Subhash K Jha on lockdown classics: a film on an underdog stealing the office girl
1975 was the year of blockbuster movies like Sholay, Maa Santoshi Maa, Julie and Deewar. what chance did Chhoti Si Baat with Amol Palekar and Vidya Sinha have?
If Amol Palekar in Chhoti Si Baat had been born two decades later he would have been Shah Rukh Khan in Darr.
Today, when a guy follows every move that a girl makes, it’s known as stalking and is considered a serious, legally cognizable offence. Back then in the relatively-innocent 1970s, when Amol Palekar followed Vidya Sinha to every nook and corner of Mumbai, it was seen as cute and harmless.
Chhoti Si Baat came in the most audacious year in the histo- ry of Hindi cinema. 1975 has gone down in the history of Indian cin- ema as the year of Sholay. It was also the year of Jai Santoshi Maa. The mythological flick made with a shoe-string budget not only gave Sholay a run for its money --even out-doing the boxoffice collections of Ramesh Sippy’s film in many centres-- it gave to the masses a new God, more pervasive than Gabbar Singh, to worship.
1975 was also the year of a number of other blockbusters,mainly Dulal Guha’s Pratiggya (Dharmendra and Hema Malini had two back-to-back hits in 1975),Yash Chopra’s Deewaar, Brij Sadanah’s Chori Mera Kaam, Sohanlal Kanwar’s Sanyasi and K S Sethumadhavan’s Julie. Each of these created a boxoffice record of its own.
And if Basu Chatterjee thought he was safe in the sweet-and-tender ‘Uthey sabke kadam dekho rom-com-com’ zone, in came his closest competitor Hrishikesh Mukherjee in the kingdom of courtship comedies with Chupke Chupke, softly nibbling away into Basu-da’s fan base.
Fighting against all odds, Chhoti Si Baat created a remarkable impact. The idea was to cash in on the success of Basu-da’s earlier rom-com Rajnigandha.
The same formula of the underdog stealing away the wholesome giggly office-going girl who keeps confiding in her colleague (played by Nandita Thakur; hats off to the actress for just being cast as a good listener) from under the nose of his cocky competitor in the courtship worked when B R Chopra invited Basu Chatterjee to make a “naughtier Rajnigandha”.
Chhoti Si Baat is more risqué than Rajnigandha. It’s about the failure to tell the difference between love,infatuation and lust.
Amol Palekar’s gawky, gauche and altogether imbalanced Arun is discernibly inexperienced in matters of love and sex. The chase is interesting mainly because it’s shot in crowded areas whereas in those days one couldn’t shootwith Dharmendra and Hema Malini anywhere in Mumbai except in a handful of studios. I mention this pair because they make a guest appearance in a movie-within-movie song sequence singing the Yesudas-Asha Bhosle chartbuster Jaan-e- man jaan-e-man, tere do nayan.
The sequence defines Basu Chatterjee’s aspirational heroes. Amol Palekar is the man on the street who pays for a movie ticket and watches stars romance in style. He cannot be one of them. He is one of us.He holds a clerical job in an office, travels by bus, eats at low-end restaurants,dreams of love and chases the first girl whom he fancies.This is not what filmy heroes are made of.
Basu-da also displays an awkwardness with film songs that became so discernible in his films. The twoevocative Salil Chowdhary compositions Na jaane kyon, hota hai yun zindagi ke saath by Lata Mangeshkar and Yeh din kya aaye by Mukesh are thrust randomly in the background and have no direct bearing on the goings-on on screen.
Enter the underrated Asrani as Prabha’s swashbuckling suitor. Asrani’s Nagesh rides around on a yellow scooter (on which he often whisks away Prabha from the bus- stand), knows the chef at restaurants,and pretends to be cool in an era when the word only referred to the room temperature.
Arun takes the help of a love guru – Julius Nagendranath Wilfred Singh– played with an army-man’s bravado by Ashok Kumar. Frankly the love guru’s love tips to Palekar are absurd to the point of being laughable for all the wrong reasons. The love guru has a couple of female assistants (one of them being the brief bombshell Komila Wirk) to demonstrate to the open-mouthed Arun how the ‘waist’ is won.
While the blustering love guru talks about finding and embracing true love, he gives live demonstrations to Arun on how to get a girl out of her saree and into bed. No wonder the excessively confident Arun returns to Mumbai confused. In an anti-climactic climax that seems to have been written as a sex encounter-turned into a mushy moment of romantic confession, Arun finally “gets” Prabha.
But honestly,we don’t get it! It is to Asrani’s credit that Nagesh doesn’t come across as a spurned buffoon although every effort is made to present him in a ludicrous light.Asrani’s is the best performance in this uneven comedy.
Love was harder to find in those days. And therefore, far more genuine and durable when found.
I am sure Arun and Prabha are happily married with two children, a boy and a girl,living outside Mumbai, maybe in Pune, since Mumbai is now too polluted for their delicate sensibilities.
As for Nagesh, he too must be married, running an internet site for lonely people called ‘Juliuswilfredsingh.com’.