A Fire Rekindled

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After a promising start and a quick burn-out, Hansal Mehta returns to cinema with fresh fervour

Over the last few years, it has seemed that Hansal Mehta had quietly retired as a doyen of Indian indie cinema, while his more vocal friend and colleague Anurag Kashyap took up the mantle full time. He and Kashyap had debuted together, co-writing the 1997 movie ...Jayate.

Mehta’s first few films, particularly Dil Pe Mat Le Yaar (2000) and Chhal (2002), seemed to herald the dawn of a distinct cinematic voice. But the difficulty of funding offbeat cinema before the beginning of the multiplex phenomenon, coupled with an appalling assault on him by members of the Shiv Sena, diverted his focus. After making a few critical and commercial duds, Mehta went into semi-retirement—until the death of activist and lawyer Shahid Azmi drew him back.

Shahid, Mehta’s biopic based on Azmi’s life, produced by Kashyap, is a searing portrait of an honest man in a dishonest system. Its unassuming simplicity, both in design and edit, lend it a heart-warming optimism, distinguishing it from other ‘rebel with a cause’ films. In an era of bombastic one-man-army heroes, Shahid is a quiet celebration of the hero within every man.

The film premiered at the Toronto Film Festival 2012 to much acclaim, and has since travelled to several other festivals. Mehta seems to have found form once again, winning Best Director at the New York Indian Film Festival and the Indian Film Festival of Stuttgart. Excerpts from an interview:

Class conflict and the common man’s inability to fight the system were central themes in your early work. You’ve now returned from a long sabbatical with another film—Shahid—that addresses these issues. Why do they matter so much to you?

I believe art is very often a quest [to find] yourself and your voice. These issues you spoke of... have angered me most of my life, and when it came to making my first feature film, they found their way in. I’ve been a common man and travelled by [local] trains. I used to go to college from Khar to Dadar every day, and somewhere within me, I knew that I [wouldn’t] be standing in [those] trains forever. But I would get very frustrated looking at the people who I knew [would] die travelling on those trains. The man who wears the same kind of clothes every day and carries the same dabba to office—I would be angry at that man and at his inertia. My anger wasn’t for him, it was at him. Somewhere, I think, my films began to transform that anger into some sort of search or a quest for a solution to this inertia.

You were trying to make these films at a time when mainstream Bollywood was largely escapist; the parallel movement of the 80s, of films mirroring society, had died down.

Amitabh Bachchan’s fall and retirement in the late 80s put Hindi cinema in a complete quandary. Films started failing, star kids didn’t work—even Aamir Khan was doing Inder Kumar films. Our industry was in a state of flux and there was no hope, until Shah Rukh Khan came in. Anurag [Kashyap], Nagesh Kukunoor and me were among the first few people who started making such films at that time, when it was all but impossible to make them. Anurag’s first film Paanch didn’t release. I was debt-ridden because of Dil Pe Mat Le Yaar and Chhal. There was no funding and, in fact, Dil Pe… was made on my assistant director’s money. Nagesh Kukunoor had the longest run of successful films, but somewhere, he also became a victim of the system. So I wanted to get out at that time because it was very lonely working against the system, and I couldn’t deal with it. It all became too much for me, and I felt that I may end up committing suicide. I had just wanted to make my kinds of films, but I had not taken on any responsibility. Koi jhanda le ke nahin nikla thha main, yaar (I didn’t start out waving a flag).

There was an incident after Dil Pe Mat Le Yaar where your office was ransacked and your face was blackened by members of the Shiv Sena because of a dialogue in the film. Though Chhal followed that incident, were the mainstream films you did afterwards a reaction to the incident in any way?

After the incident, I reached a point where I really regressed. I used to drink all the time. I was depressed and would be locked up in my room. I was in very bad shape. But it quickly got over because I like looking at myself in my mirror. And when I asked myself, ‘What the fuck are you doing to yourself?’ I got no answer, so I carried on. That’s Taurean nature: the moment I smell defeat, I push myself. But yes, Chhal began my diversion from the space [where I started]. It was a two-hour music video with pumping background music and cool shots. But at least it was an experiment in form. Yeh Kya Ho Raha Hai was a sad episode. I think I failed as a director with it. But I was debt-ridden and I wanted to run my house. That was a desperate mistake, to have done that. I stopped looking at the mirror. At that time, the only person who was like a voice of conscience to me was Anurag. He’d meet me at regular intervals only to tell me, ‘Tu bik gaya hai’ (You’ve sold out) and would then move on.

Sanjay Gupta was very gracious to give me Woodstock Villa because of Chhal. I should have remained friends with him and let the respect override everything. But I got sucked into the glamour of it all: Sanjay Dutt backing you, the film [being launched] at IIFA (International Indian Film Academy Awards) by Abhishek Bachchan, and all the back thumping. But when I saw the preview of the film, I realised I had been dishonest to my craft, to my producer, and to the two newcomers making their debut with it. And I felt terrible. I still carry that guilt with me. The day the film released, I left Bombay and went away to [my] village.

You went away for quite a while.

I spent around two-and-a-half years purely in introspection. I took a step back to observe myself. And the first thing you realise when you do that is that you’ve not spent enough time with your loved ones. Ambition can be ruthless, especially to your loved ones. The moment you rediscover love, you start rediscovering yourself. I know it sounds idealistic, but spending time with the children, with nature and cooking, helped me become more transparent. The moment you can admit to yourself that you were dishonest, you find yourself. And [when] news of Shahid’s death came, it was a wake-up call for me to come alive.

What was it about Azmi that moved you?

When I read about his death, I thought he had a remarkable life. Here was a guy from below ordinary circumstances, [who] was possessed with this drive for change, and who became an amazing vehicle of it. He had spread so much goodwill that, for me, he is Gandhi—in that he’s the common man who went [to extraordinary] measures to bring about change. I saw my life in his journey. It was like my own autobiography magnified many times. Dwelling on who killed him wouldn’t bring him back, but his life could inspire many more Shahids. This movie is also the tipping point of my life. After almost courting Shahid and discovering a man of such integrity, I know I’m never going to make a film without full creative freedom.

The film mirrors our cultural insensitivity, yet at the same time, there is an undying optimism running through it.

We are an intolerant nation, and our intolerance is growing. This film is also a result of that. We are also divided on everything; we can’t just agree to disagree. These are volatile times we are living in, and that is the unfortunate reality of our city, Mumbai. It used to be called Bombay [earlier], and Bombay was not like this, but the name change has been very symbolic. But I didn’t want to leave audiences with just that because Shahid was an independent spirit who taught me to be fearless and [realise] that if there is a hurdle, it is only temporary.

That optimism comes from Shahid. Everyone we met during research had nothing but good things to say of him. The film has happened almost like a miracle. We shot with very little money, limited resources and no permissions for locations. Every time the shoot [was] stalled or we [ran] into trouble—which happened a lot—we’d meet someone who’d say, ‘Shahid bhai par film bana rahe ho? (You’re making a film about Shahid?) How can we help you? Please make a good film.’ There was a power beyond my own human capability helping me on this. I would often feel that Shahid himself was around, making this film happen.