This writer was once speaking with a film industry friend, at a time when Singh is Kinng had just released, who told him straight-faced and, it must be added, rather cruelly, “If an Ed Wood-esque subject is ever made in India, Anees Bazmee would be my candidate.” (Ed Wood is widely considered the worst director Hollywood has seen, and Tim Burton made an eponymous film on him starring Johnny Depp.) The writer disagreed with his friend and responded by saying he’d go for TLV Prasad, that prolific creator of Mithun Chakraborty’s B-grade films, conceived, filmed and possibly even dubbed at Chakraborty’s own hotel in Ooty.
While the search for the worst director in our cinematic history could stir up a fierce debate and must be reserved for another day, most of those who follow Bollywood with any degree of seriousness would concur that Bazmee’s recent bumper crop of flops, No Problem and Thank You, are just small indications of a larger problem, where inanities are being passed off as humour. Here’s a man who, in an age of edgy attempts at storytelling, often describes his films as having “comedy, action, romance, sab kucch hai”. It is little wonder then that he’s a perfect foil for critics to jump at. Despite delivering a monster hit like Singh is Kinng, with No Problem and Thank You, he has invited notoriety as the crassest director on the scene.
Sprawled on a cushion at his Andheri workplace, located on a street famous for housing small-time studio offices, Bazmee scowls when questioned about the fate of his last two films: “I’ll never disown No Problem and Thank You. So many people came up to me and said they’ve never laughed so much before.”
Words such as ‘mind-numbing’, ‘senseless’ and ‘drivel’ are strewn across reviews of his recent films. Unfazed, Bazmee believes critics are pseudo-intellectuals whose opinion has hardly ever bothered him. He claims he never calls them to request favourable reviews. “It’s a critic’s job to criticise, that’s what s/he is paid for. Even if they like my film, they won’t say it openly. They want to indicate that they’re a little high-brow for comedies; they look down upon not only my films, but the genre itself,” he says.
The genre that Bazmee is referring to—potboilers that call for leaving the brain behind at home—has been championed by filmmakers ranging from Nasir Hussain to Yash Chopra and Manmohan Desai to Prakash Mehra. Bazmee’s intellectual mentors are the latter and he insists his films should be viewed strictly for their entertainment value.“Everyone has some sort of trouble in their lives. Why give them more problems? That’s why it becomes imperative for cinema to transport you into a dream world. When a viewer pays Rs 100 for a ticket, he should get its worth. If I don’t entertain him, I feel I’ve cheated him,” he says.
Bazmee, a mild-mannered man, has been in this business for nearly three decades. Born to an Urdu poet who never saw his works published, Bazmee came up the hard way. His family was perennially on the go, moving from one room to another every time their 11-month lease lapsed. This way, he lived all over Mumbai. At 15, while staying in the Muslim quarter of Dongri, he came in contact with shayars. “That made a big impact on me,” he says, “I read the diwans of Mir and Ghalib. I think my dialogue-writing is street-smart because of my upbringing there.”
As far back as in the late 1980s, Bazmee had already begun writing. He soon found an ally in David Dhawan, and their like-mindedness bore films such as Swarg, Aankhen, Raja Babu and Bol Radha Bol. By 1995, Bazmee was directing films independently. Most were rip-offs of Hollywood blockbusters, but no one was complaining, since those were the years when even top directors blatantly looking westwards for inspiration. Those were also the days when Bazmee became known for his collaboration with Ajay Devgn, who was already a star when he agreed to act in his directorial debut, Hulchul, and later Pyaar To Hona Hi Tha.
Bazmee’s entry—with No Entry, as it happens—into the big studios, bigger stars and wider markets coincided with a media boom. So, while new-age viewers had access to the best DVDs from world cinema and relatively unknown Hollywood comedies which would later acquire cult status, shaping their choice of cinema, Bazmee’s work was, as an expert once said, “succeeding backwards”.
It’s indeed a profound paradox that Bazmee started out as an assistant to Raj Kapoor in the 1980s, the Chaplin-inspired genius whose celebrated oeuvre catered more to Nehruvian India than the capitalistic movie-goer whom Bazmee peddles his own comedies to.
A close friend of Raj’s son Rajiv aka Chimpu, Bazmee says the legendary actor-director was his first guru. “From him, I learnt everything about cinema,” he says, admitting that their films are antipodal. “Raj saab made very different films. Maybe I haven’t put to use all the aspects I learnt from him, but the biggest thing I discovered in him was his passion. He used to write till late in the night and talk for hours about cinema. I never saw that kind of mad passion in anyone else. I’m also passionate about my work. Like Raj saab, I can work for hours and hours on end.”
He says he enjoys making the kind of films he enjoys watching. “I love the cinema of Manmohan Desai and Prakash Mehra. But the media never gives these filmmakers their due. I’ve never understood how the star rating system works. I’m sure they would’ve run down Manmohanji’s films when they first released, but I’ve seen far worse movies being given five star ratings. If the media thinks I’m a bad director, so be it. I’ll never make a film for those 15 distinguished people who decide at a screening ki film achchi hai ya nahin. I don’t think I’d like to make a film that gets five stars in a column, but not even five people go to watch it.”
He does admit that the failure of his last few films made him introspect. “I realised I’ve to get back to writing my own films,” he reasons, “The problem started when I took too much work and couldn’t justify it. If you don’t write well, you don’t get a good film.”
His new release, Ready, has its story borrowed from a South Indian flick. “After Ready, I will film scripts only written by me. The other day, I met Ajay Devgn who told me, ‘Anees bhai, if I give you one rupee for a film, 70 paisa would be for your writing and 30 for your direction.’ That set me thinking. I understood that I’ve an identity as a writer which I shouldn’t lose.”
Lighting up a cigarette, he says he prefers to write in complete isolation. He has a place in Khandala (a hill station near Mumbai), where he takes off every now and then to pen his scripts. Those close to him reveal he comes up with impromptu dialogue on the sets. There have been instances when he wouldn’t even have a scene in place, in which case he’d buy time and write one then and there. Bazmee laughs, “Improvisation is a common practice. I do that all the time.” He adds, “Remember the scene in Welcome in which Nana (Patekar) rides a horse and Vijay (Raaz), who plays a director, gets frustrated because he just can’t get it right? I didn’t have that scene written. I went on the sets that day, and, while speaking with Nana, came up with something. I called out to my assistant, asked him to put it on page and we canned it.” Those who’ve watched the film would recall the two-page script being torn to pieces in a scuffle.
“That’s what critics do to my film,” he states, self-deprecatingly, “They literally tear it apart without realising the effort that has gone in its making. One of them once wrote about a film of mine, ‘Sar mein jaise screw daal raha hai.’ Why am I singled out? The bigger the hits I deliver, the harder these so-called intellectuals hit me.”
What does he think his legacy will be? He stubs out his cigarette and punches his chest to say, “For somebody who struggled so much in life, I think I’ve achieved enough. As for my films, some of them will stand the test of time. If you remember Padosan and Pyar Kiye Jaa so many years after their release, why not Pyaar To Hona Hi Tha, Welcome and No Entry?”