Twenty years ago, filmmaker Hansal Mehta's Dil Pe Mat Le Yaar released. Before that, Mehta had made another feature called Jayate which went to festivals, but didn't make it to theatres. Somewhere along his journey he made films like the sex comedy Yeh Kya Ho Raha Hai and a thriller called Woodstock Villa. Mehta would agree this wasn't his finest hour as it led him to taking a couple years off movies till he returned with Shahid. Over the years we've seen the filmmaker find his voice again with Aligargh and Omerta.
When I tell Mehta, over the phone, that it's been a really long and bumpy journey, he says that he doesn't feel any fatigue. In fact, he can sense the beginnings of another exciting phase coming on. In his next film Chhalaang, which will release on Amazon Prime Video next month, he's attempted humour for the first time. And his recently-released web show Scam 1992, based on the infamous scamster Harshad Mehta, stands out amongst the glut of Indian web content for its sharp storytelling.
We speak to Mehta about the various creative highs and lows of his career. Edited excerpts:
When Shahid released and people loved it, everyone said this is Hansal 2.0. Recently you've said you're now working on Hansal 3.0. What is that going to be like?
Scam is the beginning of that. For me it just means reinventing the way you tell stories, the way you narrate them, working on the dramatic structure, and trying to find new ways to communicate the story. I think it's noticeable in Scam.
Are you conscious of this evolution? How can you tell when you're transitioning from one phase to another?
It's a conscious call. It is related to the people you work with. I use them as propellers for my growth as a storyteller. When I made Shahid we were a young team and today from Rajkummar (Rao) to the DoP (Anuj Dhawan) to the writer (Apurva Asrani), everyone is very successful. We have worked together after that and then you decide that now you need to work with another set of people and move on. They also need to explore newer avenues. Scam was the beginning of that. With Chhalaang it's the first time I've tried to make a comedy. So the creative company you keep defines various versions of you.
How did you keep yourself creatively stimulated during your sabbatical before Shahid? What did you read, listen to when you were cut off from the industry.
I was collecting a lot of cookbooks. I became a better cook. The food that I made then was more subtle, refined, flavourful. That became the hallmark of the films I made after that.
Do you remember your first paycheck from this profession? After you decided to quit being a computer engineer.
My first paycheck was for Zee TV. That was a big surprise. I used to own a computer software company called Hansal Mehta Associates. It looked more like a chartered accountancy or law firm. In that folder I had put these papers that were stapled. The proposal of Khana Khazana was done in flow charts because that's the only way I knew. It was just a tukka (fluke). Three weeks later I got a call from Zee TV saying that they wanted to see me. A few weeks later they gave me a cheque of Rs 36,000 – an advance against the delivery of the first few episodes.
That's not bad at all…
It was huge. I had just returned from Fiji Islands where I was working as a computer programmer for a company that was in the business of producing sports capsules for TV. They would shoot marriages and make ads for supermarkets when there were special offers. I ended up working more for that team than my computer job. I used to do the packaging, scorecards and animation.
You've spoken a lot about your peers when you started out – Vishal Bhardwaj, Anurag Kashyap, Anubhav Sinha, Manoj Bajpayee. All of you'll have had different journeys but it's also similar in a way – very public struggles with either finding your voice or holding on to it in an industry that likes formula. What was that time like?
In the early 90s we were all actually just dreaming. The guy who got rich first was Anubhav Sinha. I was super envious of him because he bought a really swanky car at that time. Aashish Vidyarthi got the national award for Drohkal and his acting ki dukaan just opened up. Vishal got Maachis and I cut all the trailers of the film. I did it to be able to be around Gulzar saab.
Then Satya happened and Manoj made it. Anurag was younger than most of us but he started Paanch just a few days after I started Dil Pe Mat Le Yaar. I remember going to his set on my lunch breaks. In a way, Dil Pe Mat Le Yaar was the coming together of all of us. Anurag was helping with his inputs, Vishal did the music and Manoj joined the cast. I think after 2000 we all started drifting apart; we were struggling to carve our own journeys. We were all 31-32 at that time. I think the last 10 years got us back together.
Since you've learnt on the job, who have been some of your teachers?
A variety of people. When I was starting Khana Khazana I was introduced to a cameraman called Raja Sayed. He was from the Film Institute. He got his assistant Sushil Rajpal to shoot the show. Rajpal held my hand and taught me many things.
Raja, who was Rajpal's boss, used to shoot a lot of ads for Ram Madhvani. I used to sit on Ram's sets all the time. When I met him recently, I told him that my earliest learnings came from his sets. He was very meticulous and I used to see how he briefed his actors.
