Basuda, as he is fondly known, had formed an informal triumvirate with his peers Hrishikesh Mukherjee and Gulzar in the seventies and eighties. In those decades of multi-star cast, formula-driven films, they defied the trend with a homely ‘middle-of-the-road’ approach. After probing marital disillusionment in his sensitive debut film Sara Akash [Clear Skies], he took a charming detour with Rajnigandha and Chhoti Si Baat and a few years later turned so prolific that it prompted Hrishikesh Mukherjee to ask him to “take it easy” in an article he penned for, the now defunct film monthly, Star & Style.
Perhaps Basuda never read that article. He was, however, honest enough to admit that it was the lure of money that made him jump on the television bandwagon. His caricaturing ability [he was a cartoonist in the weekly tabloid Blitz] stood him in good stead. And that’s what made him doodle the character of Rajni. Rajni, interestingly, was initially designed on the lines of the popular American series Here’s Lucy!, a housewife who stumbled her way through problems, largely of her own making.
In 1984, the pilot episode was filmed with movie star Padmini Kolhapure playing Rajni. But when she was faced with the “horror of an episode a week”, she quit because it meant “too much time and work”!
Basuda had run into celebrated playwright Vijay Tendulkar’s daughter, Priya, at a party. But Priya’s rather strong demeanour did not blend with the image of the vivacious Lucy. Cinema’s other leading ladies, the winsome Moushumi Chatterjee or the spunky Amrita Singh, looked better suited to play her. So Basu did a volteface.
Political and social awareness lead to the birth of a character that was the by-product of consumerism. He then effected a ‘sex change’. The common man became the common woman, who picked up cudgels against a dysfunctional system. The irreverent Lucy was transformed into a social activist.
No public utility was spared. The postman, the gas cylinder agency with its delivery boys, the electrician, the telephone wireman all came in for severe castigation. The stricture on budgets made sets inaccessible. So Basuda quietly set up base in his screenwriter Ranjan Bose’s apartment, which gave the series its middle-class, lived-in texture. With rebellion hand-delivered at your door-step. The Indian Express published a full page ‘Letters to the Editor’ column, hailing the new social non-conformist and reformer. Television was being taken to heart. For Sunday morning viewers, Rajni was real. Came a time when Priya didn’t know what to make of her own popularity.
But others lapped up the idea. Theatre director Dinesh Thakur prudently bought the rights of Vijay Tendulkar’s play Anji, the tragicomedy of a lady’s journey, and promptly cast Priya in it. The writing lent itself to an arresting choreography on stage and I found myself playing a philandering Prabhudayal, who leched after Anji. My docile Chintamani of Ados Pados and Priya’s fiery Rajni were the two images we were fighting to erase.
Another profitable fallout for Priya was the increasing number of commercials she was approached for. Basuda himself helmed two of those. “I shot for two or three days for each advertisement, when the trend was to be at it for nearly ten days to make it look like a lot of work. The agencies felt I wasn’t doing justice to their films. They stopped giving me jobs after that!”
Darpan [The Mirror] was the first series of short stories that aired on the prime Sunday morning slot. In fact, it was telecast back-to-back with Rajni for a full year.
Many years and three shows [Kakaji Kahein, a popular political satire with Om Puri, Byomkesh Bakshi with Rajit Kapur playing the quintessential Bengali detective and Humaari Shaadi, a television feature] later, Basuda revisited the short story culture. Ek Prem Katha, based on love stories from literature, however found no sponsors on Doordarshan’s slots. Basuda discovered to his chagrin that the sombre days of Darpan were over. Dazzled by a new trend of glitz and pace, the channel heads dubbed it “slow” and relegated it to a non prime-time slot. The director had to fight for better sense to prevail and bring the show back on the main network. Chatterjee realised that it would take more than a Rajni tirade to set such anomalies right.
Excerpted with permission from Once Upon a Prime Time, Ananth Mahadevan, Embassy Books.