Renuka Vyavahare (BOMBAY TIMES; April 10, 2017)

Articulate and intelligent, acclaimed director, screenwriter and producer Mahesh Bhatt, 68, has the gift of the gab. His words are not bound by his necessity to say the right thing and that sets him apart. His audacious thoughts and beliefs make you sit up and listen. As his next production Begum Jaan gears up for release, he gets candid about reinventing his brand of cinema, his message for daughter Alia Bhatt and his take on Kangana Ranaut's views on nepotism in Bollywood. Excerpts...

At one point, many raised eyebrows at the Bhatt camp's 'erotic thrillers', which did well at the box office. Did that trigger your quest for reinvention?
We were caught in a self-imitating loop, in which the market feels safe when you follow a certain template. Our films were packaged well and had great music, but somewhere, the content was getting dumbed down. I discovered that Raaz was good, Raaz 2 was also reasonably good but Raaz 3, despite being a hit, had a diminishing impact. That was the time I realised that we had become everything that I hated when I began my journey. I was reminded of the Mahesh Bhatt, who stood outside Rajshri's office to make Saaransh, with fire in his belly and a vision. We had to purge the cobweb of space that we had made this place into.

Why did you stop making films like Arth and Saaransh?
Times had changed. People who were going out there and watching movies like Arth and Saaransh in the 80s were no longer going to theatres in the 90s as the place had become a pigsty! India was moving towards the digital age, so we decided to make movies like Aashiqui that catered to the young and restless of the 90s.

Did the fact that socially-relevant films seldom did well at the box office also trigger your need for change?
When Zakhm got a National Award but didn't do well at the box office, I discovered this is the kind of India where people say they want good movies but they actually don't watch them. It made me a little bitter. I didn't want to pander to a niche audience. Ultimately, it's a business of entertainment. I am not here to steer the conscience of the nation into some direction, which will change them forever. I am here to entertain, engage, inspire and stimulate them. Thus, as a policy change, we decided to make movies, which will bravely and audaciously aim for the box office. Raaz turned out to be a hit at a time when horror, as a genre, was sniggered at and most believed, 'You can't make movies without stars'. With Raaz, we found a recipe - high-concept story, great music, edge-of-the-seat experience and a dash of erotica.

You don't regret modifying your sensibility to achieve box office success?
Is it dumb to make films that people want to watch? Or is it wise to make movies that they don't want to watch? People who saw movies like Raaz, Murder and Jism are from our country! They didn't come from Mars. Why did they pay money to watch these films? People thought that I had sold my soul to the devil for 30 pieces of silver. Yes, 30 pieces of silver is what I set out for when I began my journey. As Charlie Chaplin said, 'I went into the business for the money, and the art grew out of it.' When I was 16, my father was not doing well, so I had to go out and supplement my household income. I came to make a living and support my family. I had to survive in this dog-eat-dog business, so I was unapologetic about what we made. We dared to junk the old skin.

So, with Vishesh Films completing 30 years, you have made a conscious decision to move away from the Bhatt movie template and focus on films like Begum Jaan...
We thought that the best way to celebrate this feat is by supporting path-breaking cinema made by enigmatic film makers like Srijit Mukherji. However, Begum Jaan is not a modified continuity of the Mahesh Bhatt kind of cinema. It's a new bird in town. We needed an outside surge of energy. The Hindi adaptation has taken a quantum leap from the Bengali original (Rajkahini). Srijit and Kausar Munir wrote it and her personality gave it the flavour and emotional sub text, which Hindi cinegoers can relate to as Bollywood films are faster in terms of their pace than Bengali movies.

Will we see you return as a director soon? It has been speculated that you will direct Alia, Sanjay Dutt and Pooja Bhatt in a sequel to Sadak. True?
Direction? No. Mahesh Bhatt, the director is dead and he led a happy life. I don't believe in reincarnations. What has bloomed from my dust is a far more vibrant plant called Vishesh Films. I had reinvented myself as a director in the 80s and 90s, but my desire to make movies has withered away.

But one hopes you'll direct Alia someday.
Alia is an intelligent girl and she knows it when I say that her father is an extinct volcano. Once upon a time, there was a filmmaker who made these movies, but I do not have the desire to make them anymore and nothing can take me back to doing it.

As a father and a filmmaker, how do you view Alia's early success?
Alia has astounded me and I am awestruck by her ability to dedicate herself so sincerely to whatever she has done. She has fiercely moved away from the work she has done previously. You talk about my cinematic masterpieces, I think Alia is my real-life masterpiece and no cinema of mine can even come close to her. Also, I keep on telling Alia, 'You should do your work seriously but never take yourself too seriously. Be proud of your achievements but don't become the first member of your fan club.'

You launched Kangana in Gangster. She recently spoke about nepotism in Bollywood. Your thoughts?
There is some truth to what she says. The film industry not only in India but also Hollywood, is insular. It's inward-looking. It doesn't look beyond its own little window, so it seems like a fortress to an outsider, hence I don't grudge her view. That is the reality, but you can't generalise this kind of critique. My career says that my doors will always be open for all. When an Anupam Kher walked in through my door at 28 and got Saaransh, it launched his unimaginably productive career. I have always done this kind of work. Even when Kangana came to us, she was a brilliant actor and today, she has much to be proud of. There is no denying that entertainment industries are insular, but you can't generalise that statement and apply it to everyone. There is this self congratulatory attitude that since I was an outsider, my journey was more difficult than yours, which was from Juhu to box office peak. It's a good rhetoric, but it's the people who decide who is a star and who isn't. We may have the power to give you an opportunity, but we don't have the power to decide which film will work and which won't.

All your films, including Begum Jaan, have had strong female characters...
My mother, Shirin Mohammad Ali, was a single parent who brought us up, inspired us and inculcated in us the values of respecting the diversity of this country. You should allow others to disagree with you. She was not married to my father in those days and did not lament about it or make some tragedy out of her life. She did not prescribe her aberration to anybody either. She proved that it's possible to live life on your own terms with dignity, no matter where you come from.