On Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s 93rd birth anniversary, we look back at a January 2004 piece by culture critic Sadanand Menon on Anupama, the filmmaker’s bungalow on Carter Road, Bandra, which for many years was spiritual hub for some of Mumbai’s most creative mind, and where many of his later films were shot as well.
Not only hasHrishida (as he is universally called) lived on Bandra’s Carter Road for almost 50 years now, but he must be the one person whose house (former house, now) ‘Anupama’ (opposite Otter’s Club) has featured the most in Indian cinema. He had moved into the house in 1960, soon after Anuradha, the successful remake of Madame Bovary, with Leela Naidu and BalrajSahni. The shoestring budgets on which he made his films on the one hand, and the debilitating gout which used to frequently immobilise him since the late 1970’s resulted in his making a series of ‘home-bound’ films such as Golmaal and Khubsoorat in which the main set was his own home. There was a period when for some five years at a stretch, every time you visited the house you could lose your way as major portions of it would have been remodelled for a set.
Hrishida said it was cheaper than hiring studios. I remember rushing in through a door where I was sure a toilet existed and stopping petrified at the sight of UtpalDutt sitting in an easy chair rehearsing his lines for a shot. He looked up, understood the situation in a jiffy, and returned to his reading with a bemused shrug. The toilet had been ‘redesigned’ to look like an office room. It was an oblong, barrack-like, one-storied house whose best feature was the front portico with its swing and coconut palm and its room-size balcony upstairs from where you could sit and gaze at the sea and the tides and sunsets over Danda beach for hours on end.
This is the house where on any given day you would bump into Sachin Dev Burman in his starched white Banglaa dhoti or a young Amitabh and Jaya in deep conversation or a RitwickGhatak sprawled on a bed or a SalilChoudhury and Utpal Dutt exchanging notes or a Rekha giggling as she demonstrated some aerobic exercise or a RahiMasoomRaza and Rajinder Singh Bedi sharing Urdu shairis or a Dina Pathak re-living her lines (on dancer Chandralekha’s request) from the famous IPTA play JasmaOdhan or UshaKiron carrying armloads of Maharashtrian mustard-chilli pickles, while Hrishida would have found a little time between two takes to make a lethal move on the chessboard against long-time chess foe, Rajnibhai (the diamond jeweller and philanthropist, Rajnikant Mehta from Madras) and soulfully sing Dost dostnaaraha, as Rajnibhai tried to wriggle out of the check. Ashok Kumar, David and Gulzaar were like members of the household. Being at ‘Anupama’ was like being in the warmth of a creative community. Tea, food and conviviality were constant. Other friends of mine Darryl D’Monte and Zarine were a stone’s throw away to the right and Basu Bhattacharya and Abdullah Kandwani a stone’s throw away to the left.
The house also doubled as Chandralekha’s pad whenever she was in Bombay and there would also be a crowd of her friends too—from Kumar Shahani and K K
Mahajan on one side to Indira Jaisingh, AchalaRao and ZahidaRanjan on the other.
On occasions, there would be HarindranathChattopadhyaya walking in from ‘Kismet Apartments’ across the road with a harmonium slung on his shoulder and an impromptu mehfil would begin. Harinda (Baba to all of us) had the most extraordinary repertoire of the classical, the frivolous and the political/revolutionary songs. I still remember my goose-pimples one evening in Hrishida’s balcony, when Baba first rendered ‘Nishi they jaiyyophoolo bane, o bhanwara’ (the Bangla song which SachinDevBurman made famous in Hindi as ‘Dheere se jaanabagiyanmein, o bhanwara’) in the exquisite classical style of the KiranaGharana (he was a shagird of Ustad Abdul Kareem Khan himself), and then suddenly just switched the pace of the same raga and belted out the famous song of the 1942 ‘Quit India Movement’ he had written and sung “Aagaya din Swadhintaka, aagechaloaagechalo, bhayi”. He later gave us an unforgettable lecture-demonstration on how it was possible to take ‘soft’ ragas and infuse them with radical potential by merely changing the beat and tempo of the raga.
