Close your eyes and think of Rajesh Khanna, and you’ll see him frenetically dancing around a garden with Nanda and singing Gulabi Aankhen Jo Teri Dekhi in The Train, serenading Sharmila Tagore with Mere Sapnon Ki Rani in Aradhana or crooning Yeh Shaam Mastani to Asha Parekh in Kati Patang. Even in his quieter, less flamboyant avatar, he’d be taking Sharmila out for a boat ride on the Hooghly and the two would sink into each other’s company to the melancholy strains of Chingaari Koi Bhadke in Amar Prem.
No matter what he did, Rajesh Khanna practically defined the larger-than-life romantic hero. And in real life, he was Hindi cinema’s first legit superstar, with, as is by now well known, women sending him love letters written in their blood and marrying his photographs. Even when he was supposed to play a dying man in Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Anand, he did it with what we might today call swagger.
But it was another Hrishikesh Mukherjee movie that actually broke that mould and made Rajesh Khanna accessible, human, relatable. That movie was Bawarchi.
The 1972 comedy-drama is now, of course, seen as vintage Hrishikesh Mukherjee for its portrayal of the middle-class family, its dynamic and dreams, its trials and tribulations. But it came on the heels of Khanna having just delivered a historic 17 hits in a row between 1969 and 1971, of which 15 starred him as the solo hero. So for Mukherjee to cast him in the role of a family cook, one who has no romantic relationship and who mostly even stays in the same outfit, was unthinkable.
But then, this was Hrishikesh Mukherjee, who was famous for doing things his way and brooked no starry tantrums. In fact, Bawarchi doesn’t even feature any fancy opening or end credits per se — the cast and crew are introduced, stage-style, by none other than Amitabh Bachchan, the narrator of the film. And that’s just one example of how this film is so unique, even though it tells a story so utterly universal and regular.
In the week of Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s death anniversary, a look back at Bawarchi.
The cook who served up love
The movie opens with Bachchan saying that this story is set anywhere in India. He then introduces the Sharmas, who live in Shanti Niwas — their family home that should, as one of them jokes, actually be called Ashanti Niwas, given the amount of chaos and squabbling that takes place within its confines on a daily basis.
Shiv Nath Sharma (Harindranath Chattopadhyay) is Daduji, the patriarch of the clan, which includes his three sons, Ram Nath (AK Hangal), Kashi Nath (Kali Banerjee) and Vishwa Nath or Babbu (Asrani). Ram Nath and his wife Seeta (Durga Khote) have a college-going daughter, Meeta, while Kashi and his wife Shobha (Usha Kiran) have a young son, Pintu.
Shiv Nath’s fourth son and his wife died in an accident, leaving behind their daughter, Krishna (Jaya Bhaduri), who is, in many ways, the glue that holds this constantly bickering family together, even though she doesn’t get nearly enough love of her own and is treated as unpaid domestic staff instead of the college student she is — her aunts routinely interrupts her tuition time so she can go wash their clothes, or makes her late for class by sticking her with the task of waking Meeta up and making sure she drinks her Ovaltine.
No domestic staff actually sticks on at the house for long because they all find it too stressful — what we, in today’s parlance, might call a toxic workplace.
Enter Raghu (Rajesh Khanna), a cheery do-gooder type who comes to Shanti Niwas ostensibly in search of a job as a cook, but ends up becoming much more than that. With his ready smile and kind eyes, along with his kitchen chops and his knowledge of everything from Sanskrit to classical dance to singing, he knocks the socks off the Sharma clan. He provides mixers and bar snacks to Ram Nath, who drinks by himself every evening, and later, offers him the emotional support he needs to give it up. He washes and irons clothes and doesn’t let Seeta and Shobha within an inch of the kitchen, so they get some rest.
Even Babbu, a perpetually plagiarising assistant to music directors Rajnikant-Nyarelal (an obvious dig at Laxmikant-Pyarelal), who is suspicious that someone so obviously well-informed, if not formally educated, would take up the job of a cook, warms to Raghu when he realises his musical talent.
Through music (a great soundtrack courtesy Madan Mohan with lyrics by Kaifi Azmi), mandated family teatime and some well-placed white lies and homilies about love and togetherness to help them all appreciate one another, Raghu (who might come off a tad cloying and interfering if it weren’t for Rajesh Khanna’s innate charm) becomes indispensable to the Sharmas. Except he’s not quite who he says he is.
Things come to a head when Krishna’s boyfriend and tutor Arun is thrown out of the house by the aunts, who also beat Krishna, because they think she was getting too intimate with him. Soon after, Daduji’s box of precious jewellery that he keeps locked and under his bed goes missing, and so does Raghu.
Of course, things get sorted out and we find out exactly who Raghu is and why he came to the Sharmas, but truth be told, the resolution and conclusion are far too pat and far less satisfactory than the rest of the movie, which is a wonderfully warm, funny, bittersweet look at family and what that word really means.