It was on a recce to Kashmir for his multi-starrer Karma (1986) that filmmaker Subhash Ghai first found himself enchanted by a beautiful young actress, shooting in the vicinity, who he instinctively felt was meant for stardom. On his return to Bombay, he had his office send her a message. The young girl turned up soon after, mummy in tow, to meet the showman. The girl was Madhuri Dixit, and this is what he told her mother: “If your daughter stops doing small roles, we can make her a heroine.” And then, he said what that would involve: “We will have to groom her.”
‘Groom’ is a word Ghai uses often, and anyone with any clue of how he likes to mould talent for big screen success would not have been surprised when he set up a film institute, Whistling Woods International (WWI), in 2006. It is how he sees himself: a creator of sparkle, an assurer of stardom, a conjuror of success. Why, by one popular story, he had even promised to launch Jackie Shroff’s son Tiger’s cinema career and given him a gold coin as a sign-on token. “But we will have to groom him,” he told the Shroffs.
There’s no escape from it. To Ghai, a director is to his actor what a guru is to his disciple. Whenever he was impressed with any of his protégés, he would say, in measured praise, “S/he has been a good student.” Even Ghai’s detractors grant that he was a walking-talking film school all by himself much before WWI became an extension of him, a second self. On film sets, he was a fine teacher (his mother was one), imparting film education with as much ease as he’d issue shot instructions. Those with experience of this saw him as India’s own Lee Strasberg, whose acting school in New York draws swarms of wannabe stars by promising to ‘force you to live up to the talent that you have’—only, desi in orientation.
That Ghai knew the art and craft of Hindi cinema was not in doubt. Evidence lay in blockbusters like Karz, Hero, Karma, Ram Lakhan, Saudagar, Khalnayak and Pardes. But that was then, the 1980s and early 1990s. These days, Ghai grabs headlines for reasons he cannot possibly be proud of. And it is threatening to cast a cloud over an entire career as a showman and steward of talent.
Trouble began in February when the Bombay High Court ordered Ghai to vacate 20 acres of land at Film City, Goregaon, on which his film institute stands. It was alleged that he had got the land at a huge discount eight years ago as a favour from Vilasrao Deshmukh, the then Chief Minister of Maharashtra. On 4 April, the Supreme Court upheld the Bombay High Court’s judgment (see ‘Vilasrao’s Dead End’, 23 April 2012), ordering him to immediately return 14.5 acres of the plot. The only consolation was that he could use the other 5.5 acres till 2014.
In response, a frantic Ghai announced what was to be a ‘show-of-strength’ press conference on 11 April. Long-time friends such as Govind Nihalani, Nagesh Kukunoor, Boney Kapoor, Manmohan Shetty and Shabana Azmi showed up to display solidarity. Azmi spoke of a Chinese term, of which she only knew the meaning, that the Chinese used to represent both ‘crisis’ and ‘opportunity’. Ghai, the actress seemed to imply, ought to make the most of this crisis.
For the 400 odd students of WWI, that sounds like cold comfort. “In such cases, the biggest sufferers are the students,” says Anupam Kher, who has worked with Ghai in films such as Karma, Ram Lakhan and Saudagar, and also runs his own acting academy, Actor Prepares. “It is not fair to blame Mr Ghai because anybody who the government had offered land and who had a vision for it would’ve got into this situation,” says Kher, “I pay rent on a building for my school in Juhu. From the start, I didn’t want to get into a situation where somebody is in charge of my creativity [in operating the school]. I did not want to run it democratically, as Mr Ghai does, but [as] a dictatorship—on the lines of the gurukul system.”
Kher is full of praise of Ghai’s intentions, emphatic that the industry must stand by him as “one unit” in this case because the country needs professional film schools like WWI. “I myself have suffered as a struggler,” he says, reminded of his tribulations, “Before Saaransh, somebody asked me to pay Rs 500 for a screen test, but [after shooting it], I discovered the camera had no raw stock.” And when he got to work with Ghai, it was a “huge deal” for him at the time. After all, at his peak as a showman, Ghai could get a top star at the snap of his fingers, even have him or her juggling shooting schedules for the privilege of doing a film for him.
Most of all, Ghai was held in high esteem for his knack for spotting undiscovered talent. Few filmmakers have deployed a combination of established stars and newcomers as heroically as he has, often giving many of them roles that came to define their careers. In Saudagar (1991), he launched Manisha Koirala and Vivek Mushran alongside Dilip Kumar and Raaj Kumar. The filmmaker had famously rejected Manisha on seeing her portfolio, especially put off by a photograph in which she wore a cap and garish make-up, but had changed his mind after meeting her.
