News of Basu Chatterjee’s death broke on a day when the city that he chronicled with unmatched love resembled scenes from his movies in the 1970s and ’80s.

The fans were switched off, the lights were on during the daytime, and ginger tea was being drunk with lunch. In the streets outside, Mumbai residents clutched umbrellas as they splashed in muddy puddles left in the wake of Cyclone Nisarga. Only the masks covering their noses and mouths served as a reminder of the present.

Chatterjee died in Mumbai on Thursday at the age of 90. He made films on a staggering range of subjects, from rural comedies to social issues. Mumbai, the city to which he migrated from Ajmer as a young adult, served as a lasting muse.

One of the best cinematic depictions of the Mumbai monsoon is in Chatterjee’s 1979 film Manzil, starring Amitabh Bachchan as a social climber and Moushumi Chatterjee as his wealthy mark. As the song Rimjhim Gire Sawan unfolds, Bachchan and Chatterjee wander in the downpour, along Marine Drive, the Oval Maidan in Churchgate and the architectural wonders of the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus station. Shot by Chatterjee’s long-time collaborator, the gifted cinematographer KK Mahajan, the city never seemed more romantic or beautiful.

The lyrics are by Yogesh, who died on May 29.

Chatterjee’s debut film, Sara Akash, in 1969, was set in Agra. But Mumbai was the city in which he found repeated inspiration in a career that stretched to nearly five decades. His best-known films include some of the most iconic movies about the Mumbai middle class, such as Piya Ka Ghar, Chhoti Si Baat and Baaton Baaton Mein.

As his characters emerged from chawls and apartments in search of work and love, they were followed everywhere by Chatterjee – and Mahajan’s camera. They queued up for buses and trains, went to the office and grabbed a cup of tea and bhel puri by the beach. They claimed the city and partook of its fleeting pleasures, finding romance and good humour in unlikely places. Mumbai was as much a character in the movie as its residents.

In his second feature Piya Ka Ghar (1972), Chatterjee explored the eternal problem of affordable housing. A young bride arrives from her spacious home in the village to a two-room house in a chawl packed with extended family members. In this cramped space, the consummation of the marriage becomes a serious challenge.

The apartment may be small but, like the city itself, it has a big, beating heart. Chatterjee was skillful at capturing Mumbai manners – its ability to adjust to adversity, its generous ways, its sense of humour, its pragmatism and optimism, its talent for excavating hope from the ruins.

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Piya Ka Ghar (1972).

Dreamers flourished in Chatterjee’s Mumbai against the odds. In Chhoti Si Baat (1976), one of his best-loved films, a budding romance between two professionals was also a way to explore the city’s office spaces, public transport system, cafes and art galleries.

Chhoti Si Baat is an archive of Mumbai in the mid-1970s – crowded but carefree, dedicated to speed and movement but accommodating enough to allow for more languid moments. The wooing of Prabha (Vidya Sinha) by Arun (Amol Palekar) is facilitated by the efficiency of the BEST bus service. He waits for her every day at the bus stop so that they can travel together on the 9.05 am bus on route number 86. The romance hits a bump both because of Arun’s lack of confidence and Prabha’s decision to start accepting motorbike rides from a colleague.

In Baaton Baaton Mein (1979), the Western Railway’s local service allows Tony (Palekar) to kindle a relationship with Nancy (Tina Munim). Baaton Baaton Mein is a snapshot both of late-1970s Mumbai and late-1970s Bandra, set in a bungalow called Green Gables and featuring St Andrew’s church as a prominent location.

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Suniye Kahiye, Baaton Baaton Mein (1979).

Despite his fascination for Mumbai, Chatterjee did not restrict himself to the city. He frequently set films in small towns – among them Chitchor (1976) and Chameli Ki Shaadi (1986). He made it a point to cast relatively unknown faces – such as Amol Palekar, Vidya Sinha, Vijayendra Ghatge and Asrani – to inject realism into his fairy-tales and allow his cast to move around freely in public places. Although he stood as a remove from the mainstream film industry, he later worked with reputed actors, such as Amitabh Bachchan, Neetu Singh, Vinod Mehra, Sanjeev Kumar, Jeetendra and Anil Kapoor. Chatterjee also made films in his native tongue, Bengali.

