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‘I am a prostitute. I want your money, not your praise!’
Tête à tête

Meeting Mahesh Bhatt proves to be surprisingly easy. There’s no frustrating back and forth with slippery subordinates; there are no unctuous “managers” out to stonewall you — as is the case with so many of our Bollywood worthies. When you call Bhatt, he comes on the line. Just like that. And the date and time for the interview are fixed in a flash.

True to his word, he waits for me at the offices of Vishesh Films, his production house, in Mumbai’s Juhu-Vile Parle area. I climb to the fourth floor of a nondescript building and am ushered into a small, shabby room. Its only connection to films is betrayed by a couple of movie posters stuck on the wall.

But Bhatt is there, reclining on a sofa stacked with oversized cushions. You’ve seen his films — a wrenching Arth, Saaransh or Zakhm, or a delightful Dil Hai Ki Manta Nahin. And you’ve seen him as a television talking head, commenting on virtually every issue related to films and society. But nothing prepares you for his astonishing eloquence, his ferocious gift of the gab. Words and images come tripping from his lips as he passionately argues this point or that, or flings some jaw-dropping comment about himself. Clearly, Bhatt, 60, is not just an astute filmmaker. He’s also a pretty formidable wordsmith.

Right now, he is consumed — no, not by a new film — but by a book that he has written. A Taste of Life, which is to be released tomorrow, chronicles the last days of U.G. Krishnamurti, the philosopher-guru he had been closely associated with for 30 years. Bhatt was by his side as he lay dying in Vallecrosia, Italy, and remained with him until he passed away on March 22, 2007.

Stark and moving, the book is no elegy, though. It is a dry-eyed, deeply-felt, account of his vigil and of the slow ebbing away of an extraordinary man who neither wished to prolong his life nor to hasten his death. “Whatever Mahesh Bhatt is today is because of my fierce interaction with UG,” says Bhatt, who wrote the book not because UG wished to be remembered but because he felt that he needed to record this momentous event of his life.

When he met UG in the late 1970s, Bhatt was already a veteran of the spiritual beat. “I met UG when I was going through a spiritual wasteland, when I went to ashrams like people go to brothels or bars — to seek comfort,” he says. His quest led him to Osho Rajneesh and he became his disciple. (This was also the time when he was having his much talked about tempestuous affair with Parveen Babi.) “As his follower, I wore orange, I spent time in his commune in Pune, and I meditated five times a day,” he says. He also devoured books by Jiddu Krishnamurti — the other influential spiritual leader of the time.

But the haze of spiritualism he enveloped himself in did little to calm him. “One was deluding oneself into believing that through vigorous interaction with the discourses of these people, one was making a spiritual headway into some kind of an enlightened zone,” says Bhatt.

His meeting with UG changed all that. For UG told him that there was no alternate reality to look for. “He said all existence is operating here at this moment,” says Bhatt, “and that it is your search for an imaginary heaven that makes your life a hell on this earth.” And Bhatt — always questing, always flying in the face of convention — took to that message. The meeting became a life altering moment for him and his relationship with UG endured, giving him sustenance and inspiration for years to come.

But UG gave him no solace in the traditional sense. “Going to UG for comfort was like going to the centre of a desert to be cool,” exclaims Bhatt. I ask him how Rajneesh was different from UG. “Oh, Rajneesh would pander to your needs,” he replies. “You wanted to hear a fairy tale, he would give you a fairy tale. But UG gave you no crutch. He just helped you find the inextinguishable fire in yourself.” And Bhatt says that he did find that fire. He learnt to live intensely in the present moment, the here and the now, and that has kept him going though UG is now no more.

If Bhatt sought the spiritual, the so called “meaning” of life, from a fairly young age, the roots of that urge can perhaps be traced to his childhood. Born to a Hindu Brahmin father and a Shia Muslim mother — his parents were never married — even as a small boy Bhatt felt that the world was built on hypocrisy and pretence. His mother hid the fact that she was a Muslim, and the children pretended that their father, who was a film producer, was away somewhere rather than admit that he did not live with them. “They all asked me to be honest,” says Bhatt. “But I saw that everybody was leading dishonest lives. I didn’t have a problem with my parents not being married but the world around me seemed to have a problem. And as a little boy I realised that you are what you hide, not what you reveal.”

