Exactly 14 years ago, filmmaker Hansal Mehta felt “creatively dead”. His forehead was pressed against the feet of an elderly woman of Mumbai’s Khar Danda, pleading for forgiveness. A crowd of 20,000 people that included 10 politicians stood watching. “A part of me died that day”, says Mehta. The mistake he had committed? “According to the Shiv Sena’s moral police, my film [Dil Pe Mat Le Yaar!] had ‘anti-Maharashtrian’ dialogues,” he recalls. They vandalised his office, blackened his face with ink and threatened to kill the actor who had dared to utter the dialogue. “I will never forget that humilation,” says Mehta, who says that although he made a few films after that, he had stopped being honest with his work. After some self-proclaimed “atrociously-made films” like Yeh Kya Ho Raha Hai and Woodstock Villa, he decided to flee to Lonavala, in a quest to find himself and his art. Years later, when Mehta made a comeback with the biopic of slain human rights lawyer Shahid, he, however did not forget to put all the humilation to good use. Mehta weaved his own story into a scene in the film and subsequently in its first look poster. Rajkummar Rao, the actor who played the titular role, stared at us with a blackened face. And, Mehta won the National Award for the best director for this film.
“I did feel vindicated then,” says Mehta, whose latest film City Lights is out now and is receiving positive reviews. “But that moment, like every other, just passed.” His voice is ever so soft and he doesn’t come across as an angry man at all. But on the blog that Mehta religiously updates with some straight-from-the-heart posts, there is a page wholly devoted to anger. The blog has been his playground during the years he had stopped making films and retired to a house in Lonavala, “far away from the madness of the city”. He used it to vent his anger, depression and helplessness through writing, and the interactions with those who commented on his blogposts were what kept him sane. He used bold words, perhaps those which he couldn’t, or weren’t allowed to use in his films. And he believes that he found his voice in exile, when his posts started exploding with controversial statements like, “The jihadis have Osama. Gujarat has Modi. Maharashtra has the Thackerays.”
But now, Mehta is a man of few words. “I am not afraid,” he says. “But now I know how to handle my emotions and when and where to pour it out.” This could be the reason why although he appeared in newsroom discussions to voice his concerns over Modi’s PM candidatureship and expressed his solidarity to the Aam Admi Party, he appeared stoic and completely at ease when we met him on the day the results were out. “I am extremely disappointed, but the people of India have made the choice, so what can I say,” Mehta asks. “I just hope we don’t get to hear any bad news from the government.”
“Film-maker, Entrepreneur, Foodie, Traveller, Whisky and Wine Lover, Father, Lover, Humanist, Stupid Romantic, Politically Incorrect, Socially Inept, Largely Cynical,” is how Mehta chooses to introduce himself to his readers. Born in “Bombay” (he vehemently disagrees to adhere to the new name Mumbai) to a middle-class Gujarati household, Mehta, too, went the conventional way first. He did software engineering, got married and landed a job in Australia. All this happened before he was 21 and in no time he started getting bored. Young and restless, while he wandered in search of change, it fell into his lap. “The company I worked for also ran a rental store for pirated films,” says Mehta. “So I got introduced to cameras and editing over there.” He didn’t take a long time to realise his calling and immediately returned to India to puruse it.
A big time foodie, who considers cooking the highest form of meditation, Mehta’s first proposal came naturally to him. It was for a cookery show called Khana Khazana, which Zee TV accepted under the condition that he roped in a good-looking girl to host the show. Instead Mehta brought in chef Sanjeev Kapoor and we all know what happened next. Kapoor, who became a household name through the show, now runs a channel dedicated to food. Mehta also went on to make a few short fiction films for the channel. However, he consides the time he spent in the medium as his formative years in filmmaking and seems to be highly disillusioned by the content that appears on TV now. “With revenue becoming the over riding factor, TV has too fallen prey to the formula,” he says. “We all want a safe way to make money which is why we are all mired in mediocrity.” The lure of money did make him try his hand at TV again during his low phase, but he felt “stifled and suffocated”. India’s TV mogul Ekta Kapoor sacked him for veering away from the formula and some other channels started editing his work without his knowledge. He gave up when he saw that the industry was revelling in its mediocrity and was resistant to change, until the day he read about the news of Shahid Azmi’s death in a local newspaper. “I am grateful that I could grab that moment,” he says.
