Chhoti Si Baat — How Simple Stories Become Effective
Love stories are often based on a very basic trope: boy meets girl, then another boy meets her. What happens after is simply answering the question who gets the girl. On such beguilingly simple formula, many good, bad, and ugly films are built. Basu Chatterjee’s 1973’s classic “Chhoti Si Baat” (Just a Small Thing) carved out its own niche in this genre. This wafer-thin storyline is put into a neat and clean entertainer targeted at the urban middle-class Indians; who liked their romances soft, gentle, and cheerful.
During the 1970s and ’80s, Hindi film industry and Indian public saw the rise of “the angry young man” on-screen and an entire generation of disillusioned youth lapped up and grew on films celebrating this persona. But at the same time, there was a counter-current of a soft middle-class romantic man idolised in the parallel cinema. This movie celebrates one such everyman, who isn’t fighting goons; in fact, he is so timid that cannot even express his feelings to his ladylove. When a man more confident than him tries to woo the girl he loves, how our timid hero transforms himself to win her over is what the story consists.
Amol Palekar, if you did not know already, is the OG of such simple, shy characters popularised in 70’s parallel cinema. Here, as Arun, he is an epitome of an awkward, likeable simpleton. Palekar portrays him with mannerisms and quirks so well that the audience and the heroine cannot help but fall in love with him. Vidya Sinha as Prabha is a natural on screen and her chiffon sarees, hoop earrings, and curls are a visual delight. With a magnificent smile which will besot anyone, she teases the hero, chides him wordlessly for stalking her, leads him on once she realises he is a good guy but plays coy when it comes to expressing it. And all these shades are portrayed with equal panache. Asrani as a smart yet boastful antagonist, completely opposite in personality from the hero vying for the heroine’s attention is a riot to watch. And Ashok Kumar as Colonel Julius Nagendranath Wilfred Singh who is a love guru cum personality development coach is very charming. All characters are essayed with easy flair and confidence which make them seem real.
Then there are cameos plenty. Dharmendra and Hema Malini are a delight as an onscreen couple in a movie within a movie song sequence for “Janeman janeman”. Amitabh Bachchan as himself is seen seeking help from Colonel rooting the movie in reality of the ’70s. Rajendranath as a con godman dupes our hero in one of the most hilarious scenes of the film.
The story is simple but Basu Chatterjee and Sharad Joshi who wrote the dialogues and the screenplay respectively have a done a good job of avoiding seemingly misogynistic parts in it. For example, Arun stalks Prabha only because he wants to talk to her and not out of entitlement that she is his property. This is shown when Prabha turns around and confronts him about it, he not only runs away but changes his way of approaching her. Even one of the tricks that Colonel teaches him — the final move which will gain him Prabha; Arun does not use it because he realises it is not a good move. So by inserting these changes in a conventional narrative, the story doesn’t slip into a banal stereotype. The only major grouse then is that we see it majorly from Arun’s point of view. This too is because when the director tries to see things from Prabha’s point-of-view in the song “Na jaane kyun” the movie becomes more soft and relatable. So more of her point of view would have been good to explore.
The major winner though is K.K. Mahajan’s cinematography and it will make you visit this film again and again. Pre-congestion Bombay was a city of many delights and the moving lens captures everyday magic of it in such intricate details; it is almost like an ode to the city. There are so many scenes and things that nostalgia seekers will be able to smile at and their hearts will fill up with a mellow glow of remembered memories of a place gone by. Bombay is captured perfectly with its red double-decker buses, hand painted posters of Parichay and Zanjeer (both movies from the same production house) on fences, BEST buses and bus stops, yellow scooters and white Ambassador cars, landline phones and Remington typewriters. The emerging salaried population with Parsee company owners, Gujarati accountants, Bandra-Christian receptionists, and Maharashtrian clerks and peons showcase the metropolitan nature of the city. Then people — meeting on a bus stands, walking to offices in the Fort area, eating out at Cafe Samovar, Pomposh and other city restaurants, visiting Jahangir Art gallery and the Marine drive, playing friendly table tennis matches at clubs and listening to live cricket commentary on a transistor — hark to a life lived in simple details. Not just Mumbai but Khandala as well, where the hero goes to seek his mentor is captured in all its ethereal cool beauty. The picaresque trail, Colonel’s colonial bungalow with a plush interior, the clubhouse — all have a shine of periodic accuracy and nostalgia.
Salilda’s lightly orchestrated score melts into the scenes and picturisation of songs subtly elevates the film. The film will in parts make you laugh, in parts make you smile; but overall will reaffirm your belief in the power of simplicity and make you fall in love with Bombay all over again. This trip down the memory lane to an era which had beauty in simplicity is just too fine to not partake in.