Hansal Mehta talks about holding a mirror to society in Omerta, moving on from Simran and battling censorship.
Omerta is about the British-Pakistani terrorist Omar Sheikh, infamous for his role in the kidnapping and murder of journalist Daniel Pearl. How did you get interested in the subject?
When actor Mukul Dev, Omerta’s writer, first narrated the idea to me in 2005, I saw it as a thriller. The biopic trend had not set in then. After some years, this idea seemed more relevant. I’m glad we made this movie now as we need to take a look at recent history. As a filmmaker, I am trying to chronicle our times through such stories.
How do you balance facts and the need to fictionalise such a film?
I did not want to show anything that would justify his actions. There were a lot of things about him that came up during the research, such as racial slurs against him. I put in those scenes, but later I removed them as such scenes would justify his actions and make him look heroic. I needed to stay away from that kind of sentimentality as that would defeat the purpose of the film.
How did you decide on the clinical tone of the film?
We restructured the film a lot on the editing table. We decided that the kidnapping by him (of three British travellers and one American) in Delhi would be the starting point. That created an intrigue — making the audience wonder who is this fellow and what’s his motive? When he is arrested in India, we moved to his past. His background intercuts with the prison sequence.
You did not wish to take much creative liberties while depicting Sheikh’s life.
Yes, I didn’t. The story deals with some very important world events between 1992 and 2008. In the movie, I am trying to look at all that through the lens of an individual. What was also important to me was the complicity of the authorities in the entire process. They are the ones who freed and empowered him in 2000 (during the IC 814 hostage swap). Why they did that will always remain a question. I did not want to indulge in any speculation.
What’s the message you are trying to send through the film?
I am not going to spoon-feed the audience. My motive is to provoke them to think. We need to find answers about why terrorism exists. We have bull****ted ourselves by just naming terrorist organisations for attacks. It is a much bigger issue. There is political patronage for these boys. We need to focus on individuals. That’s why the movie shows meetings with maulvis and imams taking place in Pakistan’s madrassas. This is deep-rooted and there is no attempt to reform. There is only reaction — bombing in Afghanistan or killing in Iraq and Syria.
What kind of criticism are you anticipating for taking such a stand?
As a society, we should be ready to see the mirror. If you see a beautiful face in the mirror, you should be ready to see an ugly face too. I have been told that there would be a backlash. There are some old Pakistani friends who felt slighted after watching Omerta. We had become friends after I made Shahid and Aligarh. They told me that I was not doing the right thing. I told them that they should be able to look at the problem in the eye. Why are we hiding from the fact that educated youths are resorting to violence? We have to find out where we went wrong.
Many anticipate censor trouble for the scene showing Sheikh, a prisoner at Tihar jail, urinating while the Indian national anthem is playing.
I don’t think there would be any trouble over the national anthem scene. This man disrespected our nation. We should take umbrage at that. We meet in summits and eat biryani together. What are we doing to stop terrorism? Nothing. We need to see that there is this kind of hatred that exists and address it.
Do you think this fear of censorship has grown in the last few years?
Yes, it has. We are often forced to self-censor in the fear that the Central Board of Film Certification won’t keep it. But I have not used a single expletive. What’s necessary to the narrative is there. In the past, I compromised to whatever extent I could for Shahid, Aligarh and, even, Simran. With Omerta, I am not going to do that even if this means knocking on the door of the court. We would apply for the censor certificate first. After we get the certificate, we will decide on the release date in early 2018.
Only a handful of filmmakers are making political statements in their movies.
Ever since I restarted my film career, I have found myself drawn to these stories. Maybe it’s to do with the times we are living in. The 26/11 attacks changed something within me and set me thinking. Earlier, there was the issue of suparis. Young boys were picked up and sent to kill rich people. That sparked off a reaction in me and I made Dil Pe Mat Le Yaar — about an immigrant garage mechanic, who in his desperation becomes a contract killer.
Do you think Simran’s release was overshadowed by controversies — over its writing credit and Kangana Ranaut-Hrithik Roshan — surrounding it?
This is the overwhelming opinion I am getting from everywhere. I would like to think it was not the case. If that’s true, then it is sad. The audience should watch a film for what it is and not for the events surrounding it.
Was Simran an attempt to do something different from the kind of movies you have been doing?
It was not a conscious effort. There was an interesting idea, character and actor. It was still dealing with my basic concerns — about migrants. It is also about characters and their flaws. Somewhere, there was a certain amount of incoherence in the way we told the story. That did not go down well with the audience. From being an IT professional in Australia to a successful filmmaker, your journey sounds fascinating.
I came to the industry without any training. I am still an outsider. Yet, my work has been embraced by people. This is a testament to the fact that I have never given up. I have never looked back at my journey though I revisit my movies with a critical eye.
You started your career with the popular TV show Khana Khazana. Are you still passionate about cooking?
Food is the reason I am able to move on so easily. On bad days, all I need to do is cook. My home has a massive collection of cookbooks. I order any book that I find remotely interesting. They are my bedtime reads. I read a recipe and imagine what the aroma would be like and how would it turn out.
You are also the executive producer of an upcoming web series Bose Dead/Alive. What’s next?
Bose is directed by Pulkit. My job as a mentor is to ensure that the narrative is in place, and the pace and authenticity are maintained. After Bose, I want to develop a movie around the cleaning of rivers. I have discussed the story with Rajkummar Rao and I am writing the script. For three years, I lived by the Indrayani river on the outskirts of Pune. In 2008, I came to know that the river was contaminated. Today, the river is dry most of the time and its natural flow is affected by the construction of factories near it and dams on it. We have also got the rights to adapt Shashi Deshpande’s Strangers to Ourselves, which is a relationship drama that’s sweet yet complex.