When 19-year-old Vishal Bhardwaj returned from cricket practice that morning, his home had been emptied out on the street. Chairs, tables, utensils, clothes, photo frames—everything lay strewn on the road outside his home in Meerut, Uttar Pradesh. In the midst of it, right there on the street, his poet father—for long his best friend—lay sprawled. And lifeless.
It was one of the moments that would change the life of 45-year-old Bhardwaj, one of India’s brightest film-makers and music composers. “It was like a steady cam shot,” Bhardwaj recalls, squatted on the floor, wearing a white shirt, denims and a black jacket. He leaned against a cushion in his modest office in suburban Mumbai, gesturing the movement of a film camera with his hands. “No one said anything. They just stood there, silently looking.”
“I was very close to my father. His loss made me lose the fear of death. That is the primal, basic fear,” Bhardwaj says in an interview a few days before the release of his new film 7 Khoon Maaf. “Once you overcome that, you can take any leap, any plunge in life.”
Leaps of faith have been Bhardwaj’s favourite form of travel on his meandering journey so far, from western Uttar Pradesh to Mumbai, to becoming one of India’s most adored and acclaimed film-makers globally—a director of six well-received feature films. Bhardwaj is a true Renaissance man—he directs, composes music, writes scripts and is a singer who also writes lyrics.
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As you read this, Bhardwaj is at the prestigious Berlinale, Berlin’s international film festival, where 7 Khoon Maaf is being screened. In Indian cinema, he is one of those rare straddlers whose work is often rooted in the dust and grime. His nuanced characters and layered screenplay are arthouse, but he has won accolades also as a commercial director—most of his movies have mass appeal.
You could say that where Bhardwaj is today is the result of a journey he began hesitantly with a script in his hands, pitching it to Shabana Azmi a few weeks after the 11 September terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001, asking the veteran actor to play the role of a witch. Azmi’s response wasn’t quite on expected lines. “Why are you doing this to yourself? If this film fails, then your career as a music director is also dead,” Bhardwaj quotes Azmi as having said at the meeting that became a turning point in his career.
If he was thrown off balance, it didn’t show.
Bhardwaj asked Azmi to imagine a man on the 90th floor of one of the towers of the World Trade Center, who has just come in to work and has switched on his laptop. He sits back and begins sipping a cup of coffee when, outside the window, he sees an aeroplane coming right at him. “Poof! It’s all over in the next second! We don’t know what’s going to happen in the next minute. We have to live our dreams as much as we can.”
Azmi agreed to act in his debut film Makdee.
What he said to Azmi that day was just an expression of a searing image from the past: his father Ram Bhardwaj lying dead on the road outside the family’s rented house in 1985. His father was just 49.
“We were tenants in Meerut. Our landlord was a judge and his son a lawyer—it was the most deadly combination!” Bhardwaj says, as his assistant darts in to inform him of two more meetings lined up after the interview. “There was a case going on between us and him regarding the property and it had been settled out of court—but one day there was an order of kurki (seizure of property).” Officials came early one morning. Bhardwaj—who loved cricket and even played for the state’s under-19 team—used to practise every morning at a playground in Meerut. By the time he returned, his father was no more.
Some years later, his elder brother, who had struggled for years in Mumbai to become a film producer, also died of a heart attack.
Bhardwaj was born in Chandpur village near the small, uneventful town of Bijnor in western Uttar Pradesh. His father was a sugarcane inspector, a government official who oversaw quality and matters involving the licensing of sugarcane-related products. The senior Bhardwaj was often posted out as part of his job profile, and the family lived in the small sugar-trading town of Najibabad until Bhardwaj completed class V in school.
Grounded: Bhardwaj says he wanted to become a director after watching Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
Najibabad was no place for creative churning. It had only two claims to fame: It was home to the Agarwal family that was one of the biggest bottlers of Thums-Up; and it had an All India Radio station.
Before the city began to dent his creative instincts, help arrived in the form of transfer orders for his father. They moved to Meerut, the city where Bhardwaj would lose his father but begin to reach out for his dream. When not supervising sugarcane licensing, Ram Bhardwaj wrote poetry and lyrics for Bollywood—the film industry was not called Bollywood then. The films he wrote for included lesser-known ones such as Ahimsa, Shuruaat, Kanoon Meri Mutthi Mein, Khoon ka Badla Khoon and Chhota Baap. Even though based in Meerut, Bhardwaj’s father worked with some leading names of the Hindi film industry then, such as music composers Kalyanji-Anandji, and singers Asha Bhonsle and Usha Khanna.
That had to rub off on the son, who grew up with notes of music wafting around him. His first dream was born—Vishal Bhardwaj was going to be a music composer.
When he was 17, Bhardwaj composed a song that caught the fancy of his father. Ram Bhardwaj discussed his son’s composition skills with Khanna, who asked to hear it. Soon after, she used it for the film Yaar Kasam. At 19, Bhardwaj recorded his first song with the playback icon Bhonsle—the same year he lost his father.
