The director tells us how a chilli chicken lunch set him for a career in advertising, and how an entire village contributed to his multiple National Award-winning Marathi film, Ventilator
Kunal Guha (MUMBAI MIRROR; April 16, 2017)

When we meet filmmaker Rajesh Mapuskar at Shivaji Park, his wide smile mirrors his mood. That his debut Marathi black comedy Ventilator has just won three National Awards, including a Best Director for him, isn’t the only reason for his cheerful demeanour.

“I would hang out here to check out girls when I was at Kirti College,” says Mapuskar, who was first introduced to cinema while at school. He’d spend his afternoons at his family-owned theatre in Shrivardhan, a beach town in Raigad. “I was the usher, sweeper, projection operator and would sometimes also man the ticket counter,” says Mapuskar, adding, “I remember when certain films were overbooked, I’d sprint back home to collect chairs to accommodate everyone.”

Ventilator is about a large joint family that collects at a hospital when a senior member is put on life support. The film leans on eccentric characters and slippery situations and has 116 speaking characters. “I grew up in a joint family comprising 68 members and I’m used to parallel sub-plots. Since I also shot in Shrivardhan, my neighbours, uncles, aunts and the entire village was part of the film in some way.”

The movie also delves into the unspoken resentment that can fragment the relationship shared by fathers and sons, something Mapuskar borrowed from his relationship with his own father. “He is my khazana of inspiration and he loved the film too.”

Mapuskar had little interest in academics in school, he moved to Mumbai after his 10th standard exams, in 1983, ostensibly to pursue a commercial arts course at Sir JJ School of Art. “But my dad didn’t approve, he thought I’d end up painting shop boards.” He then took up Commerce on his father’s insistence. “But then he saw my B.Com. marks and told me to return to the village and join the family business.” But Mapuskar had other plans. After a string of odd jobs, including that of a sales representative, the 44-year-old signed up for a six-month diploma in business management. A friend got him space to study at a doctor’s clinic in Mahim, which remained vacant through the day. This turned out to be his first break.

“This doctor also happened to produce TV serials and his clinic doubled up as a space for story sessions,” remembers Mapuskar, whose occasional plot contributions landed him a job as an assistant director for princely salary of Rs 700. Then, someone suggested he get into modeling. “I had more hair on my head then so I was convinced,” laughs Mapuskar.

Four years later, he bagged a TVC in which he played a shopkeeper interacting with a salesman played by Rajkumar Hirani, who was a freelance editor at the time. The two bonded instantly. Apart from getting paid Rs 2,500 for a day’s shoot, Mapuskar was fascinated by the fact that he was served chilli chicken for lunch. “Raju told me this was a regular affair at ad shoots and even introduced me to the director Dilip Ghosh, who hired me as a production assistant.”

Five years on, he was on the verge of moving to Bangkok to work with a boutique production outfit, when Hirani called to ask him to join his debut feature that was being produced by Vinod Chopra Films. “He [Hirani] said after the film, I could move to Bangkok.”

Mapuskar ended up as chief assistant to Hirani on Munnabhai MBBS, Lage Rago Munnabhai and 3 Idiots, and also made his directorial debut with Ferrari Ki Sawaari. “The film didn’t do Rs 100 crore, but it did decent business. Till date, when people meet me, they speak fondly of it,” he says of the comedy starring Boman Irani and Sharman Joshi.

The idea for Ventilator, a black comedy, struck him when he was halfway through writing his second Hindi film — a musical. “Many of my friends discouraged me and asked me to not venture into Marathi films as there’s no money in it.” But Mapuskar was determined to make it “whether it was a success or a failure”.

It was at this stage that his accountant told him about Priyanka Chopra’s interest in producing regional films. “I reached out to Priyanka and her mother, Dr Madhu Chopra, and within five minutes they were sure about backing it. We never thought of monetary gains from the film.”

Mapuskar’s next step is to complete writing his Hindi musical that he abandoned to make Ventilator. While he feels winning a national honour for his work is “humbling”, he doesn’t feel any additional pressure to follow it up. “My approach to cinema will remain the same. It’s just difficult to imagine that my name has been included among the greats like Satyajit Ray and Mrinal Sen who have won this award in the past.”