My memories of Hrishikesh Mukherjee are linked to his bed. By the time I was old enough to request an interview with one of Hindi cinema’s much admired and equally-feared directors, he was almost crippled by arthritis and rarely left his bed. Half reclining, surrounded by his dogs and a purring cat, Hrishida, as he was fondly called by people of all ages, would talk to me about the movies I’d grown up on.
When friends part ways
It was in his Bandra bungalow, sitting by his bedside, that I learnt how Anand (1970) was actually a story of two real life friends — the flamboyant extrovert, Raj Kapoor, and the introspective introvert, Hrishida, who’d been nicknamed Babumoshai by his Raju. The film was supposed to be made under the RK banner, but Hrishida was suddenly struck by a superstitious dread that if he let Raju succumb to limphosarcoma of the intestines in reel life, something bad might happen to him for real too.
No amount of reasoning could make him change his mind. He finally took the role he admitted was ‘perfect’ for RK, to Uttam Kumar, Shashi Kapoor and even Kishore Kumar, all of whom were too busy, before Rajesh Khanna came along and begged for it, taking a price cut to ‘die’ on screen.
Cancer comes calling
Many years later, I lost my dad to cancer. Like Anand, he too had kept the news from me. One Sunday afternoon my husband was informed by the family doctor that dad had quietly made plans to go in for surgery the following week. We visited him that evening, he didn’t say a word about his illness, but chatted about everything else. Monday went by silently as I waited for him to confide in me. On Tuesday, just as we were leaving for work, he called, asking my husband to drop by with me that evening as he had something to tell us. Pallab insisted we stop by en route to office, but he laughed, “What’s the hurry? Come by in the evening.” Two hours later, he was gone to a sudden heart attack. As I stood by his bedside looking at his silent form, Anand’s last words came back to me, “Babumoshai, zindagi ek rang manch hai aur hum sab is rang manch par kathputliyan hain, hum sabki dor uparwale ke hath mein hai, kab kiski dor khich jaye koi nahi janta….”
Dark shadow of death
Death is the inevitable end of life and its dark shadow hung over Hrishida’s life, playing a significant supporting role in his directorial debut, Musafir (1957). It sneaked past one of the tenants, the unemployed graduate Kishore Kumar, whose suicide attempt is thwarted by adulterated pesticide, but stilled the strains of Dilip Kumar’s violin. It continued to play muse, triggering off a relationship crisis between a father and daughter in Anupama after the mother dies in childbirth in 1964, and four years later, claimed Ashok Kumar, in Aashirwad (1968). It was a cancerous end for Dharmendra in Satyakam (1969) and Rajesh Khanna in Anand (1970). Mili (1975) wasn’t The End for Jaya Bachchan though, I’d like to believe that like my friend’s father, she won the battle over cancer. Namak Haraam (1973) brought back the Anand ‘jodi’ (team) with neither Rajesh Khanna nor Amitabh Bachchan knowing till the climax was canned, which of them was going to die. When Hrishida finally revealed that it would be Rajesh again, a devastated Amitabh refused to speak to him for weeks, even after Jaya assured him that his performance was memorable. It eventually won him a popular award for Best Supporting Actor.
No more crowing
His muse turned Hrishida melancholic in later years, perhaps the result of losing his wife early, then, learing that his only son had suffered a fatal asthma attack at the Delhi railway station, five years before death arrived for him in 2006. Every time I’d get up to leave, he’d sigh, “Don’t know if I’ll see you again, this could be our last meeting.” Had he lived, he’d have turned 90 tomorrow. And along with the stuffed crow by his bedside, I could have told him that death was a ‘lie’ and if he mentioned it again, his mute model would start cawing in protest. Jhooth bole kauwa kaate!