Filmmaker Hansal Mehta with Jai at their Juhu home. Pic/Milind Saurkar
As son Jai’s first short film hits TV screens, father Hansal Mehta joins in for a chat on movies and why they love making them
Jane Borges (MID-DAY; April 30, 2017)

"Why don’t you want to become an actor?” filmmaker Hansal Mehta remembers asking his son in 2008, when the latter first expressed his interest in becoming a director. “Sorry dad, not interested,” was the curt reply he recalls receiving. “I’d rather make movies than be a movie star,” he said.

Jai was barely 17 then. Now, nearly a decade later, sitting in the comforts of their plush Juhu apartment, Hansal sizes up his son and seeing how handsomely the 25-year-old has turned out, once again suggests, “I wanted to make a love story like Sairat, with him in it.” Jai darts a “you-need-to-give-up” look, and then, manages a bashful smile. “Honestly, it’s not my cup of tea,” he argues.

On Friday, Jai’s first short film, Paanipath, starring Tejaswini Kolhapure and Nagesh Bhonsle in the lead, was released online on National Geographic’s website as part of its water conservation campaign Mission Blue. Filmmakers Imtiaz Ali, Aniruddha Roy Choudhury and Madhur Bhandarkar have also committed to making shorts for the project. “Actor banne se raha,” is what we presume is the thought running through the director’s mind. But, far from it, Hansal, who doesn’t make an overt show of excitement, is bursting with pride. “He has finally arrived on the path he set out for himself,” he says of Jai, who has been assisting him since his Shahid (2012) days. “I am not euphoric or jumping with joy, but am glad he has got a platform to showcase his talent,” he adds.

A still from Paanipath

If there was any hesitation about Jai becoming a director, the fears were not unfounded — a baggage of his own experience, the father confesses. “I am not a privileged filmmaker, neither do I belong to a quintessential filmy family. I have had to fight to make the films I made,” recalls the National Award winning director, who is in between wrapping up the post-production of his Kangana Ranaut-starrer Simran. “It took me 22 years before I could articulate my voice. And, my son has seen me through that struggle. It wasn’t a bed of roses,” adds Hansal, who started his career in television with the popular cookery show Khana Khazana in the mid '90s, before receiving cinematic success with Rajkumar Rao-starrer Shahid and later Aligarh, which released early last year. “All I could do as a father was lead him to the right people or give him a foot in the door. But, I made it clear that I wouldn’t bank roll his film; firstly, because I can’t afford it and secondly, because it would be unfair to him,” he says, adding that he wanted Jai to find his calling on his own, rather than hand-hold him through the process.

The one time Hansal did give in to his son’s pleas was when Jai asked his father if he could get him through Anurag Kashyap. That was just after the release of Dev D (2009). “Dev D blew me away,” recalls Jai. “When I saw the film, I knew I wanted to work with Anurag sir. It was an eye-opener.” Kashyap, who made his film debut with Hansal, writing the screenplay for the filmmaker’s first film Jayate (1997), didn’t need convincing. A phone call later, Jai was on Kashyap’s team. He went on to assist him in The Girl in Yellow Boots (2011) and later Gangs of Wasseypur (2012). “ In fact, Kashyap was very impressed with the kind of movies he watched,” Hansal says. The father clearly wasn’t. “The films he watched as a teen, made me think he was on drugs,” recalls a half-amused Hansal. “Fortunately, he wasn’t,’’ he adds. Jai insists that he was just high on “ good cinema”.

Today, in a way, Hansal feels indebted to Kashyap for putting his son through the rigorous grind of movie making. “Anurag is his cinema parent,” says Hansal. “I was one of the few people who also had access to his DVD library,” Jai shares.

The opportunity to work on his first short was simply chance. “I had committed to working on this project (for NatGeo). But, I did not have the bandwidth or resources to execute it,” says Hansal. But, they were unrelenting and even handed him some story ideas, in the hope that the filmmaker would do the film. “ I then asked Jai if he was interested in taking it up.” Jai jumped at the idea, but not before thrashing all the story suggestions that had come his way. He, along with co-writer Disha Rindani, scripted a 16-minute short on the disparity of water availability in Mumbai. The idea came to him accidentally, when Rindani and he were working on a screenplay at the former’s Oshiwara residence. Sometime later, her maid, who lived in a slum adjoining the posh neighbourhood, came home wailing with a bucket full of filthy clothes. “Their slum hadn’t received water in three days. And, the maid’s daughter had been sent home from school because her clothes hadn’t been washed. I could sense how helpless she was,” says Jai. The duo co-wrote the story, which is centered around a similar plot, and Jai brought out the final product within a month.

If Hansal intervened in the filmmaking process, it was only with advice and suggestions. “He listened to me, but stuck to his guns and refused to make any of the changes,” says the filmmaker. “And, I think, I like that about him. He is very pushy about what he believes in, like me.” “I am everything he is,” Jai smiles.

Jai Mehta on the set of his short film