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Psst! Bollywood director Mahesh Bhatt has yet another confession to make

June 09, 2015


A scene from Hamari Adhuri Kahani — Photo courtesy: NDTV
A scene from Hamari Adhuri Kahani — Photo courtesy: NDTV

For decades, Mahesh Bhatt’s life has been the gift that simply won’t stop giving. He has made so many movies about his most personal experiences, vast numbers of Indians know as much about his parents, his wives and his children as his confidantes do.

We know, through interviews and his movies, that Bhatt was the illegitimate son of Shirin Ali and married filmmaker Nanabhai Bhatt. We also know of Bhatt’s troubled relationship with his first wife Kiran, his extramarital affair with actor Parveen Babi, his struggle to draw a bridge between his artistic vision and the imperatives of mainstream cinema, and his battles with drugs and alcohol.

What secrets, then, will Hamari Adhuri Kahani yield?

The June 12 release is directed by Mohit Suri and co-produced by Vishesh Films, the company Mahesh Bhatt runs with his brother Mukesh. The melodrama follows an unhappily married woman, played by Vidya Balan, who falls in love with a sympathetic hotelier, played by Emraan Hashmi. Hamari Adhuri Kahani is said to have been inspired by Nananbhai Bhatt’s first wife. It gets even more personal: Hashmi, the actor notorious for his on-screen puckers, is Bhatt’s nephew on his mother’s side, while Suri is the son of Bhatt’s sister.

Suri has a knack for rolling out banal and formulaic romances that suggest profundity and honesty but don't actually deliver them. The only filmmaker who can make a film on Mahesh Bhatt’s life is Mahesh Bhatt himself, but he retired from active direction after 1998’s Zakhm and has outsourced the business of scab-picking to his less-competent former assistants and family members.

I am, therefore I direct

If Bhatt’s life has been an open book, it has also been a fruitful screenplay. He came to an early realisation of the appeal of fiction laced with autobiography and has displayed an uncanny ability to imbue routine love stories, relationship postmortems and marital tension dramas with observations and insights that are said to flow from his own experiences.

His angst-in-the-pants cinema began to take shape in the 1970s, the decade of disillusionment. Bhatt came to attention with 1972’s Manzilein Aur Bhi Hai, a drama about two unrepentant criminals whose love for a free-spirited prostitute transforms them. Think Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid crossed with Samuel Fuller in a setting inspired by Jim Thompson-style tawdry nihilism.

Self-consciously directed and designed to shock conventional sensibilities through wanton characters, jarring camerawork and declarations of flexible morality, Manzilein Aur Bhi Hai ran into trouble with the easily-shocked Central Board of Film Certification. The CBFC mistook the 24 year-old filmmaker’s attention-seeking bravado for an attack on Indian family values and withheld a screening certificate for two years. The movie was eventually released in 1974.

Naya Daur .— Photo courtesy: bollywoodfoodclub.files
Naya Daur .— Photo courtesy: bollywoodfoodclub.files

Bhatt’s singular brand of personal exploitation cinema first surfaced in Naya Daur, made in 1978 and featuring an impossibly young Rishi Kapoor. The movie bears no resemblance whatsoever to the BR Chopra classic of the same title from 1957. In keeping with the themes that characterised mainstream and arthouse cinema in the ’70s, Naya Daur explores the travails of a young lower middle-class man significantly named Mahesh, who loves the equally significantly named Kiran, but has to come to terms with her wealth and his penurious state. Thrown into the class divide is Ranjit’s permanently stoned and chilling gangster, who routinely rapes women and tortures his victims.

A persistent theme

Lahu Ke Do Rang, made the following year, was his first exploration of the theme of illegitimacy that has since echoed through subsequent films. Vinod Khanna and Danny Denzongpa play brothers who share a father and realise that blood is thicker than water just in time for the climax.

If Manzilein Aur Bhi Hai and Naya Daur were messy and unstructured howls of rebellion, Bhatt’s breakthrough film is a thoughtfully composed poem.

Arth, made in 1982, is the first of Bhatt’s full-blown confessionals, and dramatises his affair with actor Parveen Babi, who was on the threshold of schizophrenia. Arth has characters modelled on Bhatt (played by Kulbhushan Kharbanda), his wife Kiran (Shabana Azmi), and Babi (Smita Patil), and is told from the viewpoint of the long-suffering wife, who initially debases herself as she tries to win back her husband, but gradually gains a modicum of self-respect and independence with the help of a besotted singer.

The unconventional theme is most effectively conveyed with the help of the conventional crutch of a soundtrack, composed and performed by ghazal greats Jagjit and Chitra Singh.

