“I loved the lines he wrote for his characters. They were so close to real life I didn’t have the audacity to change even a word of what he asked me to say on screen,” Shabana Azmi recalls working with Basu Chatterjee.
Though a Bengali Basuda’s Hindi was fluent as he was born in Madhya Pradesh.
Says Shabana, “Basuda had a fierce temper. He would come down on erring actors and technicians in a jiffy. But not me . I never faced his fury. Come of think of it, the only director who has ever lost his temper with me was John Schlesinger during Madame Souzatska. To pacify him the crew would immedital yserve him some favourite food, and he’d be fine. Basuda needed no such supplements to calm down. He was by nature sensible and restorative.”
Shabana did three of her best films with Basu Chatterjee. “Two of them Swami and Apne Paraye were both adapted from Saratchandra Chatterjee’s stories. They were both very both very powerful subjects with very strong roles for me. In Swami I played Soudamini who thinks she is married into the wrong family until she gets to know her husband closely.”
Shabana recalls her how she and Basu Chatterjee had a long discussion on the clothes that her character Soudamini should wear. “We decided she should wear hand-bought inexpensive sarees. Basu asked me, ‘I hope you know what sastee sariyan means?’ I bought them from those street hawkers from Kolkata who would would go from door to door selling sarees wrapped in white cloth. Some of the sarees my Soudamini wore in Swami were for Rs 300 rupees.And if they still looked elegant it’s because I inherited my sense of aesthetics and colour from my mother. She would say, ‘Look at Nature. Every colour combination looks good in Nature, then why not in the clothes we wear?’
Shabana also did a third film with Basuda. “Jeena Yahan is the one that got neglected. It is a little-seen but still relevant film. I remember an incident during its shooting. I was supposed to be singing a song dangling my feet from a boat in the river. I told Basuda I thought there were crocodiles in the water. Basuda retorted with a straight face, ‘That’s okay.We are only focusing on your upper torso. The crocodiles are welcome to chew off your feet.’ And then he stuffed his handkerchief in his mouth and laughed his head off.”
Shabana regards Basuda as the true father of Middle Of The Road Cinema. “He actually bridged the gap between arthouse films and mainstream cinema. Made films about true-life stories and characters that were accessible to the average moviegoer. His attitude to cinema and to his characters was unsentimental to the point of seeming brusque. But like Ismat Chugtai, Basuda’s art was deeply compassionate…He was a master creator and a pleasure to work with. I wish I had met him again before his death.”