Here is what could happen on the very few occasions when Hrishikesh Mukherjee did let himself become sentimental or dewy-eyed. It could result in something like the 1972 Sabse Bada Sukh, the title of which perfectly describes the viewer’s relief when this tired film finally staggers to an end.

Sabse Bada Sukh begins with Lalu (Robi Ghosh) returning to his village after a six-month stay in the city, having transformed – in that short period – into a faux sahib, confidently saying “Hi, mom!” to his mother, who barely recognises him in his garish clothes. “I do the all right!” he proclaims when someone asks him how he is, and “Mention the not!” when thanked. Beneath his airs and incessant boasting, Lalu is a sweet boy who is pleased to see his friends and family again (and probably relieved to be back on home ground) – Ghosh, who had a fine supporting part in Satyakam, is enjoying himself in these scenes.

But soon the film gets around to what is purportedly its main subject: sex. (Hrishikesh Mukherjee! Making a Film about Sex! One can hear the astonished murmurs back in 1971, and picture a generation of FTII students sniggering at each other.)

Bhagwaan ki tasveer laaya hoga,” a mother says piously when she learns that Lalu has brought pictures for his friend Shankar (Vijay Arora), and there is an immediate cut to Shankar gaping at a photo of an unclad firang woman. A pen with risqué pictures along its slim body is also on display, and all this is too much to process for the studious Brahmin boy. “Are these real photos, or made by hand?” he innocently asks. Lalu, the picture of worldly-wise nonchalance, tells him that city women are loose and easily available: “Bahut hee sporting hoti hain – aa jaati hain.” (“They are very sporting – they come to you easily”.)

These lines are not dissimilar to Deven Varma’s America-returned Ravi telling Amol Palekar’s Ajay in Rang Birangi that female secretaries in the US take dictation while sitting on their bosses’ laps. In that film, Ravi’s irresponsible stereotyping (“stereotypisting”?) finds its counterpoint in the sharp tongue of Ajay’s secretary Anita (Deepti Naval), and in a series of comic developments that turn the tables on Ravi’s overconfident “naataking”. Sabse Bada Sukh will similarly show that Lalu’s swaggering claims are evidence of his own immaturity and his eagerness to impress. But it does this by descending into some of the most facile, uncharacteristic sentimentality you will ever see in a Mukherjee film.

The two friends go to the city together, Lalu having promised Shankar a taste of “sabse bada such ” (carnal bliss), even though the latter is too romantic–idealistic to want anything to do with a prostitute. Here, surrounded by phallic trains and skyscrapers, they make fools of themselves, yelling “Hi!” randomly at bewildered women; there are silly scenes involving repeated meetings with a girl and her boyfriend, tedious vignettes in a massage parlour, a dance class, a nightclub and what may or may not be a yacht. And finally, wouldn’t you know it, there is an encounter with a woman who is apparently a streetwalker but turns out to be a distraught mother seeking money for the treatment of her unwell daughter.

With this, the narrative leaps off the rails in its last half-hour, throwing in a subplot about an old doctor, and a long lugubrious monologue by the desperate young mother about her husband having been sent to jail (“Sharam bikti nahin, babu, shareer bikte hain.” – “Dignity is not sold, sir, only bodies are.”) What might have been an unselfconscious sex comedy (with some social commentary woven into its fabric) takes a right turn to become a staid exercise in moralising. And the grand lesson? The “such” that Shankar and Lalu were running after is so small that they can’t even find it, but there are bigger pleasures everywhere – such as the happiness that comes from helping someone in need.

(Yes. If that makes you feel like tiny people are playing marbles inside your head, I understand.)

In concept, Sabse Bada Sukh is a promising film. The initial conversations between Lalu and Shankar, hackneyed though they might seem, capture something real about wide-eyed young men in rural India discussing what city women wear, being fascinated by the very idea of boys and girls walking around together openly, even holding hands. This aspect of Indian life – the vast divide between the village and the city, and the culture shock experienced by inhabitants of the former when they migrate – is not often seen in Hrishi-da’s films, because most of them are set in urban, middle-class households. In some of those early scenes, sly social observation lies hidden under the garb of slapstick comedy – such as when the city-returned Lalu can’t bend to touch his father’s feet because his flashy branded pants are too tight. And Asrani has a small, entertaining part as a pretentious, sex-obsessed film director who has been over-influenced by the permissiveness of the global “New Wave” cinemas. (When he describes shots to his assistant – the low-angle, the zoom – the camera in Sabse Bada Sukh moves accordingly. “Cameray ne jab aankh kholi toh apne aap ko khajur pe latka paaya” (“When the camera opened its eye it beheld itself dangling from a date palm”), he says, describing the placement of a camera high up on a tree – an amusingly poetic, high-minded description of a shot that is intended to achieve nothing more profound than to ogle at the heroine’s cleavage.)

But alongside the patches of sharp commentary is the idea that libidinous impulses can be “cured” by situations calling for pity and compassion – as if both things can’t be present in the same person – and a sappy notion about the “purity” of women (defined very narrowly).

Extend this line of thought and you may end up with: a sexually promiscuous woman is necessarily someone who is in some way damaged, someone who has had such bad experiences that she has set out to ruin her own life. And then you might call to mind Ruma (Aruna Irani) in Mili, saying she was so shattered by a boyfriend dumping her that she set out to play with men. “Meri aatma mar gayi hai.” (“My conscience is dead”).

These are problematic ideas, and indications are that Hrishi-da’s own feelings on this subject were more complex. In a 1998 interview with Bhawana Somaaya, he said:

“[Sex] is not to be equated with morality. There can be a woman who isn’t monogamous but is wholesome and compassionate; would you condemn such a woman? Even mythology makes concessions for this complex category. They are called paanch kanya – Ahilya, Draupadi, Tara, Kunti and Mandodari.”

At the same time it isn’t easy to dismiss Sabse Bada Sukh as a film he wasn’t personally invested in: it has a “story and screenplay” credit for Hrishi-da himself, and he specifically asked Gulzar to develop the script for him. If one is looking for an explanation for why this is such an unsatisfying, half-baked film, one might find it in a 1981 item in the Times of India by Girija Rajendran, who wrote many insightful and affectionate pieces about Hrishi-da, but who saw this film as “the brilliant director’s most insipid product” and a “half-hearted comedy”. Rajendran noted that Hrishi-da had not been in good health when he made the film, and that indeed he “seems missing for most of the length of the film, for nowhere is there that touch by which we have come to know him”.

That distinctive signature – the ability to take a host of characters and make them credible without weighing a film down – can be seen in both humorous and solemn contexts across other films. In Sabse Bada Sukh, on the other hand, the lightness and the seriousness are both superficial: the comedy is usually forced and reliant on lazy clichés (the bulky Tun Tun shows up when Lalu and Shankar are expecting to be massaged by a beautiful young girl – this is the sort of comic scene you would never expect to see in a script co-written by Hrishikesh Mukherjee and Gulzar), while the dramatic scenes are plain embarrassing. At the time of writing, this film is available only on YouTube, in a poor print – and sadly, that may be for the best.

Excerpted with permission from The World of Hrishikesh Mukherjee: The Filmmaker Everyone Loves, Jai Arjun Singh, Penguin/Viking.