Likewise, Ghai cast Mahima Chaudhary, a model at the time, in Pardes only after she let her guard down in an otherwise stiff interview session and revealed a child-like innocence that appealed to him.
Most of Ghai’s finds had names starting with his lucky letter ‘M’, or were rechristened so: Meenakshi Seshadri, Manisha Koirala and Mahima Chaudhary, to name some (Mahima’s original name was Ritu, and Meenakshi’s Shashikala, though Manisha was Manisha). The same superstition had him name his production house Mukta Arts.
Another Ghai idiosyncracy has been his need to appear in his own films, like Alfred Hitchcock. A failed actor, he amused himself by playing blinkand- miss cameo roles in films he directed. In Ram Lakhan, he pops up wearing a trench coat and hat on a motorbike, crooning Tera Naam Liya, while Jackie Shroff and Dimple Kapadia are locked in a lovers’ tiff. Then, in the Khalnayak song Paalki Mein Hoke, he picks up a ring cast off by Madhuri Dixit and gestures to the audience, as if to ask, ‘Now, what do I do with this?’ Just when you think he has vanished, he pops back on screen to return the ring and doff his hat.
The grandeur of Ghai’s endeavour, the delight he took in extravagant storytelling, the verve of his vision for cinema’s possibilities, earned him the sobriquet ‘Showman.’ He never took it seriously.
But that’s not how it all began. He was once just a middle-class boy with no filmi connection. Ghai may have been born in Nagpur and lived in Delhi and Rohtak, but his real journey began in Pune, at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), which he joined with the idea of becoming an actor. Although his father would have been happy to see him ‘settled’— and prosperous—as a chartered accountant, the to-be-showman had plans of his own. In school, he had seen and loved The Sound Of Music, Ben-Hur and The Ten Commandments, and was already dreaming of studying cinema. When his father found out, instead of blowing a fuse, he surprised him by sharing an ad calling for admissions to FTII. “He didn’t want me to run away from home, as Dharmendra had done, to join films,” Ghai told Delhi Times in 2002.
At FTII, he got to rub shoulders with the likes of Jaya Bhaduri, Mani Kaul, KK Mahajan and Shatrughan Sinha. Ghai’s first film, Kalicharan (1976) was with Sinha. But it took many aborted attempts to get his first film afloat. The struggle taught him a great deal, he was later to say, and it was then that he decided he would open a film school someday. At one point in the mid-90s, he considered starting a library. “When I passed out of FTII, I was going door-to-door for work. I had no godfather. But all doors were closed to outsiders. That’s when I realised that it’s not enough to have an education, it is equally important to have a connection,” said Ghai at his press conference.
Those around Ghai vouch for his passion for cinema education. “If he were looking just for profits, he would have opened a multiplex or commercial building. Why a film institute? Because he wants to give something back to the industry,” says Kiran Deohans, a cinematographer and guest lecturer at WWI.
Since its inception, WWI has been piling up losses by the crore—or so Ghai has insisted all along—but his grand focus has always been his “labour of love”, as he calls it, something he has never thought to giving up. According to Krishhna Murthy, head of WWI’s cinematography department, Ghai was clear right from the start that he wanted “nothing but the best”. Ghai supervised the institute’s recruitments himself, and if Murthy’s numbers are correct, “about 90 per cent of the faculty” is from FTII, an institute Ghai trusts.
But while Ghai’s passion may be genuine, WWI has had to face flak as an institute on several counts. Its fees of Rs 14 lakh for a two-year diploma course in film direction and Rs 7 lakh for a one-year diploma course in acting (the two most popular streams), for example, are seen by many as exorbitant. Questions have also been raised over how successful its graduates have been in the film industry. But this, say Ghai’s defenders, is about innate talent as much as training. “I have hired two as assistants and there were boys working on Agneepath,” says Deohans. “Mukta Arts itself had produced two films, Love Express and Cycle Kick, that had actors and technicians from WWI. If students are talented, they will be absorbed [by Bollywood].”
The show, Ghai proclaims, must go on. But try as he might, there are signs that his spirit is beginning to flag. None of the films he has directed has worked since he made Yaadein in 2001. And he just can’t seem to recover his former touch. Too much is expected of him, he is known to have complained. “If I make a serious film like Black & White, people say, ‘Subhashji, you must go back to the formula of your old films.’ When I make an out-and-out populist film, critics lash out at me,” he said in an interview a few years ago. All the same, as Kher says, Ghai is far from done yet. “It would be foolish to write off Mr Ghai,” he cautions. There are a lot of would-be performers out there who need their sparkle to be chiselled out. And Bollywood has very few showmen who thrive on doing just that.