|Pic by Sanjit Kundu|
Prakash Jha is a man of his milieu. He puts his faith in cinema that steers clear of candied romance and even more avante garde creations. Instead he delves into the very depths of the Hindi heartland with the thoroughness of one who has grown up a witness to its machinations.
When the lights go down in the theatre, a Jha film takes you into a land of no redemption. Where the darkness of society, as the filmmaker knows it, threatens to overwhelm the soul.
But label him a filmmaker and he throws you off balance for a moment with his take on the subject — just as he startles with the formidable darkness inhabiting his brand of cinema. “I think I still need to learn to be a filmmaker,” he says.
You’d almost be forgiven for imagining it to be an attempt at faux modesty, given that Jha has a cache of some eight national awards to his credit. But reclining in a chair inside the almost homelike comfort of his office in Andheri, the down-to-earth director offers strong reasons to make good his claim.
“I do not explore the cinematic language as some of my contemporaries like Vishal Bhardwaj, Anurag Kashyap and Madhur Bhandarkar. They are passionate about their language,” notes Jha, dangling black-framed reading glasses from his lips thoughtfully. He reckons that he’s merely an observer.
Nevertheless, Raajneeti, his latest and most expensive film till date (it reportedly cost him Rs 60 crore), has passed muster with the critics. For film analyst Taran Adarsh, it is “a world that’s dark, dangerous and demonish” and fascinating all at once because of the lack of preachy intent.
Yet the political drama kicked off on a controversial footing. Rumours were rife about the Gandhi family being the focal point. Ranbir Kapoor’s character carrying nuances of the personalities of Rajiv Gandhi and Michael Corleone from Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather. While Katrina Kaif in her crisp, cotton saris apparently depicts Sonia Gandhi.
|The star cast of Raajneeti comes together for the film’s promotion. (From left) Katrina Kaif, Ranbir Kapoor, Prakash Jha, Arjun Rampal and Manoj Bajpai|
But Jha brushes them aside nonchalantly. “If anything Kaif’s character is akin to that of Draupadi in The Mahabharata — a victim of the circumstances,” says Jha as he points out to the generous references to the epic throughout the film.
What makes a difference to Raajneeti is also Jha’s own tryst with politics that dates back to 2004 when he fought and lost elections to the Lok Sabha from his village Champaran. And even though he contested at the last general election in 2009 as a Lok Janashakti Party candidate from west Champaran, he lost again.
He emphasises: “For me, politics is development. I wanted to assert and re-assert the point that the one who feels he can lead and make a difference, should not sit on the fence.”
Jha’s engagement with politics stems from his effort to bring about development in Bihar, where he grew up in Champaran village. As part of his endeavours he started a news channel called Maurya Channel in early 2010 and is also in the process of setting up the first multiplex mall in Patna.
|Prakash Jha and Nana Patekar share a moment on the sets of Raajneeti|
But surprisingly it is quits on the political front for him.
Says Jha: “I am pushing 60 and there are a lot of things I want to do — playing the piano, flying a plane, going back to my painting (the reason I came to Mumbai in the first place) and making a lot of movies. Public office would require the commitment of time and intent. Indeed, the last election was my last.”
There is a certain je ne sais quoi about the filmmaker. Dr Mohan Agashe, theatre actor of repute who has worked with the director in his various films reckons that it’s Jha’s ability to have found his language.
“When he made Damul on the bonded labour issue in Bihar, it won him awards, but it hardly got much mention. I think it frustrated him so he took a sabbatical and went to Bihar. He returned with a resolve to tell the story that he wanted to tell — but his way, by changing the language to reach across to people,” says Agashe.
Jha made his debut in films (he made a host of documentaries previously) with Hip Hip Hurray in 1983, following it up with arty films such as Damul (1984) and Parinati (1986). But he took a break thereafter, only making a comeback of sorts with the likes of Mrityudand (1997), Gangaajal (2003) and Apaharan (2005).
Subjects such as the growing kidnapping industry, social and gender injustice and the Bhagalpur blindings, all set in the familiar territory of Bihar, put him at the forefront of ‘realistic’ cinema.
Jha’s own story is one of adventurous ups and downs. Belonging to a Brahmin family in Champaran meant that he was expected to become a civil servant. It was a fate he was dead set against. He competed in the National Defence Academy exams in 1969 but opted out of it before being called up. Soon after he enrolled at Ramjas College in Delhi University to study physics. But he took off from there too in the first year itself to return home and become a farmer.
|Mrityudand starring Ayub Khan (left) and Madhuri Dixit (right) is a commentary on social and gender injustice|
“I took time off because I wanted to become a painter. One day I boarded a train for Mumbai with Rs 300 in hand,” he says. The objective at the age of 19 years was to join the J.J. School of Arts.
It was however a chance invitation to the sets of director Chand’s 1973 action flick Dharma that triggered off an epiphany for Jha.
“The film had Pran, Navin Nischol, Bindu and Rekha and I stood there for 12 whole hours. The way it all was decided it for me,” says Jha.
In between, to make some not-so-quick bucks, he worked as an assistant manager in a restaurant in Colaba. Smiles Jha: “Any off hours meant rushing to the Akashvani Cinema to catch late night classics.”
Jha’s lifestyle has changed in many ways since then — he has, for instance, no count of the number of cars he owns. “There are several companies I have including a real estate company, a news channel, a production house and a television production house, with 500-odd people working for me. They buy cars now without often me being in the know,” he says.
|Ajay Devgn in a still from Gangaajal based on the ‘80s Bhagalpur blindings|
There are a few scripts in the offing to keep him busy even while he expresses a desire to take piano and flying lessons. He is wielding the cinematic pen — writing and rewriting scripts — for a movie on reservation and another on a triangle of relationships. “When we talk about reservation in education, in jobs, in the private sector, for me it becomes a reservation of opportunities. Aarakshan, as I have titled it, is about a college principal’s dilemma and it stars Amitabh Bachchan, Ajay Devgn and Manoj Bajpai,” he elaborates.
But Jha is still striving — for simplicity of narration in his mode of storytelling. “I would like to think that maybe in the next film my language will get better, my narration will get better. Simplicity is the key, no matter how difficult the subject. The day I can tell my story to a 5-year-old and keep him hooked on — that would be it.”