You will always find an interesting tension in the films of Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra — there is a template, there is the subversion of the template, and his films see-saw aggressively, sometimes unsteadily between the two, reaching to past conventions and future possibilities. When Mehra narrated Rang De Basanti (2006) — initially meant to be a film in both Hindi and English titled 'Paint Me Yellow' — to Aamir Khan, Khan pointed out that the past year already had four films on Bhagat Singh and Azad. But this was different. Mehra took the self-sacrificing template and layered it with another story — of the coming of age of bashful youth into revolutionary zeal, inspired by the real-life conversations around the poor quality of India's MIG-21 Fighter Jets collapsing in the skies during training. The result was a cult-classic, and Mehra's name soared.
Mehra ushered in the commercial sports biopic churn in Hindi cinema with Bhaag Milkha Bhaag (2013), making the sister of the sportsman the heroine of the film, and not the lover. He took the visual grammar of the Mirza Sahiban folk tale and wedded it to contemporary royalty that kept collapsing into the mysterious past in Mirzya (2016). He found unsubtle but honest, innocent ways of ringing in Hindu-Muslim unity into the nostalgia genre of Delhi 6 (2009), or the boxing-film template of Toofaan (2021), or even the cheek-by-jowl neighbours in the chawls of Mere Pyare Prime Minister (2019). He didn't always succeed, but there was always gumption.
Mehra's memoir, The Stranger In The Mirror (Rupa Publications), written with Reeta Ramamurthy Gupta holds as its centerpiece this tension between filling his movies with his influences, and old school Hindi cinema tropes, while also aspiring to take Hindi cinema abroad, dusting it off its unremarkable elements. For example, regarding lip-synced songs, he "finds it difficult to believe in [his] characters if they break into a song and dance." He mentions the two times he broke this conviction — Raveena Tandon in Aks, and Farhan Akhtar in Bhaag Milkha Bhaag. Where does Toofaan's lip-synced 'Star Hai Tu' or the Holi song of Mere Pyare Prime Minister fit into this theory?
There can't be a neat, definitive answer here, because in theory, on paper, Mehra seems to have a problem with it, but the formulaic, familiar joys of lip-synced dances tug at his movies. To be both radical and familiar — that is his tightrope.
This tension is most apparent with the climactic fiasco around Delhi 6. Roshan (Abhishek Bachchan) was supposed to die because of the Hindu-Muslim riot at the end. But on the day of shooting, they also decided to shoot an alternate climax where he survives after a brief visit to whitewashed heaven, ending the film in happy tears. It was the latter climax that made it into the film, and was, rightfully, hauled over the coals for the jolt of cosmic, unconvincing joy at the end of such an immersive, rooted mood-piece.
The film flopped, and Mehra took to alcohol, his first brush with both commercial and critical spite. Six months later, he snapped out of it and called his cinematographer Binod Pradhan to shoot for 3 more days. He re-structured the movie with the help of his wife, his editor Bharathi, which now begins with Roshan's ashes being immersed in the Ganga and his voiceover: "Those are my ashes. The earthen urn you see that holds them: dadi had bought for herself for 101 rupees, but I got to use it. I am dead now! They mistook me for a kaala bandar and killed me. Speaking of monkeys, I came to Delhi…"
The whole film is now guided by Roshan's voiceover in the past tense, leading up to his death. This version went to the Venice International Film Festival, was appreciated by the audience there, and was dubbed the "Venice Cut". It was this cut that was shown to the jury of the National Awards, for which it won the Nargis Dutt Award for Best Feature Film on National Integration. This chapter in the memoir ends on a hopeful note — that "modern platforms like Amazon Prime and Netflix" would be ideal to share this cut. Currently, the only available version of Delhi 6, that is streaming on Netflix, has the first ending, the happily-ever-after. I hope we get to see the Venice cut someday.
This is an interesting anecdote because at the time of the failure, Mehra blamed external, commercial "pressures", which seemed odd given his previous film – the runaway hit Rang De Basanti ended with all its main heroes dead. In the memoir, he makes no mention of this pressure, dubbing it an "internal conflict with what ending was appropriate." Because on one hand, he recognized that Roshan — half-Hindu, half-Muslim — was the perfect target for the lynch mob. But on the other hand, as Abhishek Bachchan notes, "Roshan surviving [is] a metaphor for hope." To use cinema as a medium for peddling hope or reflecting reality?
Constantly, the tether between life and lore is brought up in this memoir, how his films feel like excuses to leak his life onto them, his childhood memories and youthful friendships that solidify into characters and situations in his movies — like the funny, competitive jagran in Delhi 6, which was something he had seen as a child, or the headlight that disturbs women defecating in the open at night in Mere Pyare Prime Minister, which had happened to him, with his headlight blaring after one late night shoot, or even the various characters in Rang De Basanti who seem to take after his friends, each with their specific similarities. Another connecting thread in this book is all his collaborators noting his calm, but spaced-out, painfully long film narrations, something he is infamous for within the industry. After three hours of narration, having reached only the interval of Aks, Manoj Bajpayee had to excuse himself, "I'm more of a read-the-script-myself person."
The memoir is a fascinating, compelling patchwork — with chapter-long first-person accounts from Sonam Kapoor, Waheeda Rehman, Madhavan, Farhan Akhtar, Anjali Patil, Bharathi, and his two kids, among others. It jumps between his childhood, his life in the ad-world, his wife, and his films, often not chronologically. Reading it is to put yourself in the eye of a chaotic storm of anecdotes, which makes it easier to cruise through the laboured portions — like the rather clumsy explanation of the title. It's also a sweet toe-dip into the artistic world of Mehra, one that is constantly at war with itself wondering if it should be commercial or artistic, hopeful or gutting, familiar or foreign. But whatever it is, however it is, the spine always holds.