The variegated era of 70s Hindi cinema produced among its other notable fictions the comedies of manners that fondly and at the same time wryly examined sub continental bourgeois traditions. The master proponent of this genre was of course Hrishikesh Mukherjee who in films like Guddi, Bawarchi, Chupke Chupke, Khubsoorat and most notably Golmaal (and even in some of his serious movies) epitomized this genre. The other somewhat lesser talent who often worked in the same vein in films like Rajnigandha, Safed Jhoot, Chhoti Si Baat and Manzil was Basu Chatterjee. Any one of these films could very easily reward a detailed analysis. But randomly (and partly because I have just revisited it) I will try to walk through the maze of delights that is Chhoti Si Baat.
Arun (Amol Palekar) works at the firm of Jackson Tolaram and in the very same building though on a different floor works Prabha (Vidya Sinha) in Frank Lloyd. Both Arun and Prabha catch the same bus from the same bus stop every day to work and get separated only when they actually reach the work premises. Arun is in love with Prabha and it is something of a ritual with him to stare at her and follow her, alternately and at the same time if possible. Prabha is aware of Arun´s attentions and is more than flattered by them. Arun however is never even able to strike up a conversation with Prabha let alone express an interest in her. He is simply happy to daydream about her and continue his ultimately frustrating daily exercise.
To shatter Arun´s peace there enters into his idyllic world the very flamboyant, the very self-centered Nagesh (Asrani) who is an acquaintance of Prabha´s and in fact works at the very same office. These rivals then battle it out everyday with Nagesh inevitably winning out because of his street-smart attitude and superior skills in just about every walk of life. Totally frazzled and despondent, Arun starts consulting all sorts of astrologers and palmists and suchlike and finally lands into the arms of the very wise and jovial Colonel Julius Winnifred Singh (Ashok Kumar). The Colonel teaches Arun the tricks of the trade and Arun after a sabbatical of sorts returns to the environs of Bombay and wins both love and a stronger self.
Basu Chatterjee is a master of naturalistic detail. Whether it is the frenzy of the daily commutes or the soporific ambience of typical sub continental offices the director captures both with equal ease. He has a fine eye for the rhythms of city life, and uses equally well the sights and the sounds of Bombay. And this ability of the directors extends to his characters who are all perfectly suited to occupy positions on his canvas. Then there is Chatterjee´s exquisite sense of detail. Like any good director his eye misses very little that has to do with his subject and these nuances flesh out his film in marvelous ways. There is justifiably some claim to realism here and realism has never delighted more.
Amol Palekar does a very fine job with his role and represents perfectly the ordinariness of his character. In the first half of the film he is simply meek and it is a pleasure to watch him following his love, getting embarrassed when she spots him, being spoken to roughly by even his juniors at work, being totally out of his league in the threesome that he forms with his love and his rival. In the second half after he has undergone training with Colonel Singh the character acquires a great deal of confidence and again Amol Palekar is proficient at establishing the sense of ´play´ that the character brings to the second half. Arun evolves as the film progresses but his basic sense of self is never undermined. He plays a part more than he becomes it and Palekar establishes this subtlety with great virtuosity. The other acting honors in the film belong to Asrani who is simply magnificent in the role of a brash, superficial but ultimately well-meaning individual. Looking at Asrani in this film and in some of the other films he did in the same decade (like Guddi) one can only lament the degeneration of Asrani´s fine comic talents into uninteresting buffoonery as the years advanced. Ashok Kumar as always provides able support and is unsurprisingly lovable playing the part that had by this time become second nature to him. Vidya Sinha though not a great acting talent fits her role perfectly. The cameos in the film are all equally well etched and well acted.
The other feature of this film that deserves mention is Salil Chowdhry´s music and more specifically the tunes ´Jaaneman Jaaneman´ and ´Na Jane Kyon´. The hope and absurdity of the various situations in this film are abundantly present in these songs.
It is no small irony that with so much ´chatter´ all around it is precisely the simplest, the essential line or two that Arun is never able to give tongue to. For there is noise aplenty but this serves to block what could perhaps be meaningful sound. And yet such noise defines such a city. The director takes us through the elements of middle-class sociality understanding that even if well intentioned the framework is often hypocritical and empty. He certainly has affection for his characters and the world they emerge from even if he often finds their situations ironic. But the bourgeois he looks at was still a rather innocent one and not yet seduced by the globalization trends that were more or less around the corner. This is one of the chief reasons why with the dawn of the 80s and with the larger than life cinema that then became prevalent this brand of cinema lost its potency. Basu Chatterjee continued to make movies but these are far removed from his 70s achievements. A film like Chhoti Si Baat however is a permanent achievement and in the age of Kuch Kuch Hota Hai survives as a rather prophetic reminder of the world around the bend. Jackson Tolaram is a nice symbol for the colonial-local mix that in a remarkable permutation finds its apogee in present day India.