From Dilip Kumar, Raj Kapoor and Meena Kumari to Dharmendra, Sharmila Tagore and Rajesh Khanna to Amitabh Bachchan and Rekha, Hrishikesh Mukherjee directed most of Hindi cinema’s major stars between the 1950s and 1980s. Yet he had a particular knack for bringing alive the supporting character – and in casting the right people in those roles.

Farida Jalal in Alaap and Jurmana

I think it’s a pity that Jalal – one of the finest comediennes we have had, and to my eye very attractive too – was so under-used in the 1970s. She appeared in two Hrishi-da films, both of which were flops. Much like Deven Varma (with whom she might have made a superb screen pairing), she was a puckish presence, participant and commenter at the same time.

I’m unsure which the better performance is; I’ll probably pick Jurmana, where she plays Raakhee’s saucy, paan-chewing saheli, looking the bashful Prakash (Vinod Mehra) up and down and chortling, “Lagta hai kisi ne aapse keh diya ke aap neeche dekhte huye zyaada khubsoorat lagte hain (It seems someone has told you that you are more beautiful when you keep your head bowed).” Or giving playboy Inder (Amitabh Bachchan) as good as she gets when he tries to act fresh. She is easily the best thing in the film.

But Jalal has some lovely scenes with Bachchan in Alaap too, starting with the one where their characters Sulakshana and Alok are made to meet by their parents in one of those “be relaxed and spontaneous with each other, and no pressure, none at all…but we are listening from the next room, and you HAVE TO GET MARRIED!” situations.

Alok is fidgeting away, because he isn’t interested in settling down just yet, but Sulakshana, much to his surprise, preempts him (and few actors of the time would have played this scene as matter-of-factly as Jalal does). I have a boyfriend, she says – now can we leave together on the pretext of going out “to get to know each other better”, and then you drop me to his place? In the next scene, she calls Alok “darling” within earshot of her sulking lover, and then teases the latter about it.

Jayant in MemDidi

The big, burly Jayant plays a Pathan named Sher Khan in one of Hrishi-da’s loveliest early films, but Jayant doesn’t resemble Kipling’s feared tiger so much as he resembles the cartoon version of Baloo the Bear (remember the beloved 1960s version of The Jungle Book?), shuffling about the forest with Bagheera. Someone watching Jayant for the first time in Mem-Didi would assume he is playing himself, that he could never look different, but this character is miles removed from some of his other notable performances such as the one as the tribal leader in Madhumati a few years earlier.

Much of Mem-Didi’s charm comes from the interactions between Sher Khan and Bahadur Singh (played by David) – two goofily tough guys who exercise a paternalistic sort of control over their village until an elderly woman moves in and teaches them a few life lessons. The two men are bullies, but also childlike, and the actors capture these qualities perfectly – as in the scene where they sidle away, hands behind their backs like errant schoolboys, after they have been unexpectedly slapped by Lalita Pawar’s Rosy.

In an early scene they sit outside a tea-stall, Bahadur using hot chai to soothe a toothache, and becoming crabby when Sher Khan starts humming a song. “Shaikh Chilli theek bolta hai,” the latter says with a sigh, “Jo aadmi gaana nahin samajhta hai, woh aadmi doosre ka khoon bhi kar sakta hai.” (“A man who doesn’t appreciate music is capable of murder.”) The words are said in Jayant’s delightfully lyrical Pathan accent, which could easily have tipped over into caricature but works perfectly for this character, gruff and swaggering and lovable all at once.

Twenty-two years later, Hrishi-da – in what seems more like a sentimental gesture than anything else – remade Mem Didi as Accha Bura, giving Jayant’s son Amjad Khan the chance to play the role his father had in the original. Amjad Khan was a superb actor in his own right, but this is one of those cases where the original is better.

Tarun Bose in Anupama

The first 20 minutes of the 1966 Anupama represents some of the most assured visual storytelling in Hrishi-da’s cinema:Jaywant Pathare’s photography (in beautiful black and white) was never better, and splendid use is made of light and space. But these scenes are anchored by Bose’s performance as the 40-year-old Mr Sharma who has belatedly found love and doesn’t know how short-lived it will be.

