Somewhere among his bank papers and news clippings, Madhur Bhandarkar has a list of names of his forthcoming movies. These include Court, Hotel (not to be confused with the Ramsay Brothers’ horror classic), Factory, Bank, School/Boarding School/College, Chawl, Mall, Call Centre and Cyber Café.
Bhandarkar is a firm believer in the “keep it simple” school of thought. Most of his films have titles that are as direct as road signs. Chandni Bar is about a dance bar. Traffic Signal: no explanation required (a sequel is in the works, called either Flyover or Sea Link). Corporate: no mystery here. Fashion: ditto. Satta: ditto. Page 3 is a slightly more complex way of commenting on the print media’s obsession with vacuous glamour. The one that doesn’t fit into the scheme is Aan: Men at Work. It should have been called Khaki, but that’s also the name of Rajkumar Santoshi’s film. Why didn’t anybody think of Police?
Did Bhandarkar pick up his love for vanilla names from his mentor Ram Gopal Varma? The two shared office space in the same building in suburban Mumbai some years ago. The names of several Varma films, especially his older ones, didn’t tax the film-goer’s brain too much. Consider Shiva (original and remake), Satya, James, Company, Bhoot and Jungle. However, Bhandarkar has a stronger social conscience than Varma. Bhandarkar wants to reform society. He is an avid follower of news, and is deeply bothered by the corrosion of values in middle India. He is something of a pop sociologist, and he likes to explore widely observed social phenomena through fictional characters and situations.
Gloomy: Neil Nitin Mukesh in a still from Bhandarkar’s Jail.
Give or take a few elements, all of Bhandarkar’s films are the same. An honest hero or heroine discovers the rot that lies at the heart of ___ (fill in the blank from the list provided in the first paragraph). Said person tries to clean up the mess, but fails. Through the experiences of the character, viewers are forced to confront one and only one truth: The rich and the powerful are sick bastards. The little people — the models, the beggars at traffic signals, the drivers, the reporters, the police officials, the MBAs — are puppets and pawns.
Bhandarkar is especially invested in the city of Mumbai, its people and its problems. Each of his films carries warnings about the city’s present and future, and his solution is heartbreakingly easy to follow, should anyone care to listen. Don’t be ambitious. Don’t earn too much. Don’t trust anybody who offers you more money or a promotion. Don’t get too Westernized. Don’t move out of your house and come to Mumbai — it’s a big, bad place. Don’t smoke. Don’t drink. Drugs? Are you out of your mind?
In Bhandarkar’s universe, love is a strange bird and betrayal is the flip side of romance. This is especially true if his characters have consummated their union before marriage. According to Bhandarkar, only men and women can be joined at the hip and elsewhere. He is appalled that men sleep with men and women copulate with women. Homosexuality is among the many social evils that Bhandarkar wishes to stamp out. However self-explanatory it sounds, he isn’t likely to make a film called Gay.
Despite the gloominess of the worlds he has chosen to gaze upon (and will no doubt continue to keep an eye on), all is well with Bhandarkar’s professional life. He makes headlines with whatever he says. Most of his films earn good reviews, healthy box-office returns, and awards. He is likely to be nominated for a Padma Shri some day.
Bhandarkar’s latest film, Jail, released in theatres on Friday.
Nandini Ramnath is the film editor of Time Out Mumbai Write to Nandini at firstname.lastname@example.org