Mahesh Bhatt- Why the fiery director is now ready to retire

M ahesh Bhatt's 'Zakhm', there is a scene in which the young protagonist's father is about to visit home. When he doesn't show up, his young mother caoxes Ajay to ring for his father at the father's 'other' house. After several rings the phone, unfortunately, is picked up by Ajay's grandmother who spews the foulest venom at him.

"You son of scum," she yells at him, "How dare my son's mistress and her child expect him to come to the squalor that is their house." As the expletives are showered on him, Ajay's face is a mix of the most piteous terror that a young boy can go through at the hands of an irascible adult.


As you watch 'Zakhm' you can' help thinking: if Mahesh Bhatt really went through this, then he's made a marvellous job out of emerging from the vitiated atmosphere of his childhood. You cannot deny an individual his personal history: and if Mahesh Bhatt is convinced that he's a bastard, then the transition from that unwanted world to the world of celebrity film-maker is a miracle as huge as life itself.

"The personal," Bhatt says, "is the political."

We are seated at the dining table of his apartment at Juhu just four weeks after the release of 'Zakhm' and barely three days since the film packed up five Screen-Videocon awards. "Zakhm," he says, "may not be as much the fire in my belly as the dying embers. One can hardly claim exorcism, but the act of story-telling helps you cope with the anguish of life."

'Zakhm', told in flashback, is a complex story -- a young Hindu boy born to a Muslim mother who conceals her religion from him. The fact that the boy is the bastard son of a Hindu father doesn't make it any easier for him. Discrimination from society and from his grandparents. The communal riots which rear their ugly head bringing back to the surface the individual's deepest fears of oppression and of being a half-outcaste. It is the story of Mahesh Bhatt himself as told by the director and the individual who has undergone the experience of it.

His father's recent ads in the trade papers, claiming that Bhatt Sr. had married Shireen were a result of blackmail, Bhatt claims, "My brother-in-law blackmailed my 87-year-old father for that pathetic sad ad. It was a strange dishonest statement. In a bad moment, and I had several of them, I wanted to go to court about it -- you cannot falsify things that are true." Bhatt says he's not angry with his father -- that was his helplessness.

But as the director says, "I'm not going to be straitjacketed by brutal social norms which are outdated and leprous. This is what I am. I don't need to live by the scripts the world hands out of me."

Reportedly, there was a good deal of ostracism from within the family as well. Shireen's sisters, for example, went up in arms telling 'Bhatt naam mat dalo'. They wanted their sister and Bhatt's mother not to be identified by her Muslim name in the movie, but as Shireen Bhatt. "Why rake up this issue now?" was their reasoning to their nephew, who is not about to undo the memory of how his Hindu friends in school literally moved away from him when they realised that his mother was Muslim.

The wound of Mumbai's communal riots obviously lies deep with Bhatt. "In 92-93, I experienced my submerged past. It was a turbulent time for the whole nation. The residue of the emotional trauma refused to dissipate from within my consciousness. What really tore me apart was not so much the violence on the street, but you know, ordinary, normal, sensitive people who for the first time revealed to me their naked faces. I discovered where the power for that genocide came from. It came from the silent approval of the majority of people."

In the film runs a parallel theme which brings it to its climax. The burial of the mother according to Muslim rites, which is one of her fondest wishes. In the movie, Bhatt uses the metaphor of militant Hindus who will not allow the burial at the height of the riots, while in real life it was a faction within Bhatt's family that was outraged and refused to attend the burial years after the riots. However the burial was carried out in both cases and as Bhatt says, "When I stepped inside the grave to turn her face to Mecca, in the Mazgaon grave, for the first time I heard her actual name mentioned in public - Shireen Mohammed Ali - I felt such a surge of pride."

The censors created their own problems for 'Zakhm'. They would have none of the scene when the Hindu militants who break into the hospital where Ajay is carrying his mother towards burial, are shown wearing saffron headbands. Or the scene of a staged 'encounter' between the police and the Muslim suspect accused of torching Ajay's mother. Which makes one wonder about the Damocles Sword that hangs over authorities as wielded by a certain saffron bound party - and the extent to which freedom of speech is actually a reality in our city and country.

