A software start-up, wedding videography, film editing, and TV production later, Hansal Mehta found his calling as a director. Then, he gave it all up and moved to a village for three years upon the realisation that he had ‘sold out’. Ahead of the release of his next, Citylights, 46-year-old Mehta says his need to tell stories
of regular folk brought him back to filmmaking
Citylights was due for a release earlier. Was the delay because of elections?
Yes, we couldn’t have promoted the film in that din. If a man has pumped Rs 5,000 crore into promoting himself, would our meagre Rs 2 crore be seen? It’s a special film to each member of the crew and we wanted it to reach people.
What makes it special?
None of us had expected to explore the dynamics of a family at the centre of the story to the extent we did. The way I work, I leave space for each artiste, including the cinematographer, the editor, the actors and others, to interpret the scenes. That is how the film became what it has. There is a scene where Patralekha’s character goes to a dance bar to ask for a job. At the end of the near-humiliating experience of proving her credentials to the bar owner, she tells him: “Sahab thode paise milenge?”. That bit wasn’t in the script; Patralekha added it because she felt her character’s need for money was more severe — she needed to feed her daughter. There are many such moments in the film.
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Did you follow the same process with Shahid?
Yes, and Shahid was especially tough to edit. We shot a lot of
material. Also, the film was written in a convoluted, gimmicky manner but we edited it to make the story linear.
Why did you have a gimmicky version for it?
The first draft was actually linear but most people found it too simplistic, so a gimmicky version helped me get a producer. I was also in talks with a star to play the lead. He wanted to make it a modern-day Deewar, play up elements to make Shahid the rebel son who dies in his mother’s lap and so on. I’m glad I cast Rajkummar Rao who believed in the linear script.
Where are your films rooted?
My first few films, Jayate, Dil Pe Mat Le Yaar and Chhal all revolved around the common man. When these didn’t work at the box office, I strayed and went on to make films that I couldn’t connect with, such as Anjaan and Raakh. I’ll say I sold out. I realised it at the premiere of Woodstock Villa. That’s when I took
You studied engineering. How did you take up the camera?
I’m from a middle-class Gujarati family. I studied engineering and launched my software start-up but it failed. I took up a job in Australia with a video rental outfit to connect. I finished the two-year assignment in three months and in my spare time, I started to tinker with cameras and equipment, and shot a few ads for local supermarkets. That’s when it struck my Gujju mind that I could make good money by shooting Indian weddings in Sydney. I’d edit them with Hindi songs for background score.
When did you start making movies?
When I returned from Australia on a holiday, Zee channel had just launched. I pitched a concept, which they approved. That’s how Khana Khazana was born. I have to say, Sanjeev Kapoor is my biggest blockbuster. But monies weren’t good. Watching Raju Hirani at work in an editing studio, I too started to edit. Once, I was asked to edit Gulzar saab’s song Tap Tap Topi Topi with a montage for a children’s film. Gulzar saab liked my work and asked me to cut the promo for his film, Maachis. I started to get more work from Maachis’s producer, who asked me if I could make a film in Rs 50 lakh. I took it up. I met Anurag Kashyap through Manoj Bajpai, a common friend, and he wrote his first screenplay for my debut, Jayate (1997).
What did you do during the sabbatical?
I was deep in debt. I had also failed at directing TV shows and making films had stopped appealing to me. So I packed my bags and moved to a small village, Malavi on the outskirts of Mumbai. I took up farming and
cooking. I would teach at the local school.
What brought you back?
I read a report on Shahid Azmi’s murder and knew I was once again desperate to tell a story. Also, I had started to realise that there’s empathy in all of us and the common man’s stories need to be told. We usually turn away when a family on the streets begs us for Rs 100 to return home, but what if they really are in need? Citylights is a product of that thought. I may be back as a director, but this time, I’ve left my craft behind so that it doesn’t get in the way of storytelling; I keep it simple.