Reflections of a Mahesh Bhatt watcher! 

Mahesh certainly impacted Bollywood and his fans in dramatic fashion. Be it his searingly, self-lacerating autobiographical films, his light-hearted musical-entertainment or his daring, bold content

Mahesh Bhatt (Social Media)
Mahesh Bhatt (Social Media)

Monojit Lahiri

I have known Mahesh Bhatt from the fifties-sixties when we lived in Pali Hill. His first cousin, Anwar Hashmi [actor Emran Hashmi’s dad] was a neighbour and dear, cherished friend. The bonding remains till today. We all played cricket wherever we found space, including Danda beach, near our colony. I totally lost touch with Mahesh when we shifted to Kolkata in the mid-sixties. One read about his internship with director Raj Khosla and later, in the early 70’s, his debut film, Manzilen Aur Bhi Hain, which was mauled by the censors and his pitched battle with them ...

It was only in the early 80’s – by which time I had relocated to Delhi from Kolkata with my family and turned freelance journo – that we reconnected on a trip to Mumbai. He was warm, friendly and was in the process of completing Arth. At his [then] Pali Hill flat, he gave me a frame-to-frame description of the film which blew my mind. Later that year in Delhi, I got a call at my office. It was Mahesh persuading me to drop everything and rush to Janpath Hotel “because, yaar, I don’t know a damn soul in this sarkari joint!” Luckily, it was an easy day at the Ad Agency and I could zip down. Once there, he said I was to accompany him and his producer to a potential distributor for Arth. “Boss, everyone who has seen the film in Mumbai – Exhibitors & Distributors included – just loved it, but the trade is adamant we change the end. I have put my foot down. It will completely alter the essence of my film, the soul of the story and point I am trying to make. Sar katega par jhukega nahin!” Seeing my smiling but bewildered face, he said “Jab aagaya line mein, thoda dramabazi banta hai, na?” We both laughed, got into an auto rickshaw and left for the distributor’s office, with a hope and a prayer. Luckily, be it the nice Punjabi lunch or Dilli hai Dilwalo ki spirit, positive vibes emerged and soon the deal was signed. It may not have exactly threatened the Manmohan Desai’s of the world, but since the ending was retained, Bhatt was happy. The Press show of Arth in Delhi went off like a dream and the theatrical release reaction blended huge surprise with delight!

Women specially were blown away and the buzz and word-of-mouth, took Arth to another level. His reaction was interesting. “From 1974 to now, all that I’ve been doing is trying to live up to everyone’s expectations of me, by following the formulae. None really worked because these were directed by the head. This time, I dumped that baggage and let the heart and emotions speak. It worked.” Overnight, the director with more promise than performance, had cracked it. Arth was a landmark and milestone that romanced the critics, trade and audiences alike. Mahesh Bhatt was the new kid on the block!

From 1974 to 1988 Mahesh certainly impacted Bollywood and his fans in dramatic fashion. Be it his searingly, self-lacerating autobiographical films (Arth, Saransh, Daddy, Naam, Janam, Zakhm) his light-hearted musical-entertainment (Dil Hai Ki Maanta Nahin, Aashiqui) his daring, bold content (Murder, Raaz, Jism) his frank and fearless comments about religion, cinema, politics, his aggressive, anti-establishment stance hitting at convention and holy cows, the works. This image – by accident or design – as Bollywood’s passionate and blazing iconoclast helped him market his films better than any publicist! I remember one comment in response to a query about how disappointing it was to see the creator of Arth and Saransh stoop so low to hawk Murder and Raaz and Jism. “Please understand we are in a market where everything is sell-by-date. We are not in the business of creating art for the ages but products that are rooted in the here and now. There is no magic or mystique in this process; it’s about product update.

Arth and Saransh belonged to a time and place. Murder and Raaz belong to another. The age of forever is a myth in today’s consumerist age. If our films click, it’s not because we pander but because we create products that surprise & delight our new-age audiences, who are bindaas and not chained to sepia-tinted morality. We are like whores, constantly looking to retain our impatient customers and attracting new ones by constantly having to learn new tricks!” While this shocked the purists, the kids’ appreciation of the loose Canons dramatic appraisal of his views on movie-making rocketed upwards.”

Like Salim-Javed, Bhatt too at one point must have experienced the fatigue factor, churning out movies at break-neck speed. Rumour has it that at his peak, he directed films through his telephone since he was simultaneously doing several films at the same time! However, in 1988, after Zakhm (in my book, his most powerful and moving film after Arth) he decided to dial out of the direction scene. He believed that new blood was necessary to take forward the banner’s future and he would be better utilised as a Creative Consultant fully involved in writing, casting, ideating, mentoring ... Basically, Mahesh Bhatt was the creative face of Vishesh Films while his brother Mukesh was the canny, financial brain.

And so it went till he emerged out of retirement and make a sequel to his earlier Sanjay Dutt-Pooja Bhatt hit, Sadak. Dubbed the Worst Film of 2019, not even the presence of his daughter Alia could save Sadak 2 from being roasted by one and all. Did this disaster prompt the decision to relinquish his position as Creative Consult for the Vishesh banner? Or was it Mukesh Bhatt, forever playing second fiddle and living in the shadow of his famous brother, deciding to finally exercise clout & induct his kids into the fold to actively script the Production House’s new future?

Fact is, in today’s world where image and profile is everything, Mahesh, Pooja & Alia are well-known celebrities in their own right. Neither Mukesh nor his kids attract a semblance of curiosity, interest or attention compared to them, on the media front. Was this a corrective measure, focusing to introduce new blood and showcase their presence in the public domain? Does Mukesh genuinely believe that teamwork will make dreams work? Mahesh Bhatt maybe a spent force compared to his material in his earlier period, but his name still counts. Will Vishesh Films be the same without him?

Suddenly the if’s and ‘Bhatt’s’ take on a new dimension!

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