Not that Bhatt is taking sides with the minority. Not in the least. The Muslim youth who torches Ajay's mother in the film, is shown as being utterly repentant post-interval, only when he realises that his victim is actually a Muslim herself. Hysterical words issue from his babbling mouth when he realises that he has violated the tenets of his religion. The irony lies in the fact that his religion condemns, not murder, but just the murder of the faithful. Which may be one of the reasons that Saudi Arabia and Malaysia have considered the film "anti-Muslim" and subsequently banned it in their territories.

But according to Bhatt, 'Zakhm' has been banned in Mauritius as well for being "anti-Hindu". For Bhatt, it is not a portrayal of religious forces but of the deepest darkest energies of hatred that contaminate the fabric of our country. Energies that have spun out of control. There's a law in Germany today, he says, which makes it a crime to deny the Holocaust. "And you're spending upto six years here saying that the riots never happened? Bombay, December 1992-93 never happened? Such denial is dangerous. It's going to result in dangerous eruptions," he says.

For the director there could be no better swan song. "What's perceived by the world as an indifferent five years had it's culmination in 'Zakhm'," says Bhatt. "I had no hits of any importance during the period except for 'Tamanna' which won a national award. The overeager industry had written my obituary but 'Zakhm' made my presence felt. They were ready to hammer the last nail in my coffin, but the discomforting silence that followed 'Zakhm' and the fact that people whom I considered important appreciated the film made it gratifying."

'Zakhm' has very obviously created waves even if it hasn't set the boxes office on fire. This isn't a first for the director whose 'Arth' 16 years ago is discussed with much animation as a trendsetter - it straddled the dichotomy between commercial film-making and substantial themes with rare ease. When they write Bhatt's obituary as a film maker, there will be at least four films that come up for mention - 'Arth, Saaransh, Janam' and 'Zakhm' - in his oeuvre as an autobiographical film-maker. The last film, Bhatt says, will endure.

One question the director has as to why certain parties accused him of showing an indifference towards the film he was making. Karan Johar for example was vociferous about a lackadaisical attitude on Bhatt's part during the making of his father's film 'Duplicate' which resulted in a fallout between the Johars and the Bhatts. "I plead guilty," says Bhatt truthfully. "Which is why I'm hanging up my gloves. I can't pretend that I was interested in my films of the last four to five years, except in imparting to them my professional skills."

What about the parting of ways with Aamir Khan who levelled similar accusations against Bhatt about the making of 'Ghulam'? "Aamir," he retorts " requires a visible display of sincerity. With him, sincerity is a marketing gimmick. It's a sales pitch he's been selling to the world. If Aamir was the driving force behind 'Ghulam' how come it didn't get even one Screen-Videocon Award in an area of excellence? I'm bored of pretending that single-minded devotion guarantees cinematic excellence. Films require magic, not perfection."

What will he do with the (ample?) spare time on his hands now that he's bid adieu to direction - and the creative juices that will continue flowing? "Oh, I'll write," Bhatt replies immediately. "I'm writing my autobiography and an encapsulated history of Indian cinema, as seen through not just my eyes, but the eyes of my father and the people I've met. The book should be ready by the end of the year.

I'm good at writing because I'm an ideas man. As for ever returning to direction, I don't think that's likely. At 50, I've been a director for 25 years but I'm not in sync with the world anymore. If it's true that 40 per cent of the population is under 20 years old, then let young Tanuja Chandra talk to them. Let me retire like Sunil Gavaskar and Kapil Dev when they're asking me 'why' instead of 'why not'."

One wends one's way down and out of 'Silver Beach' captivated by the man's eloquence. If all story-telling is autobiography, then here's a man who's been one of the finest weaver of tales in the land. Au revoir, Mr Bhatt, at least till the next innings.