Even so, Bhatt says that he was an ordinary, middle class boy who just wanted to earn a decent living and make his “mamma proud”. So he dropped out of college and entered the film industry when he was 16 years old, apprenticing with directors such as Raj Khosla. He made a few films, had his dalliances with spiritualism and alcoholism, but success and critical acclaim came only with Arth (1982), a sensitive — and path-breaking — exploration of a woman who discovers her own identity after her husband leaves her for another.

Arth was, of course, based on Bhatt’s own extra-marital affair with Parveen Babi. But he went back to his personal narrative again and again — in films such as Janam, Daddy, Naam or Zakhm, leading to sniggers that he was an out and out exhibitionist. The irony, though, is that these films are also among his best and most enduring work. And Bhatt acknowledges that. “I discovered that whenever I spoke about myself, I engaged people much more because it had the beat, the pulse, the throb of life.” Then he continues with a flourish: “The films were not an act of vanity. These are life wounds. It’s like the yelling of a dog that’s been run over by a truck. Now whether there’s music in that yelling is for others to decide.”

Bhatt stopped directing films 10 years ago and has since been writing screenplays for films that are produced under the Vishesh Films banner. “Now I am an entertainer who makes products according to the specifications of the marketplace,” he says. Is that why he went the way of the steamy, sex and crime cocktail of a Jism (2003) or a Murder (2004)?

“I am a prostitute.” he deadpans. “These films were aimed to titillate. A prostitute provides titillation and gratification for a price. I do the same, and I have the intelligence and the humility to admit it. I want your money, not your praise!” he cries. “I don’t want to be invited to a sacred hall and sit with the purest!”

Bhatt goes on to put a millennial spin on the reason for making movies that show sexuality up front, and without the decorous romantic tango of the average Bollywood flick. He believes that from the late 1990s onwards, the audience for serious films dwindled. At the same time, there was a young and more permissive crowd of film-goers ready to lap up some risquι stuff. “Zakhm (1999) was a critical success but it failed at the box office. Dhokha (2007), another very good film about Islamic fundamentalism, didn’t find any takers either,” he says. Bhatt came to the conclusion that people only liked talking about serious films. They didn’t go to see them. And while they lambasted a Jism or a Murder, that’s what they went to see.

It turned out that he had a point. Both these films became big hits. And if the morality brigade squealed in consternation, Bhatt, the unapologetic iconoclast, couldn’t care less. “In fact, I told Mallika Sherawat (who starred in Murder), don’t say ridiculous things like the sex was germane to the story. Say it was intended to titillate. Say, ‘I am the Viagra for Indian viewers!’”

Today, Bhatt plays mentor to other writers and directors in Vishesh Films, which he and his brother Mukesh run jointly. He is also writing a script for his daughter, filmmaker Pooja Bhatt. He is unfazed by allegations that many of his movies such as Raaz, Jism, Murder, etc, have been “inspired” by Hollywood. At the end of the day, he says, everything is sourced from somewhere or the other and you absorb whatever you see, hear and read. “But there is a tired plagiarism, and there is an imaginative inspiration,” and obviously, he feels that he redeems himself by practising the art of the latter.

With a stable marriage to actress Soni Razdan, his four children with whom he enjoys a wonderful relationship (“my children are my friends,” he says), and having won success and respect in the film industry, has he finally found a measure of that elusive thing called peace?

“I don’t know what peace is,” he replies. “I have moments of tranquillity. And tremendous upsurges of discontentment. For no matter what I say, after every word is spoken, I feel that I have failed to communicate what I set out to.”

But if he is still troubled, he can live with it. And he owes that to his “old man” UG. “He gave me the audacity to sing my own song,” says Bhatt.

And it’s a song that he’s still singing.

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