Boxers, like any other athlete, gamble on their bodies. They may earn big bucks but only at the risk of one solid punch that could disfigure them for life. The lucky ones duck in time, the unlucky live with scars.
A poor man’s sport, boxing can make a raging bull of a man. Toofaan is about one such man, a goon-turned-champ. The first impression promises more beneath the bare chest, chiselled torso and grotesque bloodletting. If nothing else, there is a sense of deja vu.
As I watch the trailer, memories of meeting Mehra five years ago are as fresh as though I’d met him today.
When I asked him why he chose Akhtar for Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, he’d replied, “You don’t like Farhan?I offered him Siddharth’s role in Rang De Basanti. He was shocked and said, ‘What! You want me to act?’ He was making Lakshya then.” Mehra’s reason for his choice of actor boils down to one word: Instinct. “The market obviously told us otherwise. But you have to see his passion, the madness, the depth, the flair to kill himself.”
The conversation plays in my head as I try to picture him. His hazy face looks like a ghost or a rumpled soldier. His chosen uniform, a white button-down shirt. He’s worn the same attire for the past decade or longer. It’s not unlike Steve Jobs, who famously wore the same black turtleneck every day. Or Mark Zuckerberg, who infamously bought 20 identical grey T-shirts.
He never smiles. Close to 60, his reclusiveness seems like a familiar trait. His eyes are deadpan, his curls are greying and unkempt, his beard has the languor of a man who’d rather never shave. He wears blue-rimmed spectacles that cover his already veiled eyes.
His voice is toneless, sometimes he stutters and forgets what he wants to say. He often trails off, in a confusing way, using verbal commas where there ought to be full stops. Mehra is neither an orator nor a narrator. But he is a storyteller. He lives in a novel, sees people as characters, imagines moments as photographs and hears conversations as dialogues. His wit is as sharp as a razor.
In 1963, nearly 15 years after independence, he was born in the middle of chaos. He spent his childhood in the heart of New Delhi, a part of India where Hindus and Muslims were squeezed into shabby houses, sharing a common wall.
“I had never seen a Muslim boy marry a Hindu girl,” Mehra said. “I was brainwashed into saying that Muslims were bad. That manifested in Delhi 6. It was just my childhood.” His earliest and most vivid memories are from the crooked neighbourhood of old Delhi.
“Have you been to Chandni Chowk?” he asked me. It was then that I saw the first twinkle in his eye. A curious boy hid behind the façade of a man. He was a bright-eyed child again, guiding me across the Chor Bazaar he knew inside out, with a sketch of the Shiva temple his mother often took him to. “My job was to guard the chappals. If you turned around, you’d see the Tricolour in all its glory. Then you’d see people and people and more people, buzzing like bees around a honeycomb. I know there is a tap somewhere that plonks people out,” he joked. “It is a hidden tap that someone forgot to turn off. Plop. plop. People keep popping out one by one.”
He remembers every last detail, his regrets, insults, tears and fears. Each place and face is sewn into the fabric of his brain. He is stuck in a memory maze with no escape door. Every film he’s made has come from those lanes. He made Rang De Basanti as a tribute to lessons learned at Air Force Bal Bharati School. “Maybe the Bofors scandal would not have affected me as much but this one was from my childhood. I couldn’t let it go,” he said and recited Sahir Ludhianvi’s lines:
“Bohot dino se hai yeh mashgala siyasat ka,
Ki jab jawaan ho bachche toh katl ho jaye.”
He made Delhi 6 as a eulogy to his mother. “My mother told me she wanted to die there in the last stages of her life. Delhi 6 was not a story. We tried to tell a story but couldn’t.” It’s little wonder then, that only a few understood the film. In Mehra’s eyes, it was about “a fish that wanted to go back to the water where she was born.”
Mehra’s father, who worked at Claridge’s hotel for 35 years, had a deep passion for cinema. He had every technician’s name memorised. He knew what worked in a story and what didn’t. Strangely, Mehra himself never dreamed of being a filmmaker. Umberto Eco once said that what we become depends on what our fathers teach us at odd moments — when they aren’t trying to teach us. Perhaps that is the secret of Mehra’s success, even if he didn’t say as much.
At 23, Mehra made his first ad film. It was 1986 and ad film director Prahlad Kakkar was shooting a Hero Honda commercial. On day two, he broke his hand and dislocated his shoulder while riding a bike. He had to go to the hospital and there were fears the shoot would be called off. “I went to him and said: Stay in an AC room, we’ll get you a bed where you can look at the nurses. Just tell me what to do.” So Kakkar gave him instructions and the shoot lasted six days.
