By Asjad Nazir.
The born Maverick.
FILMMAKING LEGEND MAHESH BHATT ON HIS JOURNEY IN CINEMA AND REIGNITING THE LOVE FOR DIRECTING.
HE MIGHT have recently turned 70-years-old, but Mahesh Bhatt still has a burning passion for cinema and an inner fire that burns brightly.
When Eastern Eye went to catch up with him at his offices in Mumbai, he was in the middle of planning his next project with talented young writers. This unwavering dedication to work is why he hasn’t had time to look back on his remarkable achievements.
“I am engaged with the stream of life, so I don’t have that space to stop and reflect,” said Mahesh Bhatt with a smile.
The first thing that becomes apparent is how he speaks philosophically and with a heartfelt passion. A driving factor has been a rebellious streak stretching back to his childhood, where he had a very close bond with his late mother, who was always concerned about him, but could also see he had a special quality.
The born maverick confesses he wasn’t a good student and stumbled through a school life attempting to teach him things that had no relevance to the kind of life he wanted to live.
“I had that stubborn, obsessive, trait of not fitting in. I just couldn’t fit in, I would continuously be at loggerheads with the paths prescribed to me and that was a temperament that I had. I tried my best to force myself to fit in, but was a complete misfit,” he says laughing.
Although Bhatt wasn’t a good student, the youngster developed an ability to tell stories early on and this led him towards a career in filmmaking. He jumped headfirst into the cinematic stream and taught himself how to swim.
After a slow start, he fought hard and finally made a place for himself with the hit blockbuster Arth. “Somehow I kept myself from drowning and stayed afloat until Arth happened. That started a new journey of mine.”
The award-winning 1982 drama about an extra-marital affair was based on Bhatt’s own life and showed the kind of honesty by a filmmaker that was not seen in commercial Hindi cinema.
That honesty made the filmmaker stand out from the crowd. It was not only reflected in cinema, but also with the frank way he admitted his own flaws and how openly he spoke about his own life including a troubled childhood, where his mother was like a protector to him in an unforgiving society.
“One thing that I do is perhaps teach through what has been written on my body. What I have lived has been etched on my body. I talk from there. My daughter Pooja, I am very proud of her, also speaks from there. She speaks what she has lived through,” he said.
Although Bhatt has always been honest, the legendary filmmaker admits he is not totally fearless and says with a glint in his eye. “Know that if I speak everything that I have in my mind, you will hang me on the street corner. I know you can only take this much from me. You can’t take everything that I say.”
Bhatt sees the world and structures around him very clearly, but has never allowed them to internally reign him in even when he didn’t agree with them. He is very connected to his art, but has always understood the idiom of Hindi cinema is to make money and that it is a business of entertainment. “The consumer is interested in an emotional experience or an intellectual insight. Some kind of a physical pleasure. So you can only make money for somebody else by giving the audience a good time.”
“So I am no different from a prostitute. A prostitute has to service her customer. So I am in the pleasure peddling business.”
He doesn’t think artists should be given a bogus superior position because according to him they are sensualists pandering to the senses like a prostitute would. “A prostitute panders to the senses and if she does it well, she has got a market value which is higher than her competitors. So how do I touch people through their senses via sound, sight and music? So I am in the stimulation business.”
Bhatt’s most recent film Jalebi featured newcomers in the cast and had debutante director Pushpdeep Bhardwaj, whom he describes as a true rebel who has come into the system with a revolutionary idea through a conformist route. This continues Bhatt’s incredible support of new talent, which stretches back decades.
There is a reason why he has perhaps backed more new talent than any other major filmmaker in Bollywood. “I think I get refreshed by new talent. They nourish me. They are thirsty, hungry and want to get somewhere. They are the voice of today and are contemporary. There is something I learn from them. They bring understandings from their own life.”
“I am continuously engaging with my profound sense of not knowing. What I know is enormous, but I also have a profound feeling of not knowing and that keeps me riveted to live.”
“I listen to these kids and they tell me something I wouldn’t be able to on my own discover because I am not struggling with the survival of the day-to-day the way they are. When you are struggling to make a living, you have that survival instinct that makes you unique.”
Young talent energising him helped reignite a passion for directing again after two decades. Bhatt had quit directing 20 years after a successful career to concentrate on writing and producing, but is now making a return with Sadak 2. The sequel to his 1991 hit film stars Sanjay Dutt, Pooja Bhatt, Alia Bhatt and Aditya Roy Kapur. “One day I discovered that a desire to make movies was extinct in me. It withered in me and I used to hate the idea of going onto a film set. Zakhm was the last relevant work that came out of my being and also after the demise of my mother, who I owe everything to, I found that there was nothing in me.”
“I did something fantastic after that which was scouting for young people – talent, writers, directors, actors. I enjoyed working with them and fanning their potential to see them reach their own peaks. Then one day, Sanjay Dutt came with this deep thirst to make Sadak 2.”
A screenplay writer for Sadak 2 was hired, but was unable to deliver something worth backing. Just when it looked like the project wouldn’t happen, Sanjay Dutt was jailed for a few years and once he was freed, reminded Bhatt of the actor who had returned after his drug experience in USA and made a name with his film Naam. “He was reaching out like one of my own to find a new lease of life.”
So Bhatt’s young team set out to create a story that could continue the Sadak franchise. The result was a story good enough to ignite a passion within Bhatt. The story was narrated to Sanjay Dutt and Pooja Bhatt, the stars of the original Sadak, who felt it had tremendous potential to be made into a film. “Then Sanjay asked the mother of all questions. Who will direct it?”
“He said, if you don’t find a good director to translate the vision, you might as well nip it in the bud. He was saying things as they are and I understood. So I said Pooja why don’t you direct, I will be there. She said I will not do it and won’t take credit for it. She is too self-respecting and too honest to play that game.”
Then Bhatt’s younger daughter Alia Bhatt came into the picture. The story was narrated to the rapidly rising superstar and she too loved it. “I would be the last person to jeopardise her flourishing career with some kind of a dud narrative I might have come up with and she does not owe it to me to prove her love by saying yes to a film. So I narrated it, she loved it and cried.”
The enthusiasm of Alia kindled new fires within the production house and she also wanted to know who the director of Sadak 2 would be. As the discussions progressed, Bhatt found the fire within him again to direct. “As they say autumn is another spring, I have just turned 70 and I enter the wisdom years,” he said smiling.
A filmmaker who had been nurturing new talent finally reconnected with the director that was inside him during a promotional photo shoot, where he started directing everyone. Letting go of any fears to direct also reconnected him to childhood trips with his mother and the youngster who was so carefree, not cautious, worried, competitive or blinkered.
“I discovered another entity was suddenly, surfaced from the subterranean region of my heart and body, and that guy astounded me. I said where was this fellow. He was somewhere in me. He is now leading the narrative of Sadak, holding it by its hand and taking it where he wants to. As I keep saying, I was an unfinished painting. Sadak 2 will finish that painting.”
Sadak 2 will be released on November 15, 2019. Bhatt has surrendered himself to the new plan life has in store for him and isn’t thinking beyond Sadak 2.
The passion is now burning brightly and as the filmmaker says he is responding to life. “I’ve lived for so many years in this business and have I really told the story that my heart longs to say. Not quite, I’ve not really sung my song so maybe Sadak 2 is that song.”