Few filmmakers in the history of cinema have exploited their private life for public consumption and commercial gain as cannily and candidly as Mahesh Bhatt. Bhatt saab, as he is fondly called, knows how to recycle his much-documented personal life in the service of entertainment. While his headline-grabbing affair with Parveen Babi has inspired Arth and Phir Teri Kahani Yaad Aayee all the way down to Woh Lamhe, almost all his films are thinly-veiled autobiographies. Finally, when faced with the risk of having exhausted all his typical tricks, he wrote Hamari Adhuri Kahani last year. This time, digging deeper into the closet for skeletal remains of the love triangle between his filmmaker father Nanabhai Bhatt, his Shia Muslim mother and his stepmother.
Raised single-handedly by his mother, the firebrand Mahesh grew up, as he puts it, in ‘the home of sin.’ Nanabhai stayed with his first wife and visited only infrequently. ‘Keep the wolf from the door’ – issued through clenched teeth for dramatic effect – is Mr Bhatt’s stock phrase while describing the traumatic fledgling years. “I came to filmmaking not to give wings to my creative flights of fancy but to earn a livelihood,” he has said on many occasions, a point he never fails to emphasise and re-emphasise in all his interviews.
We may not realise it but Mahesh Bhatt made his debut in the 1970s. But it was with the female-centric Arth in 1982 that he truly came into his own as a filmmaker. The fascinating aspect of any Mahesh Bhatt film is its attractive and bold leading lady. A mould-breaker, she is not only confident about her sexuality but also uses it to get ahead. The Bhatt heroines are versions of either Parveen Babi, first wife Kiran or his mother and the men, a splitting mirror image of Mahesh himself. You have to give it to him that the heroes of a Bhatt film are far from ‘heroic.’ The tortured director paints unflattering picture of himself on celluloid, unashamed and unmindful of how people would judge him knowing well that what you are seeing on screen is a Mahesh Bhatt memoir. His heroes are flawed, misguided, dreamy and lonely with daddy issues. If anything, the director’s best work – Arth, Saaransh, Aashiqui or Zakhm – explores a haunting sense of loneliness. The image of a ‘broken home’ and the consequences of single parenting also symbolise many of his films.
While Mahesh’s 1990s stock reveals the influence of Hollywood he, in truth, owes more to Raj Khosla than Frank Capra. His Hollywood inspirations are now common knowledge. Kabzaa is an On The Waterfront knockoff. Dil Hai Ki Manta Nahin, a popular 1990s entertainer, is a It Happened One Night rip-off while Sadak is Bollywood’s answer to Taxi Driver.
But it’s easy to overlook Mahesh’s Hollywood phase when you look back at the dismal quality of the 1990s movies. After all, we are talking about an era when every second film was a Hollywood me-too. In his films, Mahesh combined chartbuster music with compelling storytelling making the Hollywood borrowings enjoyable and palatable to Indian taste. Perhaps, when he winds up his career it’s likely we may not be able to recall all his films. But we will certainly remember all his songs. He boasts an incredible legacy of music and that comes from his training with Raj Khosla. Mahesh belongs to the same school of filmmaking as Raj and his comrades – Dev Anand, Guru Dutt and Vijay Anand.
For example, the itinerant street performers expressing the feelings of the characters is a technique used extensively in old Bollywood. O leke pehla pehla pyaar from Raj Khosla’s C.I.D comes instantly to mind. Compare it to these two songs from Mahesh’s films. Aashiqui’s best number ‘Tu meri zindagi hai’ is sung by the street performers, giving voice to Rahul Roy’s love pangs. I don’t know if a hat tip is tucked in there but it’s shot on Kishore Kumar Marg. Second example: ‘Shaairana’ from Phir Teri Kahani Yaad Aayee.
There’s also a case to be made that Mahesh’s 1990s heroes also physically resembled Dev Anand and Guru Dutt. Notice the dressing styles of Rahul Roy or the cap on Aamir Khan in Dil Hai Ki Maanta Nahin. Guru Dutt wore a similar one in Aar Paar and Dev Anand in Asli Naqli.
It is a well-known fact that Mahesh pretty much defined the 1990s alongside Yash Chopra. Like the late YRF chief, critics tended to write off his newer films preferring the early social-realistic gems. In Mahesh’s case, Saaransh and Arth are lauded as superior films. I have a feeling Mahesh’s relationship with U.G. Krishnamurti (“He was my Kaaba and Kashi,” the filmmaker writes in his only non-fiction A Taste of Life: The Last Days of U.G. Krishnamurti) may have something to do with his shift from serious to commercial cinema. Mahesh who came under the spiritual spell of U.G in the late 1970s and was with him at his deathbed may have been a very different filmmaker had he stuck with someone like Rajneesh Osho, who was his then girlfriend Parveen Babi’s guru. From the commercial failures of Saaransh and Arth Mahesh vowed never to return to his socially conscious, middle-of-the-road cinema roots. One of the things U.G taught the young recruit was to stop pondering the Meaning of Life and get on with the Business of Living Life instead. The spiritual greenhorn, today the much-admired ideologue of Vishesh Films, is merely following his guru’s advice.
The press laps up Mr Bhatt’s blunt admission of cinema being a “money-making machine” and “I am a hooker here to seduce” quotable quips but at the same time slams him as a sell-out. But the marketing genius that he is, he has taken that abuse and turned it into his calling card. This further frustrates his detractors who cannot reconcile the two Bhatts – a philosopher, peacenik and social activist on one hand and shameless pursuer of pleasure and introducer of Sunny Leone on the other.
Mahesh, as he turns 68 this year, has long retired from direction (his last film was Zakhm), but not from filmmaking. He frequently expresses dissatisfaction with cinema but doesn’t quit. Unwittingly, he may have also become Bollywood’s very own Coppola, with the ever expanding Bhatt dynasty seeping into all areas of film business. If it was Pooja Bhatt in the 1990s, it’s Emraan Hashmi and Alia Bhatt now. Not to forget a long line of protégés. Vikram Bhatt, Mohit Suri and Milan Luthria who, incidentally, is Raj Khosla’s son and Mahesh’s ultimate payback. Much like Dev Anand’s Navketan Films, the Bhatts are star-makers, having launched many careers.
And, presiding over them all is Mahesh Bhatt – the anti-mentor who’s been entrusted the task of looking after the flock and keeping “the wolf from the door.”
(Shaikh Ayaz is a writer and journalist based in Mumbai. He also paints.)