Once it was over, Kakkad bid goodbye to Mehra at the airport and said, “You don’t belong in Delhi.” The words howled in his mind like a continual chant, even months later. One day he walked into his boss’ cabin and repeated them, adamant.
His boss understood his turmoil and gave him his first ad film. He landed in Bombay with a job that year — not knowing he would be out of a job for the next three to four years. “The next five years were hell,” he said. His first ad film was for a television show he doesn’t distinctly remember, then came Eureka Forbes, Coke, Pepsi, Toyota, American Express and BPL.
“You have to imagine this,” he told me. “A 23-year-old boy, when I came to Bombay, I first went to Gulzar’s house. I told the gatekeeper I’ve come all the way from Delhi. You can’t say no.” Mehra waited for many hours, yearning to meet the poet whose poetry gave him sleepless nights. He handed over the book, Devdas, and asked him to spin it into a script. Only if convincing Gulzar was that easy. “He asked me how I was planning to make it, who the producer and actors would be. It hit me then. The dream of making a movie was now Operation Survival.”
Then, one day, luck smiled upon him and he was asked to do an ad film with Amitabh Bachchan. “Amit Ji, I know I’m getting to do five ads with you. But I don’t want you to do this,” he remembered telling the actor. “I have seen you six feet tall. Now you’ll be six inches on an idiot box run by a remote.” Bachchan burst out laughing.
This was at a time when no celebrity was doing advertisements. Bachchan changed everything. ‘Aby Baby’ became the anthem in every city and his popularity soared. For Mehra, this was the start of a new friendship, one that helped him don the director’s hat. “I shot three ads with him and ended up doing a music video with him.”
We discussed Aks, his forgotten first film with Bachchan. When it was released in 2001, it flopped. Did it hurt Mehra? “I can’t tell you how exciting it was to make that film. Who cared about a flop? I sulked more when Delhi 6 flopped. After Aks, I realized I could extract performances from actors. Mr Bachchan and Raveena got critical acclaim and many awards. I had a great story, I just couldn’t make it into a screenplay,” he said.
Everything Mehra knows about writing a screenplay, he taught himself. Five of the 10 books about screenplay writing he bought were written by American author Syd Field. He followed Field’s formula and wrote his next film as a three-act structure. Rang De Basanti released on January 26, 2006, to roaring success.
“The only feeling I had that night, apart from euphoria, was to call Field in LA. I wanted to learn from him.” Field came on the line and cackled. He told Mehra, “You cannot afford me.” Determined, the director said, “No, Mr Field, you don’t understand, I am the producer of a film called Rang De Basanti. I am a very rich man. I like spending money.” In June, Mehra went to America to study under Field. He found accommodation at Field’s garage in Beverly Hills.
That was not the only turning point. Twenty-seven years after he first met Gulzar, the poet gave him the script of Mirzya. Mehra was 50. “You’re the same boy who came with Devdas, aren’t you? Just because you’ve grown a beard, you think I’d forget you?” he recalled Gulzar asking him.
A phone call interrupted our conversation. Just when I felt like I had taken up too much of his time, he whispered to the person on the other end: “It’s going on. No, it’s fun,” and hung up.
If Mehra had not made Aks, his first film would have been Aawaaz, written by Kamlesh Pande. He had told a newspaper: “Imagine if Shakespeare went to Delhi University and was told, ‘We can’t take you based on stories you’ve written as your marksheet isn’t that cool.’ Or if Rabindranath Tagore went there, and wrote something called Gitanjali and they told him, ‘Mr Tagore, it’s nice to write things such as Where the head is held high, but where is your marksheet?’”
“Would you ever make that film?” I asked him.
“I would love to. Give me a story,” he replied. “We have a deal. It has to be a story that moves you. That moves me. And moves the people at large.”
In my mind, Mehra is still a ghost. In a crisp white shirt, he haunts me, asking me to write that story. But his face is a lot friendlier than I remember.
“There is no joy in breathing,” he said when I asked what the joy of filmmaking is for him. “It is a necessity.” Mehra is the storyteller who doesn’t fabricate stories to please others. He disappears into his own, like a ghost. If you listen intently, he will tell you his story too. This time, the story whorls and takes the shape of Toofaan.