The filmmaker’s relationship with that beast that has come to be known as Bollywood was free of angst. Several of his movies, including Piya Ka Ghar and Chhoti Si Baat, show characters watching the popular releases of the period to emphasise the distance between Chatterjee’s cinematic universe and the one that dominated the national imagination. Declares a character played by Paintal in Piya Ka Ghar, “I watch Hindi films, I know everything.”

When the delightful song Jaanemann Jaanemann in Chhoti Si Baat starts, Dharmendra and Hema Malini are in the frame – Arun is watching the movie stars sing to one other. This propels him into a fantasy moment in which he and Prabha are on the screen.

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Jaaneman Jaaneman, Chhoti Si Baat (1976).

The films that endure are the ones about people a bit like us. They are conflicted and argumentative and worry about their present and their futures. Their hair is ruffled and their clothes appear to have tumbled out of our cupboards. They clutch man-purses and handbags and have somewhere to be.

These strivers also travel like many of us, in buses, taxis and trains, mingling and meshing with the crowds. Chatterjee plucked individual stories out of the masses and grafted aspiration and possibility onto their journeys, making life in India, particularly in Mumbai, seem a bit more tolerable.

The city wasn’t always welcoming in Chatterjee’s films. In Do Ladke Dono Kadke (1979), Amol Palekar and Asrani play small-time thieves who kidnap the child of a rich businessman out of despair. In Kamla Ki Maut (1989), the death of an unmarried woman who is pregnant sets off questions that reverberate through her housing complex.

But Chatterjee mostly preferred to walk on the light side. Along with Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Sai Paranjpye and Basu Bhattacharya, Chatterjee carved out a path that allowed Hindi cinema to move away from its obsessions with glamour, love between impossibly good-looking people, violence and nationalism. The influence of these filmmakers on future directors, from Mani Ratnam to Shoojit Sircar, cannot be overstated. By putting actors who looked like they lived next door to us on the screen, the directors provided a welcome foil to the impossible oomph and plasticky feel of the average potboiler.

Chatterjee’s stories were drawn from the economic class to which he belonged. In his films, this version of middle India emerged as sometimes crooked, often funny, but always hopeful. Mumbai, the city with a seething middle class, churned out some of the most ordinary-special stories and faces.

Chatterjee made a star out of Amol Palekar, who grew up in Mumbai’s Shivaji Park neighbourhood and cut his teeth in the theatre scene. The ’70s were dominated by Amitabh Bachchan’s volcanic Angry Young Man persona, but the decade was also known for Palekar’s slim, medium-statured and mild-mannered hero.

Perhaps no movie reflects Chatterjee’s affection for Mumbai as Chhoti Si Baat. The Jehangir Art Gallery with its now-shuttered Samovar Cafe, Flora restaurant in Worli, Marine Drive, Hutatma Chowk and Express Towers serve as locations for a charming romance.

Amol Palekar and Vidya Sinha in Chhoti Si Baat (1976). Courtesy BR Films.

That movie, more than any other, captures Mumbai’s can-do, never-say-die spirit. Love triangles get evened out to conventional dyads. Obstacles are easier to navigate than potholes. In this megapolis, love survives – and thrives. “Chicken ala poos” is the dish to order in a restaurant. The Jackson Tolaram company, which has a long tradition of inter-office relationships, sounds like a great place to be employed.

Mumbai is tough but tender. In Chatterjee’s eyes, Mumbai earns its urbs prima status. Whenever the city suffers a setback due to the fury of nature or the inefficiency of humans, Basu Chatterjee’s gossamer tales remind us to slow it down, laugh a bit, and let the love out.

Also read:

Basu Chatterjee (1927-2020): 12 slice-of-life films served with love and humour

Book versus movie: Revisiting ‘Yehi Sach Hai’, the short story that inspired ‘Rajnigandha’

Book versus movie: Rajendra Yadav’s prose comes alive in Basu Chatterjee’s ‘Sara Akash’