छोटी सी बात
Dir. Basu Chatterjee
Don't ever let anyone tell you, as one of my guides in India claimed, that all Hindi movies are the same. We know better. They are not all bombast and melodrama, improbable dance numbers and dishum-dishum. Not that there's anything wrong with that! But there has long been a place in Hindi cinema for sweet stories adorably and delicately told. Taking pride of place alongside charming gems like Chashme buddoor and Katha is Basu Chatterjee's lovable, scrumptious, and hilarious Chhoti si baat ("a little thing"), truly one of the cutest, most delightful Hindi movies I have ever had the pleasure to see.
Arun (Amol Palekar) is a mild, bashful accountant with an all-consuming crush on Prabha (Vidya Sinha), a woman who works in a nearby office building and takes the same bus as Arun to work. Arun can't bring himself to speak to Prabha, but his adoring gaze on the bus - and his habit of following her all the way home - tips his feelings to Prabha. She indulges him, and even seems rather to like him - but she can't resist teasing him a little, too. Soon, though, a rival arrives on a shiny yellow scooter and forces Arun's hand - the breezy, confident Nagesh (Asrani), a lawyer in Prabha's office who takes an obvious shine to her and leaves Arun in the dust. Desperate, Arun turns to a famous fixer, retired Colonel Julius Nagendranath Wilfred Singh (Ashok Kumar), who dishes out advice to everyone from lovelorn office workers to superstars like Amitabh Bachchan. The Colonel takes a fatherly interest in Arun's case, and gives him a month-long crash course in suavity and confidence. But it remains to be seen whether following the Colonel's sometimes questionable guidance will do the job to help Arun turn the tables on Nagesh, and win him Prabha.
If I weren't already firmly on the Amol Palekar train after Golmaal, Chhoti si baat would certainly have done the trick. The guy is flat adorable. From his first appearance minutes into the movie, with his sweet anxious demeanor and nervous smile, I was grinning like a dope and didn't stop until long after it was over. He renders Arun's docile sweetness just perfectly, and is a complete delight to watch - and to root for - as he stumbles through his courtship of Prabha. Palekar brings a charming physicality to this role, adjusting his posture and mannerisms almost continuously as his confidence grows and wanes and grows again. And Arun's Walter-Mittyish fantasies add to his charm and make him thoroughly relatable to a daydreamer like me. In one fantastic sequence Arun, in a cinema hall, watches a song featuring Dharmendra and Hema Malini. He squirms jealously in his seat as Hema morphs into Prabha in Dharmendra's arms - and then relaxes into a contented smile as the image of Arun takes Dharmendra's place.
Vidya Sinha brings her share of adorable to the show, too - Prabha sports a magnificent smile (not to mention a vast collection of fabulous sarees), and it's not difficult to see how Arun could be utterly besotted by her. Especially charming are the scenes where she recounts Arun's fumbling attempts at stalking and courtship to her coworker (Nandita Thakur), who cracks slightly racy jokes as the clearly smitten Prabha blushes. Indeed, most wonderfully portrayed is that Prabha actually likes Arun, right from the very beginning, and is fairly unwavering in that - Nagesh's smooth talk and slick scooter may seem a threat to Arun, but the audience is in on the secret that as far as Prabha is concerned, it's Arun all the way.
The best treat of all, though, is Ashok Kumar, who is simply hilarious as the avuncular Colonel Julius Nagendranath Wilfred Singh (I never tire of that name, and neither does the movie). I chronicled my ever-growing appreciation for Ashok Kumar when I recently wrote about Ek saal - it's hard to imagine a more different role from that of the Colonel, but here he is just a riot. He spews an endless stream of advice that is somewhere between platitudes and complete nonsense, and then chides Arun for answering "yes" when the Colonel asks "samjhe?" "Khak samjhe!" the Colonel spits, "main khud nahin samjha maine kya kaha!" ("Like hell you understand! I myself don't even understand what I said.") And as humorously and broadly-drawn as he is, the tenderness with which the Colonel realizes, toward the end of the film, that he might have steered Arun wrong is genuinely touching.
Chhoti si baat offers some visual treats too, including a fun hillside trek through Khandala. And, of course, there are marvelous street scenes of Bombay that made me long for more time there, after my very abbreviated visit a few months ago. These are crowned by this wonderful sparkly poster for an Amitabh and Saira Banu film that adorns the bus stop where Arun and Prabha meet:
Among Chhoti si baat's pleasures are a number of cameos, including a hilarious appearance by Rajendranath as a fake sadhu who pulls out a lemon out of his rear with a ridiculous "look what I did!" grin, bilks Arun out of a tidy sum, and steals his pen to boot. I first saw Rajendranath in his riotously cute role in Tere ghar ke samne, and I laughed like a loon through his entire scene here.
What can I do besides gush? Chhoti si baat is a thoroughly delightful film, one I'll watch over and over again, and one that is available in reasonable quality with subtitles on YouTube. What are you waiting for?