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Not all those who wander are lost: A filmmaker’s conviction is vindicated

An independent filmmaker who failed miserably in mainstream Bollywood, Hansal Mehta found himself caught in an endless loop of disappointments. Tanul Thakur talks to the man who fought his way to a National Award.

TANUL THAKUR  10th May 2014

Hansal Mehta

hen Hansal Mehta was studying Computer Engineering at D.Y. Patil College of Engineering, making films didn't feature in his future plans. He wanted to "become the next Bill Gates". He floated a small start-up to develop computer software, but increasingly tired of raising money for his fledgling enterprise, and finally quit the IT industry altogether in 1993. "I decided I wanted to set up a production unit, so I sent a proposal to Zee TV for a food show," says Mehta. He began producing and directing the popular Khaana Khazaana for Zee TV soon after.

Mehta truly discovered the power of films for the first time at the International Film Festival of India in Mumbai, in 1994. "I watched Kieslowski's Three Colours and its images and sounds stayed with me." After one of the screenings, Mehta visited a "seedy, little bar in Colaba". He met a senior filmmaker there, who practically accosted him: "Are you from FTII?" Mehta hadn't attended any film school, let alone the hallowed one being mentioned. "Aren't you the guy who interviews people on film sets? What are you doing at a film festival?" Mehta didn't have a suitable rejoinder: "I felt insulted," says Mehta. "Then I thought I should be doing more with my life than just producing a food show."

He went on to write and direct a collection of short films called Love Stories, which aired on Zee TV in 1994-95. One of the episodes, Highway, got attention from people in the film fraternity. It also led Mehta to meet Anurag Kashyap, who wrote the screenplay of Mehta's first film, ...Jayate ...Jayate. Shot on a shoestring budget with new actors and technicians, it failed to find a theatrical release. Two years later, his film Dil Pe Mat Le Yaar found its way to the big screen, but it neither raked in the money nor received critical acclaim. He was even publicly defaced by the members of Shiv Sena; his face was blackened and he had to publicly apologise for one of the dialogues in the film. Dejected and humiliated, Mehta started slipping into depression.

Although Mehta's next film, Chhal, received better reviews than Dil Pe Mat Le Yaar, it worsened his financial troubles. He had to find a way out. "By this time, I had also become cynical of my earlier films," he explains. So Mehta decided to go mainstream. Yeh Kya Ho Raha Hai, a sloppy sex-comedy that tried hard to emulate the success of American Pie, was the first film whose distribution was not a cause for concern or stress. Produced by the Bawejas; money wasn't a problem. Mehta would feel discomfitted only after watching the film's first cut: "I thought, gadbad ho gayi," says Mehta. "The film was neither here nor there."

His next two films, Anjaan and Raakh, did not release. But Anjaan, in particular, saw Mehta at his most desperate. The film was an "erotic thriller", one that hoped to cash in on the success of others in the genre, like Anurag Basu's Murder and Pooja Bhatt's Jism. Mehta remembers these films sheepishly: "They were very mediocre," says Mehta. "But I made them to survive."

No filmmaker sets out to make a bad film. Mehta thought he could do something worthwhile, despite compromised choices. Besides, these films were just minor diversions: "I thought I would just make one such film and return. But I found myself caught in an endless loop."

he temptations didn't stop, and he continued to succumb. In 2005, he was appointed CEO of White Feather Films (Sanjay Gupta's production house). Mehta directed two films during his time here — a short story segment for Dus Kahaniyaan and Woodstock Villa. But he could really never own those films: "There was no exploration in those films. It was just camera going crazy,"Mehta recalls. "There was no internalisation of the story or conviction. I had to push myself to go to shoots. It had become like any other job." Meanwhile, Kashyap, one of Mehta's first collaborators, never failed to remind Mehta what he had become: "He used to tell me 'Aap toh bik gaye hain, sir. Kuch nahin ho sakta hai aapka.'"

In May 2008, after Woodstock Villa's preview screening, people came up to Mehta to congratulate him for making a "brilliant film". But Mehta knew what he had really made: "I remember telling myself 'Arre yaar, gadbad ho gayi.'" Mehta had become tired of catching up. "I tried so hard to belong," he says. "I tried everything to be a part of the mainstream."

Mehta understood he needed to escape all this. His initial attempt to get out of what he considered something of a trap, led him to make mainstream films. This time, he literally wanted to escape "success" and all that came with it. He left Mumbai for a small village on the outskirts of Lonavla to spend time with himself. Mehta spent those years "doing nothing". Cooking and reading became his prime preoccupations. "I revisited books of Milan Kundera. I also read books on the Al-Qaeda," he says. Two and a half years later, in February 2011, Mehta read a news item on Shahid Azmi's death. "It made me realise how polarised we are. We continuously live with a false sense of security and comfort. I found myself needing to express this in some way," says Mehta. "Since I am not a writer, I can only do this through film. " Mehta was ready to make his next film.

He had the germ of an idea. But translating that into film would mean surmounting a lot of obstacles first. "The first obstacle was me," he laughs. "I had gone away. I was out of sight, out of mind." The next roadblocks were more conventional — none of the "stars" wanted to act in the film, and finding a producer was a challenge. One of the "stars" even wanted Mehta to make Shahid the way he thought it should be. But Mehta wasn't budging this time. He roped in a relatively unknown Rajkummar Rao to essay the role of Shahid Azmi — a role that won him the National Award for best actor this year.

Shahid's success has brought Mehta back into reckoning. But being successful in Bollywood often means making films that others want to see. Mehta has already tried that route once, with disastrous results. So when Rao told him that Mahesh Bhatt wanted him to direct Vishesh Films' next project, Mehta was reluctant: "I won't make any 'sex' film yaar," he told Rao. It was only later when Mehta read the script and found it to be "very audacious, honest" and when Bhatt assured him that "no one will come in your way", Mehta took it on.

CityLights, produced by Mahesh Bhatt, will release at the end of this month.

Mehta's plans for future are not very elaborate. "These years are precious. I want to make every film count," he explains. "I don't ever want to come out of the screening of my own film, saying, 'Arre yaar gadbad kar di' again."

Hansal Mehta recently completed 20 years in the industry, a large chunk of which he's spent being an outsider. But until Mehta made Shahid, he was a filmmaker who could neither be a successful sell-out, nor a consummate iconoclastic maverick. But on 3 May 2014, Mehta was finally standing on the other side, with a National Award for the Best Director for Shahid. "It finally felt like all these years of struggling had been worth it," he says. Quite fittingly, Mehta's chequered filmmaking career found a voice in one of the oft-quoted lines from Shahid: "Waqt lagta hai par ho jaata hai ."


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