The Ordinary Charm of the Extraordinary Hrishikesh Mukherjee

The pioneer of playful films that spotlighted India’s emerging middle-class passed away before he could see a resurgence of the very genre he had mastered.

Bedatri D. Choudhury

July 29, 2021

The Ordinary Charm of the Extraordinary Hrishikesh Mukherjee
Hrishikesh Mukherjee

It’s impossible to think of Hindi cinema of the 1960s and 1970s without thinking of the flamboyance of Shammi Kapoor dancing or an angry Amitabh Bachchan seeking revenge for society’s unjust ways. But nestled between the extreme hedonism of the 1960s and the anger that defined the 1970s lay another world: filmmaker Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s cinematic universe. Rooted in realism, Mukherjee’s films told specific yet universal stories that were full of grace and humor. In the worlds his films created, friends and family ran long-running practical jokes on each other, things usually worked out in the end, and it wasn’t unheard of for there to be no villain.

“In Hindi films, you probably want to see make-believe scenes,” Mukherjee said in an interview in the 1980s, explaining why his films — centered on unemployment, class discrimination, survival, and heartbreak — weren’t always box office megahits. “We have seen very few good comedies in Bollywood, because it is an accepted fact that comedy doesn’t do very well.”

But that didn’t stop Mukherjee. In a career that spanned over 40 years, Mukherjee, popularly known as Hrishi Da, directed 42 films, won eight Filmfares, and earned a Padma Vibhushan, India’s second-highest civilian honor. He single-handedly pioneered “middle of the road” Hindi cinema — playful films that spotlighted the country’s emerging middle-class. But, despite both commercial and critical success, Mukherjee’s career peaked in the early 1980s and audiences stopped coming to watch his films. Heartbroken, Mukherjee all but retired from cinema, passing away in 2006. Yet, in just the past decade, due to a slew of remakes, adaptations, and homages, his genre of filmmaking is getting a new lease of life.