Whether looking at his wife with almost frightening intensity, or unconsciously adopting the pose of the dancing-girl statuette next to him while listening to Dheere Dheera Machal, he is utterly convincing. We see a besotted man, but we are also being prepared for the drastic change in his personality when his wife dies in childbirth and he shuns his newborn girl. The performance sets the film up and brings plausibility to what might otherwise have been a highly implausible father-child relationship.

For the remainder of the film, Bose is no longer as central to the story as in those first sequences – the main narrative is about his neglected daughter Uma (Sharmila Tagore) developing her confidence in the company of her new friends – but he has two wonderful scenes in the final leg: first, where Uma respectfully but firmly tells him she is leaving his house, and then the film’s haunting last shot, which could have been laughably maudlin if it had been directed or acted differently – a close-up of Sharma’s tear-soaked face as he watches the train taking Uma away to her new life. Sorrow and regret have rarely ever been captured so beautifully in a single image.

Usha Kiran in Musafir

There were two 1950s films in which I thought Dilip Kumar – master of the lowered voice, often saying his dialogue so softly that audiences of the time must have scowled at the speakers in the halls – was out-understated, so to speak, by his leading lady. One was Suchitra Sen’s extraordinary Paro in the 1955 Devdas. The other, much less-known performance is that of Usha Kiran in the 1957 Musafir, which was Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s first film as director.

Kiran would play character roles for Hrishi-da until the1980s (remember Om Prakash’s wife, distressed by the behaviour of her sister Sulekha in Chupke Chupke, or the second bahu in Bawarchi?) but her part here as Uma – recently widowed, now encountering an old boyfriend, Raja (played by Kumar in full Devdas mode) – is one of her finest moments. In one marvellously underplayed scene, Uma and Raja recall their past romance and then turn to a shared memory of a song. The music begins, they exchange glances, he starts tentatively singing Lagi Nahin Choote.

The number is historically significant as the first film song that Dilip Kumar performed in his own voice, but within the narrative too, it brings soulfulness to a scene about the therapeutic value of reminiscing as well as the impossibility of going back. Notably, Uma doesn’t actually sing in the scene: she merely remembers herself singing in that carefree past; it is as if she can’t fully surrender to the memory. Kiran’s stoical expression, with just a hint of yearning for the person she used to be, adds a layer to the film.

Shatrughan Sinha in Naram Garam

Shatrughan Sinha is not someone who would seem to fit well in the Mukherjee world as a leading man: his screen persona was that of the alpha male with a regimented, old-world sense of roles and duties (Utpal Dutt’s Bhavani Shankar would have approved of him and his moustache!) – someone with clear-cut notions about women’s “honour” and “virtue”. But I thought there was something witty and perceptive about Hrishi-da’s use of Sinha in the one-and-a-half films they did together. “One-and-a-half” because Sinha played the lead in one of Hrishi-da’s lesser films Kotwaal Saab, plus a memorable supporting part in the 1981 Naram Garam.

The middling Kotwaal Saab has a few scenes in the second half that are unusual for the mainstream Hindi cinema of the time: without providing spoilers, suffice it to say that Sinha’s Bharat – who has been the film’s upright hero for most of the story– suddenly has to look hard in the mirror and introspect when he is faced with evidence of conservativeness in his own character.

Much more enjoyable is his role in Naram Garam, as the car mechanic Babua, idealising the film’sheroine as an incarnation of Rani Padmini (who supposedly chose death over loss of honour). Babua is so literal-minded and so hung up on being the male protector that, in one of the film’s funniest scenes, he disrupts a stage production of the Ramayana to rescue “Sita Ma” from Ravana (having earlier observed sadly, while watching the “lakshman-rekha” scene, that a woman never stays within her boundaries). Both films, in different ways – one being a self-consciously solemn drama, the other a comedy – hold the Sinha character to account for his views, and offer a piquant commentary on the actor’s dominant screen persona.

Jai Arjun Singh is the author of the just-published The World of Hrishikesh Mukherjee: The Filmmaker Everyone Loves.