None of Bhatt’s subsequent tributes to Babi have the power or unsparing candour of Arth. If anything, it could be argued that Bhatt and his band of writers have exploited memories of the affair for scandalous affect. The 1993 television movie Phir Teri Kahani Yaad Aayee features Rahul Roy as a Bhatt type and the director’s daughter Pooja Bhatt as the troubled schizophrenic. In 2006, Mohit Suri cast Kangana Ranaut to play Babi and Shiney Ahuja as his uncle in Woh Lamhe.

Parveen Babi left India in 1983 for treatment for her condition and returned in 1989, a bloated and unrecognisable version of her former gorgeous self. The body of the troubled actor was found in her apartment in January 2005, and her death was attributed to complications from a variety of ailments.

Apart from his relationship with Babi, other moments from Bhatt’s eventful life have made it to the screen. Naam, released in 1986 and based on Salim Khan’s screenplay, explores the agonising status of the illegitimate son.

Kaash features Jackie Shroff and Dimple Kapadia as a troubled couple whose marriage is wrecked by the husband’s failure-fuelled alcoholism. Bhatt also directed telefilms in the late 1980s, using the intimate format of television to lay bare the tensions that lie at the heart of middle-class families. The telefilm Daddy, made in 1989, features Anupam Kher as an alcoholic trying to rebuild ties with his teenage daughter, played by the director’s real-life daughter, Pooja.

Poster of 'Arth'— Photo courtesy: Ibnlive
Poster of 'Arth'— Photo courtesy: Ibnlive

One of his most searching studies of flexible middle-class morality has little to do with Bhatt’s life. Thikana (1987) features Anil Kapoor as a wasted lawyer who lives of his hard-working sister Shashi, played by Smita Patil. She is love with a police officer and pregnant with him, but in one the movie’s best sequences, their mother, played with ferocity by Rohini Hattangadi, reminds Kapoor that it would be a mistake to allow Shashi to marry. Who will take care of us if she goes away, the mother asks.

A sequence from Naam inspired all of Zakhm, the last movie that Bhatt directed. Naam opens with Kumar Gaurav’s character accompanying his pregnant sister-in-law to a hospital during a communal riot.

Zakhm takes place during the communal riots that tore Mumbai apart in 1992 and 1993. Ajay Devgan’s music composer character learns that his mother (Pooja Bhatt) has been burnt to death by a Muslim mob. Flashbacks reveal that she was the unacknowledged lover of a filmmaker and was unable to marry him because of she is a Muslim. A certified three-hanky weepie, Zakhm features moving performances by Pooja Bhat and Kunal Khemmu as the elder of her illegitimate sons. The movie blends autobiography with a plea for religious tolerance, and is dedicated to Bhatt’s parents.

Science of morals

Bhatt’s personalised cinema sometimes uncomfortably walks the line between honesty and exploitation, especially when it came to the Parveen Babi movies. Many years before directors like Anurag Kashyap declared that their movies were not merely figments of their imagination but drawn from their memories, Mahesh Bhatt was telling the world that it was perfectly legitimate to display scars and sores to lure in the audience. He was ahead of the curve, in a sense, for his ability to recognise the value of yoking art to autobiography and particularising universal experiences of love, heartbreak and betrayal.

Parveen Babi. — Photo courtesy:
Parveen Babi. — Photo courtesy:

Bhatt’s middle-class morality plays provided an antidote to populist cinema in the ’80s and ’90s. Movies such as Arth and Saaransh, one of the best explorations of aging in Mumbai, are the works of a filmmaker with a keen eye for the human condition. It is possible that films supposedly inspired by actual experiences were fiction passed off as reality after the fact, but that doesn’t take away from their power and acuity, often expressed through situations that showcase thoughts and deeds usually buried under the carpet.

The personal exploitation trope descended into pure exploitation in the 2000s, when Vishesh Films started rolling out films such as Raaz, Jism and Murder that worked on the irresistible combination of sex, death and fabulous music.

A scene from the film. — Photo courtesy: NDTV
A scene from the film. — Photo courtesy: NDTV

A couple of decades ago, Hamari Adhuri Kahani would have been a low-budget and gloss-free production, made with leading actors keen on earning artistic credibility through sensitive performances. It might have landed with a thud in theatres, only to be subsequently hailed as ahead of its time. Instead, Hamari Adhuri Kahani is in the news for its cast, songs, Dubai locations and the box office popularity of its director. The gift is still giving, but the wrapping has become the most important part.

By special arrangement with Scroll