Until a couple of years ago, Mahesh Bhatt was here, there and everywhere. If you opened the newspaper or switched on the television, you would find Bhatt holding forth on such diverse topics as India- Pakistan relations and Mumbai’s drainage system. Bhatt was on speed dial for most entertainment journalists trying to fill their pages and shows. The cruel joke among hacks was that Bhatt had nothing better to do in any case after he took his director’s hat off.
These days, the Bhatt megaphone seems to have been silenced by more proficient rent-a-quotes. His brother, producer Mukesh Bhatt, makes more news. Mukesh Bhatt is the financial brain behind Vishesh Films, which has made a star out of the histrionically challenged Emraan Hashmi. The banner’s latest movie, Jashnn, opens on 17 July, and there is talk that Mahesh Bhatt has a lot to do with the way the movie has turned out. According to the Bollywood grapevine, Mahesh Bhatt has ghost-directed Jashnn, which would make the musical drama a semi-comeback for the self-proclaimed enfant terrible of the 1980s.
Hit or miss: Will Jashnn, a film without stars, live up to the box office success of the banner’s earlier films?
There’s actually no better time than now for Bhatt to return full-time to film-making. Bhattisms are still welcome if they’re in the shape of films, rather than in the form of newspaper quotes and television sound bites. Bhatt has managed to sprinkle his masala mixes with a great deal of emotional and sexual honesty. The country could do with a jaundiced take on marriage or a street-level view of class divide in urban India.
Bhatt’s most well-received films have been, of course, Saaransh and Arth. Saaransh, about an elderly couple’s attempt to find closure after the sudden death of their only son, is one of the few 1980s flicks that holds up to modern-day scrutiny. Arth belongs to a movie genre that was created and wholly owned by Mahesh Bhatt: confessional cinema. Arth is a fictionalization of Bhatt’s extramarital affair with Parveen Babi. Shabana Azmi’s character was modelled on his first wife, Kiran. Bhatt has since mined his Babi fixation into two more movies, but neither Phir Teri Kahani Yaad Aayee nor Woh Lamhe matched Arth’s candour.
Just as interesting as Saaransh and Arth are the minor movies that Bhatt rolled out from the late 1980s, until the mid-1990s. Many of them were low-budget melodramas about working-class families or middle-class couples.
Tucked into the formulaic three-act structure was a skewering of hypocrisy. Thikana, starring Anil Kapoor and Smita Patil as siblings, has a wonderful scene in which Kapoor, an unemployed lawyer, and his mother react to news of his sister’s love affair with a cop with anxiety rather than happiness. They’re worried that if she gets married, there’ll be nobody left to support them.
Before Madhur Bhandarkar, but without his deeply conservative streak, Bhatt explored the lives of deviants and misfits in Naam, Sadak, Sir and Angaarey. One of his nicest films is Zakhm, in which the 1992-93 communal riots in Mumbai force a director to revisit the rejection of his Muslim mother by his Hindu father’s family.
The flip side of Bhatt’s career has been his tendency to recycle Hollywood movies. For instance, Sir Indianizes To Sir, with Love, Dil Hai Ki Manta Nahin is a faithful imitation of It Happened One Night. Bhatt churned out movies so quickly in the 1990s that it was rumoured that he directed over the phone. It shows in clunkers such as Saatwan Aasman, Criminal and Naaraaz. All that photocopying seems to have tired him out. He and his brother now devote their energies to propping up the career of their nephew, Hashmi, and discovering new talent.
Maverick: Director Mahesh Bhatt.
Jashnn is likely to recover its investment even though its leads, Adhyayan Suman and Anjana Sukhani, are not even remotely approaching stardom. Vishesh Films has an enviable record at the box office although its movies don’t have big stars. What Vishesh Films has is tight budgets (making box-office recovery easier), a tabloid editor’s eye for sensational subjects, chart-topping songs, and characters who resemble the people sitting in the front and rear stalls of movie halls. Not very different from the films Mahesh Bhatt used to make in his heyday.
Nandini Ramnath is film editor, Time Out Mumbai.(www.timeoutmumbai.net)
Write to Nandini at firstname.lastname@example.org