Interestingly, the popular songs ‘Rail gaadi’ and ‘Nanikinaavchali’ which Ashok Kumar has sung in Hrishida’s 1968 film Aashirwaad were originally sung impromptu, in the 1950’s, by HarindranathChattopadhyaya to humourChandralekha, when they used to live together on Krishna Iyer Street, Madras. Chandra had written them down (as she wrote every nonsense rhyme Baba composed for her merriment) and had later presented him with the diary in Bombay. It is ironic that Baba played an important role in Hrishida’sAashirwaad, but it was Ashok Kumar who rendered the songs after being coached by Baba.
When I first visited ‘Anupama’ in 1977 along with Chandralekha, Hrishida was living there with his two sons Babu and Tutu, his faithful driver-cum-cook Gopaland his 13 dogs. He had loaned his own Studebaker to artist and friend Dashrath Patel, an important member of the National Institute of Design (NID), Ahmedabad. So Chandra had driven her Fiat over from Madras and left it at ‘Anupama’ for Hrishi’s use. Like the house itself, this Fiat too, with its Madras number plate 2205, was destined to become an important prop in Hrishikesh Mukherjee films—not to speak of several objects like a copper vessel or a ‘mata-ni-pachedi’ textile hanging, etc., besides playful references to Chandra’s quotations from ayurvedic texts or her dance guru KanjeevaramEllappaPillai or her Gujarati origins.
From the mid-’70’s to the mid-’80’s, Hrishida had onerous commitments as Director of the NFDC or Chairman of the Film Censor Board. Every time the car left the compound, the 13 dogs would rush to the gate to see him off. But the amazing thing was to see them (Bhombhol in particular) dash to the gate a good five minutes before he returned (perhaps, almost as the car was turning into Turner Road) and wait in anticipation. And then all hell would break loose as Hrishida alighted from the car. And he would have time for each one of them and a different thing to eat for each one. And woe betide you if you got bitten by one of them (as dance critic Sunil Kothari once did). As far as Hrishida was concerned, it could only have been your fault.
A little over 10 years ago, Hrishida sold ‘Anupama’ and moved into a fourth floor flat in the adjoining ‘Rock Cliff’ apartments. Hrishida, almost immobilised now, has lived confined to the northern bedroom of his flat. One of his sons, Babu works in Boston. The other, Tutu died of an asthmatic attack on his way to Delhi some years ago. All the dogs have died one by one, save the lovely Bhuti, grown old and weak. She is permanently sprawled on Hrishida’s bed. It is from the windows of this room that he befriended two crows, which became regulars at feed time. Hrishida used to feed them Britannia Marie biscuits with his own hands. These were the crows who lent voice to his last film Jhooth Bole KawwaKaate (JBKK), which was as much a tribute to the crows as to his ‘jigri dost’ the late Raj Kapoor. The only other time he moved out of this room other than to make JBKK, was once to rush all the way to Sakshi Gallery (then at Kemp’s Corner) to check on my condition as I lay breathless on the gallery floor, prior to the opening of a Dashrath Patel exhibition, with a serious attack of bronchitis; the other time was when Amitabh Bachchan very sweetly personally supervised all arrangements and accompanied him to Delhi when Hrishida received his DadasahebPhalke award.
For the past two years, we have been watching as ‘Anupama’ was demolished and an eight-storied building came up there completely blocking Hrishida’s northern and western view and eliminating all possibility of a return of the crows to those windows. From the time the demolition began and earthmovers rolled in excavating the site for the foundation of the building, I have been photographing the process once every four or five months that I make it to Mumbai from Chennai. It has been like an entombing of memories. Eventually even Hrishida, frail and in pain, could not take it any more and has now moved to the south-side bedroom, which is like a return to breeze and light. His greatest excitement is to have someone stopping by to discuss national politics. His favourite subjects with me are the ‘failures’ of the ‘Left’ and the shenanigans of Chief Minister Jayalalithaa. But mostly he is alone. “All my friends are gone. No one comes to meet me now,” he says with a tinge of uncharacteristic bitterness.
He also makes it a point in the evenings to get himself carried out onto his balcony from where he looks out on to the bustling Joggers’ Park below and beyond it, the flaming sun as it settles soundlessly into the Arabian Sea. And, somewhere in the distance, from someone’s Sony-Max channel, you can hear the strains of that song from the 1970 hit Anand, “Kahin door jab din dhal jaye…”