There’s a scene in Chhoti Si Baat when Arun (Amol Palekar) trudges wearily but determinedly up a hill in Khandala, wades through an ankle-deep stream and then trudges further uphill – all to meet a man who he believes will coach him in the ways of romance and the world so he can gather the courage to tell Prabha (Vidya Sinha) that he loves her, and hopefully, she will reciprocate.
It was a strange thing to be watching this scene while idly flicking through Bumble, swiping left on almost every profile, but not keen to delete the app – because options. On the one hand is a person taking a month off work to go and try to become a worthy and confident lover, and on the other is a generation of bored, jaded cynics who can barely find one person interesting enough to have dinner with.
This, then, is what makes Basu Chatterjee’s lovely 1976 film relevant even today: it’s not just a rom com, but a paean to a time when love and dating meant effort and time and not giving up.
When Bombay had a starring role to play
The film opens with an introduction to Jackson Tolaram, the company where Arun is a Grade 2 supervisor whom literally no one even notices, except to bully. But it is also an introduction to the city of what was then Bombay, with footage of its iconic old bungalows and bustling chawls, its busy professional class and its cosmopolitan makeup – the management of the company includes a Parsi, a Malayali and a Gujarati.
Arun waits every morning for the 9:05 BEST bus so he can try to sit next to Prabha (someone else always gets there first) and then follow to her office (in the process always getting late to his own), even though he never actually says a word to her because he is so painfully shy. If it was anyone else, the daily stalking would be creepy and, well, stalking, but first, Amol Palekar plays Arun with such sweet naivete that it becomes, while not charming, not disgusting either. And second and more importantly, we are shown early on that Prabha actually enjoys the attention and seems to like him back. She, in fact, takes the initiative to go to his office on the pretext of some paperwork, and so their tentative friendship begins.
Meanwhile, Prabha’s colleague Nagesh (Asrani) returns from his travels and messes things up for Arun by being everything he’s not – brash, arrogant, confident and a smooth talker. Nagesh also has a scooter, and offers Prabha a ride every day, making sure that she doesn’t spend as much time with Arun.
What follows is a proper Bombay rom com – lunch dates at the city’s iconic restaurants like Flora and Samovar where Nagesh and Arun compete for Prabha’s attention, imagined coffee dates at the Gateway of India and walks through the bylanes of Bandra and Khar.
Arun and Prabha live on their own and in fact, neither of their families are introduced or even mentioned – something that makes one think this is a movie that could only have been made in Bombay, a city long known as the one that welcomed young professionals from all over and encouraged independent living. There’s even that trip to Khandala, which is where, actually, things get a bit sticky.
The idea of ‘how to get a girl’ is problematic
When Arun sees that his frankly weak efforts to win Prabha’s affections are not going anywhere, he takes to visiting palmists and godmen, eventually ending up in Khandala, where, he has heard, a retired colonel gives people lessons on how to overcome their specific problems.
Colonel Julius Nagendranath Wilfred Singh (Ashok Kumar) didn’t get the girl he loved in his youth, and has made it his mission to not allow this to happen to other young and in-love fools. So he will teach Arun not only how to be confident when talking to Prabha, but also other skills like how to eat with chopsticks and how to beat Nagesh at table tennis using wiles instead of talent.
The colonel comes across as a sweet, avuncular chap but his methods are incredibly creepy. He has two female assistants who stand in for Prabha during role play, and the idea is to teach Arun how to lure Prabha into his bedroom (by burning her sari ‘accidentally’ so she has to take it off; he will, conveniently, have a spare sari in his room for her, but by then, the idea is that he will have made his move).
Thankfully, when the time comes, Arun decides not to go through with this horrendous plan, and sticks to telling Prabha the plain and simple truth – that he’s in love with her. It works like a charm.
Gossamer-thin, but full of sweetness and fun
At just under two hours, Chhoti Si Baat is far from a drag. In fact, thanks to Chatterjee’s smart direction and some lovely writing (Chatterjee and Sharad Joshi), a gossamer-thin plot fills in the running length just perfectly, with a few well-placed songs (Salil Chowdhury) to take the story forward.
When Arun is fantasising about Prabha while watching a movie, Jaaneman Jaaneman Tere Do Nayan cleverly plays on the screen in front of him, with Dharmendra and Hema Malini frolicking about in a guest appearance. (Another surprise cameo is by Amitabh Bachchan, who turns up at the colonel’s house to take his advice on a crucial matter.)
And later, when Arun has gone to Khandala for a month, Prabha’s real feelings for him are revealed in the beautiful title song, also called Na Jaane Kyun.
Vidya Sinha’s luminous eyes and simple cotton and chiffon saris, Amol Palekar’s sweet, shy smile and his Arun’s earnest efforts to win over Prabha (including buying a motorcycle to impress her, except it turns out to be a dud), Asrani’s comic timing, gorgeous melodies and Bombay’s many charms make this the perfect movie to watch in the week of Vidya Sinha and Salil Chowdhury’s birth anniversaries.