If Bhardwaj saw these as his big break in the movie industry, it was a misleading break. Years of waiting and frustration were to follow.
“I struggled a lot,” Bhardwaj says, sipping his tea, the room suddenly full of a pensive silence, only the mild whirring of the air conditioner audible.
Besides music, all that Bhardwaj had while he was growing up was cricket. He was an all-rounder—a leg-spinner and a batsman. After he lost his father, cricket helped him make the next move in life—to Delhi. He got admission under the sports quota in the prestigious Hindu College. He was now also the proud owner of a Vijay Super scooter, an upgraded version of the Lambretta, on which he zipped around town.
He had friends who were trying to make their mark in theatre—and later would—such as Piyush Mishra and Ashish Vidyarthi, but Bhardwaj was then focused only on music. In another part of town, there was another set of contemporaries and friends—a young man named Maninder Singh from Khalsa College and Manoj Prabhakar from the PGDAV College, both of whom would go on to join the national cricket team.
Both sets of friends were symbolic of two lives, both potentially challenging and rewarding. Bhardwaj had to make a choice.
How far would Bhardwaj have made it in cricket had he pursued it? No one knows, but when a friendly match was played recently, involving Dilip Vengsarkar, the then national cricket selector said: “Vishal Bhardwaj as music composer is a big loss to Indian cricket.” Nevertheless, Bhardwaj quickly buried his cricket dreams after he broke his arm in the second year of college.
That was also the time when the Vijay Super was about to get a fellow traveller—Rekha, a young singer who bedazzled Bhardwaj with her talent. Friendship turned into love.
Bhardwaj’s professional life didn’t look up. “I got work for some TV programmes on Doordarshan, and used to play the harmonium with friends who were ghazal singers,” Bhardwaj says. The next few years went by quickly. Bhardwaj took up a job with a music company called CBS, which later became Pan Music, as an artiste and repertoire manager. Then he moved to Mumbai, married Rekha Bhardwaj—who would over the years become a well-known Bollywood singer herself—and met the person who was to be the mentor and father figure in his life—Gulzar.
He started composing music for various TV programmes and some trendsetting films—Maachis, Satya, Chachi 420 and Godmother. But they could only get him that far. “As a music composer, my career was getting over. I had done about 8-10 films as a composer but now I wasn’t able to make hit songs,” Bhardwaj says candidly. “I tried to remain honest to the situation (in the script). I took myself too seriously, and when you do that, you lose the plot.”
He began to travel to film festivals with Gulzar.
“I saw Pulp Fiction and it messed up my head…it showed me the power of storytelling...and that violence can be so entertaining.” Bhardwaj says. He was also mesmerized by the work of Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski.
The bug had bitten him. “I wanted to be a director,” Bhardwaj says of those days. That led them to the meeting with Azmi. Several other films followed, this time as director, apart from music composer: Maqbool, Omkara, The Blue Umbrella and Kaminey.
“Indian audiences are swiftly changing. The success of Dev.D and the critical acclaim for No One Killed Jessica is proof,” Bhardwaj says. “Storytelling in India is also changing dramatically. If Aamir Khan’s wife has made a Dhobi Ghat, it’s a great sign.”
Bhardwaj doesn’t need to look around for funding now for the offbeat themes that would leave Bollywood figureheads reluctant earlier. From top actors to producers, everybody wants to work with him. But he remains grounded.
“I often take the local trains, though now it’s becoming a little difficult because they recognize me,” says Bhardwaj. “Sometimes I just get off the car and start walking about. I don’t go to parties, I don’t have friends, and this movie business is unreal, deceptive. I try to travel as much as I can, to remain connected with the real India.”
But that real India does not include his own village, to which he just doesn’t want to return.
“I don’t want to go back to my village. It would have changed so dramatically. I don’t think I will recognize anyone there,” Bhardwaj says. “I have no sense of home, in that sense I am a rootless person.”
Then he chuckles: “As it is, I get four or five calls every day from people who claim to be my childhood friends or relatives!”
As Bhardwaj reinvents himself, he is looking at masterly quests beyond Bollywood.
“I want to grow in my music... I want to do it seriously. I wish some day I could create something without words,” he says. “I have started learning Western classical music and it is my desire to write a Symphony some day.”
Bhardwaj says it’s easy to lose one’s head with success, and often without realizing it.
But he doesn’t have to worry about it at all.
“I am beyond success and failure. I didn’t deserve this also. I never learnt music, I never learnt direction,” says Bhardwaj, as he slips on shoes for his next meeting.“My biggest fear is what I have seen happening to a lot of people…starting to do bad work, without realizing it.”
Neelesh Misra, a journalist on a break, is a lyricist, scriptwriter, author of four books and a radio storyteller. His last book was The Absent State. He also heads Band Called Nine, a writer-led band whose debut album Rewind is to be released soon.
7 Khoon Maaf released on Friday.
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