You've said when times were rough, Anurag was your voice of conscience. What would he tell you?
He had one-liners. He would meet me and say 'you've sold out. Tu toh bik gaya'. We had gone through a stormy relationship and stopped talking to each other for a while. But then he started a blog called Passion for Cinema and that revived this camaraderie. I used to write for it and some of my stuff became quite popular. He would keep saying, 'you write so nicely. What's wrong with your films.'
But we are always critical of each other. We don't show each other our scripts and films to hear praise. I gave my feedback to Anubhav on Thappad and he didn't change a thing. I told Anurag so many things about his scripts and he didn't change. But you have to tell each other the truth. So that way Anurag would keep telling me such things and it took me a while to see it. Each of us was dealing with different things. I was amongst the first ones to have children in the entire gang. I had my elder son Jai, who works with me now, at 22.
Also, I wanted to make a certain kind of film and I realised that the work that you want to do and money are at cross purposes. In the early days there was a very clear demarcation between art and commerce. Dil Pe Mat Le Yaar failing was a big lesson in this. No one got the film. I was trying to tell a migrant story. This effort led to financial losses. People kept advising me to make something commercial and even the definition of commercial was very different then. Hrithik (Roshan) had just come in and the definition of a hero was a Greek god who was chiseled and could dance. Only Ramu (Ram Gopal Varma) was charting his own course. Everyone wanted to be Ramu but did not know how to become Ramu. Then even he lost his way – he made Company with stars.
Before Shahid released were you afraid that if it didn't work, you wouldn't get another chance?
I had mixed feelings. Shahid took 11 months to make and it looks like a joke right now but we completed it in less that 35 lakh. Rajkummar was new and no-one believed in me. I edited the film and showed it to Anurag. He and Guneet (Monga) took a DVD of the film and showed it to Cameron Bailey of the Toronto Film Festival who liked it. They included it in a section that year called City to City which no longer exists. That was a big moment for me. Immediately after the film went to the Mumbai Film Festival and we got a rousing welcome. It was a great year. I remember there was Ship of Theseus, Miss Lovely, The Lunchbox and to have been recognised gave me confidence.
Werner Herzog spoke about the rules of filmmaking in a masterclass. One of the things he said was – Never wallow in your troubles. Despair must be kept private and brief. Is that possible today? In the last few months we've seen so many artists who feel shortchanged by the industry releasing their pent up anger on social media.
It is possible. There is personal and public grief. As a collective we must express our grief and anger about things that could affect us as a race. But it's self pity, self loathing and self indulgence that one must keep as private as possible. It's not easy but you have to. I'm blessed that I had a lot of work during the pandemic. While I expressed my anger and grief, I found solace in the work I was doing. But it's been a very tough time. Sushant's (Singh Rajput) passing away was so hard. I was shocked. I can't imagine we are making films and Irrfan is not here. Also, a lot of the anger was artificial and motivated by forces. And in some cases I think it's good that the anger found expression. It's better that it's flushed out of your system .
In one of your blog posts you wrote that one of the perks of being on the fringes of the industry is that you don't have to be politically correct. You can say what you want and get away with it. You're not really on the fringes anymore. Does this change how you use your voice?
No, I still consider myself a fringe player and I want to keep it that way. If I stay in the periphery, I'll be able to observe and work my way around the system by doing what I want to do. I like to tell myself I don't belong to any clique. Yes, we do have a gang but it's more of a creative gang. We meet and talk and discuss the state of the world and things that concern us. But I would like to think that each of us don't belong to the Bollywood we all talk of. I'm not Bollywood. I'm sure of that. I can make you a 150 cr blockbuster but I refuse to be a part of a system that's insular. I fought that all my life. Scam is an example of that. With Pratik Gandhi and Shreya Dhanwantary we've taken a punt on so many new actors. It is important to nurture and showcase newer talent.
You've made so many films based on real life characters and incidents. Through these people you captured a moment in time and commented on who we were as a people. If you had to make a film about India today, what would it say?
I'm actually working on that. It's too early to talk about the film but the everlasting image around that film is a gagged face. It's a film I've been wanting to make for a while and I'm hoping I can make it. I've always attempted to chronicle our times and also tell cautionary tales, like with Omerta and Aligarh.
What's the most valuable piece of advice you've got over the years?
What Gulzar saab had told me in the beginning of my career. I don't remember the exact line, it's in one of my Facebook posts. But he said something like follow your heart, otherwise you'll follow other's hearts. I remember this was way back in 1994 and when he said this both Vishal and I were listening to him with wide eyes. So yes, I think we followed our hearts to a great extent.