanpuri).

Saeed Mirza

I began this piece with my idol and I end it with another. Nobody knew Bombay and its inner lives better than he did. If he is underrated, it is because he is lazy and takes a great deal of time between films. His films reflect loneliness, despair, angst, romance, communalism, hatred, philosophy and melancholy, all steeped in the grime and dirt of his beloved city.

His stories are never stories – they are documents of a city that was and a premonition about the city that would be. Whether it was the angry Albert Pinto, the materialistic Arvind Desai, the gentle langda Salim, the resilient Mohan Joshi or Naseem’s helpless grandfather – his films will be a reference point for many filmmakers.

At a time when we celebrate a new wave in Indian cinema, Saeed Mirza stands out as one of those whose form was cinematic without ever being obtrusive, dramatic without ever trying to be over the top, talkative without being verbose, and contemplative without being gimmicky. His contemporaries were far more prolific and while their contribution to parallel cinema is tremendous, Saeed Mirza for me is a filmmaker whose films deserve a retrospective in these troubled and polarised times – for both students of cinema and for concerned citizens of a divided country.

- Hansal Mehta

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