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Mahesh Bhatt | The first and last word

LiveMint logoLiveMint 09-05-2014 Nandini Ramnath

Hansal Mehta’s Citylights has its publicity machinery in place, but the forthcoming release’s most effective publicist is its garrulous, charismatic, gnomic, canny, contradictory, contrarian, grandiloquent, self-regarding and occasionally self-loathing creative producer.

Mahesh Bhatt, one half along with sibling Mukesh of Vishesh Films, which has co-produced the film along with Fox Star Studios, is holding forth and court at his office in suburban Mumbai. An official remake of the Filipino drama Metro Manila, Citylights traces the hardscrabble journey of a couple from Rajasthan to Mumbai. Starring Rajkummar Rao and Patralekha, Citylights is the kind of gritty movie that’s more likely to be rolled out by an independent company. Instead, Citylights has been developed by Fox Star Studios along with Vishesh Films as a part of a long-term co-production deal, which has so far resulted in sequels like Raaz 3 and Murder 3. Is Vishesh Films finally acknowledging, as have other family banners, that movies with dark and edgy themes have enough commercial pull to take on the fluffy romances and macho action flicks that dominate the marquee?

Hold that thought—Vishesh Films is not going to jettison its identity as a local purveyor of sensational subjects. “Two streams can flow parallel—the upcoming Mr X is our tent-pole 3D film, but the others are low-budgeted and large-hearted tadpoles,” Bhatt says. “Only if Citylights succeeds will I feel that I have earned the right to ask for investment for another film belonging to this space.”

A still from ‘Citylights’The 64-year-old film-maker describes the pragmatic experiment as a throwback to his own dark and edgy days, which produced such well-regarded films as Saaransh, Arth, Naam and Zakhm. “A section of our office says we should not make such films—there is an aversion to anything that doesn’t pander to your pleasure quotient,” Bhatt says. “Noir, erotic films, crime thrillers, they have made us what we are. There was a disagreement between me and my brother, since I had said that after Zakhm, I will not make films that get respect and awards but also lead to economic hardship. But there is a constituency that clamours for the kind of cinema I used to make. If we don’t deconstruct this outfit and give it a fresh, idealistic kind of thinking, we will die of slow suffocation.”

He adds, for good measure, “I love creative destruction.”

It’s hard for any publicist to come up with that kind of spiel.

Bhatt has been spinning out statements about cinema and pretty much everything else for most of his professional life. His film-making approach, in which private angst is mined for public consumption, predates the likes of Anurag Kashyap by a few decades. The second-generation film-maker, whose father Nanabhai Bhatt produced mythologicals and stunt films in the 1940s-80s, made his debut with Manzilein Aur Bhi Hain in 1974. The two marriages of the senior Bhatt (Mahesh and Mukesh were born to the second wife), his rocky marriage to childhood sweetheart Kiran, his extramarital affair with Parveen Babi, his alcoholism, his spiritual awakening after becoming a follower of U.G. Krishnamurti and his second marriage to Soni Razdan have been put on the screen in one way or another. When Bhatt was good, he could be very good—some of his early films have the honesty, rawness and harsh truths of confessional cinema—but when he started directing films over the telephone in the 1990s and delegating whole portions to his assistants, he could be quite bad.

Bhatt has a ready explanation for the turbulence, which extracted its price but also created a lasting persona of a fearless and troubled soul unafraid to bare his sores. “My traumatic encounter with some blood truths of life, the end of a fairy-tale romance, and an extramarital relationship, all jolted me,” he says. “I suddenly grew up”.

It’s entirely possible that “you are what you hide, and not what you reveal”, in Bhatt’s words, but he has revealed more than he has hidden, particularly about l’affaire Parveen Babi, whose mental breakdown was captured in painful detail in Arth and Woh Lamhe and numerous interviews. Has Bhatt milked his association with Babi, who died in 2005 after struggling with schizophrenia, to the last drop? “That was the defining tragedy of my life,” he retorts. “People play Peeping Tom and eavesdrop on all that we do, but when I do it with a flourish, you call me an exhibitionist.”

There will be more revelations in his forthcoming memoir, which he calls the “memory of a storyteller”. It will contain his observations on the movie business from an insider’s perspective. “The memories I have of people like Dilip Kumar, for instance, are far more humane and will give you another dimension of the man that you can’t get from googling,” he says.

Until the memoir, interviews with Bhatt will have to do. “I used to stand outside offices and hate it,” he says about his early years in the wilderness. “When I made it, I created a space for myself to subvert. But with success comes smugness, a bogus sense of infallibility. I became a remote control director, and was totally disinterested after Arth, Saaransh, Janam and Naam. I had succeeded backwards, and something in me was putrefying. Films like The Gentleman and Duplicate all came out of this phase. I gave up alcohol and became a workaholic instead. But it’s more lethal than other kinds of addictions—it has only respectability. The whole quest for respectability is the source of all problems.”

"Erotic films have made us what we are. If we don’t deconstruct this outfit, we will die of suffocation."He was stung deep by the critical success but commercial failure of Zakhm, his semi-autobiographical movie made in 1998 about a musician’s relationship with his Muslim mother and Hindu father. Bhatt stopped directing after Zakhm, and went about creating the banner that has challenged the idea of “respectable cinema”.

Vishesh Films, which took shape with the soft-core horror film Raaz in 2002, is characterized by low-budget and high-return productions (many of them international cinema knock-offs) featuring fresh talent or second-rung actors, tabloid-worthy themes and chart-topping music. The formula has mostly worked from Raaz through Murder and Jannat all the way till last year’s sleeper hit Aashiqui 2. Vishesh Films is neatly split down the middle: Mukesh is the moneybags, while Mahesh is the creative producer, scripting partner, and self-proclaimed ideologue. “Mukesh understands money and marketing,” Mahesh says. “He gives structure to my irreverence. The reason the banner survives is its ability to reinvent itself, which comes from my willingness to deconstruct myself at every stage of my life.”

Even his near and dear ones are not spared the deconstruction—he has words of caution for his younger daughter, Alia. Only three films old, the 21-year-old is being held up as a superstar, capable of pouting her way through Student Of The Year and mining emotional depths in Highway. Her father is proud of but also pragmatic about her success. He says, “I keep telling Alia that before the world cons you into believing that you are God’s gift to mankind, go and watch Cate Blanchett. She says, ‘papa, don’t’.”

It’s time to reconsider the “economy of desire” of which younger actors like Alia are direct beneficiaries, Bhatt says. Citylights, in which Rajkummar Rao plays a security guard and Patralekha a bar dancer, is a classic tale of poor migrants being dehumanized by Mumbai’s wicked ways. Bhatt claims that Citylights reminds him of the kind of movie he used to make. Wouldn’t it be simpler to just make a movie himself? “I am not going to direct a film for the love of money,” he declares. “It is finished, it is over. I am not a tired man, but the ideas that course through my heart and mind cannot be packaged in the idiom of Bollywood.” For that, there are press interactions, pre-release promotions, the threatened memoir and the promise of future reinvention, all of which make Mahesh Bhatt a special entity in an industry in which image is everything.

Citylights releases in theatres on 30 May.

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