Like most of his previous films, City Lights, too, is set in the city of Mumbai. “I love Bombay, but we now live in Mumbai,” Mehta clarifies his feelings about the city’s new moniker. “Mumbai is totally different from the world that this city once was. It has given me grief and humilation. It has destroyed many others like me.” City Lights, based on the British-Filipino film Metro Manila (the rights of which has been purchased by Fox Star Studios and Mahesh Bhatt’s Vishesh FIlms), tells the story of one such family which migrates to Mumbai with the hopes of a better life but gets crushed under the atrocities of the city. The title of the film is a metaphor, says Mehta. “When people move to a big city, they get attracted by the lights without knowing that there is darkness lurking beneath it. They try hard to reach out for those bright lights which could be just an illusion for all you know.”
This is not the first time that Mehta is dabbling with the topic of rural-urban migration. His second film, the same one that got him into trouble, was also based on a migrant worker trying to find his feet in the big bad city. “My first film Jayate, which never released, was a courtroom drama written by Anurag Kashyap. Although we visited a lot of courts, Anurag wrote rather dramatic monologues for the court scenes,” says Mehta. “With Shahid, I, thus, got a chance to redeem my lost chance of showing the original picture of the country’s courts. Similarly I hope with City Lights, I get the chance to redeem the chance I lost in Dile Pe Mat Le Yaar.”
For someone who has seen the lowest of low phases in his career, Mehta says that he savours failures more than success. “I attribute whatever success or accomplishments I have today to the failures I have gone through,” he says. “I am grateful for those times because that dejection has made me who I am now.” What surprised and touched Mehta was the support of his peers when he came up with the idea of making Shahid. His long time friend Kashyap came forward to co-produce it.
City Lights is special to Mehta not because it is his first release after his award win. Neither because he is teaming up with his Shahid star Rajkumar Rao, who can’t stop praising him and calls him “the filmmaker every actor yearns to work with”. But because he is working with one of the people in the industry whom he adores and is inspired by. “My first film Jayate was hugely influenced by [Mahesh] Bhatt saab’s Saransh. Another of my short films was inspired by Arth. I loved his style,” says Mehta. “Now he has turned into a spiritual guide for me. I derive positive energy from him.” Bhatt, in turn, is hugely impressed by Mehta’s talent and grit. So much so that after watching City Lights, he gave away the Filmfare Award he had won for Saransh 30 years ago to Mehta. “Hansal is a filmmaker who is driven by passion,” says Bhatt. “He is fearless and is not affected by the commercial aspects of cinema. I am sure his films will be remembered 30 years from now.”
Despite having a lukewarm opening day, the numbers are picking up for City Lights, thanks to strong word of mouth publicity. Mehta is not nervous or under pressure thinking of the film’s performance. “I have made a film which I am proud of and I just want this journey to continue,” he says. “I want this film to facilitate the next film I make like Shahid did. I want it to recover the investment put in by the producers.” The producers are a happy bunch, considering the film has already retrieved full costs through satellite and music rights, and box office returns will be a plus. And Mehta has moved on. His next film, is based on a story about the journey of a gay man, which writer Ishani Banerji sold to him on the internet. Mehta takes a break from Rao and has cast Nawazuddin Siddiqui to play the lead. He is also scripting a biographical film based in the Bollywood of 50s, apparently for Rao, whom he calls his muse. His second innings is proving to be fruitful for Mehta. The journey has just begun, he says, and he is cherishing it one thing at a time.