Hrishikesh Mukherjee

Folksy Bollywood director
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Hrishikesh Mukherjee, film director: born Calcutta 30 September 1922; married (one son, three daughters, and one son deceased); died Bombay 27 August 2006.

Hrishikesh Mukherjee was one of Bollywood's best-known film directors for nearly four decades, celebrated for his simple folksy stories about the Indian middle class, their lives, tribulations and their relationships.

In the course of a prolific career in which he directed some 50 films - also writing many of them himself - Mukherjee ushered in a gentle renaissance, particularly in the 1970s at a time when Bollywood was obsessed with formula productions featuring an escapist mix of glamour, sex and violence.

Mukherjee understood the nuances that characterised India's middle classes and portrayed them with a skilful and charming mix of objectivity, realism, pathos, humour and mild sarcasm. He was one of the last truly Bollywood-rooted directors, deliberately eschewing stories set in overseas locales and featuring flamboyant stars who dressed outrageously and acted outlandishly.

The nub of almost all of Mukherjee's films was that most things in life can be made easier with laughter and simplicity. It's easy for instance for anyone even today to feel the frustration of the hard-working but neglected wife without resentment for the ideal husband in Anuradha (1960) or to empathise with the infatuated teenage girl in Guddi (Darling Child, 1971). And in Anand (1970), perhaps his best film, Mukherjee sensitively portrays a terminally ill cancer patient who retains his joie de vivre, helping even his attendant physician overcome his inherent cynicism.

Born into a middle-class Brahmin family in 1923 in the eastern port city of Calcutta, then India's colonial capital, Mukherjee was educated locally and was dabbling in theatre in the culturally rich Bengal province at an early age. He began his cinematic career in the late 1940s as an editor in rundown studios in Calcutta, then home to a flourishing regional film industry, at a modest monthly salary of 60 rupees (73 pence), then a not inconsiderable sum.

In 1951 he moved to Bollywood, India's film-capital city of Bombay as assistant director to the film-maker Bimal Roy on his film Do Bigha Zamin (Two Acres of Land, 1953).

Six years later Mukherjee made his directorial début with Musafir (Traveller), a film that cleverly strung together separate stories told by three sets of tenants occupying a house at various points in time; but it was too abstract for the times and failed at the box office. However, it brought Mukherjee to the notice of Bollywood's most influential actor-director, Raj Kapoor, who in 1959 recommended him as director for Anari ("Novice"), a film about a doctor who neglects his family in order to focus on his profession. This proved a commercial success and Mukherjee's career was launched. He followed it up with Anupama (1966, about a daughter yearning for her father's affection), Ashirwad (The Blessing, 1968) and Satyakam (1969).

Mukherjee's most productive and meaningful phase was through the 1970s when, as well as making moving hits like Anand and Abhiman ("Pride", 1973, exploring professional jealousy between a husband and wife), he also directed frothy comedies like Chupke Chupke ("Quietly, Quietly", 1975), Golmaal (Hanky Panky, 1979), Khubsoorat (Beautiful, 1980) and Guddi, a sardonic insight into glitzy Bollywood.

Illness and private grief - his wife, his brothers and his younger son died - led to Mukherjee's virtual retirement in the mid-1980s but he attempted a comeback in 1998 with Jhooth Bole Kauwa Kaate ("If You Tell Lies the Crow Will Bite You"). It sank without trace.

Kuldip Singh

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