Ever since his 2013 film Shahid, Hansal Mehta has found an audience that understands his voice. They embrace his thought-provoking storytelling and participate in active discussions over the stories he tells. The director is expecting the same reaction to his upcoming film, Omerta, starring his favourite Rajkummar Rao, which is the story of the terrorist Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh.
Ahead of the film’s release on May 4, Hansal interacts with indianexpress.com about why Omerta is a liberal’s expression in the current jingoism-dominant India, his journey from a crowd-pleaser to letting himself be, and why no amount of acclaim can ever make him feel like an industry insider.
Q. How different are the two feelings- when your work travels to film festivals across the world and when it finally nears its release back home?
In festivals, it makes you nervous because you are going to interact with the audience just after they have seen the film. The audience does not lie, you can see it on their faces. You can see when people start leaving the theatres. It’s very scary. I have seen that with other films that the audience leaves the theatres and there are only five-six people left in the hall. So, it’s very satisfying when you have a full house like in Toronto (International Film Festival), the Q & A (for Omerta) had to be stopped. But that’s what you want, for your film to evoke debates.
With a commercial release, there’s a lot at stake. The money that you have invested, the time and the effort… and you are looking for the audience to reciprocate that in commercial terms. You expect a respectable amount of collection so that business of cinema can continue. Eventually, we are in the business and if I have to tell stories like Omerta, I have to keep making films and for that to continue, it’s important that a film is seen.
Q. Your filmmaking was never been driven by box-office collections…
(Interrupts) It still isn’t. I am not in the 100-200 crore race.
Q. But like you said, you have now realised the importance of films’ commercial viability.
What matters to me is that the film recovers its cost that enables you to make your next film. That is crucial. So, what I ensure is that the film is made on a tighter budget. That way you are minimising risk. It’s a combination of non-theatrical, theatrical revenues.
Q. When did numbers start mattering to you, even if in a minimalistic manner?
They have always mattered to me. The budget of my film has always mattered to me. I have always believed that budgets fail, films don’t. Most of the time I keep a strict control over my budgets, although I don’t produce. The only time I couldn’t do this was Simran. It went out of hand.
Q. Was it because you were working with a big star?
There were many factors. We shot in the US that became unmanageable. There were a lot of learnings that came out of that film. The cost really shot up and it hit the producer really hard.
Q. When you reflect Simran’s failure at the box-office…
(Interrupts) It’s not that kind of a failure. It did a fair amount of numbers. That’s precisely my point that had the budget of the film been tighter, it would have been as a success. That film was made with the intention that it should do well at the box-office. It was not made for some major film festivals. As an artiste, there are things in the film that I really appreciate but the big failure of the film was its cost.
Q. Do you feel the controversies around the film marred its fate?
I don’t know. It’s very difficult to reflect on that when you are at the centre of it. I have moved on. I will reflect upon it, but in private. Yes, I do have an opinion on it but I reserve any public discussion on it. I have always resisted any public discussion but one thing that I say is that I wish the cost had been controlled.
Q. Director Anand L Rai once said filmmakers take time to find their voice. Was Shahid the point, when you felt you found your voice?
Possible. That was my second inning actually. I think my first two films- Jayate and Dil Pe Mat Le Yaar and to some extent Chhal reflected somebody, who was trying to break out from the regular, mainstream mould but in an attempt to find that voice, I failed. So, I was trying to do something that was completely uncharacteristic of me. Shahid was that tipping point, The sabbatical that I took after Woodstock Villa came out (in 2008) changed things and helped me find my voice.
It’s about being fearless. There are a lot of fears, of the market, the failure, the fear of backlash or political forces. The moment you stop fearing these forces, your voice is loud and clear. That’s what happened with me with Shahid and after that.
Q. So, films like Woodstock Villa and Yeh Kya Ho Raha Hai came from the space where you were tempted to cater to the masses?
I wasn’t tempted to, I was actually catering to them. So, I was tempted that ‘Let me try this, maybe this will work and then I will get to make my kind of films.’
I found Omerta’s story in 2005, when I was in the middle of this mainstream nonsense. I tried pitching it also but nobody wanted to make it then. It was too early and also the work that I had previously done, people were like, ‘What is this?’. People knew me by Yeh Kya Ho Raha Hai so, they were shocked that I wanted to do a true story film, a biopic, which was an unheard genre in India at that time.
Q. All these years, were there times when you felt Omerta would never get made?
No. That never happened because I know stories find their time. I actually pitched Omerta to Sunil Vohra (film’s producer) in 2011 and I had written its screenplay. He asked me, ‘What else do you have? I narrated Shahid as an idea to him then, and said, ‘This is the idea but that’s a screenplay.’ He told me, ‘Let’s make Shahid first. Omerta is also very good but we will make it next time.’ Shahid was more manageable, this one was tougher in terms of logistics and scale. Nobody had faith that I could pull off something like this.
Q. You believe today is the right time for Omerta as the audience has warmed up to the biopic genre?
There’s also a herd mentality when it comes to biopics. So, I don’t go for that. Also, Omerta is a very un-biopic like film in the mainstream sense because it is about an anti-hero. The good thing is that I made Shahid and I got Rajkummar and in him, I got my Omar. Had it been made earlier, it would have been made with someone else. So, there’s always a time and a place for everything.
Q. You and Rajkummar are among the formidable director-actor duos in Bollywood, and people keep huge expectations from whatever you both collaborate on. What is it about your team that has the audience’s faith?
I am glad that’s the perception because we both work really hard. We approach our work with a lot of honesty. We put ourselves out there completely, we give ourselves to a film so, I am glad our work is seen that way. It makes me very proud. We trust each other a lot. We believe in similar stories and in telling these stories in the atmosphere of mutual trust. I know he will deliver an interpretation that would be brilliant and he knows I will present him with a lot of respect, love and care.
Q. At a time in the country, when jingoism is at its peak, have there been doubts about how Omerta would be received?
In the jingoistic atmosphere, someone like me, a liberal, making this film is important, to tell you that a liberal is not a blind liberal, like a blind nationalist. I am not a blind liberal. I know, I recognise it and I speak about it that yes Pakistan establishment is encouraging people like Omar Sheikh, empowering them and creating this atmosphere of terror, and creating this tension on the border so that their business can flourish.
We don’t talk about that. So, as a liberal, my duty is to tell you that yes, I am a nationalist when it comes to it, I am not a pseudo-nationalist, I am not a pseudo-liberal. I have a voice and I have an opinion. The liberal is someone with a definite opinion, which is driven by empathy and understanding. When I am talking about terrorism, it is done with an understanding of political, human and geographical realities.
Q. How difficult is it for a liberal to voice his or her opinion today?
It’s as difficult as we perceive it. Because we don’t speak up, we feel our voice is suppressed. How many times will you be trolled? This troll business is already weakening, it’s losing its sheen. No operation can continue forever. It will end, even if at that time you feel the end is nowhere in the sight.
Q. After your second innings, how did the industry’s way of looking at you change?
They have always been respectful. It’s a nice place, but I still see myself as somebody, who is a part of it but from the outside. I see myself as a gate-crasher at a private party, and the gate-crasher has been welcomed with open arms. I am a perennial gate-crasher, my film’s releasing with 102 Not Out, so I am again gate-crashing someone’s party.