Interview: Mahesh Bhatt

‘Our cinema will emerge stronger’

Print edition : October 18, 2013

Mahesh Bhatt. Photo: PUNIT PARANJPE/AFP

The birth of the "war films" was an outcome of the India-China war. Here, a scene from Chetan Anand's "Haqeeqat" (1964).

Mahesh Bhatt. Photo: S.S. KUMAR

Dilip Kumar and Madhubala in "Mughal-e-Azam" (1960). The film, by K.Asif, reflected the film-maker's Nehruvian vision of India.

Juhi Chawla and Aamir Khan in Mahesh Bhatt's "Hum Hain Rahi Pyar Ke" (1993).

Mahesh Bhatt. For all his candour in real life, his films, such as Arth (1982) and Saaransh (1984), have made the best possible statements on his behalf. Bhatt quit film direction after the intensely personal Zakhm (1998) got critical acclaim, national awards and commercial success. In this interview, he talks about the evolution of Hindi cinema, from the time of Alam-Ara to the modern period when multiplexes have redefined cinema.
100 years of Indian Cinema

Hindi cinema down the ages has often been derided for its escapist fare. Is it not a travesty of justice?

There are two streams that run through our cinematic landscape. One is the popular cinema, the post-Independence Gangotri, so to say. It derived its strength from giants like Raj Kapoor, Bimal Roy and Guru Dutt. There is another stream, as first shown by the great Satyajit Ray. He captured the complex reality of rural India in his own distinguished way.

The two streams were always like two railway tracks that run alongside but never meet. However, they met in the mid-1970s with the birth of parallel cinema thanks to the works of Shyam Benegal, Govind Nihalani and M.S. Sathyu. It gave birth to middle-of-the-road cinema. By the mid-1970s, the two streams crossed each other’s path. My best work, too, came roughly in that phase… Arth, Saaransh

Having said that, I agree that by and large, Hindi cinema has been an escapist proposition because the nation used the cinema as an escape parlour. Our predecessors always harped on the truth that cinemas were distilleries of pleasure. Theatres were like Disneyland for them. They believed, and most still do, that when millions go to taste a narrative which is never going to be possible in real life…where equality will prevail, love will win, it has to be an escapist venture. However, I don’t necessarily find the expression demeaning.

When we talk of Hindi cinema, it is convenient to use the stereotypes of serious or commercial cinema. Does not the reality lie somewhere in between? For instance, the cinema of Guru Dutt or Mehboob blended both....

They were both geniuses, rooted in Indian reality. They came from the salt of the earth. They did not learn their movie craft in cinema halls of Metro or Regal. They picked it up through trial and error. Their reality was reflected in their movies. Mehboob’s Mother India remains a defining film for all of us. The moral compass of the film remains a benchmark for our society. These film-makers were like moral science teachers of an idealistic India, they lived their lives among the people who had just won freedom. It was natural that Nehruvian ideology inspired the colours and content of that period.

The challenges for our film-makers have always been to make cinema a medium of the masses. For instance, early silent films drew heavily from the mythological font to draw in viewers, subtly reminding them that cinema was their medium, relating their tales....

Before Alam-Ara, the movie landscape across the world was monopolised by Americans and, to an extent, by Europeans. They had a head start. The moment sound came into cinema, songs came. With songs, the monopoly of the West was broken. Ever since, song and dance have become an entrenched part of our cinema, its unique selling point. Anybody who claims his movie is different because it does not have songs actually does not know the strength of Indian cinema.

Every nation operates within the stronghold of the mythology of the region. The mythologies do control our consciousness. They influence the narrative. It is like the air you breathe. Our film-makers have been happy to breathe the same air. No film-maker will ever break the hold of mythology. The great family dramas, the feuds, the Radha-Krishna template, the Ram-Sita model…they are the life-blood of storytellers of this nation. They will influence all film-makers of today. The films may not be out and out mythologicals today but the inherent values remain the same. Why just us? It is the same everywhere. Christian mythology controls the American psyche. Their films talk of resurrection, doomsday and the like.

The subjects of Hindi films changed post-Independence when Nehruvian socialism found film-makers happy to toe the political line...Were the films of the 1950s an extension of the state policy or actually a mirror to an evolving society?

They were educated film-makers who were groomed by the institutions of those days. That showed in their worldview. Not just Roy, Mehboob or Dutt, even K. Asif adhered to a similar Nehruvian vision of India. He was no intellectual, yet he had imbibed similar values. His Mughal-e-Azam presents that notion beautifully with the film using Persian words in essentially Urdu dialogues, Sanskrit slokas in the Mughal emperor’s court, a bhajan and a naat. And to think that the film-maker was a Muslim! The idea of Nehru’s India was sold to all.

The 1960s and 1970s were all about exuberance, romance, a light-hearted fare catering to the urban middle class. Was the cinema then reflective of our society, which was undergoing great urbanisation?

That was the time when certain films became the footsteps of impending doom and gloom. India had experienced the India-China war, it jolted us from the self-congratulatory coma our leadership had slipped into post-Independence. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru never quite recovered from the betrayal. Something died within that robust optimism that soon we as a nation will soar to great heights. Mao Zedong held a mirror to that psyche. However, the period gave rise to two reactions in cinema. One was the birth of the so-called war films. The other was the escapist fare to avoid the grim, biting reality of the times.

What came of the war was Ae mere watan ke logon, which made Nehru cry. And then came Chetan Anand’s Haqeeqat. He had made his presence felt with Neecha Nagar much earlier in the 1940s. They both found acceptance among the masses. As did those easy narratives of “boy meets girl, fall in love”. Those one-line superficial narratives gripped us. With Junglee, Kashmir ki Kali and their like, films worked magic at the box office. They provided a change from the reality of the times. And their music still had an Indianness about them although the films themselves were not necessarily Indian in ethos. The film-makers of the 1950s consciously kept away from the Western style of film-making. They thought adapting any foreign technique or content was nothing short of treason. Film-makers did away with kiss as it was not considered an Indian body language. For them, Julie was an incarnation of evil, Sita and Raziya were embodiments of good. The film-makers of the 1960s-70s, relatively speaking, were more exposed to Western ideology, more impressed by it. It showed in their works.

Around the time Amitabh Bachchan acted in “Zanjeer”, “Sholay” and “Deewar”, Shyam Benegal come up with “Ankur”, “Nishant” and “Manthan”, Sathyu gave us “Garm Hava”, and Gulzar and Hrishikesh Mukherjee gave us their middle-of-the-road cinema. Where do you think we lost this range, this ability to cater to the different layers of our society?

There was this realisation that we were a diverse nation. One stream of film-making could not express all realities. Film-makers chose to occupy a moment and make a film around it. Hence, we had a film like Bobby. You could also make a Deewar, expressing the loneliness of urban India. It was an aspiration film that debunked the moral fibre of society. If you scratch Deewar, it still had blood, which was the same as Mehboob’s Mother India or Nitin Bose’s Gunga Jumna. The more things change, the more they remain the same. The big drama was throwing the moral compass away, and getting going. Then around the same time we had a film like Ankur, in which Shabana Azmi’s violent outburst remains embedded in my soul. The film showed a mirror to the feudal system, the tendencies to wipe away the weak, and yet, it also gave you hope. Remember, we had been through the naxalite movement; the movement itself had seen peasants and the lower middle class trying to emulate the Mao model of revolution. The nation had to get down from the merry-go-round as encapsulated in the films of Shammi Kapoor and Rajesh Khanna and embrace a complex reality in myriad ways.

Was not the decade of the 1980s and partly the 1990s the worst phase for Hindi cinema? Except art house offerings and films such as “Arth” and “Saaransh”, most of the films were tacky potboilers catering to the basest instincts of the masses.

As a film-maker, I connect with Hrishikesh Mukherjee more. I was groomed by the cinema of the 1960s and some part of the 1950s. He did influence my likes and dislikes. Even Ray impacted my psyche. The best of Indian cinema was responsible for pushing a man like me to make heart-breaking narratives with Arth, Naam, Saaransh. The 1980s were troubled times for this part of the world. [Mikhail] Gorbachev was there, it marked the beginning of the end of the Soviet Union, the end of the Cold War. The Indian nation was fighting terrorism in Punjab, there was Indira Gandhi’s assassination and the 1984 carnage. The Nehruvian model was not delivering, and made way for the neoliberal economy.

Naam, Saaransh, even Daddy had a strong moral fibre. They talked of a family struggling to keep everyone together…They struck a chord with a section of the audience at that time.

However, largely, the decade was notable for tacky potboilers. It is said that if you really want to see the moral fabric of the country you have to see its cinema. By and large, the action model had taken over in the 1980s, the fighter master was the most powerful of artists and technicians. Music died in our films. Countless films such as Himmatwala and Maqsad were mere tamasha, chewing gum for the eyes, so to say…they had double-meaning dialogues, action, suggestive dances… the masses watched films that catered to baser instincts. The educated middle class started staying home with the onset of television serials.

For the masses, if you had a chauvinistic narrative, it worked. For them, in these films you needed a woman doing what she was traditionally told to do, either pandering to carnal needs as in the many portrayals of Sridevi, or becoming a breeding machine, a kind of revered mother who sacrifices her all, as Jayaprada is portrayed in many films. They both found acceptance because they catered to different thoughts of men with respect to women.

But truly it was a bad phase for cinema. Post-Operation Blue Star, the nation was going through a painful phase, cinema became a difficult exercise in north India, night shows were cancelled at many places. Technology, too, was creating problems—television provided an alternative and competition, video parlours cut into the business. Only the masses with limited access to television went to the cinemas. The films in turn spoke their language. There was narrative bankruptcy and the films were musically sterile.

The 1990s brought new audiences thanks to liberalisation. Young Indians wanted simple narrative of boy-meets-girl backed by hummable music. Films such as Aashiqui, Dil Hai ki Manta Nahin worked. The 1990s also saw the birth of another cinema-going experience with the opening of multiplexes, the onset of the digital technology, and the worldwide web… Suddenly a new model was there. Film-makers began to pander to non-resident Indians. Many had contempt for Indian viewers; for them the pound was more powerful than the rupee. The films unabashedly catered to the metros or NRIs, rural India was forgotten except in whiffs of nostalgia. They talked to 5 per cent of the population because the money came from them, and left 95 per cent out. But this phase also saw the coming back of the privileged middle class to cinema. Bollywood came to acquire a new respectability. And popular matinee idols started coming to national and international film festivals.

For all the celebrations surrounding the centenary of Hindi cinema, when can we actually begin to make films with a universal theme to be experienced by a universal audience? After all, if Mohsen Makhmabaf’s and Akira Kurosawa’s fare can be lauded despite the language limitation, there is no reason why we cannot attract non-Indian audiences.

A new narrative shaped the new blockbuster with big stars, big budgets. Money has often been the sole matrix in recent times. Forget Rs.100-crore sagas, shortly we will talk of Rs.200-crore films. Having said that, one must realise that the human heart refuses to succumb to despair; the darker the night, the greater the need for hope. The obsession with the opening weekend collection shall pass, too. A new beginning is being made by young film-makers like Anurag Kashyap, Anurag Basu and Shoojit Sircar. Our cinema will emerge stronger. But again, there will always be two streams: one of superb blockbusters, another of those with distinct artistic taste.